Overly Specific

When recently at a conference in the issue of camouflage I sat through a couple of extremely specific talks. Of course, that is something one might expect from a conference and meeting socialists with a very focused knowledge and to be part of the deal. But then, is it really important for me to know about the development of certain forms of camouflage within the Belgian Armed Forces during World War One? Sure that exists and that certainly has had is influence in later developments in other armies, other conflicts or other fields. Everything influences something else. That in of itself shouldn’t be astonishing.

I get the idea, that once you start focusing on some very specific topic, you start drawing connections. And that is amazing. It feels great. You understand stuff no one had even thought about before. Part of what drives artists forward has to do with that.

Yet it should be questioned, whether the overly specific issues serve a good purpose in a conference that aims at a better understanding of a contemporary issue. It’s a similar issue to the problem I see with dissertations. PhD students are forced to focus on more and more specific issues, partly out of the urge of becoming THE expert in a specific field, partly out of the urge to claim some previously unclaimed territory. But to me, both urges seem misguided. Authenticity or brilliance does not stem from claiming some random thing and make it yours by complete knowledge. It rather stems from rethinking the important stuff over and over again. Drawing new connections to our current state.

Spending three, four years of your life on a work regarding three gravestones in Switzerland (I’ve encountered such a case) seems almost pathological. It reminds me of someone going on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, on his knees. Maybe he gains some insight. Maybe he returns slightly wiser. He certainly has proven his piety. But the world didn’t gain shit. In part a modern PhD is the mark of piety the academic world requires from its disciples. Like the brides knees of the past. It’s not a fault of the student, but the system that demands a thesis to be unique. This is highly misguided.

Back to the conference. As one familiar with my work might guess, I find the topic of camouflage extremely relevant. But historically, but relevant for us right now. Camouflage can be understood as blending in, while posing a threat. Becoming invisible. This is a vast topic. And I’m personally far more interested in the effects this is having on the receiving end of camouflage than in the multiple ways camouflage is implemented.

Showing a thousand different camouflage patterns side by side might at first seem interesting but upon close inspection I find it pointless. And it’s especially pointless to give the one millionth presentation on the way ships had been camouflage in WW1. A truly modern conference on camouflage should not include a single camouflage pattern, be it on fabric or on the hulls of ships. That might be challenging, but it is about the re-evaluation of a known topic for the current moment in time. And not about re-telling the stories of times gone by.

Whether a certain style of fabric was introduced in 1915 or 1916…. for God’s sake, who cares???

Maximum Voting Age

This was written on my phone on a train in Belgium. I am to lazy to check the spelling.

Just a quick thought that keeps popping up.

I am struggling with the way progress, over and over again, is being stifled by old conservative people who have managed to amass wealth and influence in their lives and who now seem to be afraid of change. Maybe this has always been an issue. Think of the Catholic Church. This institution had always been defined by old blokes and their apparent “wisdom”.

I believe that decisions should be made by those who are going to feel the brunt of the consequences. That does not mean that the poor should decide on the distribution of welfare, but I am talking about society as a whole. Many policies determine the far of society for decades to come, so why should key decisions being made by people who are by any chance long gone, when the full effects become visible?

He about a maximum voting age? It seems good and sensible to exclude those under 18 from the polling box. Why not also exclude those over – let’s say – 70? When I tried out this thought with people I’ve met, the main argument against was one of lacking representation. The people seem to be concerned about the idea that I’ve this is implemented, old people are going to use their lobby and are therefore then left behind. I have two arguments against this. People who are young now, know that they are going to be older art some point. So they are their own lobby for when they have reached a certain age. They better be careful in implying certain laws, concerning the elderly, since once they themselves have joined the club, they are not in position to alter the laws willy nilly. The other objection I would bring had to do with those under 18. They have always lacked to right to vote. So they always had to reply on the good will of society, when it comes to their needs and wants. They pose the threat of becoming voters soon, but if we look at the demonstrations by teenagers concerning climate change or school shootings, politicians seem not to be afraid.

As said, this is just an idea I am having and I just wanted to leave this here. I have to think about this further.

Manipulation

If the person who voted for Trump or Brexit against their own interest, believes he or she did it out of their own free will, ignoring the multiple ways in which they have been manipulated, why is it so hard to believe that a woman, wearing niqab or a burka should not be able to believe in her own freedom of choice? Manipulation that works as intended is almost unnoticeable. It settles deep in our self. It becomes part of the way we perceive ourselves. It becomes us. Manipulation that can easily be spotted is pointless. We wish to make it own decisions. We need to believe in our own liberty. Religion and politics, both seem to want is to make a deliberate choice of following their course. Salvation is only granted to those who choice the path of salvation.

Manipulation needs to disguise itself as being something sensible. Something that assists us on our path forward. With this disguise it becomes tricky to distinguish between real personal urge and Reaktion to manipulation and in my youth I might have simply responded to the conundrum by proclaiming that there is just no free will and everything is the result of being manipulated. But now, I wouldn’t go as far. We need some fundamentals to base or discourse on. Some things just need to be assumed for us to create a working society. And one of these things is the assumption of a free will. Let’s just assume that. Let’s just work on the basis that free will is possible.

But this assumption leaves us stuck in some absurdity. On one hand, the assumption needs to be made to provide democracy some kind of foundation, while at the same time we come to realize how vague this concept actually is. If even those people who are being manipulated believe in their free choosing, who are we to tell them otherwise?

Why I am trying to avoid having my works dated

Quite frequently I am being asked, why there are no years or dates given for the works shown on my site. As a matter of fact, I am trying to avoid giving the years of my projects in exhibitions as well. I don’t want to argue with curators or exhibition organizers on such unimportant issues, so sometimes I give in and give them a rough year. But if it would be entirely up to me, I wouldn’t do it.

When looking at other peoples websites, I am always driven towards the newer stuff – especially on sites that are organized by date of production. I think that is an impulse many people are feeling. But I think either a work is relevant for an artist or it isn’t. For me that means that there are some quite recent works which I would not include in an exhibition, since it just does not feel relevant. On the other hand, there are quite a few works of mine, which if I didn’t realize them already, I would try to do it. These works could be five or ten years old, I would still do them again. So what would be the point in me saying that they are ten years old?

Shitty Audiences

I was at a conference recently – about smartphone photography. There, quite frequently, people raised the question, if everybody nowadays must be considered an artist of some sort, since everybody takes pictures. This quickly veered off into the question of who should be considered an artist and what might be good – or maybe worthy art – to look at. This debate isn’t new and for my taste, there seems to be a shitload of terrible art – even by established and successful artists and photographers -, in- and outside the classical art scene.

But what gets overlooked is the quality of the audience. Most of the time, the audience of exhibitions is entirely passive. The come to look at pieces of art and they leave. The same is true for visitors to my website. But that seems normal. Some museums and galleries kept the antiquated remnant of the guestbook, but the way people interact with these can be entirely ignored. The internet claims to be interactive, and sites like Instagram enable interaction between creator and audience, but let’s face it, much of this interaction is limited to something that resembles a thumbs-up or -down. That Is just the claim of interacting, rather than the real deal. Sharing stuff is the same thing. If you – as a creator – take notice of the fact that people are sharing your work, it is mostly in the form of a reminder how many people encountered your work without interacting with it.

Sure, we could now bash on the artists, that they are not coming up with “interactive” art works. Why? Just so that it is even easier for the audience to interact? No, I believe that much of the audience is shit. They are lazy and bored. They just want to be entertained. That is all. Most people, I guess, are not even getting what they are looking at, if this stuff reaches a certain depth.

Yes, we can and should talk about the quality of art and artists, but we desperately need to talk about the quality of the audience as well. Bunch of lazy bastards!

Being complicit

I have some doubts about my own work.

I am writing this in Berlin. The weather is shitty, but that is normal this time of the year. From my walk to the gym and the interactions I am having with friends and family I would assume that everything is fine. Not a single of my friends has become victim of a crime recently, nor did anyone – to my knowledge – commit any. As a whole, life seems quite peaceful and from my experience this is the case in all of Germany. My family, based in the very opposite part of the country, should normally agree with me on that. It is just that my mother seems to watch too much TV. It is quite fascinating, that many people still believe that shit is currently hitting the fan. Not that things are desperate in far away places (which they certainly are), but that they are terrible all around them. When talking to my mother who is living in a perfectly peaceful small town, one could get the impression that things are not as nice as they seem. But she is almost always referring to things happening some place else, things heard on the news, that affect her quality of live where she is. No, nothing happens in this small town, but since the world is such a dangerous place, you better ought to be scared. That at least seems to be her conclusion.

When talking about the topic of terrorism, I frequently mention the strange fact that if a suitcase explodes in London, people in rural Germany start being afraid of suitcases. This is what I am talking about. I remember growing up in the 80s that one had a vague fear that nuclear war could start any moment now. But today seems different. The threat from a global nuclear war would certainly have been something that would have affected everyone. Not matter how remote the small town, things would have been devastating. This is similar to the threat level posed by global warming today. Panic is always an option, but rarely a good one.

The things people like my mother are afraid of today seem different. This fear is not about a global catastrophe, but rather about a spillover from rather limited conflicts.

It is strange that, on one hand, the world that surrounds us is more secure than ever, while at the same time the threat level people experience seems to be growing. The wars of the 70s or 80s were far away and they truly felt to be far away. There were demonstrations and outrage over the Russian invasion in Afghanistan or the outrageous suffering in Biafra, but people did not fear for their own lives due to these conflicts.

On the map, Afghanistan is precisely the same distance away from us than it was in the 80s and the fighting in Syria is never going to affect us directly. Yet somehow the conflicts of today seem to have extended their reach. This seems absurd. A major claim of modern warfare is that its tools are more surgical and precise than ever before. And if the conflict is over there, what should we be afraid of? But the conflict, with all its surgical precision, does not claim to be over there anymore. It claims to be all around us.

Propaganda plays a crucial role.

While the reach of these conflicts – and of the participants therein – is limited, propaganda tries to make us believe in the contrary. Maybe ISIS would love to kill us all. It can’t. Therefore, it tries to instill fear by releasing propaganda videos, showing its “unlimited” capabilities. The US surveillance apparatus can not really surveil us all, so why not make us believe it could by not commenting on leaks that claim it can – i.e. the leaks by Edward Snowden? It is all about the story that is being told of the reach something might have.

We could debate now what is real and what isn’t, and surely these threats have some reality to them. Just not to the extend that is perceived. Terrorism has killed people and it will do so in the future. Most people are still not going to experience directly. And most people will not even be affected by it indirectly. Affected beyond the overblown reaction within society. In all cases of recent terror attacks in the West, I would argue, was the most devastating part the reaction from within society and not the results of the attacks themselves. September 11th, 2001 would have certainly found its way into the history books, but only the reaction of the US government, the reaction within other societies, made this attack truly global.

There is the crux and the problem with the artistic approach to these issues. In contemporary conflicts so much of the struggle is about our perception. It seems as if everyone is trying to influence us to behave in ways that are beneficial to their interests. The surveillance system that wants us to censor ourselves as if we were constantly under supervision – even if we are not. Terrorists who want us to be afraid of unattended luggage at airports, since they can not reach us. People in Afghanistan who fear blue skies, since this is the weather best suitable for drone operations and who should best be constantly in fear that the drones might strike them next. Even though there is merely a hand full of drones flying at any given moment.

By telling the tales of terror, surveillance and the like, we might become complicit. These things all feast from the attention granted to them and even though many artists might have the best intentions, they are helping to spread fear.

Plus, there is the coolness factor. I am not going to name names, but there are quite a few artists who are creating extremely polished and posh objects and pieces while dealing with these issues. Of course, that is what you need to do, when trying to make ends meet with your art. Better make stuff that looks appealing, otherwise no one is going to buy it and no museum is going to add it to their collection.

I find this highly problematic. Looking at all these interactive maps that seem to reveal the landscape of surveillance, all these artworks that seem to probe aspects of the surveillance state. All the accompanying texts that read so intriguing. That certainly helps. But whom? Maybe it helps society to some extent to cope with these issues. Certainly, it helps surveillance organizations to polish their PR.

I might be myself guilty as fuck. I could try to excuse myself, by claiming that I am merely trying to ridicule these structures and groups that attempt to influence us against our interests. Yet I am certainly failing to some extent. Even by shedding light on some things, I help these groups in reaching their audience – a audience. I help spreading the word and the word itself is the damaging thing here.

So how should we deal with these issues? Should we ignore them entirely. That does not seem right. I must say I am baffled, and I just don’t know what the right approach might be. To me, there just seems to be the need to question the whole artistic approach to certain topics. And from the way I see it, this rarely happens. Too many artists just find these topics thrilling and think that they are benefiting from the reaction from the media, curators and the audience to their works. Little thought seems to go into their responsibilities. Sex sells and so do violence, terror and fear. Artists need to be aware of that.

TL:DR

Money Money Money

Maybe I am naïve, but the image above is slightly disturbing to me. Of course, artist need to make a living (sometimes even through selling their art) and so do gallerists, agents and everyone else involved in the art world. As a whole art is quite removed from the needs and urges of society, that is nothing new, but sometimes this becomes brutally obvious. Unfortunately, it seems as if this is especially the case when it comes to art that claims to be conscious to the problems in our contemporary society. In this case the artistic sub-genre would be documentary photography. There is always a disconnection between the photographer and the stuff he or she is trying to document. Maybe we are just not able to bridge some gaps between us and the world around. But who thinks it might be a good idea to post an image like this with a price tag? To me that seems quite disrespectful. But maybe it is just honest. Someone just does not give a fuck and tries to make ends meet.

Some weeks ago, I was in Mannheim. They have a posh new museum building for the Kunsthalle. A hell a lot of donations seemed to have been supported the construction. To an extent rarely seen in Germany, almost every room was named after some wealthy dude or dudess. That for itself – to me at least – is highly questionable. Museums – as institutions of social research – should normally be in a position to question precisely the mechanisms behind this kind or donor culture. Interestingly it seems as if the museum just did not get the problem here. This was obvious judging by the main exhibition on display at the time of my visit. The title of the show: “CONSTRUCTING THE WORLD: ART AND ECONOMY” might give a hint of what this was about. Room after room of artists attempting to question the role economy plays in our modern society. Room after room, that is named for some rich person and who’s name is going to stay behind, long after the critical art piece has left. Tricky.

We might all be complicit. Sure, I myself am part of the problem. I would definitely have reacted enthusiastically to a request by the curator to participate in this show. I would not have questioned the museum itself. That has to do with power structures. If I’d question the museum, maybe I am not going to be included. The same is true for the museum itself. If they’d deny the rich bloke his name plaque, he or she would shovel the money some place else. And that is the bigger issue. I am all for taking money away from people in the form of taxes and therefore denying them their little attitudes. Especially if it comes to institutions like universities, museums, libraries. Places that need to be able to openly question everything. But then there are other people’s attitudes. If invited to a show, could I ever really question the curator that curates the show? The museum director whose institution hosts it? Maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t, since my participation will never be something, I can take for granted.

Oh, them young folks!

At a conference on photography recently, some people were complaining about the apparent state teenagers were in, when it came to their media consumption and interaction with the world online. I immediately felt old. I wondered if I had already reached the point in my life where I am surrounded by people complaining about them young folks. I recently turned 40, but somehow, I expected that I might experience this clash between the generations for some more years either from the other side or as a neutral bystander. But maybe I have to get used to this debate, since more might follow in the years to come.

I am bad in remembering quotes, maybe because I am too easily triggered by certain buzzwords, but some in the conference were addressing their concern that young people today might have just become too easily influenced by advertising and they were following the promises made blindly. It was something to that note. That brings me back to something I find extremely important not to forget. In general, other people are not more stupid than you are, even though from your perspective, reaching this conclusion seems very easy. Maybe it has something to do with our survival instinct and with the way evolution has shaped us. There might be some variations in the level of stupidity in some people around you, but as a whole, every generation seems equally cursed.

Bashing other generations is certainly not new, there always seems to be something older and younger generations do that can be considered offensive.

To address some of the concerns voiced by the people at the conference:

Maybe young people are media savvy. I guess, even more so than any other generation. Maybe they understand the way advertising tries to influence them. Maybe it is something the feel good to live with. Maybe some don’t get every miniscule detail yet, but that might be OK as well. Judging the generation I grew up within … we ourselves have not really proven to be the highpoint of human development. There are as many morons in my generation as in any other. And in some aspects of life, I might easily be classified as a moron myself. No one always shine brightly.

Maybe they want to chose they own gender roles. Maybe some of these roles might appear to older people as if they were making a step backwards. Maybe some of them are happy to appear more conservative. That is the way they choose for themselves. I see this only as an issue, once they themselves try to pressure others into their set of classifications.

Being Guilty in War

Most countries still commemorate their soldiers that have been killed in the wars they have fought. Even though in Germany, this is done less openly, there are still monuments for the soldiers killed in the First World War in almost every town and city and quite a few graveyards for the soldiers of the Second World War. A couple years ago, the German Army opened a new memorial site for those who have been killed since the foundation of the Federal Republic. Other countries are far more open about that and some, like the US, even celebrate their veterans on special holidays.

Maybe the most famous war memorial is the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. It bears the names of 58000 soldiers who had been killed during the Vietnam War – on the American side. These soldiers are named. Not named – at least not on this memorial – are the two to four million others who have become victims of this war. At least half of them civilians. That is a strange ratio. 58000 to 2 Million.

What if every war memorial would read something like “To the brave soldiers who died fighting for their country and to the people they have helped to kill.”? Of course, that would cause a huge outrage. People tend to look at some wars as something justified and therefore at some soldiers as fighting for a just cause. Others believe that many soldiers had been forced into fighting and were just following orders. And the soldiers, by giving their own life, made the biggest sacrifice possible and that should be admired. Right?

I think that defeating the Nazis during the Second World War was the right thing to do. But innocent people were killed on all sides of the war. And some of those, who did the killing should be looked at as criminals. And that is true for fighters and soldiers on all sides. We seem to have this very black and white view on some historical events. The things, the Nazis did, seem so outlandish, that many people believe, that this serves as an excuse, for everything those fighting them did. But that is just not true. Even while fighting the devil, you are still able to commit crimes yourself. This is even true for some actions that could not be avoided. Maybe, while fighting for his own life, a soldier just had to kill some bystanders or another soldier who did not really pose a threat to him. Maybe there was just no way to avoid it. Still, as a society, we should never be able to find a real excuse for his actions. Killing always has to be outside the norms. It should never be overlooked.

I understand, that this is difficult to cope with, since in a society that still lends many of its moral codes from the Bible, we expect there to be some kind of a clear distinction between good and evil. One has to be able to choose good and avoid evil – how else would one be able to enter Paradise? But this clear distinction might not exist in real life. You can be forced to serve in the Army. You can be morally conscious while fighting and always take the utmost care not to harm civilians. You might be able to avoid killing anyone. You might serve in a unit far away from any fighting. And still, you participating in war means that you are aiding in the killing of innocent people. As long as your side wins the conflict, you seem safe from any prosecution. This is not the point I am trying to make though.

Justifying some forms of violence against certain groups or individuals is precisely what has fueled war for millennia. Some killings seem justified, while others seem outrageous and call for revenge. Countries and societies try to find justifications for their actions, but maybe there are some things that are just not justifiable. And at that point we might want to rethink our culture of remembrance.

To those graves and memorials for soldiers, we might add memorials to all these unnamed widows, families, orphans, parents, friends. Memorials to those merely wounded, those who were not willing to participate and those who lost their sanity while fighting. And we might add memorial sites to those killed in our name, no matter if the war seems justified or not. No matter, if we won or lost.

War should be considered outrageous and inexcusable. We should not attempt to look at it merely through a single perspective. It is too easy to fall for certain justifications and excuses. After September 11th, America did a lot of harm all over the world. American soldiers killed many innocent people. Yet this should not prevent us to approach these American soldiers with compassion. Many of them have become victimized themselves. Even those who became killers. There are many people who are just victims. Pure and simple. And then there is a whole greyscale of people who are in part victim in part perpetrator.

Maybe each and every society, participating in armed conflict, must question its own role and responsibilities. I am not calling for a toothless democratic system. I am myself willing to protect the values I associate myself with, even with violence. I am calling for a more open approach in our attempt to understand the reasons for conflicts and what makes people kill one another.