Illicit Material

The amount of images in circulation affects our ability to appreciate and understand them

Image consumption has long been a pillar of capitalism. Beginning in the 20th century with the development of image-driven media, images have exerted increasing influence on how we participate in the economy. Not only have images shaped advertising, consumer desire, and the means of persuasion, but cheaper and more accessible camera technology made photographs and images the lingua franca of the masses, the grounds for a collective memory of birthdays and summer vacations. The business of making and circulating images has become inseparable from the projects of self-expression and communal belonging, coloring them with economic motives.

The rise of social media has implicated us further in that economy, as millions of users routinely post images on corporate-owned platforms that convert them into revenue. We are saturated with images created and distributed via social media, and the more we see, the more we seem to want. Digital technology allows images to be multiplied and distributed at a virtually incalculable rate, which corresponds well with an ideology that takes for granted the importance of free access to images without censorship. And yet, the apparently endless expanse of access has triggered a self-administered form of de facto censorship by which we mainly consume images from ourselves, our friends, and ideologically compatible others.

By stepping away from the countries saturated with images, a different sort of potential collectivity through images — one less caught up with consumerism, profit-seeking platforms, and their incentives — can perhaps be perceived more clearly. In Cuba, social media and image proliferation have been suppressed and the media industry is still almost entirely state-controlled or state-sponsored. Economic isolation and Communist Party ideology has militated against the development of individualistic image culture. Fidel Castro had long insisted that all forms of expression be tied to a collective view of the self in relation to society: “The revolutionary puts something above even his aim to be creative spirit. He puts the Revolution above everything else, and the most revolutionary artist will be that one who is prepared to sacrifice even his own artistic vocation for the Revolution.” 

By stepping away from countries saturated with images, a different sort of potential collectivity through images can be perceived more clearly

Although Cuba had been a playground for Hollywood stars and American business magnates before the revolution, few films were made there. But with the Castro government’s support filmmaking flourished in the 1960s. Extricated from capitalist norms, Cuban filmmakers developed a different understanding of the impact of images, both in their content and in the means of dissemination. In his 1967 film Por Primera Vez (For the First Time), Octavio Cortázar aimed to de-fetishize film by foregrounding the conditions of its production and circulation. In the film, a group of men drive around the countryside with a portable cinema to show all Cubans what a film is. In the mountains in Baracoa, they screen a Charlie Chaplin film for a small village. The camera alternates between the viewers and the film being screened, depicting the relationship between viewer and product and illustrating how this relationship was meant to be changed by the Revolution. Before the Revolution, an audience was a made up of individuals who simply consumed what was projected; after the Revolution the audience became a collective, with an important role in completing what was projected: In the film the audience watches itself become the new film, which is then watched by another audience in the same process of becoming.

“For an Imperfect Cinema,” a 1969 manifesto by Julio García Espinosa, extended the ideas of Por Primera Vez, setting the terms for Cuban cinema for the next decade and beyond. Espinosa proposed a world in which there would be no individual artists, but rather the “masses” would produce art. Espinosa’s Imperfect Cinema was offered as an antidote to the temptation of making films that are perfect, as defined by U.S. and Europe. It was especially powerful in light of the persistent dominance of European photography in Latin America, which projected a European view of Latin American reality back onto Latin Americans for their consumption. Boris Kossoy, a Brazilian photographer and one of the few art historians who has written about the early history of photography in Latin America, points out in “Photography in Nineteenth-Century Latin America: The European Experience and the Exotic Experience” that two types of photographic images were common in the region in the early 20th century, and both were imported from Europe: European-style studio portraits meant as private keepsakes, and European photographs of indigenous people that, Kossoy writes, “provided visual confirmation of preconceived mental images of the unknown, the different, the curious, the exotic” and “reinforced fantasies of the European imagination.”

Although Cubans were more influenced by Americans than Europeans, the depictions of Cuba were consistent with these trends. Castro wanted to rid Cuba of all such colonial influence and to create a new Cuban image free from capitalism’s distortions. According to Espinosa, the capitalist artist becomes obsessed with the individual, and this obsession makes him arrogant: “Why does he find it necessary to make transcendental declarations, as if he were the true interpreter of society and of mankind?” Espinosa argued that as long as the individual rules art, art will never be “impartial,” and therefore “there can be no new and genuine qualitative jump in art, unless the concept and the reality of the ‘elite’ is done away with once and for all.” He speculated that the development of videotape and decentralized broadcasting might make “the ad infinitum construction of movie theaters suddenly superfluous,” and that everyone would be able to make art in a society where the artist and the masses merge.

Art by and for the masses may sound like a situation more akin to Western social media, where the means of image production and distribution are widely available and images can be circulated by virtually everyone. But those conditions have tended to reproduce the sovereign individual and image sharing as primarily a matter of self-expression. Cuba’s state-imposed limitations on the image circulation may have allowed for something closer to Espinosa’s “Imperfect Cinema” to emerge after all.

Hito Steyerl’s 2009 essay “In Defense of the Poor Image” sits comfortably next to “For an Imperfect Cinema” as a description of the opportunities created by a restricted economy of image circulation. “Poor images” — that is, according to Steyerl, “images of substandard visual quality that proliferate where the means of transmission and circulation are restricted” — echo Espinosa’s idea of an “imperfect cinema” that prioritizes mass participation over profitable sheen. The surfeit of images in capitalist cultures, Steyerl suggests, has led to a devaluation of content on the one hand, and a fetishizing of technical quality on the other. Media companies depend on copyright-protected and artificially scarce high-quality images, which are perpetually rendered obsolete by new technologies that yield more and more “fidelity.” These images circulate for only as long as they create profit. But poor images — a DVD filmed from a theater, dragged from computer to computer, sold a couple times over; an image stolen from news site, edited, reposted, edited again, reposted again, etc. — “are not assigned any value within the class society of images,” Steyerl claims. “Their status as illicit or degraded grants them exemption from its criteria.” They circulate instead through quasi-underground circuits outside the networks of capitalist exchange.

Image scarcity forces consumers to attend more deliberately to what they are viewing, potentially re-enchanting their ideological power

Cuba has just such a network in its system of swapping USB drives installed weekly with a package (“El Paquete”) mainly of pirated films, TV shows, and music — “poor images” in Steyerl’s terms. Although technically illegal, El Paquete is nonetheless officially tolerated, whereas private wi-fi is not. This limits the volume and rate at which images in Cuba can circulate, and scarcity forces consumers to attend more deliberately to what they are viewing, potentially re-enchanting the ideological power of images. Conditions in the Soviet Union were similar: Western “detritus”— cigarette packs, soda bottles, trash — were coveted as symbols of both consumer freedom and capitalist wastefulness.

When images are restricted and coveted, image quality becomes irrelevant. Instead, as Steyerl argues, accessibility trumps technical quality, and “poor images” capable of being easily spread, optimized for the broadest possible availability under adverse circumstances, become the most valuable — for the people, if no longer for markets. These images do not conform to any sovereign nation’s intellectual property law. They become mass art by and for the masses, not because of their content (which is mostly U.S. entertainment industry product) but because of how they are circulated. Mass art, then, turns out to be a means rather than a particular message.

In the U.S., the relative absence of censorship and strength of free-speech norms has the paradoxical effect of making the origins of images more obscure: The profusion of images diminishes the comprehensibility of any particular one. All images exist in an increasingly crowded, provisional realm where one can easily be distracted and where an emotional or aesthetic experience can be fleeting. With information proliferating from so many different and often unidentified sources, shaped for so many different purposes — from the official channels of advertising and entertainment, news, and politics to the individually driven channels of social media — meaning becomes more opaque and more elusive. Rather than poor images, we have poor content. The efficacy of fake news stems from this degradation. Image proliferation encourages both uncritical consumption and total skepticism. What is true? Not only are emotional and aesthetic experiences blunted, but any sense of truth is also lost in the din.

Cubans are skilled and critical consumers of images, just as they are skilled in repurposing other things, like old American cars, that Americans are accustomed to discarding. While images per se aren’t scarce in Cuba, what is scarce there are different points of origin for images. The absence of profit-driven film, TV, and advertising industries and social media, coupled with censorship and the limits imposed on image creation and circulation, have the effect of making it clear that every image has a subtext, an origin, a point of view, whether it’s a selfie posted by a comparatively wealthy consumer or environmentally friendly advertising from polluting oil companies.

The richer understanding of images created through repurposing and limited access rebounds to developed countries, especially the U.S. The vintage American car in Cuba is the quintessential example, but Cuban artists are also adept at incorporating American objects and symbols into work whose existence is the antithesis of U.S. consumer culture. This symbiotic relationship, of course, has its own risks. When art became one of the few things Cubans could export to U.S., many Cuban artists began to cultivate American buyers, abandoning the avant-garde precepts of the 1960s to satisfy a new audience. A new Cuban exotic appeared, emphasizing aspects of Cuba’s “otherness” for American consumption. José Toirac, who superimposes images of Che Guevara or Fidel Castro on famous American logos like Coca-Cola’s, has re-enchanted American brands by creating the illusion that they are “forbidden.”

Cuba has one of the last intact coral reefs and environmentalists are rushing to protect it; preservationists are holding conferences to discuss strategies for preserving Cuba’s material culture. What about the rare image culture of Cuba? No one would argue that Cuba should not have access to the internet, but it is hard not to fear that the powerful meaning created by image scarcity in Cuba will be swamped by the wave of images from developed countries. After the revolution, a new idea of image and Cuban identity was born: Cubans would no longer strive for “perfect” European representation but would create something “imperfect” by the masses for the masses that revealed the means of production. What is going to happen when Google goes to Cuba?

Cuba will be inheriting an internet developed by U.S. military interests and already shaped largely by capitalism. Will the trajectory be the same in Cuba? Cuba’s tradition of imperfect media may open us the possibility for a different evolution, one that intimates what a future internet, driven by people and not markets, could look like.

Phoebe Boatwright is a New York–based photographer. She is currently a project coordinator for the Bronx Museum’s Friends of José Martí Sculpture Project.