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Posts tagged ‘reenactment’

War at the speed of light: artists and drone warfare

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet Is the Best, 2011, digital film stills © Omer Fast

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.”
- quote from Omer Fast’s 5000 Is the Best, 2011.

Paul Virilio, in his 1998 book ‘The Vision Machine’, predicted a machine that “will be capable of seeing and perceiving in our place”. A key concept in Virilio’s writing is dromology, or the logic of speed. The one and simple rule of technology development has been that of ever-increasing speed, and this rule seems to define fundamental aspects of warfare and society. Real space has been supplanted by real time because we can receive information from everywhere on the globe in real-time, reducing human perception to a kind of ‘polar inertia’.

Last week, US immigration officials’ detention and interrogation of Pakistan politician Imran Kahn – a vehement critic of US drone attacks in Pakistan – as he boarded a flight from Canada to New York, threw a spotlight on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare. UAVs, or drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. They basically fall into two categories: those used for reconnaissance and surveillance, and those armed with missiles and bombs. Although British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from a USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens. Armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, but their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera, LowDrone

Contemporary artists have increasingly vigorously engaged with the subject of war and its consequences over the last decade, since the commencement of Bush’s global “war on terror” and the Iraq War. Unsurprisingly, there have been a string of recent artists’ project exploring the rapidly escalating use and impact of drones in surveillance and warfare, such as Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera’s remote-controlled “low-rider” spy drone, positioned at the United States-Mexico border and controllable by anyone with an Internet connection, and photojournalist Noor Behram’s brave documentation of the human toll of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Trevor Paglen, Reaper Drone (Indian Springs, NV Distance – 2 miles), 2012

Two artists’ exhibitions in the recent Brighton Photo Biennial, whose theme was ‘Agents of Change’, address the subject of remote warfare and surveillance through works that at the same time unpick the role of the photograph or video in the propagation of ideas, and question the assumption of the documentary as truth-telling.

Trevor Paglen is known for his meticulously researched documentation of “black sites” of secret government activity, which he photographs using specialized equipment. His show at Lighthouse, Brighton, featured photographic works drawn from two series: Limit Telephotography, in which the artist adapted astronomy telescopes to reveal classified, covert US military installations, including drone bases, in remote parts of south-west USA, and The Other Night Sky, his photographs of classified American surveillance satellites. Paglen’s photographs are an uneasy blend of abstract allure, art-historical references, and disquieting subject matter. They draw our attention not only to the geography of covert operations – the remote sites, and the militarisation of sky and space – but also to the mechanisation of vision and its implications in a global arena of political tension and warfare. His distant photographs of partially visible airplane hangers, drone aircraft and strange installations are blurred, the images of spy satellites use long exposure to show the bright arcs of satellite paths. The exhibition also includes Paglen’s 2010 video work Drone Vision, a stream of unencrypted video intercepted by an amateur satellite hacker.

Trevor Paglen, Keyhole Improved Crystal from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 186), 2008

Omer Fast’s latest chilling narrative film work 5000 Feet Is the Best explores remote warfare and its psychological impact on a drone pilot. Fast’s unsettling video-works construct contemporary stories through a masterly grasp of storytelling, reworking time, facts and personal perspective, exposing of the problematic assumptions of objectivity and truth. He often presents his films in a looped structure, with no obvious start or end point, and challenges our absorption in the tale by revealing its construction – showing the actor auditioning for a part, for example, or repeating a section but altering it.

5000 Feet Is the Best is based on conversations that the artist had with a former Predator drone aerial unmanned vehicle operator with post traumatic stress disorder, now working as a Las Vegas casino security guard. As I enter the space, the film shows an overhead shot of a boy on a bike cycling across an arid landscape towards a settlement. The voiceover is of an interview with a former drone operator explaining the detail that he could see when the drone is at 5000 feet or above: “the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture”.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

The film interweaves and blurs reality and fiction. It is structured around three dramatized sequences. Each starts in the same way, in dark hotel room, the pilot (an actor) sitting on the bed facing his interviewer, presumably Fast. Each time Fast asks: “What’s the difference between you and someone actually in an airplane?”, and the pilot answers, “Nothing, we’re doing the same thing”, to which Fast replies “But you’re not a real pilot”, provoking each time a different outburst from the drone operator, who then falls into telling a story, sometimes seemingly unrelated, which we watch dramatised unfold on the screen. One story is about a man who poses as a train driver, operates the train smoothly for an entire day, but is arrested that night breaking into his own home (having left his keys in his borrowed uniform). The interviewer asks: “Was the man in this story someone in your unit?” The drone pilot replies shortly: “No. It’s a metaphor.” A second story is of a couple in a casino who engage in a seduction scam to rob casino customers. The last story is of a family – personified as a white, American family – who abandon their home to avoid some unknown trouble, only to meet a tragedy on the road. “Mom, Dad, Johnny, and little Zoe” pack their belongings into a station wagon. On a lonely dirt road, they see a group of men planting an improvised explosive device. The image cuts to the view from a drone. The family’s car drives slowly towards the men. There is a humming noise from the sky …

The stories are interspersed with the audio of the interview, where the drone pilot talks of his work and of his psychological trauma over his responsibility for killing: “You see a lot of death … doing this. You had to think there is so much loss of life that is a direct result of me.”

Remote warfare aims to distance the public, as well as the operators of the drones, from the people “over there”. Paglen’s work exposes the covertness and mechanics of such warfare technologies, while Fast attempts to remake the perceptual connections between “us and them” to show that, despite Virilio’s prediction that such technologies will lead to the ‘automation of perception’, killing is still a personal and human experience, even when mediated by speed-of-light telepresence.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

Let’s experiment with ourselves

An artist in a respiratory air mask sits in a plastic tent. Test tubes and bottles on a table in front of him.

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

Self-Experimentation and the Ethics Committee of 1

A report on the event ‘Trust Me, I’m an Artist: Towards an Ethics of Art and Science Collaboration

Artist: Neal White
Ethics committee: Professor Bobbie Farsides (Chair), Professor Michael Parker, Professor Bob Brecher, Dr Julian Sheather, Professor Richard Faragher, Helen Sloan 

Last week, Arts Catalyst hosted ‘Trust Me, I’m An Artist’ one of a series of events taking place around Europe, created by Anna Dumitriu, investigating ethical issues arising in some art and science collaboration and considering the roles and responsibilities of artists, scientists and institutions. At each event, an internationally known artist proposes an artwork to a specially convened ethics committee, in front of an audience. The committee, following the rules of ethics committees they serve on, discusses the proposal and reach a decision. The panel then informs the artist of the decision and, with the audience, discusses the result with the committee.

Artist Neal White gave a fascinating, provocative presentation about his project: The Void, in which he recreated Yves Klein‘s “blue urine” experiment. In May 1959, on the opening of Yves Klein’s exhibition Le Vide (The Void) in Paris, Klein served special blue cocktail, containing Methylene blue. As Klein intended, the cocktails caused the urine of drinkers to turn blue for about a week. Since this event took place in 1959, Methylene blue as a stain has been established as toxic. However, it is also a component in several medications, is used to reduce symptoms of cystitis, and in other forms for treating methemoglobinemia.

Blue liquid falling in a stream

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

In 2004, White proposed a research experiment whilst artist in residence at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). He proposed to re-stage Klein’s event as an experiment to establish what were the safest, or least toxic, dosage of Methylene blue in an alcoholic cocktail required to turn urine blue. Visitors would be faced with a choice: either to consume an artwork that contained the ingredients of Methylene blue, with only the clinical information provided, or to keep the artwork they were given (the pill and information) as an intact form, signed by the artist.

The artist intended the experiment to be both a cultural experiment which utilized a clinical trial under closely monitored conditions, and a challenge to the limits of artistic practice in its engagement with science, and specifically in its engagement with the politics of consent and belief, and the institutions themselves (White’s practice incorporates a strong current of institutional critique). His aim, he explained to the committee, was also to question the physical site of an artwork and our willingness to participate, beyond a visual experience, in an embodied experience of art, and join the ranks of the “self-experimenters”.

White’s presentation was impressive, and raised interesting issues not only around the nature of an artwork, and the fascinating ethics raised by medical self-experimentation (which has a long history), but also how we perceive authority and expertise, the limits of autonomous decision-making, and the nature of the ethics committee itself. White explained that the NIMR ethics committee had turned down his original proposal, but that he had performed the art experiment in an art gallery setting instead. However, he did not explain to the panel the reasons for that committee’s decision.

The structure of the event was that the artist then left the space for half an hour while the ethics committee discussed his proposal.

Because of their brief – that they follow the rules and procedures typical of the host country – the ethics committee (a highly-qualified and experienced group of experts) struggled for half an hour to find a way to engage coherently with the proposal. Bob Brecher asked whether the proposal was for an artwork or art research, because ethics committees only deal with research. This uncertainty about how to categorise the proposal was rather a shame, as it meant the conversation continued to return to this basic issue and thus to stall, which reduced the opportunity to explore some of the interesting ethics. The audience didn’t get to see the artist’s completed ethics form, which had clearly confused members of the committee. Richard Faragher, who throughout seemed most opposed to the proposed, noted: “To stand before an ethics committee you are making a claim that the benefits (of your research) outweigh the risks”. Faragher could not see the ‘benefits’ of the ‘research’ at all. Helen Sloan, the arts curator on the committee, challenged the concept of ‘benefit’ in respect of art. Professor Michael Parker commented with characteristic common sense: “My view is this is an interesting artwork, relatively low risk. The problem is the (nature of an) ethics committee”. Julian Sheather wondered whether the artist was playing a joke on the committee. “If so” he mused, “it’s rather a good one.” The audience was clearly desperate to jump in to the debate, but that wasn’t to be allowed until after the decision was given to the artist.

Glasses and dishes on a table, rubber gloves, a sheet of paper with 'Menu for the Void'

Neal White, The Void. Image: Office of Experiments

When Neal White returned to the room, Bobbie Farsides gave the overall verdict of the committee: “A low risk artwork, but possibly not within the remit of an ethics committee to decide on”. Faragher disagreed strongly and said that he would not give his permission to the experiment to go ahead.

In the lively discussion that followed with the artist and audience, the audience joined in enthusiastically. Some were disappointed that the committee had not engaged with the breadth and subtlety of Neal’s presentation. But perhaps that was in the nature of the brief that they were given. White explained that when the NIMR had turned down the proposal, they had done so not on the basis of the harm it might do the participants, but because they did not want any potential “bad” publicity at the time.

The discussion continued about the “benefit” of his work, Sheather complaining that artists seem to set out to shock and so it was difficult sometimes to see the benefits. It always saddens me to hear this, first because it only applies to some artists, and – if you press the person who says this – it’s almost always the same names cited (Chapmans, Emin, Hirst, and the Sensation exhibition). And, frankly, I’ve been far more profoundly shocked by things that have taken place under the umbrella of science than any art I’ve encountered, but I wouldn’t make judgements on all scientists based on that.

Neal White had the last word when he quoted the late artist John Latham on the ‘benefits’ of art: “The contribution of art to society is art”.

A series of newspapers, each titled 'The Self-Experimenter'

Neal White, The Self-Experimenter. Image: Office of Experiments

Fringe technology and grey science (thoughts on the Samsung Art+ Prize)

Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work (still) by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

The UK might be thought rather tardy in recognising the digital arts, given that the Samsung Art+ prize claims to be the UK’s first digital media art competition. But perhaps it’s simply that the appeal of certain media or thematics in the arts naturally ebbs and wanes over periods of five to ten years. (There’s a parallel revival of interest in ‘art and science’ at the moment.) What sparks these periodic surges of fascination – for media art, or art that engages with science – is never entirely clear. A European colleague thinks it’s purely the search for funds that is making arts organisations chase after science and technology. UK and US colleagues in academia have suggested the arts are searching for research legitimacy by association. Obviously, in general I have a far less cynical take on it. But it’s true that culture minister Ed Vaizey’s call for arts organisations to exploit “the possibilities and revenue streams that new technologies offer” met with a swift response from the Arts Council, which teamed up with the BBC and NESTA to launch various digital funds. And now we have Samsung’s initiative.

Anyway, the show at the BFI is welcome mainstream recognition for a very broad field of work that’s been around for a long time. And the show has some really good work in it. There were some old favourites, beautifully installed in the BFI’s gallery, as well as some treats new to me.

I’ve long been a fan of Semiconductor’s skill and vision as artists working with moving image. Joe Gerhardt and Ruth Jarman’s work is represented here by a 3D version of ‘20HZ’ (2011) and the spectacular three-screen ‘Worlds in the Making’ (2011), made after a visit by the artists to the Galapagos Islands.

Worlds in the Making – preview by Semiconductor

Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead beautifully crafted their ‘A Short Film about War’  (2009) from material found online and uploaded under Creative Commons license. The 2-screen film takes the viewer around the globe to war zones captured through Flickr photos and testimony from both military and civilian bloggers. The images appear on one screen, while the other logs the sources of the sourced images, blogs and GPS locations.

A Short Film About War (still) by Thomson & Craighead

I was also fascinated by Doug Fishbone’s ‘Hypno Project’ (2009), another two-screen work, which demonstrates how people react to stimuli under hypnosis and examines how we form our beliefs. On the right screen, an entertaining cynical narrative about the nature of belief and cultural conditioning is set to a fast succession of almost subliminal images, while on the left, twelve people watching the video have been hypnotized to respond in specific ways to certain images, fascinating as we don’t know exactly what they’re responding too as they shout, clap, wave or make noises. A neat juxtaposition of ideas.

Hypno Project by Doug Fishbone

It was also great to see the recent work of Hiraki Sawa, as I remember being incredibly impressed by his work ‘Dwelling’ (2002), when I believe he was barely out of art college.

Dwelling by Hiraki Sawa

The standout work for my visit was Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s remarkable and utterly absorbing ‘Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work’ (2009), which I hadn’t caught in its earlier showing at BFI. It’s a 3D video installation inspired by The Man from M.A.R.S. – one of the earliest 3D films ever produced (in 1922) – which transports the viewer into the centre of a rehearsal for an adaptation of a film. Because of the 3D and the small screen, it gives the weird sense that one is watching the Borrowers. And the 3D sound had me taking my headphones off to see if it was coming from somewhere else. Delightful.

Forsyth and Pollard have long experimented widely with re-enactments of cultural works, but a fascination for fringe technology and grey science has been apparent in recent works. Last year, I greatly enjoyed their sound project/radio play, ROMEO ECHO DELTA, at AND Festival. It was broadcast by BBC Radio Merseyside on Halloween, accompanied by an ominous red light in the night sky above Birkenhead. The transmission began with the arrival of a studio guest, their interview then being interrupted with the breaking news of the unexplained red light. It recalled Orson Welles’ radio play of H.G Well’s science fiction novel War of the Worlds broadcast for Halloween in 1938, which sparked panic, and in fact the BBC rejected the first version of Pollard & Forsyth’s play for being “too realistic and likely to induce panic in their listeners”. The artists produced a revised version which was then aired.

Other artists in the show are Torsten Laschmann, Neil Cummings, Aura Satz, Erika Tan, and LuckyPDF, all showing interesting works.

The Samsung Art+ prize exhibition is well worth an hour or two (two if you want to watch it all, as I did). It’s only on to the 29 January. I only hope the artists in it get as much profile as the sponsoring company in this heavily-branded show.

Blue Secretions

Yann Marussich, Bleu Remix, 2008

Last night I attended the opening of sk-interfaces, curator Jen Hauser’s exhibition at FACT in Liverpool. It worked well in FACT’s spaces and suited well the new director Mike Stubbs’ thematic programme Human Futures. The gallery downstairs showed the more literally biological skin-based artworks which are Hauser’s particular interest: Tissue Culture and Art Project’s Victimless Leather, made by the Australian research groupSymbioticAStelarc’s third ear project – familiar, but nicely presented, Orlanand Art Orienté Objet‘s skin coats, Jun Takita’s moss-covered skull (not the transgenic moss originally planned) and Julia Reodica’s designer hymen.  In the upstairs gallery, a more virtual, political take on skin was presented by Maurice Benayoun interactive installation World Skin - a photo safari into a landscape of war, Neal White’s mysterious recruitment installation for his upcoming Truth Serum experiment (commissioned by The Arts Catalyst), and Critical Art Ensemble’s look at the effect of incendiary weapons on human skin.

Highlight of the evening was the performance by Yann Marussich, Bleu Remix, a re-performance of his 2001 Bleu Provisoire (see the video here), who let blue liquids seep through his skin and from his orifices, interior to exterior, first trickling deep blue from his nose, then weeping from his eyes, tinging blue under his arms and finally gradually oozing through the pores of his body. It was extraordinary to witness. More photos (by Andy Miah) of the performance are here.

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