“Move along people, nothing to see here” is one of the typical statements made by the character of Police Chief Wiggum in the animated television programme The Simpsons. This statement is usually made in an attempt to disperse onlookers from a crime scene of some sort. However, in one episode in which another character, Krusty the Clown, fakes his own suicide in a plane crash, Wiggum undermines his declaration “Come on, people, move along, nothin’ to see” by following it with “OH MY GOD, a flaming plane crash!! Come on, crowd around!” Here Wiggum reveals what always underpins the assertion that there is “nothing to see”. Precisely that there is a great deal to be seen. “Nothing to see here” really means “there is something really interesting to be seen here, but you shouldn’t be looking at it”. It is an order, backed up by the authority of the police, not to look at something, but it disguises its coerciveness with a denial that there is anything worthy of visual attention. Wiggum does what the police never do, or should never do, which is to change his mind and invite the people to gawp at what they should not gawp at.
Jacques Ranciére also links the statement “move along people, nothing to see here” to what he calls the ‘police order’ or ‘the police’ (‘La Police’). This term does not literally refer to the institution of the police, but rather to the distribution of institutions, differentiated and hierarchized social positions, modes of communication, images, ideas, and ways of speaking that generate what Ranciére calls ‘the given’ – the status quo in which everything and everyone has a place and everything and everyone is in their place. If the police order had a singular voice it would say, “move along people, nothing to see here”. Ranciére suggests that this is effectively what the police order says in multiple instances and in many different ways. The basic response of the police in these terms is to say “there is nothing to see other than that which is given”. In microcosm, we can see this at work in the actions of managers within institutions. Thus my line-manager has responded in the past to my suggestions that I have too much to do, or that I am doing more than other colleagues by simply asserting that I am mistaken: essentially saying, “what you think you are seeing is not here, there is nothing of that kind to see here”. By then handing me a stress management, or a time management leaflet, my line-manager has effectively said “now move along”.
From the perspective of the police, there is always nothing else to see and nowhere else to view the world from than one’s given position within society. Everyone has their place and from that place only certain things should be seen, thought, and said. Thus authority pertains only to certain positions within social and institutional hierarchies, and particular knowledge is only open to certain people within these hierarchies. Others are kept in the dark because the given order subscribes to the view that they do not need to know, or should not know. Disorder occurs when people act out of turn in ways that suggest that there is more to the world than the given; when people demand to have authority they are not meant to have, or to know or do things they in principle should not. Ranciére suggests that this happened, for example, when workers during the 1830s began to write literature in their spare time while remaining workers. Thus he observes: ‘I think the bourgeoisie felt that there was a danger when the worker entered the world of thought and culture. When workers are only struggling, then they are supposed to be in their world and in their place. Workers were supposed to work and be dissatisfied with their wages, their working conditions and possibly still work again, struggle again and again. But when workers attempt to write verses and try to become writers, philosophers, it means a displacement from their identity as workers.’ (‘Interview with Jacques Ranciére’, Kafila, February 2009) Such developments suggest that the existing order is not unquestionable, that there are other possibilities and other things to be seen, other ways of looking and being. What Ranciére calls ‘dissensus’, something that he associates with political practices that are premised from the outset upon assumptions of equality, works on the basis that there is always something to see no matter how much the police say there is not. In these terms, looking in new ways and at things one is not meant to look at is a basic democratic action and responsibility especially when this occurs at a collective level.
How might such dissident looking be developed? How might explicit or implicit declarations that there is nothing to see be challenged? Ranciére suggests that this might happen through the development of forms of ‘curiosity’ – a curiosity that involves looking at things askew, and looking ‘at places or questions that are not supposed to be your place or your questions.’ (‘Interview with Jacques Ranciére’, Kafila, February 2009) Such curiosity might, in his words, ‘create some breathing room, to loosen the bonds that enclose spectacles within a form of visibility … within the machine that makes the “state of things” seem evident, unquestionable.’ (‘Art of the possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in conversation with Jacques Ranciére’, Artforum, March 2007)
One possible way of encouraging and manifesting curiosity is through contemporary art. That is, through generating novel aesthetic forms that can lend themselves to new ways of seeing, thinking and speaking, and as a consequence to the potential generation of dissensus. There is no automatic relationship between such art and dissident practices. Nevertheless it is one of the potentialities of artworks that they might encourage us to reflect upon how we view a particular issue, or how we look at the world in general and our positions within the world. Art that does not try to politicize us or inform us, but that gives us pause for thought, may help us reconsider the given and generate curiosity about how we might see, think, and speak differently. Such artworks might function in a similar way to what W. J. T. Mitchell calls ‘meta-pictures’ (W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, The University of Chicago Press, 1994) – pictures that represent picturing itself, that enable us to think about how picturing and representation conventionally functions, about what it does and does not do, and about what is included and excluded from the field of vision.
One of Ranciére’s preferred examples of this kind of art is Alfredo Jaar’s ‘Real Pictures’ series from (1995), for which Jaar placed photographs he had taken of the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda in canvas boxes. Viewers could not see the photographs. Instead they could only read written descriptions of the photographs attached to the top of the boxes. This replacement of pictures with words encouraged reflection upon the limitations of conventional press and documentary photographs of catastrophic events and upon the taken-for-granted-ness of our mediated relationship to these events.
We might also consider works by Krzysztof Wodiczko in this light. For example, his ‘If you see something…’ from 2005 that is currently on display in the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. For this piece Wodiczko created artificial windows in a windowless room using projectors. We view these semi-opaque windows from the inside so that we can see the shadows and outlines of figures beyond. These figures clean the windows, or simply stand and converse about their difficult situations.
The speakers are people in different places who do not have citizenship because they are migrants or because of their ethnic background. They speak of deportations, financial challenges, and police brutality. The work therefore involves a play between visibility and invisibility, and between this and more explicit spoken narratives. The words make clear who these people are, but what we see in the windows is rather unclear. Overall the piece encourages reflection upon the status of people who are formally defined as alien within the nation-state, a status which gives them certain visibility as ‘asylum seekers’, ‘scroungers’, ‘economic migrants’, ‘gypsies’, and so on, but which makes them much less visible as individual people, or as communities that deserve equal recognition. The title of this work refers to the requirement for a particular kind of looking placed by the state on its citizens, to keep their eyes open for unusual sights and people, to notice signs of potential terrorism and threat. Wodiczko re-inflects this requirement, making the statement ‘if you see something’ more a matter of seeing between the cracks of the given, of seeing something other than the obvious stereotype and the standard division of people into categories of those who are meant to belong and those who are not, that is a central element of the police order within the territorial nation-state.
These artworks by Jaar and Wodiczko suggest that there is always something more to see. In their own ways these works call us to “crowd around” and take a good look.