Site Photographer, extract from Ersilia: Excavating the (In)visibility of Objects, 2020

Page 1

Er s i l i a :

Exc avat i ngt he( I n) vi s i bi l i t yofObj ec t s

Mat hi l daOos t hui zen

Contents Illustration List

Part 1

Excavation Director Map of the Site Ecologies of the Site and Surroundings Site Significance Approach of the Site

Part 2



2-27 3

10 16 23 28-58

Digger 1


Site Photographer


Processing of Finds






Site Photographer

Figure 8.

She had been waiting for the package, unsure of how it would arrive. Did the site even have an address? How would they find me, she had wondered. Even if it had somehow found its way here, who would it go to, who should she ask? It had become a necessity. Technically she had the camera, spare memory cards, charger, there wasn’t anything else she needed, technically.

This wasn’t her norm. She usually got on with it, especially here, on her preferred type of job but she couldn’t focus. Not without it. Something had caught hold of a thought that wouldn’t let it go; the tentacles of her mind had been wrapped around it and all the others had now connected itself to it, whether they were related or not. Making it inescapable. She had managed to mask her lack of presence on site, but it wouldn’t last for much longer, soon people would start asking questions.

This subject then, that is not visible here, would say something like, ‘Lacan’s theory of sexual difference ... asserts that it strands woman on a dark continent, outside of language’1; that's why I am here, in the footnote. Still a subject? Being down here incites an objectivity, the material that runs alongside language with dates, places and names. Where did the subject come from, this is the question. Gender is brought into the question right at the beginning: ‘the subject has been conceptualized as inherently masculine’2 says Susan Hekan, she continues ‘maintaining the inferior status of women’.3 There is a line of inquiry dedicated to how ‘women are socially constructed and excluded from the masculine realms of subjectivity’.4 So what does this have to do with the object? Are there not



Another day passed. She was left with no choice but to feign illness, staying in her tent with periodic visits to the Portaloo. The tent air became heavy despite the cold bite of a February breeze outside. Every nearby voice and footstep became a tension of potential relief of her hiding place: would they be bringing it, had it arrived? It wasn’t until the morning of the third day she had been at Ersilia that any respite became possible. All night she had wallowed in her own mental and perfumery state, drifting in and out of fantasies neither dreams nor thoughts, of

different scenarios of its arrival. The last envisioned the package never

arriving, that she would be pulled out of her tent in shame, not having taken one

similarities here berween the invisible underrepresented object and the female subject? Should I be reiterating the theories of the formation of the Cartesian subject, perhaps Plato, the human centering of Levinas or Hegelian phenomenology, forming a unified univocal consciousness through Kant? Probably. Instead I’d like to ensure there isn’t a weight placed there and use this lack to recognise the problem. By not focusing on the historic nature of the subject and its formation I would like to alert the reader once again to the significance of visibility and the potential power of not being seen. In not supporting a thesis of the object with that of the subject, I oppose the opposition on the one hand and instead highlight the impossibility of keeping the subject outside of the picture. There is a value and a danger in not being recognised, witnessed, seen, acknowledged. A power in the gap, lack, refusal. When invoked with a deliberate intention which has been the case with Agnes Martin and Lee Lozano as examples; an unpacking process takes place, a possibility for reconfiguring systemic inadequacies. Whereas, when there is a univocal gaze, unknowingly eliminating a difference, what happens instead is a removal, an eradicating of space, a leaving out, a dismantling of bodies that do not fit. A space for doubles erupts. So what is a subject? Who is human? How is it that we have marked ourselves (by ourselves I am meaning those who set this up, who invited the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, constructed what it



photograph and asked to leave, or worse, someone would ask her what’s wrong. She emerged from her tent, pitched at the back near the reed bed, just after dawn hoping to get some water before anyone saw her.

Cupping her hands under the outside tap, the first gasp of water to purge itself from the pipes since yesterday evening emptied itself into her which she hastily flushed over her sleep tight face. As she positioned the bottle opening under the icy torrents, her arms twitched wetting her sleeve as her ears caught an engine turning near the main gate. Could this be the package? Without thinking she left the running tap, carrying her mostly empty water bottle along with her almost running to where a small van was parked just past the gate.

means to be called a human and fermented it. And by ‘we’ I was referring to the univocal sovereign sentiment, pasted, planted, superimposed, covering, entombing what is a sense of self) off from everything else that has ‘cast man on the other side of the animals’.5 There is a legitimised platform here, a widely theorised altercation concerning assumptive systems that ‘privilege not only the human but a particular kind of (European, masculine, upright, and erect carnivorous- a carnophallologocentric subject’6 a quote from the aptly named book, Becoming Undone. A discourse which undoes (or hopes to undo the accrual of power and how it is bestowed. How should one be granted ones own agency, as many ‘cannot exercise the agency for liberatory political activity’?7 There are passes needed to gain access to such a thing and they are not readily available from those who set up this so called subjectivity. The necessity for a pass, an entry token, a visible queue that one requires to be allowed in is preposterous. Out of sight, a trace that is buried. Buried in a visible site on the ‘dark continent’. What if there was more than the eye, that it didn’t amount to being seen, as Peggy Phelan puts it: ‘what would it take to value the immaterial within a culture structured around the equation “material equals value”’?8 That to be buried or not was not a distinguishing factor, it didn’t inhibit value but ‘contemporary culture finds a way to name, and thus to arrest and fix, the image of that other'.9 And it has already



“Janna Fox?” He said through the unwound window. She stretched out her hand in a premature gesture. “You?” She could see it now, he had it in his grasp. She opened her hand out once more. Why wasn’t he giving it to her? Both waiting. “Yes! Yes. Please!” She blurted, uttering the secret password. He released the package into her possession. She turned around, it needed to happen in private, but her tent didn’t seem like the right place. The place had to be just right. He shook his head and drove away.

Now she had it Janna didn’t know what to do with it. Something was about to happen that could only happen once. It couldn’t be re-enacted, transcribed or reproduced. Once the seal had been broken, once the tab had been pulled back with the aid of the translucent red tape, that would be it. The rush to her head made it

happened, the image has been fixed and continues to be repeated. Can it be undone? When considering the presence of the subject and the wish for an absence of sorts, the ‘undoing’ becomes about the division of the formation of identity and how life is distinguished. In Becoming Undone, Elizabeth Grosz’s ushers in Henri Bergson, who upon coming to an understanding of life sees it as a ‘double orientation: out to matter’10 and ‘in, to its own past … memory, virtuality, the past’.11 Putting aside the dualistic oppositions, when the ‘in’ and ‘out’ are not pulled apart, there are some alliances with Peggy Phelan; with seeing, (visibility and the desire to value the immaterial, the ‘virtuality’, that which cannot be seen. Perhaps it is not the value of the immaterial but the oppositional position that it occupies, or rather where it placed. When placed facing each other the material and immaterial (the body, eyes, matter and memory, the past and love) follow the human organisation imposed on the world. And so ‘the immaterial construction of identities - those processes of belief which summon

memory, sight, and love - fade from the eye/I’.12 As they separate this separation sparks, and alights what is the other, the object, and ‘representation produces ruptures and gaps’13 perpetually. How humans treat themselves and each other, whether that be in a political, sexual or economic



unclear, her breathing was increasing as she looked around the excavation site, searching for where she could privately unpack this moment, this event.

It would only be her eyes that would see, it would only be her who would feel not only the tension as the cardboard was torn back on itself, as it was separated from the package, but the undoing of what was concealed within it. She could see her breath in the air entombing the package. She tucked it under her coat, under the jumper and t-shirt. She inhaled sharply as the cardboard touched the tiny hairs on

her stomach. It lay against her,

touching her as

if it had been the much

anticipated caress of an estranged lover. Still holding the near empty water bottle in one hand, she pressed the package into her body with the other.

context, relates to the structural formalisation of objects. Thus the significance of the object is great, in focusing on it in a non-hierarchical framework there is a hope in relaxing and reconfiguring structures of ordering. It’s shut out and shut in. Flittering from eye to eye but is never seen. An anterior is glimpsed every now and then but ‘[t]his “not seeing” in the midst of the seeing, this not seeing that is the condition of seeing, became the visual norm’14 and it is this that remains the ‘visual norm’. What is not seen is also a part of the image. The frame of the object, its outline, says much about who put the frame there, ‘[t]o lean to see the frame that blinds us to what we see is no easy matter’.15 As a ghost that appears to some but not others, that is but a trace of incorporeal matter, of a partial lining of unconscious thought, the Other is always in the frame but never really there simultaneously. And the name of this ghost? ‘[T]he face and the name are not ours to know’,16 adding to its lack of substance which is how it can hold on to its identity, through remaining anonymous. Previously, it had been a place of ‘fixity’, the naming provided the anchor of the Other as noted by Peggy Phelan; does taking away this ‘fixity’ act as a releasing mechanism? Peggy Phelan remarks ‘[i]dentity is perceptible only though a relation to an other …. It is a form of both17 resisting and claiming the other’,18 and yet following Judith Butler’s thoughts on the Abu Ghraib19 photographs in Frames of War, it is this relation that maintains a gap between them and



***** “Could you pause there for second. Yea, looks like this would be good point to, er, get that in there. Great, thanks.” Janna pressed down, briefly holding pressure before firmly pushing all the way. And again. “Ok great. And I’ll get in there a bit closer for the next one.” She placed her right foot down into the neatly excavated hole, placing a scale to the right side of the heel which protruded from the soil. And twice more she pressed down, briefly holding pressure before firmly pushing all the way. “Great, thanks guys.” Even as a site photographer she could feel her right knee beginning to express angst when she placed all her weight on it from years of bending and scraping to find the ideal angle for each artefact. She would come back in an hour or so to photograph the progress.

There was plenty to document on a site like this one. Several different excavation areas across the site, Janna looked for those moments where finds weren’t quite uncovered. Perhaps not even yet comprehensible, not enough visible material to

it is the gap that allows for a difference. The relation allows, in this case, the prisoners, an “I” (an “I’ that perhaps desires a splitting, a chopping off at the before). Rather than the relation forming the “I” ‘the point would not be to locate what is “in” or “outside” the frame, but what vacillates between those two locations’20 and the moment begins the forming. In this moment, one where the frame is present, the ghost is appearing, ‘if the photograph can be said to reiterate and continue the event’21 is the “I” trapped? Are the identities trapped? Preparing for a perpetual infinity? Always known as what the frame has included. Not if Susan Sontag’s integration is conceded as the photographic frame ‘lacks narrative continuity and remains fatally linked to the momentary’.22 What a relief, that there can be an end. But is it true? Is that the real Real? Can the prisoners, the Other, be released from their past? Even when their anonymity has been



piece together what the object was. These moments drew Janna in, reminding her of detective shows where the perpetrator had to be there at the moment of death, watch the life as it was taken from their victim’s eyes. In one of the X-files23 episodes a forensic photographer was accused of orchestrating the moment of death in order to capture the release of life from the bodies. It seemed odd she had thought that the perpetrator chose to photograph the last act, the last breath. Janna considered these moments to be fleeting and transitory, an event that could only happen by being there, making the photograph redundant.

Each object that Janna took a photo of was in a void, ‘absenting the authors of the archaeology from its presented reality’,24 creating a mask, an aura of singularity; that the object appeared as an immaculate conception, devoid of any human existence. All exertions vanish, as do the other objects involved, all tools, broken or otherwise, are abandoned. Now all we have to decipher

protected, with the photo sitting in front of them, with the memory in their mind, can the past be moved from the present? The image retains a ‘fixity’ but the image is an image. The confusion becomes pronounced when an identity is formed based only on the image. At the beginning of Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked she reproposes Judith Butler’s comment from Force of Fantasy ‘representation becomes a moment of the reproduction and consolidation of the real’,25 reinforcing what is seen rather than what is. The forming of the subject, going back to Darwin in Becoming Undone and what is seen to be human, brings back into question how we have come to understand and organise, ‘who to include or exclude when characterising the human’.26 There’s a vast falsity on who and what has this status. When we appear to be a a part of a group, do we not act the part? Do what we think we are supposed to do and behave in a way that we think we are supposed to?



the object is 'the limited data available in the light, it can never be more than provisional’27 and although a document, it is one that ‘actively argues for an interpretive position’.28 But at least they can argue in peace Janna thought. They have no proximal obstructions to be in conflict with apart from the absence, ‘various forms of absence are central to the study of material culture’29 or so they say. In which case these photographs were saying more than the materials they depicted. Even without the objects’ presence they are still here. Janna took some comfort in this, not only was the heel of the shoe more than it was but loss could be a gain.

There are two invisible exceptions, the finger of a human and the tool used to produce the reproduction. This bothered Janna, as she liked the void. She wanted to be in this void, to exist in it and at times she did. She wanted to be consumed by the blackness and blankness. But each way she looked there was light.

In the case of the Abu Ghraib photographs, Judith Butler says ‘the torture is, in some sense, for the camera’,30 there is an act of performance when an image is reproduced, whether that be by a camera or an immaterial image. The site a camera captures, is a performed site, so too is the site where the Other is located. The act of being in front of the camera is a reflection of what happens when the camera is put away, ‘[w]e imagine what people might see when they look at us, and then we try to perform (and conform to) those images’.31 This would suggest that the “I” is entirely relational. Although it cannot be denied that there is a certain performativity surrounding the formation of the “I”, to say that it is based around what is ‘outside’ seems like a reduction particularly when the Abu Ghraib photographs are taken into account. Looking back at the represented image a camera copies, ’[t]he performative nature of portrait photography complicates the traditional claims of the camera to reproduce an authentic “real”’.32 Performance itself sets itself off from memory by the Real being only now and the image acts as an ‘encouragement of memory to become present’.33 There is a temporal restriction then



Each time her eyes opened the signals were converted by the retina and light bounced from the object into her whether she liked it or not. And it was she who then decided what it all meant, that and a history of ancestors and culture of perceiving; if it could be rewritten, she thought, that would be no bad thing. Instead she was copying it, altering it. Moving it further from what it might have been.

As Janna's gaze shifted from one excavation site to the next, she was struck by the inadequacy of her role. This was what she had wanted to do but since the arrival of the package, things were not as they had been. Each time she chose a subject to photograph it was held prisoner; an A-board had been attached to it, even before it had been born in some cases. Giving directions is tough when your awareness has not yet amounted to that of speech .34 And nor will it ever in the case of these finds. We've come from a position that ‘health professionals made life, as an ultimate

to performing an image; each time the camera is pointed towards a subject, a performance is given based on an unreal false image and each time it is a premier show and ‘[t]he speech act of memory and description … becomes a performative expression’.35 A rebirth, a desire to move past the false image to become another (an Other?). In order for a rebirth, the elimination of the image needs to take place. What better form than a re-writing, without a solid image to turn to, false representations could be swiftly overturned. Is it not preservation that has permitted a stasis? An image fastened to that which is ‘other’, unable to shake off a representation formed through a before, a captured moment, a frame penning on and penning out the rest. With the appearance of solidity, it is writing that needs to ‘re-mark again the performative possibilities of writing itself’36 to bring it into the present, to move away from repeated representations that can’t preserve the gap or difference. Instead of hoping to hold and uphold, writing needs to have room to print shades of grey to work ‘towards disappearance, rather than the act of writing toward preservation’.37



value, trump all other considerations except when it came to those who threatened these values: for example criminals, and also abortionists’. 38 This thing in the dirt never had a chance, thought Janna, and her photographing it removed it a second time from it ever having anything other than what the subject had given it. If she were to delete the photographs, removing herself from this process (if one were to ignore the rapid reproduction of her role by another that would take place) there would be no signposting reproduced; at once putting a limiter on who could see the object and allowing for it to only be seen in its material form. Would the object retain more possible alternative rhizomes if it were to only be witnessed in real time? Either way there was little choice as she saw it. Janna didn't want to become superfluous and so she clicked away as she wondered and wandered around the site.

The past is reiterated from inside, perpetuated. The roles are performed repeatedly, locked inside. Glimpses of the ghost act as sparks of hope, the haunting of what is not “I” are reminders that there are other sites other than what is understood, that to be in a place of not understanding, and to be accepting of such a position is hope. Only then can an oppositional position be discounted, a reduction of what is not a gap, a sight that doesn’t see a discount as less, that a gap is not small because it is less valuable. It would seem the space is running out, not everything will fit in here. The footnote is too small after all, similar to ‘the precariousness of the human as a state of being',39 the footnote too has a lack ‘[p]hilosophy has attributed the man a power that animals lack (and often that women, children, slaves, foreigners’40 and footnotes too experience. Perhaps it can pertain to the acknowledgment of struggles to be represented, the place language is situated with its ‘we’s’, ‘[w]hat would the study of ... language which did not privilege the human as its paradigm look like?’41 Elizabeth Grosz asks; she continues discerning what the ‘linguistic elaboration of life’43 could additionally include and what is absent, emphasising its function as a tracing device. That is, a device which functions always as a trace, a secondary sight, a whisper.



Figure 9a, 9b. Photographs by Mathilda Oosthuizen: left, 9a a packaged copy of Unmarked by Peggy Phelan and right, 9b a copy of the same book after it had been taken out of the packaging.43




She had it between her thumb and index finger. A clear entry point. She took a breath in and held it; as her hand exhaled, the cardboard drew away from her. Once to the end, she released the air that had culminated in her lungs, through her throat past her lips. She felt the edges one last time, felt the entirety, this was the last moment it would be a whole. It would soon become defunct. In a few seconds it would become nothing. In this second it was still the sum. Her next action would erase a past much like the diggers at this site. But unlike at Ersilia, the only one who would know about this loss was her, Janna.

This was a moment to pause, to consider that the extraction would be taking away the essence of another. She could sense the pain of the moment , the grief of a before and after. Her fingers edged towards the opening, her middle finger protruded longingly, feeling the confines of the malleable cardboard [figure 9a] on either side, and retreated. This moment would need to end and it was this that spurred her on. Not that she wanted to receive its contents, this became secondary to the event itself. This is happening, she said to herself. She grasped the contents in her mind's eye [figure 9b]. It wasn’t that the thing inside had much to do with her being but she was reminded of the person she was before, before she ordered it, before she knew she had to have it, before she was waiting for it, before she couldn’t do anything without it, even though she had done so before.




Joan Copjec, Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995, p.216.


Susan Hekman, ‘Reconstituting the Subject: Feminism, Modernism, and Postmodernism’, Hypatia, 6.2 (1991,

pp.44–63, p.45. 3

Hekman, p.45.


Hekman, p.47.

E. A. Grosz, Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011, p.12. 5

Grosz, p.14. Jane Flax, Disputed Subjects (RLE Feminist Theory  : Essays on Psychoanalysis, Politics and Philosophy (London, Taylor & Francis Group, 2012, p.170. 6 7


Phelan, p.5.


Phelan, p.2.


Grosz, p.27.


Grosz, p.28.


Phelan, p.5, l.22.


Phelan, p.2, l.12.


Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London New York: Verso, 2016, p.100.


Butler, Frames of War, p. 100, l.15.


Butler, Frames of War, p. 95.


Phelan, p.13.


Phelan, p.13, l.29.

The name of a US military run prison near Bagdad, a site of torture where ‘Photographs and videos taken by the soldiers as the abuses were happening’ Seymour M. Hersh, ‘Torture at Abu Ghraib’, The New Yorker <> [accessed 30 June 2020]. 19

20 Butler, 21 22

Frames of War, p. 75.

Butler, Frames of War, p. 83.

Butler, Frames of War, p. 69.


‘Tithonus’, X-Files, Fox. WXIA, Atlanta. 24, Jan. 1999. Television.


Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image, ed. by Sam Smiles and Stephanie Moser, New Interventions in

Art History (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005, p.194. 25

Phelan, p2.


Grosz, p.16.


Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, 1st edn (Routledge, 2002,

p.246. 28

ed. by Sam Smiles and Stephanie Moser, p.182.

History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, ed. by Karen Harvey, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources, Second Edition (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis The Group, 2018, p.240.



Butler, Frames of War, p.85.


Phelan, p.36.


Phelan, p.36, l.32.


Phelan, p.146.

This isn’t to say that there is an inclination here to anthropomorphise the object but as a way of making visible the difficulties of what is an object. As it would seem nonhumans can too be objects, this can be seen in the lack of agency experienced and the presence of an overruling subject. 34




Phelan, p.146, l.32.


Phelan, p.148.


Phelan, p.148, l.33.

38 Penelope Deutscher, ‘Judith Butler, Precarious Life, And Reproduction’:, in Foucault’s Futures, A Critique of Reproductive Reason (Columbia University Press, 2017), pp.144–90 p.159-160. 39

Grosz, p.12


Grosz, p.12, l.23.


Grosz, p.14.


Grosz, p.14, l.24.

In marking the book as invisible, there is a comment made concerning the significance of presence and invokes the contents of the book itself. Unmarked tells of the politicization of visibility taking specific examples such as photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Phelan interprets Mapplethorpe's use of portrait photography as a form of possible disappearance – whether that be reproduction, death, self-image or race. In the context of recent photographs of gymnast Simone Biles – taken for the front cover of Vogue magazine – one has to wonder, if the they had been taken by Mapplethorpe, what the outcome would have been. Annie Leibovitz, who took the photographs of Simone Biles, a black woman, has been criticized by many (@allisonhopstad, 10 July 2020., @NoelenWebb, 10 July 2020., ‘Critics Pile On Vogue Over Simone Biles Photos, Call For More Black Photographers | HuffPost UK’ <> [accessed 09 July 2020] etc) for not knowing how to light dark skin effectively. Mapplethorpe, although focusing explicitly on the tones present in dark skin, has also been noted as proliferating racial stereotypes and the 'power of whiteness' (Phelan, p.47). In both cases there is tension between the acknowledgment of difference and conflict between that which is made visible and who/how the visibility is brought into view. 43