Front, Field, Line, Plane

Researching the Militant Image
June 7th to July 7th 2013

The idea and images of protest have moved to the foreground recently both in the work of artists and in the global media. On the one hand, artists are documenting the wave of protests that have built up since the memorable moment of Seattle in 1999 up to the ascendance of the Occupy movement; and on the other hand, the mass media carry spectacular images of public squares from Bahrain to Barcelona overflowing with people. At the same time a range of artists have produced works that represent historical moments of the call for justice and the clash of police and protestors.

These moments have been rediscovered and recirculated to the point where writer and curator Dieter Roelstraete has remarked that »a number of artists seek to define art first and foremost in the thickness of its relationship to history.«  Roelsträte 2009 Earlier, art historian Hal Foster identified an »archival impulse« in artistic practices that »draws on informal archives but produces them as well, and does so in a way that underscores the nature of all archival materials as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private.« Forster 2004 The tensions that Foster points to here have been made more acute as artists liberate, recirculate and intervene in archival images.

»Front, Field, Line, Plane: Researching the Militant Image« questions how political and social struggles – and state violence – are represented, mediated, and circulated through images. These particular struggles develop out of historical and place-based contexts, yet moments of protestation are often framed by what media analysts have identified as »the protest paradigm« Chan/ Lee 1984 – a paradigm which foregrounds the clash with the police rather than the issues of the protestors. Why has there been a turn, by artists, to images of militancy – both images form archival sources, but also images from acts of militancy in our present? Given the present protest image impulse in artistic practices, has a similar paradigm developed? Have artistic practices approached the image of protests and images of militancy as militant images themselves?

While this turn to archival and present images of militancy identifies a social impulse within artistic practices, it also belies a certain trust in both the documentary image and artistic intervention and recirculation. As in their earlier works, Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber are cautious of the photographic image’s indexical possibility, and of the archive’s ability to house facts, and have turned to formal interventions into the images to open a more poetic relationship. This poetic relationship aims to unsettle protest paradigms that artistic and media images have developed by creating the potential for other forms of signification and other relationships to leak into the images and reframe them.

In the exhibition »Front, Field, Line, Plane: Researching the Militant Image«, Bitter and Weber reframe images drawn from the archive of Der Spiegel in Hamburg, through the textual descriptions and archival markings of the images – the images themselves are withheld and represented only through the way in which the images are paradigmatically framed and categorized, through the information on the back of the photographic print. Through the use of figure and ground relationships, and through the insertion of void and spaces into large-scale photo-wallpapers (not unlike the popular photo-murals of the 1970s), the spatial relations of the sites of protest are visualized. The exhibition also refers to the vibrant history of anti-nuclear protests and militant struggles in Brokdorf, Grohnde, and Gorleben (Free Republic of Wendland) in the region near Lneburg and the military history of the campus of Leuphana University. The campus and the sites of protest are conceptually joined through the notion of militancy (and the search for the militant image): the campus as former site of the military of the state (a militancy which is no longer visible other than in residual architectural details) and the other as site of militancy against the state, in the name of a civic society that cohered around environmental issues. Through this research-based project, the exhibition proposes that the militant image is not, in itself, an image of protest nor of moments of vital social upheaval, but an image that is a complex of relations and that imagines links from the present to future social actors, or, in the words of Simon Critchley, imagines »the multiplication of social actors«. Critchley 2007

This exhibition is based on »Filling the Weak Points«, a research project by Urban Subjects (Sabine Bitter/Jeff Derksen/Helmut Weber) with students of Leuphana University of Lneburg and in cooperation with Kunstraum of Leuphana University of Lneburg and Leuphana Arts Program which started in October 2012. With its focus on »autogestion« and »horizontalidad« and looking at new forms of self-organization the project has been addressing recent and historic social movements and their moments of protest and militant struggles. Ranging from Argentina to Greece: social protests against austerity politics, right to the city movements, anti G8 protests, occupy movements, anti-gentrification initiatives and their forms of (self)-representations and representations in media.

The exhibition in the Kunstraum of Leuphana University of Lüneburg was developed during the residency of the artist group Urban Subjects in the Leuphana Arts Program. The Leuphana Arts Program is being supported by the Ministry for Science and Culture of the State of Lower Saxony.


Chan, Joseph/ Lee, Chin-Chuan: Journalistic Paradigms on Civil Protests. A Case Study in Hong Kong, in: Arno, Andrews/ Dissanayake, Wimal (eds.): The News Media in National and International Conflict, Westview Press: Boulder, CO 1984, pp. 183–202.

Foster, Hal: An Archival Impulse, in: October 110 (Autumn 2004), p. 5.

Roelsträte, Daniel: The Way of the Shovel. On the Archeological Imaginary in Art, in: e-flux journal 4 (March 2009), p. 1.

Simon Critchley: Infinitely Demanding. Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, Verso: London & New York 2007, S. 91.