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The complaint is then no longer that images conceal secrets which are no longer such to anyone, but, on the contrary, that they no longer hide anything. While some start up a prolonged lamentation for the lost image, others reopen their albums to rediscover the pure enchantment of images – that is, the mythical identity between the identity of the that and the alterity of the was, between the pleasure of pure presence and the bite of the absolute Other.    (The Future of the Image by Jacques Rancièr, 2007) 


We exist in a society increasingly saturated with images. With more than 50 billion uploaded to Instagram since its launch and 350m to Facebook every day (Agency, 2019), along with those displayed on numerous other social media channels, in this paper I will explore some key aspects of how our treatment of the image has changed dramatically since the overwhelmingly rapid integration of the internet into modern day culture. I will also present my outlook on the need for a re-enchantment of the image as a response to the above, and the profound influence this has had on my own creative practice.1 


The term mental pollution with regard to the image was used by Sontag (1979) and there is a great deal of ongoing research that discusses the impact that this sheer volume of content has on the individual and collective consciousness. David Foster Wallace’s (cited in Smith, 2019) concept of total noise is just one example. The work of Roland Barthes, Jacques Rancièr and Byung-Chul Han are also relevant.


For the purposes of this paper, however, it is not the quantity of mind pollution, or the fact that it exists in the first place, that I consider problematic. There are ways to limit the saturation of images that we are compelled to absorb on a daily basis. It is, primarily, the content that I am concerned with and the resultant lack of otherness, 2 in favour of total positivity and smoothness, that is my focus. 

“The counterpart as the presence of the Other is increasingly disappearing from contemporary perception and communication. More and more, the counterpart degenerates into a mirror which mirrors oneself. All attention is focused on the ego. It is surely the task of art and literature to de-mirror our perception, to open it up to the counterpart, for the Other – as a person or an object. Today’s politics and economy of attention direct this towards the ego; it serves a self-production. It is increasingly withdrawn from the Other and led to the ego. Today, we compete mercilessly for attention. For one another, we are shop windows vying for attention.” (Han 2018). 

I would argue that we increasingly expulse the otherness, the unheimlich qualities of life, and this is reflected in our current treatment of the image. As stated by Sontag below, we have become a series of ‘image junkies’ and I would suggest that our alienation from the other, as described by Han, is a consequence of this. 

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution. Poignant longings for beauty, for an end to probing below the surface, for a redemption and celebration of the body of the world – all these elements of erotic feeling are affirmed in the pleasure we take in photographs. But other, less liberating feelings are expressed as well. It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. That most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarmé, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” (Sontag, 1979). 




Not only are we bombarded by the huge volume of images available to us, we are also under pressure to add to the pollution daily and critically, to make sure that what we share is overwhelmingly positive and smooth. I would argue that this violence of positivity is the cause of increasing levels of internalised violence (Han, 2018) and manifests most clearly through our current treatment of the image. 

“Images, too, are increasingly losing the character of the counterpart. Digital images lack any magic, any enchantment, any seduction. They are no longer counter-images with a life of their own, a force of their own, that confuse, bewitch, perplex or intoxicate the viewer. The ‘like’ is the absolute zero grade of perception. (Han, 2018).


Personally, I experience it as a numbing, a detachment from the reality of what I am seeing, whether it is beautiful, hideous or painful, due to the fact that there is so much to digest. 3  Also, at the touch of a finger I can easily swipe the image away and have it replaced by another, more agreeable picture. The result is one of fleeting attention and a profound boredom. 

“The smooth only conveys an agreeable feeling, which cannot be connected with any meaning or profound sense. It exhausts itself in a ‘Wow’.” (Han, 2017). 

Dawson (2012) relates enchantment with object to possession. I propose that we are enchanted with the smooth; it possesses us as we long to possess it. We continually feed the total noise of the online clouds– contributing yet further to the overall mental pollution – by taking photographs, applying filters to achieve maximum aesthetic appeal, then sharing online to accumulate as many ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ as possible. Others will then ‘like’ and ‘follow’ in return, not always because they like the image but because they hope to gain positivity in kind. 

This is a cyclical exercise without a fixed endpoint. It is a perpetual ritual of sharing smooth and positive images in the hope of making ourselves feel loved and of worth. 

The Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’ (Brooker, Wright. 2011) is a powerful example of the perils of unbalanced negativity, overzealous ‘liking’ of pictures and the saturation of our culture today that dominates our concept of self worth. 

Barthes (1993) talks about the unary photograph which arguably is representative of standard online social media images. For example, Instagram is a stadium of politeness where no deeper resonance than a glance with the criteria of ‘it makes me happy enough to like it’ is required. Life has become a spectator’s show – those who watch simply sit back and ‘like’, perpetuating a culture of likes in the stadium of damaging positivity. 

“Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern lift - its material plentitude, its sheer crowdedness-conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. […]What is important now is to recover our senses, We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” (Sontag, 2009). 

Sontag’s collective we-term ‘our’ here refers to the role of the art critic. I argue that we, as individuals participating culturally and socially, must follow this example to see, hear and feel more. My hope is that through a more conscious engagement and output of images we would develop a less ego-centric methodology of image consumption and production. 

But as it goes, taking and looking at images has entered the realm of banality. As Berger (1980) agrees with Sontag in noting ‘so the taking of a photograph ceased to be a ritual and became a “reflex”. It is increasingly automatic for us to reach into our pockets and pull out our phones, to stroke the smooth screen and absorb the mind with not only cinema, but now, social media, image sharing platforms and the rabbit hole of the internet and its compulsive clickbaits. Technologically it has never been easier to take photos and filter them. 5, 6 

Personally, I experience 21st century culture as overwhelming, a society existing within an isolated, artificially lit cave immersed in the maelstrom of a quenchless appetite, riddled with anxieties, imprisoned by the malleability of our attention. Trying to make the self feel ‘better’, we take the path of least resistance and enchant our minds with the easily digestible, relentless refreshing moving and still images available on the likes of on Netflix and Instagram. 

For myself, I want to wake up – now. As Han (2017) points out via Aristotle, ‘the free man is someone who is independent of the needs of life and its compulsions.” It is through my own creative practice, and that of the others I mention below, that I attempt to free myself from the pollution endlessly emanating from endless screens and seek not only a deeper reanimation of myself, but also to encourage others to follow a similar path.


Primarily, I view engagement with and creation of art as a remediation of the self when overwhelmed and oversaturated with the sociological state of existence today. As such, I position my arts practice in the form of a dissenting therapy in response to the impact of total noise in capitalist society. 

I argue that the consequences of internalised violence call for a restoration of self within a contemplative state of temporal duration through means of exploration in experiences and art forms relating to reanimation and re-enchantment. 

Considering the placement of enchantment within the field of contemporary art leads me to the works of artist Jesse Jones, writer Haruki Murakami and photographer Tim Walker. 

My experience of “Tremble Tremble” by Jesse Jones (Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh 2018) was haunting and captivating. Tessa Giblin (via Lovett, 2018) describes the work as revolving around ‘a search for a possible other, a plausible ancient truth’. I would agree; this is one of those pieces that stays with you.  It has impact; in contrast to the proliferation of images today that are generally lacking in any form of impact due to their sheer volume, this piece offers a silence to the vacuous noise of all those other images. 

It envelops you in darkness and mystery. The curtains and the giantess tower over you, speaking to you directly. The sounds vibrate in your bones and leave a trace of its strange otherness behind. Even now, I hear the raspy voice of Olwen bellowing ‘Bones. Bones! BONES!’ This, to me, is an unheimlich feeling of eeriness successfully used. It is an undeniably uncomfortable space to be in. There is nothing smooth in the crags of her skin, the creases of the cloth, the wiriness of her hair, the movement of spectators within the space, the darkness, the voice … that voice.

Taking this haunting feeling further, I look to the writings of Haruki Murakami. He creates worlds of mundane surrealism, a magical-realist world without images. Only the ones that form in your imagination appear, a welcome respite from the pollution of smooth images described above. 

Murakmi’s work provides a platform to follow the narrative, but not to directly see it. Titles such as Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Wild Sheep Chase to my mind offer a true experience of literary imaginative otherness. 9 The following is an extract from “1Q84”, when publisher Komatsu discusses a promising piece of literature with writer Tengo. 

“[…](I)t leaves a real impression – it gets to you in some strange, inexplicable way that may be a little disturbing (Murakami, 2012). 

Through photography, Tim Walker creates worlds that you are more likely to encounter in a dream, a tantalizing glimpse of the ability to interact with and have an experience in a lucid dreaming state. In “The Lost Explorer”, each shot is set up like a thoughtfully composed, photographic still. Selected images are printed alongside the narrative written by Patrick McGrath.  (For images of Walker's work please visit

Controversially, we are unable to access the book or DVD online and cannot purchase it unless there is a chance auction. With its price tag of £1500, it is frustratingly inaccessible. Irritating? Unfair? I would argue that this inability to watch the film reanimates the imagination, allowing the self to return to childhood daydreams for a touch of beautifully crafted escapism.


I admire Walker’s courage for going against the mainstream desire for maximum purchase, seeing this approach as an additional element of enchantment where there is a special, magical relationship formed with the printed book form, as opposed to the film on screen.10

Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again. (Sontag, 1979) 


“In places like universities, where everyone talks too rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.” (Joseph Beuys, via Gablik 1991). 

Turning to my own practice, the intention behind my work is to produce sculptural installations and short films (also making use of oil paintings and written prose) that challenge the nature of total positivity in modern culture, disrupting smoothness (unlike the sculptural work of Jeff Koons or oversaturating the senses of the viewer like the films of Rachel MacLean. 


Conscious not to add further to the total pollution of images, I am instead interested in exploring aesthetics and methods that evoke a feeling of otherness within myself, and the viewer, using approaches that disrupt the violence of positivity. Personally, I don’t want to feel numb anymore. My aim is that the viewer should leave with a feeling of otherness inside them, to have had an experience of the uncanny. To make this more palatable, and enchanting, I create work I call the beautiful uncanny. 

My practice is consistently based upon a quote from a favourite childhood film: ‘There is more to life than the shit we got stuck with.’ (Henderson, 1996). I focus on the reanimation of self within a contemplative state through exploration of experiences that convey a re-enchanting way of being in the world. The work tends to manifest itself by immersing myself in a lingering state of consciousness to evoke an experience of enchantment. I practice Hannah Arendt’s vita contemplativa, Byung-Chul Han’s art of lingering (Han, 2017) and the doctrine of William James’ the specious present (via Anderson, 2014), in all aspects of work production, particularly with stop-motion animation projects. 

“Only beauty teaches disinterested lingering:

Thus the contemplation of beauty is of a liberal kind; it leaves objects alone as being inherently free and infinite; there is no wish to possess them or take advantage of them as useful for fulfilling finite needs and intentions.” 

(Han, 2017). 

Overall, my intention is that my work should invoke imagination and a sense of otherness in the viewer. They should leave questioning their reliance on devices and to have had a lasting experience of the beautiful uncanny. My works provoke the use of their own imagination, of looking at the physical over the digital realm, of having had an impression of the unfamiliar, the uneasiness of the uncanny, and believing there is more to life than the black mirror. 

"Have you [he asks] ever had an experience that entirely absorbed your heart, your mind and your thoughts, banishing all other concerns? […] You had a strange, fixed stare as if you were trying to make out forms, invisible to any other yes, in empty space, and your words faded into obscure sighs’ […] and you, anxious to convey your inner vision with all its glowing colours, its lights and shadows, labored in vain to find words with which to begin.” (Hoffmann, 1992). 


“Mined Mind”, my short film responding to Foster Wallace’s concept of total noise, is one example. (To watch short film please visit: ). 


Project “Moth Soup” is another such example -

It is 

Moth Soup in Silver Spoons 

Fill me up with your uncanny beauty little moths 

Reanimate me in your unheimlich delicacy 

You handsome, winged creatures 

Frozen in time 

We lack the 

Otherness and the in-betweens 

Here, drink from privilege 

A serving of Moth Soup 

(Kate Bell, 2019) 

These images are shot to invoke the idea of a narrative within a scene. The film is, like Walker’s The Lost Explorer, not available. A step further, there is no film to see. I ask the viewer to use their imagination to taste the soup, feel the textures of a powdery crunchy moth disintegrating on the tongue, washed down by the sugary broth used to lure the creature in the bowl. I argue that this experience would not be any more relatable if shown in a succession of images rather than with the use of one’s imagination and a still. 


Each silver spoon is different and adorned with traces of time and memory. They have been collected from various places over many years. They have been used with many meals by many mouths of the many people at the tables laid according to the rituals of the respective diners. A divergence from today’s standard of sitting on the sofa in front of the television, or even at the dining table, but with eyes transfixed on devices with screens. To that I say, get a life. 

As a means of navigating the relentless impact of daily life, another example is my use of oil painting. There is often an overwhelming cloud of noise, of mental pollution and incoming knowledge that fogs my mind, so opaque that I can’t see a way through; I feel consumed and incompetent. Given the gift of time and space the paints, the brushes and the board provide me a world to retreat to.

Often the painting will morph from any original intention, however vague. It will start with an attempt to communicate the storm of thoughts swelling throughout the nervous system of my brain, which I am unable to articulate honestly and effectively with words. After a period of time with the materials, however, my message translates into image and atmosphere, my mind stops whizzing incessantly and recedes. It becomes lost from the rest of my consciousness. All that remains is the painting before me. Barely aware of basic needs of existence, I am instead swimming in clouds and lochs and mountains high, or wherever I retreat to for that period of time, that long and specious moment. 

There is an illusory magic in the transparency of certain colours which allows the atmosphere of the painting to change as the weather and lighting does. It is another level of enchantment where the impossibility of an object changes before your very eyes. Perhaps more noticeable when left alone only to return at another point in time and to recall what you remember of the painting this morning in the daylight or the evening’s setting sun. 


“The digital screen permits no wonder. With increasing familiarity, all traces of the potential for wonder that enlivens our spirit disappear. Art and philosophy are obliged to reverse the betrayal of the foreign, of that which is different from subjective spirit; this means liberating the Other from the categorical web of subjective spirit, restoring it to its strange, wonderous otherness.” (Han, 2018). 

In this paper, I have argued that the treatment of pictures by today’s social-media dominated culture has resulted in a continuation, and more extreme version of Sontag’s mental pollution. Rising cases of depression, anxiety and profound boredom, a ceaseless state of un-satisfaction, ill-appreciation and general disenchantment of life is exacerbated by our image regimen. A disenchantment of images whether it painting or photograph, historically were respected, admired and studied. However, due to the undeniable oversaturation of images in culture today, they have come to attract little more than a fleeting, unary glance. 

The consequences of an infinite network of images, particularly those that contribute to the unending violence of positivity in turn feed the damage of internalised violence: all from the inane culture of ‘likes’. We lack balance between the negativity, the differences and the unfamiliar of the other: to the positivity, the same and the smooth of the familiar. The expulsion of otherness, as Han writes, devours any sense of the other and along with it any potential for the sense of wonder and enchantment. I am sure that by seeing, hearing and feeling a sense of otherness in our lives, and indeed our images, we have a lot to gain through a sense of re-enchantment. 

Furthermore, what is required are moments of rest for our minds in turning our gaze away from the black mirror, the digital screen that as Han says ‘permits no wonder’ and look instead to our own imaginative gifts, however deeply they may be hidden, and what they may then reveal about ourselves and our place in the world. Through conscious image creation and uploading (or not), let us consider images as art again, and in turn as a form of dissenting therapy to the impact of mental pollution, providing clear space for a reanimation of the self. 



1 Throughout this paper the word image will be used to mean ‘photographs’, ‘stills’ and the more general term ‘pictures’. 

2 “What used to be the Other, be it as friend, as Eros or as hell, is now indistinguishable from the self in our narcissistic desire to assimilate everything and everyone until there are no boundaries left.[…] Han (2018) argues that our times are characterized not by external repression but by an internal depression, whereby the destructive pressure comes not from the Other but from the self. “It is only by returning to a society of listeners and lovers, by acknowledging and desiring the Other, that we can seek to overcome the isolation and suffering caused by this crushing process of total assimilation.” (Han, 2018). 

The Other is not recognisable as the same, as the self. It represents something unfamiliar. Yet, with the other there is always an element of familiarity. The tendency is to refuse, extradite or disparage the other because it is not fully the same, e.g. imperialism, colonialism, gender, sex, cultural representations etc., My interest in the other and otherness is when it manifests as the unheimlich (something both familiar and not familiar). The presence of an abstract, conceptual or ‘unreal’ being of existence and(or) control, often evoking a sensation of the unheimlich, *Otherness as a characteristic of “The Other”. 

3 “The quality of feeling, including moral outrage, that people can muster in response to photographs of the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, and the massacred also depends on the degree of their familiarity with these images[…] Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised, partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror.” Repeatedly shown images of atrocity lose the impact of shock and eventually enter the realm of the banal, or “seem to many like an unbearable replay of a now familiar atrocity exhibition”. “Images transfix. Images anesthetize. {…] After repeated exposure to images it [the atrocity] becomes less real.” (Sontag, 1979).

4 Of further interest is“In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke describes seeing as an injury. Seeing exposes itself totally to what enters into the unknown zones of my ego. Thus, learning how to see is anything but an active, conscious process. Rather, it is a letting-happen or an exposing-oneself-to-what-happens: ‘I’m learning how to see. I don’t know what the reason is, but everything enters into me more deeply and no longer stops at the point where it used to come to an end. I have an inner self that I knew nothing about. Now everything goes into it. I don’t know what happens there.’” (Han, 2017). 

5 “Manufacturers reassure their customers that taking pictures demands no skill or expert knowledge, that the machine is all-knowing, and responds to the slightest pressure of the will. […]Cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive.” (Sontag, 1979). 

6 “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. […] The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation […]. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are […] supposed to be having fun.” (Sontag, 1979). 

7 “‘’The Sandman’ tells us that all yearning harbours a desire to surrender – and the charms of enchantment very often mask the perils of possession.” (Dawson, 2012). 

8 “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetize the injuries of class, race and sex…” (Berger, 1980). 

9 “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood and “The Sandman” by E.T.A Hoffmann offer an uncanny, lucid dream-like literary experience also. 

“I may, like a good portraitist, succeed in depicting some figures so well that you find them good likenesses even without knowing the originals; indeed, you may feel as though had often seen these persons with your very own eyes. Then, O my reader, you may come to believe that nothing can be stranger or weirder/than real life, and that the poet can do no more than capture the strangeness of reality, like the dim reflection in a dull mirror.” – (Hoffman, 1992). 

10 This strategy reminds us of the use of cinema by Guy Debord in the 1950s to protest the transformation of the world into a society of images. After World War II image production increasingly occupied the conscious and unconscious processes by means of which the subject sensed, desired and understood the world. According to Debord, the cinema had become “the cathedral of modernity, reducing mankind, previously an autonomous, contemplative subject, to an immobilsed, isolated, passive viewer, sitting in the dark and fixed in front of the shining screen.” (Schäefer, Gendolla, Roberts, 2010). 

References / Bibliography 


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Han, Byung-Chul. (2015). The Burnout Society. Translated from German by E. Butler. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

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Online Videos 

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All copyright of images directly used in this paper belong solely to Kate Bell Artist, unless explicitly said. 

© Kate Bell Artist 2019 | All Rights Reserved

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