I was at a big event conference recently and during one talk there were two people on stage complaining about the fact that many of the issues they were addressing were taboo and therefore had little exposure in the media and in society. And yet, there they were. On stage, in a room with a couple hundred people, at a conference with some thousand attendees and having their talk recorded to be shared on different websites. And journalists everywhere. Somehow the fact that there seemed to be an audience for their talk did not dawn on them. Even though there were a couple hundred people right there. Just in front of them. I find that amazing. Maybe, just maybe, art could be able to teach us something here.
Ever since, on December 23rd, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear, failure plays a weird role in the arts. Of course, I am aware that at the time no one took notice of this mentally ill man in a small French town, especially no one in the art world – which is part of the whole issue. I am just mentioning this one event for the sake of my argument and to make things slightly more funny. Years later, when van Gogh posthumously started to be sold for huge wads of money, the world finally took notice of his plight. The ear and the fact that he was financially unsuccessful during his lifetime became the material for 500 Euro questions in TV shows and answers in beginner’s crosswords puzzles. And it became a curse.
The story that society fails to see the real genius that hides in plain sight isn’t merely the stuff that keeps untalented hobbyists painting, it rather might form the basis for much of what is understood as “avantgarde”. Every new avantgarde seems in part to feast on the idea of being misunderstood within the surrounding society. It is almost as if this has become a measurement for the real success. Even collectors and gallerists have fallen in love with this mechanism. “Outsider Art” is an ever-changing sub-genre that carries those who are handicapped in a multitude of ways. Once an outsider starts being valued by the market, new kinds of outsiders appear and take over the classification. And then there are bullshit artists like Jonathan Meese, who make lots of money from being “outsiders”.
This might explain the arrogance that comes out of many art schools. Much of what is created is hard to understand – even for me and I studied fine arts. Some time ago, I went to an “photography” exhibition with works from current students at a big art school. There, I tried desperately to explain some of the works to an architecture professor I met there. Desperately, since much of it remained unexplainable to me. I think that this is problematic. If a professor at the same school does not understand what the stuff is about … well, the works seem to lack something. Not necessarily from the perspective of the young artists though. I believe that there is the curse of the misunderstood artist at work here. To them, not being understood might not be an issue at all, but rather a weird sign of success.
Being misunderstood or mishandled, underrepresented or underreported has become almost something like an accolade, not only in the art world. Of course, the world is full of people who are underreported or victims of a multitude of mistreatings, but these are the people we are not hearing about, because they lack a voice. I am rather talking about complaining on big stages that your ideas are underrepresented – that seems weird to me. Reading or seeing statements publicly that begin with “No one talks about ….” almost feels like theatre of the absurd. And the Internet is full of it.
Sure, if you want to be a revolutionary, you should distance yourself from whatever mainstream there is. That is not new. What is new is the sheer number of people, groups or organizations who simultaneously claim to be “the revolution”. Even a billion dollar news-network like Fox News chips in, by trying to pretend not to be “mainstream”. Everyone wants to be an outsider, since only as such you can be a true revolutionary. So, there are millions of little revolutions with little – or no – agenda in place. Who needs an agenda, if you get your justification from the fact that you are misunderstood? The idea that you might not be represented to the full extend, because your ideas are just not worthwhile, almost never occurs. Everyone just smells a conspiracy theory directed against them.
As we have seen with Fox News, today, even representatives of the status quo claim to be the victim and thus demand the role of the revolutionary.
Yet drowned are the voices that really deserve to be heard. But how to find them, since everyone is so much better connected than those who are truly desperate? Now, this might cause anger, since every little group of equal minded people always comes to an agreement that their cause is the most valuable – or certainly amongst the most valuable. This way journalists, bankers, white nationalists and feminists meet for once on a similar playing field.
Last month, the team of Arte Tracks came for a visit to my studio. The short piece they have produced has been released to YouTube. Unfortunately embedding the video is blocked, so I just post a link to YouTube.
After a recent talk at the Re:Publica 17 conference in Berlin, some people criticized I was criticized that I was trying to get cheap laughs out of the audience. The topic of the presentation was about the visual culture of jihadist groups. To some extent, I was certainly carried away by my presentation – as I normally are -, so I am guilty in that respect. Do I believe that ISIS videos are funny? Well, I absolutely do. More than that, many of the videos and many of the scenes shown are just hilarious. Does that mean that they are not terrible? No, they are terrible and brutal and disgusting – yet hilarity and brutality do not necessarily live in separate spheres.
I could come up with many examples for both, the brutality and hilarity – and even for as many examples, where both extremes meet directly in an environment of absurdity -, but counting or comparing is really not important here. How many funny scenes would equal a terrible on? Treating it this way makes little sense to me. And it would completely miss the point, why I believe that it is very important to treat these videos and documents lightheartedly.
Talking about these videos as if they would be just one homogeneous entity is somewhat simplifying; I am aware of that. Sorting them into different categories under different themes, and analyzing the different goals they might aiming for, is very tempting and as a matter of fact, I do this quite extensively; but here, I would look at these videos, as if they were aiming for just one goal. Instilling fear. And since I am writing this from a Western perspective, I am focusing on the attempt to instill fear in the West.
Judging by the political climate and media reporting in many European countries, Islamist terror groups are currently quite successful in that regard. Having the occasional terror attack certainly helps in the creation of fear, but the propaganda is plays an important role. I am even making the case that the terror attacks themselves should be classified as another form of propaganda.
Terror, pretty much by its definition, feeds on our fears; it needs us to be afraid to work at all. Killing people does have an impact, but this impact is very limited. Propaganda tries to extend this reach. I have mentioned this on this blog very briefly before, but I think that propaganda itself is a sign of weakness. It is the attempt to extend the reach into otherwise unreachable realms. Systems, who heavily rely on propaganda, reveal that they have little influence on parts of the world or parts of our minds, they are trying to occupy. If the words Fascists or Stalinists struggle to make people happy by providing them with the basic needs, to fulfill their urges for freedom or prosperity, they are always relying on propaganda to reach them by other means.
In this respect, terror propaganda, that merely tries to instill fear, is much cruder. Spreading fear, when there is little to be afraid of, is much simpler, than spreading the idea of a wonderful life that is contradicted by the harsh reality that surrounds you. Scaring people is much easier than to make them happy.
There are different ways to let terror propaganda suffer. The simplest way would to just ignore it. Stop reporting about it and that would be it. But in our current 24-hour media cycle, this could never be implemented. Hour long news shows have to be filled. Breaking news must constantly flash our screens. And in-depth analysis has to be written. Plus, not reporting on the propaganda that is aimed at us, would in fact be a kind of censorship.
I am not saying that this constant reporting on the slightest bit of propaganda or any attempted terror attack somewhere is a good thing. It is not. In fact, this over-reporting is the stuff of nightmares, since this is precisely what fuels the fears within our societies. I am saying that, blocking the reporting is not feasible and blocking it might backfire in unintended ways.
But, besides being noticed and reported on, another key element that is necessary for terror propaganda to spread fear is that it is taken seriously. Apparently, this is something that can be quite easily achieved. As a society, taking pity in the suffering of others, is a key element for the functioning of our social structure. This is what many of the terror threats and terror attacks aim for. While showing people suffer in their videos, while making them suffer during their attacks, terror groups grab our undivided attention. We have come to accept that, once suffering is involved in an event, we must block out all the other aspects that might be visible.
Once people are grieving, right response is to join in and grieve with them – that is the rule. That is true and important. But prohibiting ourselves from finding another narrative for these violent attacks or brutal videos is a missed opportunity to disable many the mechanisms that make them function.
Terror is brutal and violent and as long as we feel terrorized, it remains what it wants to be: Terror. As soon though, as we stop taking it seriously, it does not lose any of its violence or brutality, but it stops being terror.
We can already see part of this at play during some of the last terror attacks in Europe. Take for instance the Christmas market attack in Berlin. The mood in the city did not change all that much. Or, it did change, but life did not come to a standstill as had happened as a reaction to other attacks. Life went on and that limited the reach of the terror attack by quite a bit. It seems as if people did not take this as seriously as they did many other attacks before.
Humor, I argue, might drive this even further. C’mon! Many, if not most, of these videos are ridiculous. It might be tricky to see at first, with all the moral blocks in place, but once one manages to overcome some hurdles, it becomes obvious.
It is the stuff I would have come up with as a teenager, when someone had asked me to scare the shit out of people. There are so many funny and absurd elements and we should wet ourselves laughing, while watching them. There should be enough room to grieve with the victims and the ones they have left behind, but I truly believe that it is our civic responsibility not to take this shit seriously. Because if we did, they would have achieved their goals and terror and fear would continue to spread.
There is this group of Syrian refugees that I know, that are mostly part of an extended family. Since they are all – on very different skill levels – struggle somewhat to cope with the German language and culture, I take them to different museums from time to time. I find that this is a far better way to teach them some German words or basic concepts than have them cook me some delicious Syrian food and stick with them in their regular environment. There is a huge number of museums in Berlin. And that is great, since it might take a while for us to run out of opportunities.
But whenever I think of taking them somewhere, I also think about the fact that I would not take them to any of the contemporary art venues, like the Hamburger Bahnhof, KW or HDKDW. When talking about this to a friend, I phrased it this way: I could easily explain them the concept of the Holocaust, or why Germans hated the Jews, while visiting the Jewish Museum; but explaining the shit Joseph Beuys has done is beyond my grasp. So, the Holocaust is a much easier concept than contemporary art, and that, I believe, is an issue.
That does not necessarily mean that I myself do not grasp some of the ideaspresented in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Keep in mind, I studied the topic quite extensively and I might even have gained some level of expertise. It is the fact, that much of it is so far beyond the reach of someone less qualified, where the problem lies. It might be that the topics many of these artists work on are just too complicating for mere mortals to understand – I don’t think that this is the case. On the contrary, most of the artists presented in a contemporary setting deal with extremely basic issues and ideas. Yet, the artists and the museums often fail completely when trying to make things accessible.
Other museums, like those who deal with science or history, manage it quite well to make hard to understand topics accessible to a huge fraction of the society – even to people who did grow up in a different country and culture. Sure, they are very often overdoing it in a Disney-theme-park kind of way, with a lot of fancy buttons and lots to touch and awe about. On the other hand, contemporary art functions in a way like “understand it or get the fuck out”. This approach is extremely elitist. It might have to do with a misunderstood concept of Avantgarde. Artists seem to believe that to really be revolutionary, one has to be constantly out of line with society. This is sad.
Since 2002, the United States have pretty much constantly fighting a bombing campaign against different groups in Afghanistan. Normally this seems to be little cause for news outlets to report on. It almost seems as if this is a secretive operation, but in fact this notion stems from the lack of reporting by news outlets rather than from the clandestine nature. Living on the ground and suffering through this constant threat, I guess that there is little what could be classified as “hidden”. OK, it does not bare much resemblance of the carpet bombings of World War Two or the War in Vietnam, but that does not mean that we are that more civilized now, rather it means that technology has evolved and it is just cheaper to drop one bomb on the target than to drop hundreds and hope for the best.
Why does the media all the sudden care about a bomb that is been dropped in Afghanistan? And why does almost every news outlet mention it? It certainly has a lot to do with the PR department of the US military. Someone told everyone that it was an amazingly big bomb that had been used and someone even coined a fancy name for it. If this bombing was meant as a propaganda stunt to distract from the shit Donald Trump is involved in, or as a propaganda stunt towards North Korea, well then it certainly did work.
Whoever came up with the idea of telling the press that the bomb used should be addressed as “Mother of All Bombs”, should certainly get the George-Orwell-Award for successful Newspeak. And the journalists who use it constantly in their “articles” should get a beating for sheepishly copying press releases by the US military. If the press is that easily impressed by the size of bombs used, well the next step would actually be to use nuclear weapons. Maybe start with the teeny tiny little ones and then work your way up. What could go wrong?
In ancient Greek mythology, Medusa is a monster that looks so terrifying that gazing at her face turns everyone into stone. This even works when once her head has been cut off and is utilized by Perseus as a weapon. I find this story quite fascinating in that it envisions something that is so terrible that even gazing at it briefly taints you beyond hope.
In a way, I would like to draw some parallels to the concept of child pornography in our current cultural environment. I have mentioned this in an earlier post, but child pornography is almost the only thing on the Internet, where merely looking at it is something that is illegal. Maybe it is the only thing, where this is true. There are quite many things, like gore, violence or racist acts, where looking at it might not be too good for your career, but looking at it is more classified as “bad taste”. So, there might be consequences for you, but maybe not direct legal ones. Currently there seems to be a push to move images and videos from certain terrorist groups into a category similar to child pornography, but we are not fully there yet.
But what is it about a certain image that could be so tainting? Please note that I am not talking about the terrible acts that are perpetrated while creating these terrible images, but rather the gaze that looks at them. This is the issue that baffles me. Especially, once we look at the laws that cover it more closely. In Germany, for instance, there is no need for the image to be a photograph of a real person to be classified as child pornography. It could be a fully fictional drawing and the law would regard it as similar to photograph that documents a rape. But the drawing would be the perfect example of a victimless crime. Right? There is no victim that could be associated with such an image and therefor the incriminating aspect must lay within the image itself.
Currently, there are other examples that point in a similarly strange direction. In the US, for instance, teenagers have been prosecuted for having nude images of themselves on their phones, taken by themselves, while they were still underage. Again, I find it quite difficult to point out the victim here.
Under these rules, sharing this image here might be illegal. By the way, that wonderful little Adonis would be me. Normally I would believe that I have every right to decide if an image of me can be shared or not. But oddly, the law seems to believe that there is a gap, that separates me from my underage-me, that cannot be bridged. Somehow the image of me seems to be closer related to this earlier self of mine than me myself.
Wikipedia taught me that, for some time in the US – until the Supreme Court invalidated the law –, porn was considered child porn, when the actors looked too you. For instance, by dressing younger or having braided hair. Again, something that can not easily be explained with a certain victim in mind. It is as if the depiction of violence in Hollywood would not be seen fully different from the real violence it might refer to.
I am not writing about this, because I believe child pornography should be easily accessible. There is far too much suffering involved in these images for me to request that. But I find the way our society deals with these images very fascinating. There seems to be an odd power associated with images themselves. Even some people I was talking to, argued that the reason why these images are buried under so many layers of taboo, might stem from the “fact” that looking at them might tempt pedophiles into committing more of these horrendous acts. But this is the argument that is almost always been used. Violent computer games are supposed to bring you closer to the violent acts. Watching porn might make you a sexual pervert. And so on. I believe that watching sports on TV does not really help with your general fitness. Maybe on the contrary.
To be honest, so far, I have not put too much effort in researching the whole issue, but until this point, I don’t think I have encountered a study that supports the “fact” my friends were stating. Maybe there is extensive research done in this field that points to precisely this conclusion that I am just not aware of.
Sure, the issue that differentiates this topic from others, is that it is children we are talking about. Terrible things are done here to some of the most innocent members of our society. At least that is the wording that is normally been used. But almost all victims of crimes are innocent. So, how can a child that is been raped be more innocent than a woman that is been raped? Maybe cruelty towards children is something that creates easy political consent. Something I have learned through Bill Bryson is that the first organizations working against cruelty towards animals predate similar organizations against cruelty towards children by many decades. Just as a side note.
But to me that still does not fully explain the unique role images play in this very special field.
What bothers me though is the fact that this level of illegality keeps me from researching some topics I am quite interested in. Quite a few of my projects deal with visual environments at the fringes of our visual culture. Surveillance and terrorism, for instance, both react to the developments within the broader visual language, but remain somewhat distanced. The images terrorist groups use for their propaganda want to become as visible as possible, but society fights to keep them secret. On the other hand, the images that are the result of surveillance operations, very often try hard to remain inaccessible. This is a very simplified summary, but maybe child pornography is something of both worlds. It has its niche audience, for which it tries to be as accessible as possible, while at the same time it has to remain perfectly invisible.
So, what is the visual culture of child pornography? How does it develop over time? How do the perpetrators depict themselves? Since my uninformed idea is that these videos serve as a kind of perverted trophy, I would believe that part of the thrill comes from the self-representation of the preparators in these images. How do they do it? Do they pixelate themselves in certain ways to let everyone else know that they are the creator of a certain video? Do the use watermarks or logos?
I would be interested in finding out, but I might never will be able to.
I have to go back to the developing drone war that involves homemade drones that were first introduced by ISIS, since this currently develops quickly and that makes me think. It might be two years ago, when the first remote controlled drones – little quad copters with cameras – had been used by groups surrounding ISIS to document suicide attacks involving cars. Mostly the car could be seen speeding through a desert landscape towards apparent enemy positions, before exploding. Sometimes, before the final blast, smaller explosions could be seen as an indication of an attempt to stop the attacker. Sometimes even tiny figures were visible running away from incoming mayhem.
When the first videos of this kind showed up, that was something that changed the visual language of these videos for good. It was quite sexy to be frank and that might be the main reason why these scenes quickly became a new norm for the creation of terrorist propaganda. More and more suicide attacks were presented in exactly the same way – a long shot from the accidental documentation of terror attacks via surveillance cameras or the shaky footage taken with cellphones.
For maybe a year or so, these new visuals were a Syria and Iraq (i.e. mostly ISIS) exclusive. The fact that then, groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, managed to catch up, by producing their own drown footage reveals that there is a visual arms race at works, when it comes to propaganda. This is not new and whenever there has been an innovation in propaganda, every side involved in the struggle attempted to catch up as quickly as possible. This predates any modern form of visual creation by far. An example would be the use of woodcut prints during the Thirty Years War. But it is still interesting to look at the extremely fast pace of these developments – and it still baffles me that many of the groups involved yell “Death to the West”, while holding Japanese Cameras and uploading the videos to YouTube and Co. War is corrupt and getting involved might corrupt you – that is not new either.
A couple months ago, the next step in the development became visible. To this point, these gimmicky drones had only been used to document attacks – be it by suicide bombers or regular attackers -, or to provide reconnaissance; all things that mostly utilized the capability of these drones to record and send video images. But this changed when makeshift attachments were developed that enabled the operator to attach explosives to the drones that were then dropped on enemy targets. The first video that shows such an attack, at least the first one I have encountered, is of quite a low quality and the missile shaped bomblets seem quite crude. If the meta information of the file I have is correct, this video was created in early September 2016. The video show two attacks and does not include much more. Neither the drone itself is shown, nor anything prior to the attacks themselves.
Even though these were some of the first instances, where the drones themselves became part of the warfare, the claim that they did was made much earlier. While documenting attacks by suicide bombers in their cars, the propaganda videos containing drone footage tried to emulate visual effects one might expect from “real” drone strikes. Even though not necessary when flying a little camera drone the videos very often included different displays and markings. Like the ones one can see in computer flight simulators or in footage from real planes. So, the claim was made that the flying objects were more real than they actually are.
This became more evident, when quite recently – if I am correct, on January 24th 2017 – a video was released that showed extensive use of drones in battle. I discussed this video in particular earlier, so I might repeat myself, but this here is a more in-depth text. This video shows two ISIS fighters launching a remote-controlled plane. One that is made to resemble the newest generation of American stealth drones. Ever since one of these drones was captured by the Iranian Armed Forces, the shape of these drones became something of a prototype of what drones are supposed to look like. The drone used by ISIS is much smaller than the original, but that seems of little importance in terms of its propaganda value. The drone is even shown dropping two small bombs, which are in fact modified rifle grenades.
It is quite interesting that, upon a closer look at the video, it becomes clear that the drone shown in detail, the one that is made to resemble the American stealth drones, is not the one that drops the explosives during combat. It is quite clear that whatever drops those bombs is hovering and therefore must be different from the one shown. These shitty little helicopter style drones, might make good bomb-dropping-devices, their visual appearance is the one of toys. I find it quite funny that there is a group that has a deadly weapon at hand – the quad copters – but for propaganda purposes they need to show something that is far less effective. If they are effective at all.
It turns out though, that “close inspection” is not necessarily what one has to be afraid of, when producing propaganda videos. The fact that murder via drones isn’t a monopoly of America any longer has been noticed by some media outlets. Guess which images are used to illustrate this development? Of course, it is the two guys launching a dysfunctional killing machine. So, the propaganda has been successful in this respect. The article shown here describes how the drone shown is the one that attacks soldiers and bystanders. That is wrong. People are attacked and maybe people are killed. But it is not by the drone shown. Does this make a difference? I would argue that it does. The fact that someone made the effort to make the drone look much fancier than it actually is, shows us that this is an attempt to appear more sophisticated. ISIS wants to be recognized as a global player and not like the random – and incredibly lucky – terror group, which they are. For a fight against a group that utilizes mere toy drones for their terrible deeds the United States would not need to raise their military budget by 54 Billion Dollar, but to fight a group that is capable of using these “highly advanced” drones? Well, take our money – right?!?
So, it seems as if one has to be careful with propaganda. I would argue that this is true for everyone involved.
This form of drone warfare seems to be extremely tempting and as it seems, ever side pretty much has started to implement these techniques. You’ll find a huge number of images and videos that refer to the use of quad copters to drop small amounts of explosive by the Iraqi Armed Forces for instance. Quite often it seems as if they just use the drones sized from ISIS forces, but things are already changing and the development is not going to stop here. Not matter how things develop from this point on, some changes are already quite apparent to me. This is the point where I believe that propaganda might come back to hunt the propagandist.
When ISIS used the first drones to produce their videos – the ones that did not kill but merely capture -, they quickly felt tempted to include the appearance of US drone strikes by adding some graphics to the videos that made them appear as if “real” drones had been involved in the attacks. By the way this was also done in the very first drone video from Afghanistan.
As with the use of orange jump suits when executing prisoners and hostages, this was done as a reference to American atrocities. We consumers of videos online are taught to expect certain looks in certain cases. We have a vague idea of what a drone strike might look like. It certainly includes some infographics. Like the ones, a pilot would see. Or the ones, that would be added afterwards to make videos released by the US Armed forces easier to decipher. In a way, this is funny, since most of the videos one can find searching the Web that are labeled as “drone strike footage” haven’t been taken by the cameras mounted on drones. Most of the material is from attacks by regular planes or more often attack helicopters. The real visual language used by real drones remains invisible and classified. Maybe this would reveal too much of the capabilities of these weapon systems.
That doesn’t really matter. We have a somewhat fixed idea of what drone strikes have to look like and ISIS and Co try to emulate it. But what happens if you overdo it? I mean the fact that the “real” drone war, the one over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia – well, pretty much all over the globe, where you find people with brown skin and the wrong faith – remains invisible, while ISIS creates an visual overabundance of examples of their “do-as-if-done-war”, might come back to harm the propagandists. Already, in the West, the outrage over the American drone warfare is quite limited, but now the term “drone” and “drone warfare” becomes more and more associated with the things the other side does. Plus, the more professional the images look that are created by the new players, the easier it becomes to use them in reports by the media in the west. All the CIA and the American Armed Forces have to do is to further limit their visual output and ISIS ends up flooding all channels with their propaganda.
What had been intended as a carefully produced reference to Western atrocities is going to be a reference to one’s own atrocities. This has already happened with the use of orange jump suits, which was originally intended as a justification towards the terrible things that were done by foreigners to Muslims in places like Guantanamo Bay, but the images that were created were far catchier than the source material. Imagine a guy kneeling in an orange jump suit. What does this remind you of? An execution by ISIS or a prisoner in an American prison camp? Right now it still might be both, but things seem to shift quickly.
And now think about the images of a drone strike. There is already very little to visualize on the American side and ISIS and Co work hard to define these visuals as well. Just wait for the first drone strike somewhere in the West, where the attacker manages to capture the video feed and propagate it online. This then is certainly going to be one of the defining image when you are thinking about the term drone attack.
I find it strange that the propaganda by groups like ISIS causes such great uproar in western media. Propaganda aims at creating a strong image of the group that creates and circulates it. But I would argue that this attempt to look strong might just be another hint at the fact that propaganda is in fact a sign of weakness. If you are strong and you are fully confident that you are, there is absolutely no need for you to appear strong. Only if you lack the confidence or – god forbid – the actual strength, creating propaganda and spreading it might make sense.
So, when people ask me, whether I am not scared discussing the topic of ISIS in my work and on my website, since “they might come for me”, I reply that this question alone tells me much about the whole issue. The reach of groups like ISIS is very limited and this is precisely the point why they use this aggressive form of PR. The try desperately to appear bigger and stronger – and to some extend even omnipresent. Conflicts today aim at our perception and in this way, propaganda can be a very potent tool to spread fear. This is what they are trying.
Of course, someone could always “come for you”. But that is true to the same extend as a with multitude of things that might happen to you at any moment now. Since there is a psychiatric term for it – paranoia – we should be careful before implementing these strategies in our daily lives.