Anaesthesia, ed. Valentina Abenavoli

JTF (just the facts): Published by Akina Books in 2016 (here). Softcover, 214 pages, with 124 black and white photographs. Includes a text by Veronique Pin Fat. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As a publisher, London-based Akina Books has built a reputation for experimenting with editing, binding techniques, paper combinations, and structures of visual narrative, continually testing the ever-changing limits of the evolving photobook form. Anaesthesia is one of its ambitiously unorthodox offerings, its anonymous content sourced from the Internet, curated, and produced by Valentina Abenavoli, one of the publisher’s co-founders.

Anaesthesia was born out of pain, and wrestles with a deep concern for a world where the continuous depiction of terror and violence have become a profane part of daily life. It “presents us with moments of horror” translated into a photobook format, and unflinchingly looks into how reality is documented, manipulated, and presented to us. The books considers a simple question – if we have been overexposed to images of horror and war, and simultaneously made numb to the suffering of others, how will we respond? When used by doctors, anaesthesia triggers both a relief from pain and a loss of memory.

The book’s title appears in gold on the cover, in a small font and in brackets, placed within a rectangle with a golden border. The volume is densely black on all sides and physically heavy, and its strong smell of ink adds another sensual element to our first impression. The pages in the book alternate between black and white, reinforcing a juxtaposition of good and evil, and occasionally the black binding stitches go through the spreads. As a whole, the physical form of the book reinforces its dark and gloomy content.

As we open the book, the first elements that catch our eye are the reference notes in gold placed on the sleeves of the dust jacket. They are a mix of philosophical and political works (Freud, Zizek, Rousseau, Jung, Sartre) and links to YouTube videos. The subsequent images are video screenshots taken from Internet sources, and their common theme revolves around the response to violence, with its variations in war, madness, terror, evil, and suffering. In this carefully constructed narrative, a screenshot becomes an image and all the images are then transformed into one cinematic sequence, where the interplay of the visual content and the philosophical and poetical excerpts creates complex layers of reflections.

The first eight images in the book are white spreads with a black rectangle on the right side. Each rectangle contains a line from the prophecy by a well known blind prophet Baba Vanga (Abenavoli also links to a film by Toma Tomov about Vanga). “This is the roar of powerful engines. You can judge by the powerful noise the approach of the engine and where it will stop. A wide turn and the metal bird halts to a stop, last blast of the jets and then – silence”. This alarming prophecy is followed by a strip of screenshots of the immediately recognizable video of an attack inside a restaurant in Paris. Given our constant exposure to images of violence like these, are we still able to feel the pain for “the other”? And when will the violence ultimately end and leave us with nothingness?

Abenavoli intentionally accepts a neutral position as editor, providing space for critical discussion and competing voices while continually demanding our participation. Blurry images of the desert taken from a YouTube video (now removed) entitled “Iraqi woman” contain subtitles describing a woman who shouts and cries, mourning her son who was killed by another man. These are followed by a spread which on one side reads “[the man remains silent]” and paired with an image of a man’s naked body, his buttocks riddled with bullet holes.

We have seen similar images before, but this doesn’t dilute their intensity. Many of the images are full of muddy movement and some sequences are almost unrecognizable, yet drawing on our collective visual history, we can piece the stories together. These tales of war and terror are told by anonymous people, and even via our mediated experiences through the screen of a TV and computer, we are still able to feel some level of human connection. But stubborn questions remain – how do we react to these emotional fragments? and can we still care about “the others”?

The testimony of a person who admits to killing other people appears over images of desert and is paired with shots of people expressing emotional pain. At the end of the sequence, we learn that these are the words of a Syrian child soldier, who is twelve years old. “I’m twelve” appears on a dark black page and is paired with an image of an open hand holding bullets. It’s a gut wrenching moment.

Between the sequences, there are quotes from philosophers and intellectuals, flowing in one line of thought, encouraging us to ask questions about what we see and how the images make us feel. An excerpt from Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher from the seventeenth century, is just one of them: “And it is not obvious that, just as it is a crime to disturb peace when truth reigns, it is also a crime to remain at peace when the truth is being destroyed”.

Closer to the end, we read the words of a Syrian child from a refugee camp “We sleep then the planes come and shell us. Didn’t I show you the missile and the hole that it made? Can you see where it landed?”. They are paired with images that are hardly readable: a close up of arms, a man’s face – maybe these are people lying very close to each other, hiding? Black pages then create a sense of emptiness, followed by the last sequence in the book, which looks like a wall with a building behind it, with few shots capturing a gun going off, and then yet again, more stifling black pages. At what point do we say enough is enough?

Anaesthesia stands as a thought-provoking book, and its cinematic flow is both troubling and mesmerizing. It smartly interleaves rhythms of images and ideas, balancing the push and pull of thinking about and reacting to its disturbing content. In the end, the notion of original authorship is secondary – Abenavoli has crafted a harrowing journey out of these scavenged fragments, creating an intimately unsettling experience. Well conceived and beautifully produced, it is a book that forces us reconcile its dark content and its universal truths.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a collection of Internet-sourced images, there is of course no gallery or auction history for the material.

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