Instilling Inference

Laura Wexler | Yale University


A pile of newspapers occupies the center of Lorie Novak’s new work. It consists of the front section of every edition of the New York Times from March 1999, to the current day. The pile is a very interesting shape. It is slouchy and large, but not that large. Its size is a little surprising, given the number of papers it archives. Although the duration it represents is long, Novak is able to register an impression of this historical moment on a human scale because she refuses to aggrandize the pile. She turns against the monumental mythmaking of demagoguery. The papers remain individual, things to be held in the hand even though the events they portray are formidable.

Novak began collecting these sections of the Times when NATO started bombing Serbia, thinking to measure, in the periodical time of a newspaper, the duration of hostilities. “My idea,” she has written, “was to have a stack of newspapers that signified a war.” But the war, though it officially ceased, did not stop, and neither did Novak’s collecting. “When the cease-fire was signed a true resolution had not been reached, so I kept collecting. The World Trade Center was attacked, and I kept collecting. I have not stopped.” Novak’s premonition in 1999 that something needed to be tracked was right on target. Her hope that there would be an end date was not. There is no real end in sight.

The pile of newspapers is dense yet its surface has the ruffled semblance of feathers or fallen leaves. On parts of the outside layer, what is above the fold of the papers is legible. The reader grasps that Times photojournalists make an enormous effort every day to use pictures to show what is going on in the world. The pile is also rounded and molded like a haystack. Does the haystack suggest that something of significance could be found within, like the proverbial needle… or is that too simpleminded an idea?

In Random Interference, a web-based piece that uses fragments of Novak’s Photographic Interference project, the papers are sometimes shown in close-up. With random rotation, the single rounded haystack disappears and we are looking down at a number of smaller disorderly piles or into a box of papers, or into the empty dark spaces within a group of disorderly stacks. Or perhaps we come face to face with precisely squared-off layers, like the case files of a government archive. Remarkably, the text near the fold of those orderly papers is legible. Repeatedly they announce destruction. The one view we never escape is that of the papers themselves, which fade into and out of everything we can see. Novak sleeps in them and on them. The images yield random encounters, but there is also no outside.

When did the hostilities within which we are ensnared actually begin? Were we—that is to say, the readers and writers of the New York Times—paying sufficient attention? In his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon writes of a procession of events that necessarily is resistant to the spectacular single image. Novak’s installation is another expression of that idea. In her work, the timeline of disaster steadily accretes but nearly imperceptibly, as one day’s news fades into the next. Was 9/11 just the day we Americans were finally forced to pay attention?

It is very difficult for us to pay sustained attention in the contemporary media environment. Novak observes this by means of what she calls “photographic interference.” The rotation joins images of the newspaper collection to a headline banner proclaiming that someone “plans to send troops to Sudan,” and then to a photograph of a weeping woman, her eyes blinded by tears. The woman, in agony, is pulling down a brightly colored head cloth that someone else’s hand is trying to lift up to expose her face to the camera. How did this violation come to be possible? Ought we to be surprised? Do we even spend enough time with the photograph to see the third, violating, hand?

Later, a self-portrait of Novak covering her eyes with her hands bursts into its own negative register, like the record of a nuclear explosion, or at least how we have come to imagine such an explosion. Looking is unbearable. Being seen seeing is also a crisis. The eyes want something behind which to hide, like the tears of the weeping woman in the previous image. For Novak, unlike that woman, at least the hands are in her own control, like the shutter of her camera.

In another image, Novak’s eyes penetrate two images of fleeing persons. The animation is uncanny and a little frightening. And in another, an elegantly designed blister pack for painkillers lies on top of a page of newsprint. Each burst bubble is a portal to more pain – in a visible face, in legible words such as “soldiers,” “killed,” “revolt.” Compared to the pile of newspapers, which seems diminished from what one would imagine, the scale of these photographic interferences is huge. Perhaps their size references the internalized enormity of trauma. Can we look without our analgesic filters?

After 9/11, photography within the U.S. became a route towards reconstruction, the shattering having already had a ghastly materiality. This too is a “photographic interference,” in Novak’s terms, and it differs from the other idea, that to look is to lacerate. During that time, thousands of people interleaved family photographs with the mediated events, in “wanted” posters that were public acts of reclamation. They were images of horror but not in the same way as the others. These photographic tributes labored to interrupt the nightmare images of the last moments of a loved one’s life and insert more acceptable visions, taken from the personal archives of family and friends. In so doing, they claimed public space and attended to the dignity of that need. Poignant handwritten messages mark the passage of grief as these ordinary snapshots turn in retrospect into mourning pictures—yet another kind of photographic time. Some writers even came back again and again, relieved to find these fragile papers still in place, leaving yet another layer of comment. These mourners wrote upon images that they very much hoped to see.

But in Random Interference presented here, no such lapidary contemplative time prevails. By the rules of the presentation itself, one disaster follows the next. Fathers hold up images of presumably murdered children, ripping the domestic from its shell in a grim mockery of the presumption of safety. A man holds his hands in horror to his mouth. Novak holds hers to her eyes. Outside of the US, the violence is unrelenting: El Heraldo de Mexico, for example, shows the barbaric attack of Iraq.

Over the past two decades, Novak has been exploring the ways in which photographs connect public and private memory. During this time, by means of a recurring small number of her own as well as other people’s family photographs and an extensive collection of media images of a certain set of iconic public events, Novak has printed, collaged, projected, paired, and parsed many of the relationships between the public and the private. Here, found and premeditated images, forcibly conjoined, expand even further upon the vocabulary she has long been using. Everything is turning, and nothing is at peace.