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5000 Feet is the Best

I will admit that I walked into the Imperial War Museum’s (free) display of Omer Fast’s film with low expectations. Most artistic takes on ‘drones’ have, for the most part, struck me as badly researched, ill-thought out or plain lazy reactions to a ‘hot’ topic in politics. This reflects my personal preferences (I prefer art that happens to challenge my beliefs, rather than re-enforce them, and bad ‘drone art’ does neither) and what I might call professional competence (I happen to know a bit about them and the reasons people use them). The other day, a friend showed me the leftovers from some piece, in which an artist had printed out a lot of pictures culled from a google image search of drones (yes, the people that write about this stuff know which basic images indicate a cull from google search, and which image indicates the author can’t tell the difference between the US military and US Customs) and spread them around a space to incite debate. The reason this general laziness annoys me is that drones and other semi-automated ways of killing people don’t exactly make criticism difficult. Hell, I’m not opposed to the things, and I could reel off a list of maybe 10 serious issues I have with them without thinking. Drones raise so many related issues that, well, producing work that incites debate is almost a given. Therefore the intermittent stream of work that resembles an intellectual circle-jerk copied verbatim from a Guardian comment piece is something of a disservice to the adults that it is aimed at, especially if the intent is to incite debate.

A good example of this duality is two pieces of work recently displayed at the Photographer’s gallery for the 2013 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. There is the ‘war is bad mmkaaay’ War Primer 2 by Broomberg and Chanarin that won the damn thing, and then there’s Mishka Henner’s No Man’s Land which, in my opinion, raises most of the key issues about drones and surveillance while not featuring anything remotely akin to a remotely piloted aircraft. I should add that from a technical perspective, I thought Chris Killip’s work deserved to win, but this post is focused on the drones. Why am I critical of War Primer 2? Because it is lazy. Technically, sure, it’s great. I definitely could not produce something like that. But as an idea? It’s a con. Calling George W. Bush a war criminal in 2013 has about the intellectual impact of, say, calling Barack Obama a bit of a disappointment. Juxtaposing a picture of Donald Rumsfeld with Hitler is as boring as every other juxtaposition of [(in)famous right wing dude] with Hitler. Parodying and pillorying establishment dudes whose actions are openly criticised and pilloried by right wingers is, well, pointless. Art like that might have been daring and thought provoking in 2001-2004, but I doubt you will find a respected analyst who will hand on heart call the Iraq War a good idea in 2013. At heart, the combination of contemporary images, plastering into Brecht and a couple of lines of poetry reduces most of the topics (there’s a lot in there) to the level of Reddit memes. In short, you’re likely to find more nuance and free thought in r/Atheism. Buried on page 23 of the (free) eBook/PDF version is the work’s take on drones. Two drone pilots are plastered over the picture of a WW2 bomber’s cockpit, accompanied by the lines:

It’s we who fly above your city, woman
Now trembling for your children. From up here
We’ve fixed our sights on you and them as targets.
If you ask why, the answer is: from fear.

Either Broomberg and Chanarin don’t understand the fundamental differences between WW2 bombing campaigns and the use of targeted killings, or they ignore them. Maybe they’re ignorant of the differences between Americans and Brits in WW2, or Americans in Europe and Americans in the Pacific. Either way, to a cautious eye, it looks like they have a set of preconceptions, a couple of nice lines to go with them, and they flip this into a work of staggering stupidity. The problem with drones is precisely that they aren’t supposed to kill women and children, but they still do. It’s that they are meant to be a clean way of killing, which is still as questionable a prospect as it was back in Kosovo. It’s that all the (somewhat effective) target selection and clearing processes don’t change the fact that somewhere along the line, when bombs get dropped, women and children will die in the process. And the answer is anything but fear. Sure, in World War 2, fear might have governed some bombing. But there was a lot of hate as well. Plenty, in fact. More to the point, it’s 2013, fear doesn’t govern American actions any more. It’s somewhat cold political calculus combined with a particular interpretation of the ‘national interest’ and national security and bureaucratic politics and the list goes on. If the point of art is to make people think and reconsider the world around them, then refraining from interrogating the deep complexity of the world in favour of simplistic emotional pastiche probably isn’t a good way to go about it. As it stands, War Primer 2 is a great exercise in re-enforcing confirmation bias, and not much else. Which brings me to Mishka Henner.

Had Mishka Henner’s work won, then I’m sure there would have been some Daily Mail types up in arms about screen grabs from Google Streetview winning a photography prize. Full view of the work: here. On a simple level, that’s what his output is: large scale images taken from google. The difference between these and the culled drone images that I criticised earlier is that Henner’s work focuses on surveillance and identity. The images he culled are of women (faces auto-blanked by Google) standing in otherwise abandoned roadsides. The women are supposedly prostitutes - Henner selected the images after researching where they were likely to trade in south Europe. The question that came to mind after reading his methodology and research was “How does he know?” How could an artist know what a somewhat scantily-clad woman standing by the side of the road was actually doing there, at the point that a google street car passed her by? For those thinking about, say, ‘signature strikes’, this is precisely the question that differentiates a military strike from random murder. In many senses, Henner’s work has far more to do with war in the contemporary world than the entirety of War Primer 2. Henner pretty much forces the viewer to make a judgement (are these women prostitutes, or not? Is that woman a prostitute?) The process of forcing such a judgement throws up a host of other questions. For example, does an artist have the right to present some random female stranger’s picture and frame her as a likely prostitute for art fans half a world away? Do image rights even matter in a world where Google can buzz by and leave your picture on the internet forever? Drawing conclusions from some of the images would be questionable, others appear to give us enough information that most people would probably conclude that a given woman was probably engaged in the sex trade at the time. It’s a challenging work for these reasons and more. At heart, it’s a work that challenges the viewer on their standards for judgement. Returning to the whole ‘war’ aspect, it’s worth considering what anti-drone persons would constitute a standard for defining someone as a legitimate military target. After all, what makes a soldier? A uniform? A gun? Membership of a professional military, or an armed organisation? All these standards are fluid. Uniforms don’t have to be worn by non-state militaries in internal wars, in some parts of the world, most people own guns, and most non-state military forces aren’t divvied up cleanly between military and non-military. For reference, I’m one of those people that thinks that militaries should be able to kill on such rules of thumb, or inferred knowledge, and I found Henner’s work unsettling precisely because it made me question my own judgement.

So from here to Omer Fast. 5000 Feet is the Best is a looped 30 minute sequence, based on an interview with a drone pilot, which features the interactions between a drone pilot and an interviewer, and the stories the pilot spins. Ten minutes are available on Vimeo, but this doesn’t include the best bits (IMHO). The looped repetition bit is somewhat cliched. It’s no Rashomon for sure. The fictional narratives, too, aren’t exactly mind-blowing. There’s a bit where an American family is accidentally blown to bits like many families in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have probably been killed. But still, the stories themselves are smarter than average, and well done. What really hit me about the piece were the interspersed aerial shots of Las Vegas and its suburbs, overlaid by narration drawn from the interviews with the pilots. It’s where the ‘5000 feet is the best’ tagline comes from. On one hand, it’s a somewhat shlocky way to confront viewers with issues (“Here’s how we see Baghdad, but it’s Vegas.”), but there’s something to it, which I think is perhaps more important, which is the calmness of the whole affair. The somewhat placid imagery, the tracking of a bike through the suburbs. These are scenes and perspectives that have been on display in innumerable places for as long as casinos and aerial pictures of suburbs felt aesthetically pleasing to photographers, but the context and narration change them irrevocably. The functional focus of the narration - less ‘bangs’, more dry technicality - helps communicate the immersed detachment of a drone pilot’s experience better than a million ‘video game warfare’ analogies. The second aspect of these pieces is precisely the immersion that it emphasises - the normal, routine and mundane place of killing in via drone. This, again, is something that ‘killing by remote control’ doesn’t convey well, in part because it is so focused on the moment of killing. It’s natural to focus on these moments, but the impact of Fast’s work is the way in which it conveys the monotony and mundane experience of piloting one of these craft. As it stands, I can think of no major cultural work which conveys this, or attempts to do so. We have plenty of paeans to the sniper, for example, Jarhead in its book and film forms, or, dare I mention it, the highly improbable sniper bit in The Hurt Locker. I think Anthony Swofford’s book does a good job of conveying boredom, but the visual versions don’t. Sniping is invariably characterised by a tense wait, and then a kill. I cannot begin to imagine how boring a long film comprised entirely of camera footage focusing on a given house for 12 or 24 hours would be, but the point is, no one bothers to attempt to convey that aspect of war by remotely piloted vehicles. ‘War by video game’ conjures images of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, when perhaps people need to be thinking more of the infamous Desert Bus minigame in Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors collection. When the operator speaks of playing video games to rest up after a shift, the normal impulse is to scream about the ‘normal’ video game connection/references, but I also thought Fast’s piece was all the better by pointing out how routine an activity that playing video games is. After all, NFL players play American Football games between matches, why shouldn’t soldiers? What I left the Imperial War Museum pondering was whether the ‘video game’ criticism that some level at this type of warfare risks attempting to preserve soldiers as barbarians and blood thirsty types. After all, do we really want to preserve military culture from time immemorial? (I know, Van Creveld says ‘yes’) If we don’t, then the kind of issues that Fast’s film highlights is perhaps less different from the rest of society. The gap between some soldiers killing people, and coming home to kiss their kids, play a bit of Skyrim and catch some sleep is going to continue to decrease, while for others it won’t. Rather than this being something earth shattering, it’s no different to the fact that some middle managers probably go home and play Railway Tycoon, while some professional footballers play FIFA in their spare time.