22 August 2014
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Albert Einstein’s intuition seemed confirmed too fast, except perhaps for the fact that a third World War was not needed to bring back our nations to the raw forms of physical violence. Congo, Sudan, Ukraine, Colombia, Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Thailand are many proofs of the fall of the Western dream of technological positivism, and of the vectorisation of fundamental interdependent global tensions as far as possible from the sanctuaries of welfare states. Spatial considerations, indeed! In fact, the profusion of ongoing conflicts must, first, call for a radical rethinking of the metaphysics of space. It is because war is an intensification of spaces, today’s reality of war must be used to prepare a simultaneous reality of beauty. Such an attempt would show that beauty is what makes the three-dimensionality of space possible: observation, action, and design. Beauty is the fundamental event that assembles the three elementary agents along an equilateral space. On the occasion of its thirtieth publication, LILA Inter-actions acknowledges its transformed nature and redefines itself as an online medium of translocal dialogues. Along with those millions of actors, this week, LILA Inter-actions brings you, indeed, a witness and a proxy player. Photojournalist Loulou d’Aki ponders on the sustenance and the ethics of the beautiful, as the observing lens virtualises and distances the space of the events away from the photographer. New Media expert Rich Rice looks at strategies of ‘the constellation of squares’, at the aesthetics of the motions in chess, to reveal how war and beauty are the two natural guests of space.Debate
Hold the cursor on the illustrations to display animations.
There is nothing beautiful about war.
How could death and destruction ever be considered as beautiful, unless judged from a completely detached physical and psychological point of view, or in a romantic haze entirely disconnected from reality? During my recent four weeks in Gaza, covering Operation Protective Edge, I saw more horrific things than I can ever recall having been in situations before. And yet, almost every day, there was a moment when I looked around and told myself that this could have been Paradise. Most mornings, I would wake up at dawn, to the unnerving sound of distant shelling; other mornings by shells hitting ground close enough to our building to make its walls shake; but each morning, always, I would wake up and look at the view, straight onto the sea from the window of my temporary bedroom.
I would like to compare the Gaza strip to a forbidden fruit accessible only to a happy few: here, I was looking at a beach too dangerous to walk on, in times of war. A sea, I, as a woman, could never swim in, even in times of peace, unless covered from head to toe; a sea where fishermen struggled to catch enough fish on a too limited stretch of coast. Yet, despite all these limits and regardless of death and destruction all around, beauty still lingered somewhere in the back. And beauty was untouchable.
There is nothing beautiful about war, but my colleagues and I are photographers and our job is to look for beauty where there appears to be none. The most important thing for a photojournalist in a war or a conflict is to give an account of what is going on without altering the truth. We constantly find ourselves in heart-wrenching, appalling situations in which we look for a way to tell the horrendous in a manner as beautiful as possible, considering the circumstances.
I put my camera between myself and the men in the morgue, the men who struggle to arrange parts of what once was a man on a stretcher, into what appears to be random black plastic bags. I pull my scarf tighter and have it cover not only my head and neck but my nose, too, in order not to feel the stench, not to inhale the thick air too deeply. The viewfinder becomes a form of protection through which I look for the light, the composition and the moment in which I might succeed to freeze this sad, emotional, sweaty, stinky and often hysterical moment into a beautiful picture that sticks to the mind of the viewer. A good picture combines story telling and beauty. It is as simple as that, in theory. In practice it is much harder, it goes without saying.
A Palestinian woman wounded by shrapnel
during an Israeli airstrike
recovers in a hospital in the northern Gaza strip,
frequently targeted by the IDF
© Loulou d’Aki
Neither the men in the morgue nor the relatives in the crowded hospital corridors or in the rubbles of their destroyed homes will ever, most probably, see neither mine nor my colleagues’ pictures, yet our presence is not only accepted, but appreciated because we are the only ones to tell the world what goes on here, in this stretch of Land that so few can access and that is being destroyed in front of our eyes. Each time, it amazes me how these people, who have just lost their homes or their beloved ones, let us in on their most painful and intimate moments, without questioning our intentions. It makes me feel a great responsibility to grant these moments the dignity they deserve. If I, if we manage to capture a moment the way we intend, I feel convinced that we can manage to save at least some of the dignity it does deserve, a dignity that was not granted because of this inhuman war where morgues and hospitals are overcrowded and where there is not enough time to grieve between one funeral and the next.
There is nothing beautiful about war.
A Palestinian man who just carried the body
of one out of four boys killed by Israeli naval forces
while playing on the beach in Gaza,
kneels by the the grave during the funeral
© Loulou d’Aki
It is inhuman. I use my camera as an extra eye and a shield, aware of the fact that I can witness all these things without feeling sick to my stomach. It helps me to detach my feeling self from my observing, storytelling and beauty-seeking self. When I am a witness with a camera, I am constantly on the look out for the components that would make this moment a beautiful picture: the light, the composition, the situation and that moment. As long as I think about the picture, the camera protects my mind from realising that this is too much for me. I continuously hear a mantra in my head saying that I cannot stand seeing another wounded or dead child or grieving parent. Or dead animal, for that matter.
Enough already. It is July, it is crowded, it is too hot, the light is too bright for photography most of the day. Destruction and useless loss is everywhere I turn. Suffering and grief can be photogenic, but I would never call it beautiful, while a horrific moment or death can be rendered beautiful in a picture. As me and my colleagues look at each others’ pictures on computer screens at the end of the day, the most common word to describe a successful picture is ’beautiful’ and the term refers to a picture containing certain technical elements while telling something important.
A funeral undertaker in Harlem once said that his motto was ‘Where beauty softens your grief’. He referred to how he would arrange corpses beautifully for the funeral when the beloved ones would come to say their last goodbyes. Maybe that is true about photography too. I would like to think so. Perhaps, a beautiful picture can soften grief.
There is beauty in chess. And chess is life.
In chess, logic and emotion create shared, culminating understanding. Such understanding can promote resolution for embattled and entrenched positions, new learning through the beauty of the game itself, and respect for those trying to create sustainable spaces.
Chess is a sophisticated game with near endless permeations, there to replace fighting and war and death. It uses its own language, including a grammar of moves and syntactical variation. Like every form of communication, in fact, there is a beginning, middle, and an end, where space is negotiated, and where movements wind and willow and baffle and bellow. Players compose, plan and react to an audience, think rhetorically through positions, embrace tactics, and indulge in fantasy, all to create a beautiful process and product. As in every communicative moment in life, in the beginning there are generally a primary set of options for the first 10 or so moves of the game, with many suggested variations on those moves. They are often called “book moves.” Move by the book. Study these moves because if you don’t, and if your opponent has, you will find yourself in the middle game with a losing position. The middle game is all about positioning, tactics, and strategies for moving forward while defending what you hold dear. Line up pieces, control squares and sections of the board, create short-term and long-term attacks. And in the conclusion, every move matters. Players must mobilise their pieces effectively and efficiently.
Chaturañga, an ancestor of chess
Most say the game originated in India or Ancient Afghanistan, spread to Persia, was then taken up by the Muslim world, and then spread to Europe. In the 6th century it was known as the chaturañga or divisions of the military or army. The infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry are represented by pieces which each have different powers of movement, much like battle formations mentioned in the Mahabharata. Together, they bring a harmony of offence and defence, a unification of push and pull, of mathematical balance, of simulated battle, while paying attention to character and history and new thinking and astronomy.
It is in the swashbuckling attacks, clever combinations, stoic sacrifices, and dynamic games that a chess player creates beauty amongst the constellation of squares. If players each take one move in turn, in order to gain an advantage means that one player must do more than one thing in a single move. Chess teaches us how to do more with what we have, and it is in creating effective situations that beauty results. For instance, chess requires players to invoke different spaces, through planning and thinking ahead, because the opponent is trying to do the same. Such chess thinking is important in every dialectical exchange, in every battle. Players can create paradox and irony in these spaces, sculpting positions wherein the opponent’s best available moves become less and less valuable, or more and more conducive to a better position. What may seem the best or most logical move, ironically, because of the pressures of various pieces, can generate less than ideal results. Beauty comes from connecting seeming opposites – mathematical logic and idealistic emotion – into the perfect conceit that, together, renders an insurmountable paradox or indefensible position.
Beauty results when pawns, knights, bishops, rooks, kings, and queens embrace chaos and the unexpected, offer greater complication to gain tempo and advantage, balance the unbalanced, order what seems random, and work together to make better mates. Beauty in chess offers a respect between players that comes from seeing chess as life, as effective argumentation resulting in productive resolution, making one’s way through obstacles, developing plans, completing goals and objectives, and making sense of things. We negotiate the files and ranks of events in our lives. We try to move forward in well-considered ways, with chaos becoming clearer in exciting combinations. As movement and effort come together, we may not be exactly where we first intended, but we have progressed, through boldly moving our ideas and prospects out into the world while shoring up resources along the way. Making meaning, fulfilling and occupying space in seemingly impromptu ways, creates beauty. Finding peace where none existed, not so much somewhere in the checkmate but in the masterful and artful negotiation of space, creates beauty.
One may study beautiful symmetries like the Polugayevsky Variation of the Sicilian Defense in Kasparov vs. Ehlvest from 1978, or the complex French Defence in Fischer vs. Myagmarsuren in 1967, or the derisive Queen’s Indian game between Karpov vs. Korchnoi in 1994. What lessons can we learn from such brilliance? How might we create understanding in the world today through reflecting over beautiful chess games?
Sheltering Myths, Samuel Bak (1998)
Samuel Bak, the great Polish conceptual artist, asks these questions in his chess-scapes, for instance, representing the dissarays that come from war through his boards and pieces. He uses chess as a metaphor of the destructive result of war, having himself survived the Holocaust. His latest paintings are in collections entitled H.O.P.E., Told & Foretold, and Your Move. He uses chess to face history and to face ourselves in order to create beauty in the future. In one painting, a rook sits in the background while numerous, broken pawns with different uniforms lay dismantled, decaying in the foreground. In another painting a winding river flows through a chessboard, parting two opponents who are tired and weary from their longstanding disagreements. And in other paintings, we study pieces that have had amputated limbs, chessboards converted to seascapes where many pieces are drowning or moving forward aimlessly, and sole pieces looking out over a battle not forgotten.
Chess, like life, is infinitely complex and can be played in infinitely varied ways, building on memory and commemoration, wedding innocence and experience, and creating beauty. Can the past, past games, past disagreements, past wars, past religious battles, past problems between employees, past problems between siblings, past infrastructural snafus, past political hates…, can they help bring understanding to uncertain futures? Great understanding can come from analysing false starts and disoriented worlds. It is less about winning, but recognising the beauty of positions and situations in the game. The life moves we make embrace chaos and principles of logic and fantasy to create our own beautiful spaces.
Loulou d’Aki is an independent documentary photographer, born and raised on the Swedish seaside and currently based in the Middle East. She studied Music and Art before obtaining her Masters in photography at ISFCI in Rome, Italy. Ever since, Loulou d’Aki has been living and working in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Her photographs have been published in TIMES Lightbox, NY Magazine, Internazionale, El Pais, die Zeit, Stern, Capricious Magazine, Le Monde Magazine, VSD, Têtu, Marie Claire, Dagens Nyheter, Sydsvenska Dagbladet, Aftonbladet, Omvärlden, ETC, Verdensmagasinet X, Vanity Fair… Besides publications and editorial assignments she has done work for UNICEF, UN, International peace and cooperation centre, Biennale Bern and Save the Children. Loulou d’Aki is passionate about youth, the age of infinite possibilities.
Rich Rice is Associate Professor of English at Texas Tech University, USA, where he directs the department’s Multiliteracy Lab, and currently Visiting Professor in Delhi University, New Delhi. In a variety of modalities and learning environments, he teaches courses in new media, intercultural communication, rhetoric, and technical communication. His most recent co-edited collection, ePortfolio Performance Support Systems, is published in both Parlor Press and through Creative Commons with the WAC Clearinghouse. Other recent publications cover topics such as problem-based universal design, study abroad models, mobile medicine, photo essays, media labs, faculty professionalisation, and hypermediated teaching philosophies.