Leave and Let Us Go

The Unrepresentable

It is 17 September 2021 as Alexandra Rose Howland’s exhibition Leave and Let Us Go opens – exactly twenty years after U.S. president George W. Bush announced the War on Terror, in the wake of the attacks performed by the terrorist group al-Qaeda against the United States on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Howland’s project also premieres right after U.S. president Joe Biden has officially withdrawn U.S. forces in order to end ‘America’s longest war’.

9/11 was a time still six years away from Apple bringing the first iPhone on the market in 2007, popularizing the smartphone as a product of mass consumption. Whereas in previous wars it was mostly photojournalists’ labour of visually documenting newsworthy events, the war against the Islamic State was the first smartphone war, enabling the widest array of participants to photograph the conflict from all perspectives. In 2017, Alexandra Rose Howland moved to Iraq. Whereas she made a living as a photojournalist working for various media outlets, as an artist her reason to go there was to convey the complex reality of people caught up in conflict. Alexandra Rose Howland’s Leave and Let Us Go is not so much a journalistic endeavour, but rather an effort to convey what philosopher Jacques Rancière has deemed the ‘unrepresentable’: under what conditions, he writes, can an unrepresentable phenomenon of this kind be given a specific conceptual shape?

Leave and Let Us Go employs different modes of authorship. The literal basis of the exhibition is a wallpaper that shows the final scene of the endless panorama that makes up Mosul Road, 88 km. Rather than solely selecting views of war and devastation, with this artwork Howland offers a very factual registration of the reality of a country in conflict – that is: she didn’t picture what might be newsworthy along Mosul Road, but documented
its full distance of 88 kilometres. Seated atop a Landcruiser, every three seconds she took a picture of

the landscape passing by her lens. She digitally stitched the resulting images together into an infinite panorama: from a local market in Erbil where life seems like business as usual, ending at the ruins of the Al Nuri Mosque in West Mosul which was destroyed in 2017 – and where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the Caliphate in July 2014. Howland’s endeavour resembles Google Street View. At this time of writing, however, Google still does not offer a street view of Mosul Road, through which Mosul Road, 88 km reveals a gap in the illusion of digital omniscience. But it’s not just the providing of missing information that stands out. By adopting the straightforward and factual recording strategy of the ‘uncaring camera’, as Ben Burbridge describes the non-human, automated photography of Google Street View cars, Howland’s performance paradoxically proves the opposite: Mosul Road, 88 km is a painstaking effort to document without judgement and with utmost care. Instead of filtering out the spectacle of war, the panorama just as much conveys the boredom of the mundane, literally providing a full picture of life in a conflict zone.

The exhibition only shows the very end of the panorama, depicting the start of the reconstruction of the historic mosque. This scene forms the surface on which hundreds of photos from the smartphone archives and photo albums are pinned, which Howland collected from more than fifty Iraqis. These people, young and old, were willing to share their digital archives with her, offering an intimate glimpse of their daily lives. The complete collection consists of some 350,000 images, including selfies, Snapchat videos and photos of loved ones, as well as horrific moments of war. As the grid on the front of this leaflet is visualizing, the exhibition of Leave and Let Us Go at Foam 3h is only showing a tiny portion of the whole archive Howland has accumulated.

The complex mix of photographs is exactly what connects us, as spectators in a museum far away from conflict zones, and what sets us apart from the people in the photographs.

Not unlike the panorama that makes up Mosul Road, 88 km, so many images of daily lives are recognizable, relatable, so utterly mundane and human that we can easily identify with the cute selfies, party pics, Snapchat performances and so forth. Until our eyes stumble upon pictures of beheadings, a dead body dragged through the dust by its ankles, or a selfie by a soldier of one group or another, smiling proudly at his handcuffed booty. However recognizable in some instances, this is quite another experience from our daily infinite scroll. While Howland interviewed all the people who gave her their smartphone archives, the exhibition offers us no captions, no clues: there is no clear source, no verification, no way to distinguish victim from villain.

As Susan Sontag writes in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, ‘the exhibition in photographs of cruelties inflicted on those with darker complexions in exotic countries continues this offering, oblivious to the considerations that deter such displays of our own victims of violence; for the other, even when not an enemy, is regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone (like us) who also sees.’ However, as Ariella Azoulay argues and Leave and Let Us Go demonstrates, by now photography enables injured parties to present their grievances, too. While Regarding the Pain of Others was published in 2004, the first smartphone war ultimately presents us with all those who see, and whose myriad accounts of reality we are confronted with. To Howland, this is her explanation of why the participants in her undertaking were willing to share an intimate view into their private smartphone archives: they could define themselves as opposed to being defined. For ages, they had no control over the country’s narrative. Their nation was created by Western colonialism, after the power grab for oil holdings in the Middle East that came with the post-war breakup of the Ottoman Empire. While Howlands own photographs are part of the mix that makes up Leave and Let Us Go, the artist challenges authorship while performing what Ariella Azoulay calls the

‘civil contract of photography’:‘ These uses of photography are part of the way in which citizens actualize their duty toward other citizens as photographed persons who have been struck by disaster. The exercise of photography in such situations is actually the exercise of citizenship – not citizenship imprinted with the seal of belonging to a sovereign (…) Although individuals do indeed renounce their exclusive right to their own image and consent to becoming an image, such renunciation is not in favour of a sovereign that would have the exclusive power to produce an image out of them. (…) Instead, photography, while personal, is a mobile and global recording kit for contesting injuries to citizenship.’

Azoulay also emphasizes the responsibility not only to produce photos, but to make them speak. ‘Without the spectator participating in the reconstruction of the photographic énoncé, the harm to citizenship will not be perceived.’ With her installation, Howland has created a space of open-ended relations between photographers, photographed persons and spectators, without regulation and mediation by a sovereign or the market. Howland accumulated data for us, or what she calls ‘quiet noise’. In the words of Rancière, Howland’s making-visible in fact operates through its own failing, its own restraint. At a time of seeming digital interconnectedness, Howland questions the current field of representation. Against interpretation, her unfiltered reality of Iraq becomes an all-seeing eye of ungraspable proportion, presenting the unrepresentable of our digital reality.

Mirjam Kooiman,
Foam curator