the coup of images

Problematic historical events – such as the first Catholic mass celebrated in lands later claimed as Brazilian, or the famous “grito,” the cry of the Portuguese emperor declaring Brazil’s independence from Portugal – occur to us as images that stem from singular pictorial representations formulated long afterward the events they portray, in line with spheres of power that perpetuate to this day in the collective imaginary. In the case of Pedro Américo’s painting Independência ou Morte!, we see this resonating through a single image painted more than six decades after the event it seeks to encapsulate; still exhibited today in a room exclusively designed for it, in a museum erected at the location of the historical event. A great deal of planning, investment and effort to exalt and solidify one single possible representation of history, locking it in time.

During my childhood in the 1990s, the image of the dictatorship, in turn, was constructed through the music of singers and composers who opposed themselves to that period, as well as in films that recalled the period of censorship and opposition. The image of the military coup is the worst possible: torture falsely claimed as suicide in grotesque prisons, censorship of theater, and songs trying to slip by the censorship system. At the same time, resistance was visible, especially in images of crowded public squares and protest banners led by youth and engaged artists.

The period of redemocratization in Brazil privileged, to a certain extent, negative images of the dictatorship, only explicitly challenged at that time by some extremist groups. The Truth Commission would be a way of expanding the collection of images and stories of exceptional periods, proposing to solidify through state policy an incomplete process of official narrative construction regarding past violence. The final report of the Commission would only be presented in December, 2014.

Before that, in June of 2013, a wave of contradictory protests occupied the streets of some capitals and the Brazilian news. First, they were linked to movements for free public transportation – motivated by the immediate fact of a fare increase of twenty cents in São Paulo, the country’s biggest city, at that time governed by Workers’ Party (PT) mayor, Fernando Haddad. The spaces of contestation were quickly appropriated by other causes, such as criticism of the inefficiency of public services, the fight against corruption, criticism of the World Cup in Brazil, and the desire to remove the PT from power, among others. The Free Pass Movement, pivotal to the so-called “Days of June,” which had been protesting for years with little media attention, this time saw their marches displacing themselves from the initial objectives, attaining national proportions, confusing everyone about their articulations and consequences.

In about three years of successive demonstrations and in a lasting climate of tension, emblematic icons on all sides have arisen: colors and figures that materialize these political disputes, forming a complex aesthetic of the uprisings, from both the right and left. Coxinhas and mortadelas; anti-Workers’ Party demonstrators dressed in green and yellow, and “petralhas” dressed in red; the big yellow duck, the “tchau querida” 1Translator’s Note: “goodbye, sweetie,” in reference to the impeachment of PT president Dilma Rousseff. and the “pixuleco” 2T.N.: in reference to imagery of former president Lula portrayed as a convicted criminal, all related to the so-called Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) graft scandal. ; “There will be no coup,” “Come back, Dilma!” and “Fora (“out with”) Temer”: synthetic images that unite around them a complex web of collective identifications, desires, and traumas channeled into public performances.

Moreover, for the first time in the history of Brazil, a social conflict of this magnitude was transmitted and updated live on a diversity of platforms of different shades and interests that were constituted, for the most part, during the crisis. Various virtual groups were organized based on the sharing of textual and visual narratives, bringing together similar ideas from amongst the plurality of positions. The images, colors and characters of the conflict (sometimes condensed into memes) circulate as a symbolic commodity and independently bring supporters into the dispute, expanding and solidifying the distances between regimes of truth in virtual spaces – which never cease to be real in their effectiveness – producing the so called bubbles.

There is a civil war between images. At the same time, there is a dispute between national projects and social classes, but whose fundamental means of reaching the political arena is the seizure, editing and circulation of images. That is, images do not produce the only meanings of these conflicts – circulating also are the interests of oil, among other conflicts of international geopolitics, and, internally, control by the elites over processes of social transformation, especially regarding reforms to the national nervous system such as social security and labor laws. However, images are not merely metaphors of political conflict; they are inseparable from it, generating practical consequences and altering the course of the debate.

On August 31st, 2016 the impeach­ment of President Dilma was consummated. The conflicts and paradoxes of the streets and networks would supposedly be resolved in Congress, anchored in popularity surveys shared in the front-page headlines of journalism websites and in constitutional breaches. For the first time we watched live the images of a coup.

Months later, in the days leading up to the first session in which former president Lula was summoned to testify before Judge Sergio Moro in Curitiba, in May, 2017, the former president’s lawyers requested two cameras in the courtroom – one facing the accused (as is already customary in all Lava Jato courts) and another facing the accuser. The request was rejected and, days later, we would watch Lula’s interrogation live on the Judiciary’s broadcasting channel, on YouTube. In the midst of the speeches of the lawyers who surround him and the judge who does not appear in the frame, we focus on Lula’s gestures. We hear the voice of the accuser without knowing where or how it is issued, as a generic and impartial speech – we do not know, for example, if Moro reads the questions, looks at Lula as he interrogates him, or how he responds to his answers. Our focus is fixed, however, on the figure of Lula, as if we were analyzing him for any gesture or hesitation, so to question whether he might be lying. The faceless voice presents information and evidence and onto the accused falls the surprise of what can be unveiled through potential contradictions in his accounts. Through this camera positioning and long interrogation sessions, the attempt – still today seemingly unsuccessful – seems to be to deconstruct Lula’s image.

Lula is one of the rare characters of the progressive Brazilian political-partisan spectrum with a political project that has come into being through his relationship with images and imagery. In an essay about Lula’s declaration after the coercive attempt by the Federal Police, before the testimonies he conceded to Moro, (“Lula volta a Lula,” [Lula comes back to Lula] within the blog of Piauí magazine, March 9, 2016) João Moreira Salles analyzes the mechanisms and importance of building the former president’s image, explicitly revealed by the constant presence of a hired photographer, producing his own imagery to combat the way he is often portrayed by traditional media.

Notable as a leader for his agenda and history of significant expansion of social rights, Lula can also be recognized for his aesthetic strength. He is a figure who shares the gestures and desires of a considerable number of Brazilians – including people not necessarily linked to the left, but who align with Lula or the candidate he recommends – participating in rallies with great awareness of the impact of his presence, the content and form of his speeches. Social movements have united during the last forty years or so around the figure of Lula, perpetuated and reinvented by his performance, reaffirmed to today in live-recorded events, photographed and shared to the point of exhaustion by various social media channels (and of course, edited and republished by opponents). Lula appears like a character from another time: he does politics through his throat, through his personal presence and atop podiums and sound cars – but he understands the effect of his image in the present, establishing it as a constant pattern in public debate.

Since the Lula administration, particularly in the last decade, there has been an exponential increase in the number of subjects interested in producing and sharing their opinions and images online. The possibility for personal reporting has been democratized, creating a new potential for the increase in agency in what is normally in the realm of official histories. However, we have as yet little understood the mediations and inequalities in the reverberation of this immense volume of information and our access to it. Even with such an amplification of social voices, the coup was not prevented; in fact, it’s possible that in this setting its implementation was further made possible.

There is a displacement of social energy from both the dynamics of the state and mega communication companies, which have less control over information. This shattering did not, as expected, produce democratic and progressive projects, but to the contrary: it is contemporary to the rise of extreme right-wing political movements in Brazil and elsewhere. A greater possibility for the production and sharing of images, reflecting a certain democratization of the production, circulation and consumption of news, was concomitant with the recent phase of greater setbacks in the global democratic framework.

One could argue that a significant part of the Brazilian political dispute still emanates from major newspapers in the Southeast, or in the way the National News 3T.N.: Jornal Nacional, Rede Globo’s nightly news program. is edited. However, notwithstanding the power and importance of the mainstream media, their assemblage of material is more readily identifiable and thus able to be deconstructed. A good deal of scholarly research, artwork, and posts shared on social networks focus on the bias of traditional media by studying their lexical choices, voice-over narrations, and biased staging. All information is built and has political objectives – this is not new. What remains unclear is how to oppose the virtual uprisings of the contemporary right, understanding its methods and mechanisms in an information system in which nearly two thirds of the population, in the case of Brazil, communicates through Whatsapp groups and Facebook pages.

Interference in shared information and imagery in the Internet and Cellular age are much more nebulous and sophisticated. Dominion over them is less and less subject to the state and other institutions (such as museums) and more to algorithms formulated and administered by new private consultants specializing in the study of information circulating and being spread in online networks. The circulation of images follows a logic that must be understood through its effects on subjectivities and social groups (Brazil features some of the most widespread use of social networks globally) and how it is orchestrated by these technology companies, which purchase data made available by users, selling it to companies and political projects that hire services to interfere in these virtual flows through formulas that transport viewers to whatever regimes of truth they wish to sponsor. Under the dream of egalitarian sharing, control has changed it figure.

The apparent democratization and transparency of the Internet helps to propel it forward as mobilizing truths that are convenient for groups that pay for the displacement of particular users and information. Sometimes things get out of control and content becomes viral, unexpectedly successful. But these exceptions contribute even further to creating a sensation of the openness of these networks to their users, who openly disclose their actions and preferences, revealing intimacies, while driven by these algorithms under the virtuality of the transparency and equality of online networks.

The production of images and their dispute are fundamental axes of the contemporary Brazilian political conflict. A war of narratives is edited live in a game of unequal and strategic power, which in the process seems democratic and participatory, but in effect reveals itself to be managed, even premeditated. The images of the coup seem to have a life of their own, but they are guided by forces more difficult to identify or challenge. The right-wing uprisings seem to have been appropriated with a better technology strategy that garners the possibilities of the Internet, with significant effects on macropolitics. Virtual algorithms and their programmers, representatives and financiers produce, from user-created content, certain limits to the modes of resistance in networks legitimized under the promise of democracy and the meritocracy of images.

If in the nineteenth century, Pedro Américo, among others, painted timely images that forged our identity in accordance with official demands, and in the twentieth century, media companies – print, radio and television – took control of great visual narratives, always met by dissent and deconstruction, in the first years of the twenty-first century we live between enchantment with and distrust of the proliferation of photographers and narrators. The increasing distance and layers between distinct bubbles are linked to the unequal power play in controlling what is shared online. The coup in the era of images was also the coup of images themselves, which today are even more partisan. It seems urgent that we create measures that can hack into the editing of the images in virtual time, to resist as determinedly as the algorithms do.

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This text was originally published in the book where is pedro américo? (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2018) and revised in June 2021.

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  • 1
    Translator’s Note: “goodbye, sweetie,” in reference to the impeachment of PT president Dilma Rousseff.
  • 2
    T.N.: in reference to imagery of former president Lula portrayed as a convicted criminal, all related to the so-called Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) graft scandal.
  • 3
    T.N.: Jornal Nacional, Rede Globo’s nightly news program.

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