Presence, Availability and Representation

In the spring of 2010, we published the call to contribute to this special issue on Witnessed Presence for AI and Society, Journal for Knowledge, Culture and Communication. Authors in this special issue generously offer perspectives on witnessed presence from a variety of disciplines. Some contributions are theoretical; others reflect applied research. Contributions focus on a deeper understanding of witnessing and address the changing human condition in which information and communication technologies play an increasing significant role.

In the first paper, Phil Turner, Philosopher at Napier University in Edinburgh, eloquently discusses an everyday ontology of witnessing, drawing on the writings of Martin Heidegger. Having been involved in the EU presence community for over 10 years, he describes how (tele-) presence has been approached from the perspective of having the sense of ‘being-there’. He concludes that witnessing is one of the consequences of being-in-the-world, of being-here, and suggests that the internet and other mediated contexts may facilitate witnessing. He lays down three premises for witnessing: presence, availability and representation. Presence has intentionality through which the body is bound to the world. When witnessing, this intentionality is ‘inherited’. This hints to witnessed presence as a force that creates social structures by sharing and inheriting ‘intentionality’. The second premise, ‘availability’, is a matter of experience and embodiment is at its root. The body is the instrument that defines what it is to be available and qualifies witnessing. Thirdly, witnessing (recognizing what you see) builds on weak representations (things that only become active when an individual is engaged), while bearing witness (giving testimony) builds on strong representations (things that stand for something). When being witness or when bearing witness, the distinction between weak and strong representations allows for a better understanding of the kinds of mediated details an individual needs in specific contexts.

These processes of being and bearing witness are deeply interwoven, and even happen in the same instance, argues Frans-Willem Korsten, professor of Literature at the University of Utrecht. Korsten describes how, when being in mediated presence with its lack of other cues, words have to act. Text and language become fundamental and from software to Skype, it is the foundation of mediated presence. Words are actors. Korsten revisits the rhetoric figure of apostrophe (not to be confused with the punctuation mark), which in specific cases denotes that bearing and being witnessed happen in the same instance in the same utterance spoken/line written. To be a witness means to offer and address attention to what is being witnessed, and to bear witness, and thereby turning away from the situation at hand to offer an address of expression to a ‘virtual audience’. The address of expression functions like a comment on the situation. By functioning like a comment, values are questioned and ethics are communicated. Peripheral perception is fundamental here: when words act, direct focus is not possible and words start functioning like images, hence the use of metaphors that sketch associations and hint to associations. The rhetorical figure of the apostrophe works because it is not direct. In his contribution, Korsten analyses a text by Maria Dermôut on Pattimura and an exposition by Kara Walker on the New Orleans flooding. He concludes that in modern media this dual modality is lost as is ethical awareness.

However, argues Sjoukje van der Meulen, art historian and media theorist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, ethical awareness can exist when media is orchestrated in such a way that it deconstructs, contradicts and amends itself in confrontation with the witness. Van der Meulen analyses and contextualizes the work of media-artist Pierre Huyghe, who with great sophistication, consistently seduces and confuses people in being witness to his work. Huyghe’s work lends itself to presence theories within the field of media studies as well as art theory and criticism. Van der Meulen applies Nevejan’s presence theory and finds that Huyghe plays out the tensions between natural, mediated and witnessed presence. Van Der Meulen uses Samuel Webers’s notion of mediaura to explain the way in which the power of fiction grants an auratic effect to characters that appear in Pierre Huyghe’s work. Van der Meulen concludes that next to natural, mediated and witnessed presence, fictional presence is fundamental to being able to understand why specific media configurations create meaning in the field of art?