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Fabricating Events

The list of reproaches commonly directed at media images, particularly those dealing with natural and human catastrophes, is well known: such images are deemed to be sensationalist and short on information and context, as well as overly aestheticized, inappropriate or even indecent. Complaints such as these are undoubtedly a moral judgment on these images which, in their violence or beauty, are a shock to our moral sense. Who among us has never felt a twinge of shame at having found an image of horror to be beautiful? Who hasn’t felt embarrassed when faced with their own lack of compassion before an image of someone in pain? The most severe judgments of media images are nonetheless uttered by journalists, whose quest for ethical legitimacy has taken on unprecedented proportions in recent years. Attributed largely to the rapid expansion of digital technologies, this endeavour hinges on a set of prescriptions designed to secure absolute respect for the physical integrity of the images in question. More than ever before, the credibility of media images is based on a belief in the authenticity of the recorded realities.  Today we also find strict prohibitions against manipulating reality, against any staging or fabrication of it. This prohibition is precisely what interests Catherine Plaisance, who produces photographs and videos that make ample room for staging and the artifices of miniaturization. Even so, there is nothing playful about Plaisance’s work, whose themes of disaster—the mass media’s favourite subject—invite us to rethink our relationship to images of catastrophe. 

It is hardly an accident that this exhibition by Plaisance of thirteen photographs and three videos features a montage of anonymous images of land devastated, apparently, by massive flooding. Are we looking at the effects of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005), or of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 on the Pacific Coast of the T?hoku region of Japan? We cannot be sure and the lack of information that might help us to decide once and for all is intentional. The indeterminate character of the event and the amateur look of the pictures, whose low resolution accentuates their limited descriptiveness, lend the scene a generic character. Indifferent to the media’s rules of professional conduct, these YouTube images proceed from a form of amateur journalism—and its involuntary aesthetics are carried over to the two videos in the exhibition. One of these videos consists of a tracking sequence showing debris, overturned automobiles, and trees stripped of their leaves or torn up by the roots, along with other signs of desolation barely visible in the smoky twilight.  The other video features more close-up and intimate images of the same site made while walking through it. The camera’s gaze penetrates into the crevices of an earth ravaged by a tragedy we cannot place. The camera rummages through surroundings composed of a partially destroyed house, a tree stump turned upside down and a damaged motor vehicle. Visibility at the site is hampered by clumsy and uncertain camerawork, as if the images of this topsy-turvy world were filmed by someone who was clearly overwhelmed by the catastrophe.

It is by looking at the photographs that we come to understand what we have just seen: an invented and fabricated world in miniature, a mishmash of plastic and soggy paper, a mock-up of an undefined tragedy reduced to a scale of 1/87, the standard used in the North American toy industry. This scaled-down model of a natural catastrophe is not a copy of any verifiable event, is in no way a reconstruction of an actual happening. Catherine Plaisance gives the artifices of miniaturization a heuristic function in a manner akin to that of Frances Glessner Lee, founder of the Harvard University Medical School’s Department of Legal Medicine and designer of the  Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, miniature composite crime scenes used for teaching purposes.  Indeed, it is with the aid of references from the world of childhood—in this case toys—that Plaisance’s work probes the visual shapes and schemata of the iconography of catastrophe. This makes her methods similar to those of Glessner Lee, who constructed crime scenes out of articles normally used in making dollhouses. The terrible convergence of tragedy and childhood is what gives these works their operative value. Plaisance’s photographs reveal crime scene details in a most emphatic manner. Here we can clearly see elements we merely glimpsed in the videos. In other words, these photographs, in the angles from which they view the scenes and the details they bring to the fore, orient the reading of this manufactured catastrophe, casting its makeshift chaos into narrative form. In this way, Plaisance’s images introduce a second degree of fiction derived from a narrativization of constructed parts. The fictional dimension of the photographed scenes is ultimately accentuated by rays of light, sorts of inaudible yet luminous groans emanating sometimes from the earth, sometimes from a window and sometimes from the passenger compartment of an automobile.

Questioning the ideals of photographic journalism—the evidentiary value of images, the ethical integrity of the journalist, the historical reach of representation, the emotional charge of the subject, etc.—is a task that now falls upon the shoulders of contemporary art. The field of art has become, in fact, an ideal testing ground for the truth systems postulated and maintained by the news media. The consideration of issues that are normally the province of the news media—catastrophes, armed conflict, the environment—is a sign of contemporary art’s penchant for content associated with current events. The work of Catherine Plaisance is a forceful reminder of this fact. We see it in the way she has fully embraced the staging and dramatization of the real, procedures currently prohibited by news journalism but considered totally acceptable at the start of the 20th century, a time when the shaping of information was not yet a flaw.  

Vincent Lavoie