Thomson & Craighead A SHORT FILM ABOUT WAR
First published online, 20th May 2013, by the International New Media Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition:
Thomson & Craighead A SHORT FILM ABOUT WAR
20th May – 25th October 2013 inmg.uk Exhibition curated by Edwin Coomasaru. Assisted by Isabella Smith and Tom Snow.
Edited by Edwin Coomasaru. Assisted by Cora Coomasaru, Isabella Smith and Tom Snow. All rights reserved. © International New Media Gallery, 2013. Texts © the authors, 2013.
The catalogue cover and illustrations are stills from Thomson & Craighead, A Short Film About War, 2009, two-channel video, 9 minutes and 37 seconds.
Thomson & Craighead A SHORT FILM ABOUT WAR
Edited by Edwin Coomasaru
Foreword Edwin Coomasaru
Notes on A Short Film About War (2009) Tom Snow
A Short Conversation About War Edwin Coomasaru and Jo Chard
Global Vision, Ground Truth? A Short Film About War as Experimental Geopolitics Alan Ingram
Published Online, 20th May 2013 INTERNATIONAL NEW MEDIA GALLERY 2
This year is the anniversary of two important events: twenty years since the first web page went online, and ten years since the second US-led invasion of Iraq. The International New Media Gallery’s current exhibition, Thomson & Craighead: A Short Film About War (20th May – 25th October 2013), marks both of these occasions. The Internet has had military connections since its inception, and this exhibition aims to explore some of the current links between the two. Since 1993, the Internet has become a dominant tool for communication. This has changed our understandings of war: today at the touch of a button we can access a myriad of blogs, photographs or footage by soldiers or citizens from across the world. As certain conflicts unfold through real-time Twitter updates, sometimes it can be hard to shift through the excess of information; turning each web user into a data-hunter in a vast archive. But despite the scale of such an archive, there are many areas of the globe – like parts of Africa – that are dramatically underrepresented online. Thomson & Craighead are critical of the resulting western bias; a narrow perspective perpetuated by our news networks. This, in many ways, is the real focus of A Short Film About War: not necessarily war itself, but the way war is mediated as a media object. This insight is as crucial today as ten years ago, when the Anglo-American press played a pivotal role in persuading the public of the case for war. I would like to thank Jo Chard, Alan Ingram and Tom Snow, all of who have contributed to the catalogue. Snow places A Short Film About War within the context of the essay film genre and discusses the impact of digital technologies as artistic medium. He also discusses the representation of war as a circulation of digital data. Chard and I approach such issues with Thomson & Craighead in an interview, focusing on the way conflict is mediated online. In our conversation we also deliberate tensions between the Internet as a tool of mass surveillance and platform to organise collective political activity. Ingram’s essay also touches on this point. His text investigates the idea that A Short Film About War might be engaging in an experimental geopolitics, reflecting on information infrastructures and the links between technologies and power. I would also like to thank the artists, Thomson & Craighead, who have been a pleasure to work with and extremely generous with their time. My thanks are also due to Cora Coomasaru, Isabella Smith and Tom Snow for assisting with the exhibition and catalogue.
Edwin Coomasaru, Director International New Media Gallery
Notes on A Short Film About War (2009) Tom Snow
Curiously, in acquiring more and more life, machines demand in return more and more abstract human vitality: and this has occurred throughout their evolutionary development. Computers, expert systems and artificial intelligence add as much to thought as they subtract from thinking. They relieve thought of inert schemas. The forms of thought assisted by computer are mutant, relating to other musics, other Universes of reference. -FĂŠlix Guattari, Chaosmosis
The anthropology of cyber space is really a recognition of the new human condition. -Michael Hardt & Antoni Negri, Empire In the so-called age of globalization just over a third of people are able to access a wealth of images and information relating to any location across the world, all from the comfort of computer screens. It is no longer the case that many of us rely on the daily distribution of newspapers, magazines, or even wait for specific articles to feature on twenty-four hour television news cycles. Instead, those connected to the Internet enjoy a culture of instant gratification through access to an infinitude of news feeds, social media outlets and the online blogosphere. For a film composed entirely of data found online, war seems an appropriate subject given that the origins of the Internet sit firmly within the US military.1 A Short Film About War (2009) is a collaboration between artists Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead, and writer Steve Rushton. The film transports viewers across a number of global conflict zones via images uploaded to the photo-sharing website Flickr, concatenated episodically by simulated satellite imagery taken from the widely distributed programme, Google Earth. Accompanied by narrative accounts derived from various blog websites, disorientation is nauseatingly coupled with a troubling sense of displacement. In this essay I will address the image of war and the circulation of related data on the Internet, complicated in this work through the compositional strategies of the essay film. I will argue that the construction of photographic segments in this manner responds to narrative methods found in both traditional and contemporary media, in turn problematizing political reception through an affective engagement with the subjectivity of the viewer.
The genre of the essay film is by now well established. In 1962 Chris Marker’s hugely influential La Jetée, and subsequent San Soleil (1983), raised important questions regarding the artistic, theoretical and political reception of mechanically produced images. The technique of compiling filmic fragmentations intended to present the process of non-linear narrative structure, and provoke questions regarding the imperfections of memory and the recording of history in the modern age. Encapsulated in the often-quoted line from San Soleil, ‘I remember that month in January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory’, montage has retained the capacity to (re)construct meaning according to temporal disjunctions apparent in the mechanically reproducible image. As philosopher Jacques Rancière has written, Marker the didactic pedagogue, rarely fails to underline for us the evidence that the image “itself” provides of what our memory tends to forget and our thought resists conceptualizing, or to stress the insignificance or ambivalence of the image when left to its own devices and the concomitant need of making all of its possible readings explicit.2 In the essayistic act of image compilation then, the piecing together of filmic clips and stills distorts the dividing line between fiction and fact, and reimagines the enigmatic relations between photographic mediums and the condition of representation. In utilising the essay film format, A Short Film About War situates itself within a lineage of artworks that have advanced the legacy of the genre. Take for example Dan Graham’s Rock My Religion (1982–84), which ambitiously attempted to collate a genealogy of rock music with the origins of North America. Or Jean-Luc Goddard’s epic eighteen year project Histoire(s) du Cinema (1998), which examined the spectacular history of cinema over the twentieth century. More recently artists including the Otolith Group have complicated issues associated with a fact-fiction paradigm through an examination of science fiction and its potential relation to the way contemporary archival footage might be dealt with in distant dystopian futures.3 A Short Film About War concerns the circulation of contemporary images and information found on the Internet during 2008 and 2009. Across two screens a series of photographs on the left are matched by an ascending text feed detailing URLs and geographic origin of the information on the right. The film begins with and image of an airport, itself a possible nod to La Jétee which begins with an image of Paris Orly, followed by a sequence depicting exhausted passengers asleep in airport terminals. The text feed informs the viewer: ‘>location: Atlanta Airport, USA’ – coincidentally home to CNN, the first twenty-four hour all-news television channel to be broadcast in the United States, now available in more that 200 countries.4 The displaced American narrator usurps the otherwise trivial images: ‘I’m going through all the same feelings I did when I left Iraq in January […] but I have some new light to shed on my hatred for the army and my situation’. The capacity for audio and image combinations to manipulate meaning is quickly indicated. The viewer is prefaced to approach visual circumstance with caution early on in the film through the incongruent coupling of image and narrative. 6
Spoken and subtitled narratives frequently describe schematic histories with regard to the conflicts pictured. In contrast, the adjacent text feed shows that all information was uploaded to the Internet over the period of just a few years preceding 2009. This in itself might serve to suggest the temporality or constant revision of information hosted online, where the editing, amendment or even removal of information is commonplace. Another work by Thomson and Craighead, Pet Pages (1998) – pet-pages.org, now a re-appropriated web address – demonstrated the fate of ill maintained links. Visiting the webpage would result in the user screen filling with dozens of browser windows, each in the form a toptrump-like playing card featuring the portrait of an animal and a link to another webpage celebrating somebody’s pet. Back in 2003, art historian Julian Stallabrass noted the redundancy of many of these links, and equated their fading away with the lives and, perhaps, the attributed affection of the said pets.5 Stallabrass goes on to write that, the Internet only brings into dramatic contrast the situation that exists offline, in which the glut of information, the vast memory systems of the administered world, strive to record all useful knowledge, while cultural and historical amnesia proceed apace. Artworks, online and off, can sometimes act as points of resistance against that continual erosion.6 That is not to say however that the erasure of undesirable information uploaded to the Internet always disappears quite so easily, especially in the era of web-based media activism such as Wikileaks. Goetzit.blogspot.com on the other hand, where a number of narratives originate from, now appears to be largely unavailable on the Internet. A quick Google search brings up a significant number of independents protesting the blogger’s silencing. Daniel Goezt was made to issue a full retraction of his blog posts detailing his terror at serving in the US military in Iraq. In 2005, after several months beyond his initially agreed enlistment, an end was put to his freedom of speech and his online presence restricted.7 The unthinkable volume of information online therefore might be characterised more faithfully as appearing permanent, or giving the impression of infinity, especially when considering the amount of highly contested material regularly subject to dispute and removal. Film essayist Ursula Biemann has written of the urgency in which artists must confront the rapidly changing contexts faced by video and visual artists: it is vital to look at video today within the wider development of new media, the Internet and digital image production and understand how these technologies emphasize or mutate the characteristics of the essay while opening up new possibilities for critical engagement with them.8 For Thomson and Craighead then, the uploading of images and capacity to reconstitute meaning online provides context for an on-going conversation within the context of contemporary art and visual culture.9 Speaking to artist Martin John Callanan in 2007, the duo commented that they ‘saw the usage and reconfiguration of this data in online works […] as being within the artistic traditions of appropriation and the readymade’,
as time has gone by it seems more and more like we are making artworks that look at whether live information (live data) can be considered to be material at all in artistic terms, and whether it can be used to make artworks, much like charcoal or video might be. More recently, we’ve been exploring how globally networked communications systems interact with global time zones and the physical space of the world […] we are just completing [a work] called Flat Earth where we have constructed a narrative out of publicly accessible satellite imagery and fragments of blogs from around the world…10 Flat Earth (2007) acts as antecedent to A Short Film About War in the sense that fragments gathered from online blogs accompany a similar visual logic involving Google Earth. In this work the second screen is absent, and no such source information is provided. The significance of the text feed might initially be thought about as legitimising towards independent or unofficial source material, in contention, perhaps, with the flip circulation of information via official media outlets. A striking moment during the film involves a sequence of images showing casualties in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The embittered narrative voice recalls the trauma of his experience: ‘the doctor asked me about my health, mental and physical. Did I see any dead bodies? UK? Coalition? Civilian? He put down yes in all three columns’. The three territorial categories are sequentially illustrated with visual examples: UK – a solider lies dead with a bullet wound to the head; coalition – coffins draped in the USA stars and stripes; civilian – a bloody teenager, most likely the victim of an explosion.11 He continues: ‘when I think about it, it was a long 365 days in Kandahar. I try to remember how many ramp ceremonies I went to. Way too many’. Susan Sontag has compared the visualization of conflict zones via global media outlets to a reluctance or inability to face suffering in the age of ‘tele-controlled warfare’ beginning in early the 1990s.12 As such, television news producers and newspaper and magazine photo editors make decisions every day which firm up the consensus about boundaries of public knowledge. Often their decisions are cast as judgements about “good taste” – always a repressive standard when invoked by institutions.13 In recent years, the circulation of images detailing the harsh realities of war has certainly increased. In part thanks the availability of the Internet, but also through news networks including Al Jazeera. Consider the provocative images of civilian casualties shown throughout the Arab Spring, in contrast to the emotional military tributes televised on the occasions of western intervention-gone-wrong. I, at least, cannot recall the last time I saw an officially released graphic image of a western military casualty. Despite materialist scepticism towards the impact of digital commodification, much has been written in favour of revolutionary possibilities associated with the Internet and advanced mobile hardware. For example, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have commented on the potential for such a digital networking system to act as a communicative platform for a global civilian emancipation.14 Premature examples include the use of ‘tactical-media’ in the organization of urban demonstrations such as the infamous Seattle WTO demonstrations in 1999, or ‘J18’ in London the same year. Also worth noting is the southern-Mexican anti-state 8
Zapatistas well-know utilisation of the Internet as an organisational tool as well as a platform for the distribution of subversive literature.15 More recently the global anticapitalist movement #Occupy continue to share information concerning a range of protest strategies, activist literature and documentation of constitutional police violence in urban spaces across various Internet platforms. The importance of unofficial images produced in conflict zones can be demonstrated most topically through the on-going conflict in Syria. The uploading and distribution of photographs and video across various online platforms and blogs including Twitter – bearing evidence of daily atrocities and severe civilian injuries – have become powerful tools in the exposure of Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against humanity. The uploading of images to the Internet became so damaging that the Syrian regime quickly made it a crime to possess a camera and arrested anyone taking a photograph early on in the revolutionary effort.16 Furthermore, in recognition of the Internet as a powerful platform for the circulation of information, Syrian forces have launched various Internet and media blackouts, malware attacks against prolific bloggers and even used associated technology to track-down, arrest, imprison, and do who-knows-what to various activists on the ground.17 Sequences included in A Short Film About War regularly mix images of postdisaster, or on-going disaster, with narrative anecdotes reflecting on mid-conflict scenarios. On first reflection the inclusion of source links creates an aesthetic of veracity, where availability of such information appears to authenticate associated information. After following a number of displayed links however, it appears that a portion of source information has been tampered with or altered. Some information has been cut down, whilst other parts have been translated into different languages. At this point we are able to recognise a twist in the dramatic nature of traditional documentary procedures. It is here that the tactics of the essay film merge with the verisimilitude of digital data, enacting a kind of double bluff. On the one hand, the tendency to obscure narrative structure follows certain traditions established with filmic montage. On the other, the proclivity of the image to beguile reaches unanticipated levels through deceptive compliance with the text feed. This is not necessarily meant to delegitimise data uploaded to the Internet during periods of conflict, but rather complicate the comparative circulation, utility and reception of information found online.18 During one sequence a female French audio narrative is translated into English subtitles and displayed over photographs taken in the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank. Following the blog address reveals that the narrative is actually derived from a male American blogger, written only in English. Later on ruined parts of Gaza City are shown alongside another narrative found on the same blog, this time spoken in Arabic and subtitled in English. At another point we follow the story Ayanna Neta, a fourteen-year-old girl, from Kibbutz Beeri in Israel. Her account is narrated by an older male voice.19 A relevant reference point here is Walid Raad’s creation of the fictional collective The Atlas Group. The online platform claimed to archive and document a history of the Lebanese civil war (1975 – 1991), which has no official history in the country. What else is interesting about the material Raad produced is that, once revealed as fictitious, the images created as digital documents were claimed to be the artwork. This meant that whether seen in a gallery space, exhibition catalogue or online, according to the artist each image was equally an authentic work of art.20 9
Not only does Raad’s example shed notable light on the issue of live information or data to be considered a medium for art, raised by Thomson and Craighead in the quote above, but also testifies to the manner in which artistic research can stage an inquiry into larger regions of visual culture and their socio-political reception. Displacement of information coupled with the speed in which the Internet can be navigated finds further expression the use of Google Earth. The zooming in and out of precisely coordinated territories around the globe is familiar to anybody who has used the programme, and represents the ease with which information can travel across cyber space today. Roughly mid-way through the film the image of the earth slowly reduces amidst dispersed audible signals, as though caught between a series of traversing radio waves. Images collected from Flickr then show astronauts at work in outer space. An enthusiastic British narrator informs us, ‘there are machines in outer space that take photos of the earths surface, these pictures are organised on a database on earth’. Asserting the words ‘an atlas universalis’, a sequence of disturbing images rapidly flicker across the left-hand screen, too quickly to grasp in any real detail. ‘Our descent and ascent are an illusion, and makes us believe we are travelling backwards and forwards from outer space, back down to ground zero’. Included in the quick-fire photo sequence are images of contemporary and historical military violence. The brief acknowledgement of World War One, World War Two, Vietnam, perhaps also Kosovo, works to recognise that war recorded on film is a relatively recent phenomenon. The speed in which pictures move across the screen may also invoke colossal databases filled with devastating imagery, unimaginable in scale and impact. The image of war continues to change alongside the technology that both documents and facilitates it. Other artists have confronted the changing visual experience of war in a variety of ways. Trevor Paglen photographs the movements of US military drones across the ‘other night sky’, or intercepts the images they capture through communication satellite waves.21 Omer Fast’s Five Thousand Feet is the Best (2011) – a cinematic reconstruction based on a former unmanned drone operator’s missions to Afghanistan and Pakistan – critically engages surveillance systems and new technologies of warfare. Also worth mentioning is Fast’s Her Face Was Covered (Part II) (2011), a slideshow made using image search results after entering lines from the same soldier’s account into Google. The results mediate both comical and disturbing images, and testify to the capriciousness of the Internet. Virtual navigation technology apparent in A Short Film About War might also refer to the increasingly common use of digital navigation systems in the service of computerised warfare. However, a departure from images usually associated with conflict is offered in a form that distorts narrative and other discernible imagery, working to question the agency of data circulating on cyber space further. This is locatable in several areas; the opening airport sequence; the photographs of astronauts at work in outer space; as well as the appropriation of Google Earth. However one of the most troubling examples can be found in a short sequence of Disney World Florida pictures. The voice over is worth quoting in full: When I am in a crowd I find myself stressed out and begin the almost automatic scanning procedure, locating avenues of possible attack. Within a minute or so I will have realised what I am doing and will begin to ramp 10
down my stress level and response by thinking logically about the situation. These people are not potential attackers. I am okay. Following the blog address again reveals editorial changes, for example the final line originally reads: ‘I am not in Iraq, these people are not potential attackers and I am OK’. The invocation of post-traumatic stress is anticipated in the alignment of paranoid narrative with the emollient delusions of Disney World. In turn, this hints at the huge maladjustments founded in the cinematic image of war familiar to the glamour of Hollywood movies and can be seen to reference the massive disjunctions between CGI explosions and the lasting effects at ‘ground zero’. Further still, the extreme contrast between an idealised image of the US, and a narrative concerning zones of on-going conflict in the Middle East demonstrates the breadth of geopolitical divisions on multiple levels, asserted here through a dark sense of comic allusion. Consider the ironic disposition of the final narrative line relayed over Valerie Reneé’s comparatively innocent holiday snap. Established in the montage then, is the power to alter memory and construct meaning, to distort or clarify the anodyne conviction of a momentary photographic trace. Again, for Rancière it is in the power of the montage that ‘constructs a story and meaning by its self-proclaiming right to combine meaning freely, to re-view images, to arrange them differently, and to diminish or increase their capacity for expression and for generating meaning’.22 And as Walter Benjamin once wrote, memory ‘is only a key to everything that happened before it and after it […] One may even say that the intermittence of author and plot is only the reverse continuum of memory, the pattern on the back of the tapestry’.23 Thus, A Short Film About War is not only about the image of war, but also about the circulation of images across cultural platforms and the enhancement of trafficked information accompanied by visual signifier. Whilst the horror of war confronted throughout this film shouldn’t be ignored, it is equally important to note the artists’ reflection on the conditions under which data is channelled and redistributed across digital databases in a variety of forms. This visual complex seems also to be an inquiry into multiple discursive framing strategies in which images of this kind are claimed, appropriated and reprocessed with new meaning. Perhaps it is constructive to reflect on how this work relates to the subjectivity of the viewer. Identifiable here is, what I will call, an affective politics. By affect I mean to consider the predisposition of the viewer, or to put it another way, an active appeal to individual subjectivity preceding emotional or conscious reflection. By politics therefore, I refer to aesthetic reception, defined most precisely through acknowledging the limits of expression inherent in the image or any other fragments of information. A Short Film About War anticipates multiple interpretations, which simultaneously relate geopolitical and emotional alliances available through a variety of individual vantage points. From this perspective, political complications can be considered to be latent across multiple experiential registers relating to both what is, and what is not shown, as well as the portrayal and betrayal of information obscured through the construction of image-narrative combinations. At stake in a more general sense then, is the problematic of historical consciousness implicit in the essay film format as mentioned above. This interpretation, considered alongside Ursula Biemman’s call to look at video within wider developments of new media, challenges the changing contexts in which digital technologies are interpreted, distributed and critically engaged with through contemporary art. 11
Finally, it is important to acknowledge the enormity of power divisions that the development of media and war technologies demonstrate across numerous areas of the globe. There is a sense in which this relates to what Ariella Azoulay has recently called ‘regime-made disaster’. Azoulay considers how developments in technology also condition the reception of information through various media outlets, usually constructed with the intention of aiding national and international support. As she explains, a ‘regime-made disaster is represented as a nondistaster, or it is represented only from the point of view of its victims or as a necessary or justified effect of an external purpose’.24 Here Azoulay deals with the visual conditions of the regime-made disaster, often promoted to the spectator as the consequence of moral duty or inevitability based on the denial of arbitrary violence, and therefore aligning conflict with the interests of democracy.25 The image of such a scenario therefore seeks to influence social reception in a number of ways. Amongst the most obvious is the evocation of patriotism in the pursuit a common neoliberal democracy, external intervention towards the righting of already-established territorial and humanitarian wrongs, and preventing the development of chemical and biological weapons as demonstrated during the 2003 Bush-Blair Iraq campaign. If the anecdotes used throughout the film tell us anything however, it’s that war is a far cry from any claims to common democracy or indeed legitimating nationalism. For Azoulay it is crucial that we construct our own narrative, whereupon the photograph can participate in the politics of what it doesn’t picture as much as what it is claimed to picture: the photograph is not [simply] a document belonging to the photographer, to a ruling power, or to any governmental or nongovernmental body. Its identification as any of these things undermines its civil potential. Instead, it is open at all times to additional participants who will not only interpret what is seen in it as a given, but will also reshape the seen that is to be read.26 And surely now, when the digital image pertains the capacity to breech palimpsest restrictions, it is more crucial than ever that critical engagement is mobilised and becomes commonplace. The film ends with a repetition of the opening sequence, interspersed with the finishing credits. This perhaps signals the cyclical nature of war, its stops, starts, its consistent atrocities. Not just in terms of war as a reality, but also in the repetition of trauma experienced by those directly involved, as well as the return to conflicts characterised through Iraq 1991 (Bush senior) and Iraq 2003 (Bush junior). A Short Film About War then, is a deliberation on the technological state of globalised communication networks as well as the teleological state of current day warfare. Through bringing these two issues together in the format of an essay film the viewer is made to reflect on a number of directly related and explicitly explored issues, alongside a series of coincidental and ambiguous problematics faced by both medium and subject matter. The viewer is held in a state of ambivalence before this work, suggesting that which appears steadfast may also act to conceal. A little probing beneath the surface reveals the latter conception to be equally precarious, involving an oscillation between reality and fiction. Perhaps it is here, through the aligning of representation with both a sense of the symbolic and the experiential, that we realise the infinity of a space like the Internet as an illusion. It may well be
the case that it is at the limits of representation, that the functioning of representation itself is held to account. Tom Snow is a History of Art research student at University College London and a freelance writer. Notes 1
See for example, Julian Stallabrass, Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce (London: Tate Publishing, 2003), p.16–18. 2 Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, Emiliano Battista trans. (New York: Berg Publishers, 2006), p.2. 3 Here I refer to the film works Otolith I (2003), Otolith II (2007) & Otolith III (2009). For details see otolithgroup.org/index.php?m=catalogue. 4 See ‘CNN International’, Tuner Broadcasting System (Published n.d., Accessed 4/2/2013, turner.com/brands/cnn#/brands/cnn-international). 5 Stallabrass, p. 42. 6 Ibid, p. 45. 7 The most thorough information I could find on the Daniel Goezt senario was online: see Daniel Goezt, ‘GI Special 3C99’, Uruknet (Published 1/11/05, Accessed 4/2/2013, uruknet.com/?p=17337). 8 Ursula Biemann, ‘The Video Essay in the Digital Age’, in Ursula Biemann ed., Stuff It: The Video Essay in the Digital Age, (Zurich: Edition Voldemeer, 2003), pp.8-9. 9 See, Martin John Callanan ‘Thomson & Craighead – Interviewed by Martin John Callanan’, Vague Terrain Journal (Published 15/11/2007, Accessed 26/1/2013, vagueterrain.net/journal08/thomsoncraighead/01). 10 Ibid. 11 One image in this sequence is, in fact, a staged photograph of a male in make-up. See the interview in this catalogue: Edwin Coomasaru and Jo Chard, ‘A Short Conversation About War’, pp.16-22, p.18. 12 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p.20–22, p.67–68. 13 Ibid, p.68. 14 See, Michael Hardt and Antoni Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2005), p.vx: ‘a distributive network such as the Internet is a good initial image or model for the multitude because, first, the various nodes remain different but we are all connected to the Web, and, second, the external boundaries of the network are open such that new nodes and new relationships can always be added’. 15 See, Brian Holmes, Escape the Overcode: Activist Art in the Control Society (Published 19/1/2009, Accessed 26/1/2013, brianholmes.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/book-materials); Stallabrass, p.53, p.82–3, p.99. 16 See, Jon Rich, ‘The Blood of the Victim: Revolution in Syria and the Birth of the Image-Event’, eflux, Issue 26 (Published 06/2011, Accessed 30/1/2013, e-flux.com/journal/the-blood-of-the-victimrevolution-in-syria-and-the-birth-of-the-image-event). 17 See, for example, Jillian York, ‘Syria's Internet blackout may signal something worse’, The Guardian (Published 30/11/2012, Accessed 30/1/2013, guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/30/syriaInternet-blackout); ‘Internet blackout continues in Syria’, Al Jazeera (Published 30/11/2012, Accessed 30/1/2013, aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/11/201211308583583467.html); ‘Internet returns across much of Syria’, Al Jazeera (Published 1/12/2012, Accessed 30/1/2013, aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/12/2012121153734176191.html). 18 An example (all though somewhat unrelated) is the recent Leveson Inquiry into press standards in the UK. In his £5.6m report, Lord Justice Leveson included the false information that twenty-five year old US student Bret Straub was cofounder of the Independent newspaper alongside Andreas Whittam Smith and Stephen Glover in 1986, after his name was included on the Wikipedia page. See, Nick Allen, ‘Wikipedia, the 25–year–old student and the prank that fooled Leveson’, The Telegraph (Published 5/12/2012, Accessed 5/2/2013, telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/levesoninquiry/9723296/Wikipedia-the-25-year-old-student-and-the-prank-that-fooled-Leveson.html). For costs and overall summary of findings, see ‘Press 'need to act' after Leveson’, BBC (Published 5/12/2012, Accessed 5/2/2013, bbc.co.uk/news/uk-15686679); ‘Inquiry Costs’, The Leveson Inquiry (Published n.d., Accessed 5/2/2013, levesoninquiry.org.uk/about/inquiry-costs).
See, ‘Israel: Cyber-Activists Promote Sderot’, Global Voices Online (Published 13/2/2008, Accessed 28/1/2013, globalvoicesonline.org/2008/02/13/israel-cyber-activists-promote-sderot). 20 See, Walid Raad and Achim Borchardt-Hume, ‘In Search of the Miraculous’, in Achim BorchardtHume eds., Miraculous Beginning: Walid Raad (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), p.14–15: ‘The Atlas Group, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow and possibly even Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut) (1987–present) are created with the assumption that they will have multiple formats: framed or unframed prints; projected images and sounds, and published documents (print and/or web) […] Notebooks volume 72: Missing Lebanese wars exists as digital files projected in the multimedia lecture/performance The Loudest Muttering is Over, as framed prints exhibited as part of The Fakhouri File; and as plates reproduced in journals and books such as The Atlas Group Archive: Volume I. In such cases, I am as committed to the image that appears on a computer monitor or is projected, as I am to the one that I print and frame, as I am to the one that I place in a page layout to be viewed in a handheld volume’. 21 See, Trevor Paglen, ‘Trevor Paglen: Frontier Photography’, in Photoworks (Autumn/Winter 2012/13), pp.72–79. 22 Rancière, p. 161. 23 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Image of Proust’, in Illuminations, Harry Zorn trans. (London: Pimlico, 1999), p.198. 24 Ariella Azoulay, ‘Regime-Made Disaster: On the Possibility of Nongovernmental Viewing’, in Meg McLagan and Yates McKee eds., Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism (New York: Zone Books, 2012), p.30–31. 25 Ibid, p.31. 26 Ibid, p.38.
A Short Conversation About War Edwin Coomasaru and Jo Chard 15
Edwin Coomasaru: A Short Film About War (2009) is filled with a myriad of voices, which are at times chaotic and confusing. On occasions images rush past at great speed, leaping from one warzone or geographical area to another. There can be a lack of depth to the treatment of these places and conflicts; the viewer has little time for sustained reflection on each. Why did you choose to portray online representations of war in such a way? Jon Thomson: I think one of the reasons it’s called A Short Film About War is because it’s not a film, and although it is about war, it’s perhaps not the prime subject of the piece. The main subject of the work is the mediation of information online. War seemed like an urgent topic: it’s one of the fundamental media objects. In some ways mediation arises out of things like war, from very early broadcast journalism. So it was an obviously pressing and ever-present global phenomenon. It allowed us to jump and bounce about the place and actually start to create a space where you could reflect upon the kind of foam or surf that constitutes the global database. Alison Craighead: Also, you can’t make a short film about war. JT: No, exactly – it is such a preposterous title. We hope people will recognise that and engage with it in that way. So while we don’t go into any detail in any place, what we try and do is reflect the experience of what it’s like to look at distributing global electronic communications through the web – how everything is informed by fragments that can be readily broken apart, because the provenance and the trace of pretty much everything is present in the network. Sometimes you have to look really deeply to find these things, but many are also on the surface. The URL is a very simple track for a piece of information that relates to a global network of information. EC: I think in some ways there’s something really important about the lack of depth. Watching the film, I get a sense of the glut of information that exists: it’s almost like a flood. This is particularly common with topics like war. The film seems like a very apt way of examining and portraying that. AC: Yes, and especially when you have things like Google Earth and 24-hour news stats. You think you have a huge amount of access to information, but actually you don’t. You get this feeling that you’re flying above and you can zoom in and see things, but actually what you can see is very controlled. JT: We’re really interested in the treachery of the Google Earth metaphor, because you feel like you’re in control and actually you would probably see more if you just walked out your front door. But then again of course, you do have access to things from all around the world, so it’s a different mode of attention that delivers different kinds of experiences.
EC: Why did you choose to use Google Earth to jump between the different voices or episodes? Jo Chard: Because there’s a panoptic sensibility of moving around, was the purpose also to explore aspects of surveillance? AC: Yes. I think the images of downward descent are coming from the perspective of a bomb. JT: Satellite imagery is itself a product of military research. Google Earth has come from that place, so it seemed like a very natural visual metaphor. It’s also a way of adding a slight sense of seamlessness to an extraordinarily stitched-together bunch of fragments. But it is very much the provenance of the imagery. AC: Traditionally maps have always been about: if you map it, you own it. EC: And that’s connected to notions of empire. I think that is an interesting way of thinking about Google – even the Google Search, which is a way of indexing the web and having power over what we see and don’t see and how we navigate space. AC: Google are very naughty about what they put their mark on, about ownership and non-ownership and copyright. EC: And they’re powerful. AC: Really powerful, I mean if you think about Google and you think about Google Maps, it’s totally dominating the network. JT: It’s an interesting corporate culture because if you look at things like YouTube licenses – which is the usual license for a lot of the social media – they say that they can do anything with your uploads, at anytime, forever – but you still own it. JC: Same with Instagram. JT: So if there’s trouble it’s your fault, but otherwise they can do what they like. It’s a complete ‘cake and eat it’ situation; the whole of the online sphere is governed by that kind of policy, and it hasn’t been properly tested yet. It’s pernicious. Who knows what will happen in the end. JC: Talking of YouTube, I wanted to ask something about moving images. The choice of predominantly photographic material from Flickr produces a fragmented and somewhat jarring visual effect as the viewer attempts to coherently interpret these images through narration. Why did you choose to focus on static images as opposed to video, which you have used in other works such as Belief (2012) and October (2012)? AC: I think we’re really interested in the power of cinema, the language of cinema and just the fact if you string images together, it starts to become more like a film.
JT: It’s a very simple way of being able to make something with a screen resolution that’s quite high quality, because most video online is highly compressed. However, the predominant driving force was an idea of dramatisation: because the left hand screen is kind of fictionalising in some shape or form, so having the still images strung together makes that visible. So the soundtrack is quite tele-visual, cinematic. The imagery is sort of on the borders of beginning to animate in some way, but it remains fragmented – an assemblage of still images. EC: The technique you use allows you to jump in an interesting way between images and create connections. JT: It is in some ways quite chaotic, but we try and move through the still images in ways that perhaps have a relationship with editing moving image. But it’s difficult because they’re not our images, so we were limited in what we found. It becomes almost a perverse exercise of scrutinising and dating. EC: That leads us on to my next question: like all web users, you have navigated the ocean of online information by collecting – or even ‘hunting’ – data. With what agenda did you choose what to include, edit and exclude? AC: I think we were very keen to try and keep this balanced, because you’re looking at photographs of war and it’s very personal stuff. When you start looking at brutality and violence then it becomes kind of pornographic. So we were trying to show as many war zones in the world as possible and trying to divide this line between showing too much violence and making an account. It’s actually quite difficult to balance that. So we would have a lot of conversations about how many bodies to include, what kind of dead bodies. For example, one body is someone in make-up. JT: That one was being used in a military exercise. There is a bit in Afghanistan where there’s a question asked, ‘did you see any dead bodies?’. One is an image of a dead person, one is someone in make-up, and another one is in a coffin at a ramp ceremony. AC: We were also very aware of all the wars there are in Africa, but the network not really being there. JT: It’s really dark there you can’t see so much stuff: virtually nothing from child soldiers. Africa is governed by mobile phones: so much is done using them, like banking through micro transactions. The Internet infrastructure is less established. So, in the film, when we go to Sudan, it’s an aid-worker who’s blogging, she’s our window. In a way the work is trying to reflect the limitations of that view. It is a relatively wealthy view, a relatively western view, offered to you by broadband Internet. AC: We looked very hard, because we really wanted to try and represent child soldiers, but it’s an impossible act really: they’re not there taking photos with their cameras or iPads.
EC: I suppose that’s important isn’t it: it’s worth acknowledging that many people in the world do not have access to the Internet. AC: Certainly. When the US arrived, one of the first things they did was to put down an infrastructure so their soldiers could communicate back home, because the ability to communicate is really quite an important point of warfare. Once you get past what I call the ‘richer’ wars about oil, to Africa and Sri Lanka, it’s really difficult for us to find out what’s going on. I guess, like we said earlier, the film is not really about war; it’s about infrastructure and who can tell their story. JT: It’s as much about war as anything, but we think of it as about mediation. War was an appropriate topic because it is a media object. But, as is evident with the person who is pretending to be dead, throughout the whole film on the left hand screen there are inconsistencies and contradictions. If someone chooses to investigate, they can start to see how it breaks apart into this quite complex lifting of information into fiction or mediation or dramatisation. The right-hand screen is supposed to slap that back down. JC: The URL links, geographical, temporal and authorial data indicate the diversity of sources that such a documentary relies on. The film seems to a have kind of criticality surrounding this mediation, particularly a western-centric view. This questions notions of objective truth telling typically aligned with documentary practices. Is it ever possible to engage in a filmic practice without this process of mediation? AC: No. I think and I’ve always had this idea that documentary makers somehow always told the truth and everything was true, but actually the more you start to study it the more you realise a documentary is a style of showing information. JT: We’re trying to shine a light on that. So when we describe the work as a documentary artwork, I suppose we’re not trying to say this is a documentary film. We’re trying to say this is an artwork that is using the idea of documentary as part of its means. So that you are perhaps apprehending the whole idea of a documentary as you watch it. We wanted to open up spaces that allow for critical reflection. AC: And I think it’s impossible not to be biased. It’s just something that you’ve got to try and acknowledge. In some ways the piece is more about the act of war rather than particular conflicts. Like the cyclical structure: when the opening speaker’s voice repeats at the end, he is just angry and he’s been sent back out again. In that sense it seems like this never-ending mud. JT: If anything, I suppose we’re trying to make a connection between the personal and the wider context – to use the lens of an individual as a way of looking at the topic. AC: For me, just spending time reading about soldiers made me a lot more compassionate and have a lot more empathy for them.
JT: Alison [Craighead] once met a soldier on a plane, and this guy kind of went into confessional mode and he spoke about why he became a soldier. It was a very laudable, idealistic desire to make the world a better place. After he was deployed he very rapidly became disillusioned and damaged by being out there, and came back traumatised. EC: There is something moving about the section on posttraumatic stress, towards the end of the film. Particularly the sharp contrast between the emotions he’s going through and the images of Disney Land with the mock medieval castle and the costumes: a totally surreal manifestation or fantasy of conflict. More widely though, I think the film demonstrates that almost all of our experiences are mediated through something. JC: At the 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial symposium, you mentioned that the hyperlinks are displayed to allow viewers to check up on your sources.1 Is this intended to foster an attitude of criticality towards online content? If so, is it a problem that it involves a lot of effort to type out each web address (rather than being able to click or copy and paste) – or is the difficulty important to this? JT: It’s a tricky one, because from the moment we made it, it was going to be in a state of decay as the hyperlinks break. So in the end, what you’re going to have is something that is just an idea of what the Internet was. In the future, the URLs will gain a nostalgic value and they will have a look and feel that will probably root the work in a specific moment. AC: Even the look and feel of that text dump is nostalgic. JT: It is reminiscent of the command line of a computer. The film is genuinely a record. I suppose in an ideal world, it would be great if you could cut, copy and paste the links. But it’s sort of a moot point in a way, whether it’s hard or easy to type the URL, because the fact is you can. That’s what’s most important. Over time the work will transform: as the URLs decay you will no longer be able to see the images when you type the addresses in. So it becomes a record of the Internet at that time. EC: An archive. JT: That’s something that runs through a number of our works: we’re trying to perhaps fix some sense of an experience that will disappear. AC: It is a kind of archaeological approach. But it is also really important that we’re not just inventing information: this blog and this man exist and we have credited them, or the person who took the photograph. EC: Whether or not you’ve intended there to be a difficulty, perhaps it is notable that it might not necessarily be easy. If we’re being asked to foster a criticality towards online material, it may take time to follow sources. How we treat data traces is also important for another, quite different, reason. The film visualises the way information is attached to each digital image or text: author, date, and location. We live in a world where our digital footprints are being commercialised 20
into data commodities. Wittingly or not, we give our consent to corporate companies like Google to capture, archive, share and monetise vast amounts of information about us.2 You acknowledge this – perhaps with criticality or ambivalence – through your use of ‘#selfsurveillance’ on Twitter. How does A Short Film About War reflect on this issue, particularly in the context of war or civil unrest? JT: I wouldn’t directly associate the #selfsurveillance with A Short Film About War, but I suppose it’s present in the traceability of activity online. A lot of marketing companies cross reference data in that way. We’ve made a piece of work, London Wall (2010), with lots of fly posters that visualises Twitter traffic within very specific geographical areas. The piece used processes similar to market research in order to geographically zone that traffic. That’s what they’re doing all the time. JC: It makes me want to delete myself from everything. AC: You can be very specific: you can search terms within Twitter such as age, postcode or job. So you can say ‘Plumber, 25’ and a postcode and everyone who falls into that category will come up. It’s incredible. JT: One of the reasons for using #selfsurveillance was not so much ambivalence or criticality, but visibility: it’s a reminder. If you imagine the GDR still existed and the Stasi were still deploying endless officers to watch the minutiae of people’s daily lives in Eastern Germany, then the emergence of Facebook would simplify their jobs, because everyone is self surveying now. The intimate information, that was met with such horror by individuals as they looked at their Stasi files, is now being willingly given. Even phones are tracking you all the time. AC: But I think, actually, what we enjoyed about A Short Film About War is that we treated it a bit like a problem: can we just use stuff that is creative commons and that is copyright free? We only included material that people wanted others to use and share. That was really hard, because sometimes you would find an amazing image but it wasn’t under that licensing, so you just had to walk away. EC: Your point about the commons is interesting: I suppose it’s the flip side of all of this, particularly in contrast to the monetisation. On the Internet there is also a space where people can give things and share things freely. JT: That’s true. AC: I think that’s the spirit of the Internet that I love: when people are really generous. It still exists but is obviously changing. JC: It’s being closed in upon slowly by capitalism. JT: It’s been changing a lot in the last few years. Twitter less so, but Facebook definitely is trying to create a kind of meta-network. So it’s saying ‘don’t worry you don’t have to leave Facebook you can do everything here’, and then suddenly the walls will come down and we’ll be locked in. The Internet will be shrunk and corporatised. 21
EC: This idea of sharing and the commons reminds me of movements such as Occupy. AC: That’s what really cheered us up about the Occupy movement – the network was being used for what we believed to be a really good thing, to be more political and to bring people together. It was really exciting. It was a kind of taking back ownership. Edwin Coomasaru and Jo Chard are History of Art MA students at University College London, specialising in contemporary art. Notes 1
Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead, ‘Panel Discussion: Photography Beyond the Gallery’, Brighton Photo Biennial Symposium, University of Brighton, 6/10/2012. 2 See Geert Lovink and Miriam Rasch eds., Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2013).
Global Vision, Ground Truth? A Short Film About War as Experimental Geopolitics Alan Ingram
What is it that we see when we encounter images of war on screens connected to online social networks? Two recent episodes in visual culture provide useful departure points for considering A Short Film About War, Thomson & Craighead's narrative documentary artwork scripted together with Steve Rushton, which explores this question. The first is the now-notorious Kony 2012 video created by Invisible Children, a group aiming to solicit support for its work with young people drawn into violent conflict by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda and neighbouring states. Launched on Facebook, the video rose rapidly to international prominence, but also generated considerable controversy and criticism, leading to a further video rebuttal and contributing to the subsequent breakdown of one of the group's founders, which, ironically enough, was also caught on camera and disseminated across the Internet. The second was related by the artist Adam Broomberg in a published roundtable on photography and protest and will surely resonate with anyone who has researched the visual culture of contemporary war and militarism online. As he describes: I had a horrific moment when I was recently giving a lecture at Westminster and I displayed four short Youtube clips. One was made by an insurgent showing the results of an IED mine, the second one was made using a camera mounted on the head of a bomb, the third one was taken by a citizen journalist in Tehran, and the final one showed what I thought was footage taken from a Predator, a Drone. I finished the lecture and one of the students told me that it was actually footage from a game, â&#x20AC;&#x153;Call of Dutyâ&#x20AC;?. I had typed 'predator footage' into Youtube and that's what came up.1 Viewing these episodes together maybe tells us something about how 'global' sensibilities are being constituted as media techniques, video games, social networking technologies and geopolitics evolve and synergise each other. Unlike Kony 2012, which is a blatant attempt to engineer a certain kind of geopolitical sensibility by manipulating the cognitive, perceptual and affective processes of its viewers, and unlike the heightened ludic realism apparently offered by Call of Duty and other similar video games, A Short Film is constructed and presented explicitly as an investigation into the correspondences between vision, knowledge and truth as they form around sites of geopolitical violence and intervention. As the artists describe, In offering this tautology [between two screens, one showing 'dramatised reportage' and the other a text log], we are attempting to explore and reveal the way in which information changes as it is gathered, edited and then mediated through networked communications technologies or broadcast media, and how that changes and distorts meaning â&#x20AC;&#x201C; especially for (the generally wealthy minority of) the world's users of high speed broadband networks, who have become used to the treacherously persuasive panoptic view that Google Earth (and the worldwide web) appears to give us.2 In playing with the means whereby popular experience and knowledge of contemporary crises and conflicts are assembled and mediated; by constructing an alternative sense of the global that does not quite sit with that conventionally made 24
available via social networks and other media, A Short Film might be regarded, I suggest, as a kind of experimental geopolitics. The term experimental geopolitics echoes and extends the idea of experimental geography formulated by artist and geographer Trevor Paglen and curator Nato Thompson.3 As Paglen describes, Experimental geography means practices that taken on the production of space in a self-reflexive way, practices that recognize that cultural production and the production of space cannot be separated from each another, and that cultural and intellectual production is a spatial practice. Moreover, experimental geography means not only seeing the production of space as an ontological condition, but actively experimenting with the production of space as an integral part of one's own practice. If human activities are inextricably spatial, then new forms of freedom and democracy can only emerge in dialectical relation to the production of new spaces.4 Drawing on this sense of space as being actively produced and at least somewhat open to reconfiguration and play rather than determined or given, the term experimental geopolitics directs attention specifically to alternative spatial practices engaging with the formation of political communities and orders. Engaging reflexively with the manner in which space is produced, such experimental practices are less reflections, depictions or representations of geopolitical situations than differential enactments of them. Posing as an innovative 'desktop documentary', A Short Film refuses to provide the narrative direction or certainty of perspective that might be expected from such a form, instead highlighting how impressions of crisis and war as geographical phenomena are actively constituted through technical infrastructures and editorial practices. A Short Film highlights and problematises the workings of the infrastructures of visibility and affect upon which Kony 2012 and Call of Duty alike rely. Following a forty-second countdown and a brief audio tone, which remind the viewer that they are viewing something that has been edited together, one video channel shows images from a series of crisis zones, sourced from the Flickr platform. An audio track voiced by actors conveys extracts from blogs written by people in those zones, while the other video channel shows the web locations and dates and times of the photos and blog entries. The work begins with a blog by an American soldier at an airport in Atlanta, waiting to return to Iraq for another tour and struggling with his hatred of the army and feelings of estrangement from his wife, while images of waiting and air travel play. The scene then shifts rapidly via the Pacific across to images of Ramallah in Palestine and a blogger's account of the experience of a 104 year old woman who had survived successive episodes of violence and dispossession, to see her village in the hills above Ramallah annexed by Jordan. After this, the focus shifts to a female aid worker in Sudan, recounting stories shared by â&#x20AC;&#x153;the girlsâ&#x20AC;? about their boyfriends' excuses for never calling and then to a fourteen year old Israeli resident of a kibbutz close to Gaza, who describes his refusal to give in to the rockets and to Hamas. The scene then switches back to Gaza and the narration into Arabic, with a female blogger describing how to distinguish between Israeli and Palestinian gunfire, while images of destroyed buildings play. There is then a slower zoom out from Gaza, Israel and the region before a compressed section of images and sounds plays, 25
along with a meditation on the data systems that support global vision, communication and networking. The text is taken from an article by Rushton that critically deconstructs the illusion of global vision and, as Thomson and Craighead describe, ‘the treacherously persuasive panoptic view that Google Earth (and the worldwide web) appears [emphasis added] to give us’.5 This didactic interlude is narrated by a male voice that might have come from a classic British public service documentary, with a forceful sense of authority. The film then touches down in Baghdad with an American soldier who states that ‘This place really sucks’, before switching to an Iraqi resident of the same city, who describes the struggle just to live in a battleground, while images of domestic confinement as well as urban violence appear on the left video channel. Next we are shown images of Disneyland and hear an American blog describing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, where the sufferer constantly experiences everyday situations in civilian life as if in a battle zone. We then switch to a British soldier who describes undergoing 'outprocessing' after a year in Kandahar. He relates a mental health assessment in which he was asked whether he had seen dead bodies, Afghan, allied or British and replied 'all'. The viewer is then taken to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the narration describes encountering young soldiers carrying weapons and wearing ill-fitting uniforms, before a description of a view of a volcano in the landscape and the location of a United Nations peacekeepers' camp beside a lake. Finally, the film returns to the American soldier in Atlanta and a credit reel, before the whole thing starts again. A Short Film moves between and contrasts a view from above with an embodied view presented not by politicians, experts or journalists, but by soldiers, children, aid workers and other people. While they are all relatively privileged in that they have access to the Internet and are in some cases empowered outsiders, they do not seem to be particularly powerful in relation to political structures or bureaucracies - rather they are people who work and live pretty close to ground level. While showing us the effects of war on the landscape, the work also dwells on people's experiences and narratives, of how they try to live through and with the experience of war and crisis. Drawing on the artists' own conversations and research, A Short Film also highlights the effects war has on soldiers; here they are presented as victims as much as agents of geopolitical events. In this way, A Short Film seems to offer an empathic account of war and to deconstruct the acts of observing and mapping from above. In providing contrasting perspectives on related events and situations and in its reflexivity, it is far more honest than Kony 2012 about the fact that all forms of knowledge are in some way situated and the dangers of 'god tricks'.6 At the same time, the apparent humanism of the work is deceptive: it is only 'ostensibly documentary'.7 The text and images do not always quite add up. Close scrutiny of the text channel reveals that not all of the images are of the places mentioned in the blogs. The original blog describing the elderly woman who lives in the hills outside Ramallah is written in English, but here is narrated in French. Images and text have been artfully stitched together with the conscious intention of creating narrative and affective effects, but in including the text channel it is clear that the artists want us to be aware of this and of how all media representations of war are in some sense fabrications. The idea that experiences of war can be represented on screen is further dislocated and called into question.
Once we start to explore the representational and affective techniques employed in A Short Film, then, its coherence becomes much more provisional and we begin to gain a sense of the genealogies of the tactics it employs. The technique of zooming in and out from location to location was also used in Kony 2012, interspersed with sections related at ground-level that fleshed out the details of the story that Invisible Children wanted to tell (a story which in practice seems to have been intertwined with growing US military involvement in a range of African countries). This kind of geo-visualisation can be traced back through antecedents that include the narrated animation Powers of Ten (created in 1977 for IBM by the office of Charles and Ray Eames), a key reference point for Thomson and Craighead's work that speaks to the close links between the development of innovative means of visualisation, information technology industries and the state.8 It is also familiar from action movies from James Bond to Jason Bourne and is used in Call of Duty-type video games to enhance a sense of geopolitical veritĂŠ. Thomson and Craighead's work thus touches on questions raised by a number of theorists of geopolitics. For James Der Derian, Western audiences' apprehension of global political affairs is shaped by the workings of the 'Military-Industrial-MediaEntertainment Network' (or MIME-Net), which marshals a range of technologies, subjectivities and ways of seeing around a liberal idea of war as a virtuous, humanitarian exercise.9 For Stephen Graham, the technologies with which A Short Film plays are essential to the constitution of what he identifies as a 'new military urbanism', in which the military and the culture industries collaborate in forging a sense of other people and other places as always in need of intervention, whether this be development, rescue, reform, protection or elimination.10 While suggestive, such accounts, which tend to emphasise the power of conventional geopolitical actors, can often seem totalizing and dystopian, leaving little space for alternative narratives or perspectives. But as Graham observes, drawing on Michel Foucault's idea of 'counter-conducts', there are openings to construct 'counter-geographies'. While satellite imagery, global positioning systems and the Internet have all emerged from and are still reliant upon military and state infrastructures as well as corporate interests, such technologies are not always, inevitably or entirely controlled and controlling. What A Short Film invites us to consider are the kinds of spacings they might enable, spaces for alternative narratives and a diversity of viewpoints that might diverge from those of virtuous war or a militarised, interventionist way of seeing other people and other places. Though the images and texts in the work are sourced from relatively-privileged individuals who are able to be online and to narrate their experiences, it suggests that such technologies are not entirely determined or dehumanising. Rather than being extensions or tools of existing power structures, they might enable new fields of perception, connection and action. A Short Filmâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s approach to mapping bears further consideration in this regard. Rather than the kinds of geopolitical dramatizations familiar from television news channels, featuring graphical representations of crisis zones, clashes and military forces, the presentation here lacks geopolitical designations such as borders or country names, or any kinds of symbols at all. Rather we see the earth as topographic, but still very much shaped by human inhabitation and action. In the slow zoom out from Gaza, the densely populated Palestinian zone contrasts with the territory of Israel, more sparsely settled and more marked by irrigation and agriculture in a wider zone surrounded by deserts, mountains, valleys and seas. 27
While we see destroyed houses and urban fortifications, A Short Film perhaps also reminds us of the earthly character of geo-politics, of shared connections with land as much as the divisive political technologies of territory.11 At the same time, Thomson and Craighead are clearly sanguine about the extent to which access to online technologies can facilitate progressive imaginaries and projects beyond violent forms of territoriality. As the commentator and critic Evgeny Morozov has argued, breathless claims about the transformative potential of 'the Internet' must be treated with caution.12 To see 'the Internet' as necessarily a vehicle for social progress and emancipation is both technologically determinist and ahistorical. Political authorities have fought hard to control communications technology and to dominate 'information space' at least since the invention of the printing press and many governments welcome increased Internet access as offering enhanced possibilities for surveillance of their populations. As the Israeli Defence Forces' embrace of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter shows, states and militaries are rushing to occupy online spaces just as they have physical territory.13 If A Short Film is an experiment, then, it is a curious and somewhat risky one. In calling attention to some of the ways in which a sense of global simultaneity can be fabricated, it also to some extent needs to evoke the things it sets out to question. In focusing on the wiring of satellites and servers, it appeals to a broader fascination with - and perhaps fetishization of - infrastructure and technology, as much as placing it in question. Though it hints at a systemic critique of militarism and the liberal way of war, it doesn't insist on one. Though it seems to appeal to ground truth and an appreciation of situated knowledge, it does not necessarily effect a 'redistribution of the sensible', to borrow the terms of Jacques Rancière, so much as heighten awareness of the ways in which the distribution of the sensible is fabricated.14 It raises more questions than it answers and stops short of telling us that 'another world is possible'. Rather it asks whether we quite understand how our sense of the present one is put together. Alan Ingram is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography at University College London, where he teaches critical approaches to geopolitics and security.
Gordon MacDonald et al., ‘Round Table: Us and Them: The Making and Dissemination of the Photography of Protest’, Photoworks, Issue 16 (2011), p.22. 2 Thomson & Craighead, in conversation with the author, 10/2/2012. 3 Trevor Paglen, ‘Experimental Geography: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space’, in Nato Thompson ed., Experimental Geography (New York: Melville House; Independent Curators International, 2008), pp.27-34. 4 Ibid, p.31. 5 Thomson & Craighead, ‘A Short Film About War’, Thomson-Craighead.net (Published n.d., Accessed 9/1/2012, thomson-craighead.net/docs/warfilm.html). 6 Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies 14, No. 3 (1988), pp.575-599. 7 Thomson & Craighead (n.d.). 8 Thomson & Craighead (10/2/2012). 9 James Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-industrial-media-entertainment Network (New York: Routledge, 2009, First published 2001). 10 Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege : the New Military Urbanism (London and New York: Verso, 2010).
Stuart Elden, ‘Land, Terrain, Territory’, in Progress in Human Geography, Issue 34, Number 6 (2010), pp.799-817. 12 Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (London: Penguin, 2012). 13 See the official blog of the Israel Defense Forces, idfblog.com/category/idf-news/idf-social-media. 14 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (London and New York: Continuum, 2006); Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London and New York: Continuum, 2010).
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