BY MIN CHEN
The America that Daniel J. Boorstin depicted in his searing 1962 treatise The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America was replete with spectacle. In the shadow of the expanding reign of television and mass media, it was a place “where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original.” In particular, the critic and historian bemoaned the proliferation of pseudo-events, contrivances masterminded by politicians and other newsmakers to generate news where there is no actual, substantive news. Hence, ribbon cutting ceremonies, news leaks, press conferences, press releases, and the like—what he variously called “illusions,” “the great hoaxes of the age,” and of course, images, supplying and disseminating “an ambiguous truth.”
Seven years on, photographer Garry Winogrand, armed with a Guggenheim Fellowship, embarked on what would become a five year-long project to document the “effect of the media on events.” The resulting series of black-and-white photographs captured a veritable pageant of marches, rallies, election campaigns, strikes, museum openings, and receptions, at which was played out the infernal feedback loop between the media and ritualized public occasions. The media may have had its effect on the event, but the event was orchestrated for the benefit the media in the first place. Or as Winogrand told American Suburb X in 2008, “I don’t think anything happens without the press, one way or the other.”
His series was commemorated in a 1977 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and an accompanying book, fittingly titled Public Relations. On its front flap was Winogrand’s remarkable image of Elliot Richardson, conducting a press conference in Austin, Texas in 1973. It was likely just one of many press events the former attorney general held in a storied career that involved the investigation into then-vice president Spiro Agnew’s trail of shady activities; and his eventual resignation, submitted in defiance of Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. In Winogrand’s picture, he’s installed in a sparsely furnished room, behind a table loaded with microphones and surrounded by tape recorders—a man commended for his integrity, for the moment, reduced to a lone, islanded figure who made news in every sense. “Often enough, the picture plays with the question of what actually is happening,” said Winogrand. “Almost the way puns function. They call the meaning of things into question.”
That same photograph now lands on the cover of Interpol’s sixth and latest release Marauder. The New York band’s music, however, has rarely been prone to sociological insights or political statements; instead, theirs has been consistently threaded with doomed love, decadence, and disillusionment, garlanded with urban ennui. Marauder is no different: it’s business as usual on tracks like “If You Really Love Nothing,” “NYSMAW,” and “Number 10,” while frontman Paul Banks dons the guise of the titular marauder to act out, as he told The Independent, “all kinds of shenanigans.” The character surfaces clearly on “Party’s Over,” a track Banks summarily described to NPR as, “Popping pills and masturbating to Instagram.” While it does get up to timeworn hijinks (“No keys and we had to smash it”), its dissipation is heavily mediated: through the aforementioned narcotic assist and digital illumination. “I can see you on internet / That’s your milieu,” it opens. “Practically you are intimate / Suds in the tub.” Never mind that it’s all an illusion, as our narrator continues, “These enhance my bad intentions / Without containing my sense of wonder.”
Still, that hedonism knows containment. According to Banks, “I think there is kind of some themes about accountability on the record, and marauder is the guy that existed with a faulty sense of responsibility and accountability.” The autumnal comedown “It Probably Matters” does inch toward contrition (“I was pawning my days away”), but it is “Surveillance,” the album’s one concession to social commentary, that troubles the whole staged fantasy. “This shit is made up,” goes its chorus, “somebody paid for it,” amid its indictments of fame, authenticity, and the entire “great mind game.” “There’s still time to change my way,” the track reckons, but ultimately, we remain in thrall to the image: “We are living something frame by frame.”
Interpol, too, are no strangers to the image. Consciously or not, they chose to announce the album’s imminent release with a press conference in Mexico City, scenes of which were woven into the video for “The Rover.” Was the conference held for the purposes of the video (particularly as the event supplies the film with its climax)? Or was the video structured after the conference? Whatever it is, it replicates the press conference depicted on Marauder’s sleeve, if not every other media-initiated and generated occasion—they’re all highly prescribed affairs, anyway. Reflecting on the Winogrand image, Banks noted, “I like the isolation of the individual in that photo. That shot implies great strength but there’s a vulnerability too. I love that there’s a woman in the frame backing away… like she just left meat out for a tiger.”
But what’s really being fed? Not Richardson and not the media who merely present, but the representation, the spectacle. After all, as Boorstin presaged, “The image, more interesting than its original, has become the original.” And we, the audience and viewer of images, live but frame by frame.