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.
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.
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
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.
plays a crucial role.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
When it comes to the importance of a contemporary artist, two different metrics seem most important. The first metric deals with financial success, this tries to take into account sales through the primary market (sales directly through the artist and through a gallery or agency), and through the secondary market (mostly sales through auction houses). Since most participants in the primary market are quite secretive, when it comes to business details, measuring financial success relies heavily on published auction results.
The other way the success of an artist is measured is by looking at how widely his or her work is presented. But not every exhibition is equally valuable, and the field is extremely diverse. Is it merely participating in a group show at a small privately organized off-space? Or is it a solo show at a major museum, curated by an important curator?
There are multiple magazines and websites that offer their own rankings. Some rely more on the first metric, some on the second. Even though there are many intersections, some artist feature more prominently in one metric, while others shine more brightly in the other.
Very often, the artist CV, the paper trail that keeps track of exhibitions and collectors, seems almost more important than the work created by the artist. In most months, the CV available on my website is downloaded dozens of times. Many of the projects on my site receive far less attention than that. To be honest, when visiting the website of another artist, I frequently look at their CVs myself.
The importance of these metrics is deeply enshrined in the art world. Pretty much on each level. Even at art school, people frequently discuss, whether a certain artist deserves his position in a certain ranking, or if his work might be over- or undervalued. Every library of every art school is filled with books on precisely those artists who rank highest in these metrics. It seems quite natural to accept all of this, since every available piece of evidence seems to point to them being extremely important. But the whole thing is complete nonsense.
The art market is precisely that – a market. And an extremely manipulative one. Gallerists and investors push certain artists. Curators follow the pack and show those artists who seem to get more attention than others. Museum directors expect blockbuster shows and choose blue-chip artists. And the audience fells hip, when attending a show of an artist whose name they have heard before. There is little real development involved, it feels more like a mixture of a self-fulfilling prophecy and blatant manipulation.
Thinking about it, I find the way these metrics make their way into the academic setting of the art school troubling. Let’s face it, a vast majority of graduates will never make it in neither of the two metrics. Hardly any artist makes his or her living from selling art. And almost no young artist is ever going to have a huge solo show in a museum. This is true for the most brilliant and talented of the graduates. Only a handful ever make it and when judging their work, the whole thing seems extremely random. And yet, these lists and metrics – consciously or unconsciously – shape the debate on what artists one should look at and emulate. Even though the chances are quite slim that students at art schools will make it in these metrics, this is precisely what these institutions ask for, when recruiting their teaching staff. Imagine a business school that is only able to get five percent of their graduates in business positions, but their teaching staff looks as if everyone is going to make it. This is absurd.
By surrounding students with teachers that made it in these metrics and by constantly referring to artists that made it as well, it becomes a promise. I have spoken to quite a few art school teachers in the past and they all claim that they are trying to address this issue with their students. They also tell me that they are frequently confronted by students who tell them that they try to be rich and famous. It seems as if the way they address this bears little fruit. I also remember my own ideas and dreams, while studying. Now, I feel ashamed of how naïve I was, but no one really showed me an alternative approach.
Like a cult, there was only one possible way for salvation. Just look around you. Everyone you see has found the promised land. You had to hope and to try to emulate the path to success already taken by others to make it in the end. If you are not sure of how the whole system works, don’t be scared. No one understands the system, so just try to blend in and emulate the people that came before you. Maybe you are one of the chosen few.
I am not saying that there are not always a few artists who are going to make it this way and that their work should not be looked at. But focusing on these few seems odd.
Trying to look into the future, things seem somewhat bleak for the classical role of the artist. Everyone nowadays carries a camera around and, oh my God, do people use them. What was once a certain style, a handwriting, developed by artists over a whole career, has now become Instagram filters. Simultaneously, publishing your creations and sharing them with the world is now built right into the tools you use for their creation. These things were long two separate steps, but today sharing has become the driving force behind creation. Everyone creates, and everyone shares – and the world is drowning in images. But the ability to share with others is not limited to people who use the camera, built into their phones, as their creative device. Being creative in general has become part of a modern middle-class lifestyle. And who might blame them? Trying to express yourself is nice, and this is precisely what drives young people to apply to art school. At least that is what most applicants tell during their entrance interview.
I know so many artists who feel miserable, since they have neither made any financial success, nor is their work presented in exhibitions. Many even stopped producing art, since the whole enterprise seems to be entirely pointless. Even though all of them were once praised at art school for their talent and creativity. Even I myself quite frequently feel the need to say, “fuck you all” and stop doing whatever it is I am doing. Judged by cult standards I am a failure and salvation seems out of reach.
The art market is, in its current form, highly unpredictable and seems to care about art mostly as something that can generate revenue. While in art school, having a B-ranking gallerist visit your class, should definitely not be considered the most important day in the semester, but the way I remember it, many people do. The same is true for curators. There are many curators who are doing a wonderful job, nevertheless they have to follow their own agenda. Some feel the pressure of market forces who partly dictate their work, others are driven by other factors beyond their control. And even the most open minded and careful curator will never be able to detect each and every talent, let alone be able to give every talent ample space in upcoming exhibitions, to make their voices truly heard.
When talking about this issue with friends, I encounter resignation. The common remark is that there is just nothing one might be able to do. Some start to talk about all the stuff they have tried to kickstart their career. But maybe all of us try to tackle the issue the wrong way. When talking about raising a certain amount of money to buy a stand at an art fair or when talking about this new concept for an exhibition someone is planning. Even when talking about novel ways to get the attention of a collector/gallerist/curator… we are always merely talking about how to play the metrics game. But these metrics themselves are the issue. And the system they represent.
Maybe at art school it might be possible to teach students that these metrics are actually not that important. I truly believe that the role of the artist within our society will change in the coming years. It must. As mentioned, almost everyone now has the potential to express him- or herself on a public stage. I am not even talking about creativity expressed by AI systems. How long is the aura granted by art schools able to stem against this development?
Art schools should take their role as research institutions far more serious than today. Some schools have programs implemented, but all too often these are focused on an MFA or postgrad level. This does not go far enough. I believe that research should be a key element from the very beginning of one’s studies. And this should aim very high. When a student manages to better understand a certain issue or topic through his or her work, that should be the metric for success. No matter whether the respective work is ever shown or not. No matter if it is ever bought. Damn, no matter, if there results actually a tangible thing from the research. A real object or image. If something is better understood, that alone should be counted as success. Everything else, shows, sales, interviews, should be a mere byproduct. Maybe this way graduates find it easier to define their role within society, without having to rely on the unreliable art market.
I take research as a given term that can certainly be found in many of founding documents for art schools on a university level. But this should not be understood as a call to bring established research structures into the art world. Classical academic research certainly carries its fair share of systemic issues. Research papers need to be written and peer-reviewed in a certain way. Dissertations focus on miniscule sub-issues, take years to write and no one ever reads them. A whole new set of frustrations. No, this is not worth being copied at art schools.
I have no clear vision of how exactly something like this might look. It certainly includes an interdisciplinary approach, that tries to work with as many other fields as necessary. Maybe young artists would have to give up some notion of freedom and liberty. I say notion, since the liberty experienced at art schools quite often is an illusion. For once – as mentioned – the whole system operates under the vague influence by outside forces anyway. And what is this idea of liberty truly worth, if it leads most participants to frustration? It is not as if one would have to give up all freedom and liberty, but once in a while one should let others determine the direction a certain project takes. Personally, I have spent some time as an exchange student in Chicago. The system there was very different from the system in Berlin. Very much like a school, with classes one had to attend, courses that could be failed and homework that had to be made. Quite an extreme contrast and maybe too extreme. But while there, it didn’t feel like I had lost all my liberties. On the contrary, personally this was the most productive time I have had while being a student. And to me that felt extremely good.
Being more school-like isn’t what I mean, when calling for a more academic approach. It rather has to do with each artist’s own approach in creating his or her work and how this is being taught at art school. Schools should put more emphasis on the question how artists might find success once they have graduated and how this success might be defined. Reading all these statistics about how few artists will make their living through art after graduating just does not help. True, there is little we will be able to do about the financial success or about the path into big museums, but then why should we care about these metrics? I am not saying we should ignore them and merely conclude that the ship is sinking and that there is nothing we can do about it. This seems to be the current approach.
In engineering, failure is something most people can agree upon. If a rocket blows up during launch, we might derive some knowledge from the event, but overall it clearly looks like a failure – Elon Musk’s PR department might attempt to spin it otherwise, but let’s discount that. Success or failure in fine arts on the other hand is something that is mostly defined by how every single artist feels about it. Sure, you will find an audience that tells you how pretty things are or journalists who praise your approach. In the end though, one has to believe them to make it count. And I am arguing that we are all trained to look at the wrong things, when it comes to outside evidence for the failure or success of our works.
With this we also have to rethink the role artists play within society. Most higher education in Western Europe is founded by the public. This is true for art schools as well. Naturally society expects something in return. Right now, this comes in part in the form of established artists who have graduated from these institutions. There is a lot of finger pointing going on. Young artists point to the institution that has trained them as proof of some kind of quality and once an artist has established himself, art schools refer back to show what kind of quality and success they deliver. Little to no pointing is ever done towards the nameless hordes that might have graduated in the same year as the important artist. The idea seems to be, that the overall success rate might seem bigger, if you only mention success and no failure.
But what if artists start to redefine success in a way that does not deliver tangible results of that kind to society? There are already quite a few politicians that continuously question the amount of money spent on educating people in fields like fine arts. The return already seems quite limited and, in the future, it might diminish even further. Here, a more active role taken by art schools in contemporary debates might certainly help. I was talking about some of the looming changes earlier in this text. These changes, like the developing creativity within AI systems or the fact that everyone nowadays publishes his work on the same platforms as professional content providers – just to mention two -, are not just going to have an effect on fine arts, but on society as a whole. Many professional fields just come to realize how vulnerable their position actually is.
To me, the strongest selling point for fine arts was always its position slightly outside established structures of communication. Over time, society seems to struggle constantly to develop the right way to approach certain topics and ideas. The changes in speech are quite obvious, certain words come into fashion or fall from grace. But underlying these changes in language are changes in perception at a very fundamental level. Art was always playing a role in these developments. This might have to do with the role of the artist as the jester in society. While everyone had to speak and think in the agreed upon fashion, the artist was able to look beyond the limits of the accepted and poke around. Art can therefore provide a testbed for new ideas and developments. But as long as art stays focused mostly on itself and tries to fill in the nonexistent role of the “avantgarde”, arrogance might spell doom.
I am having issues with the idea of the “avantgarde”. It is the claim that art might storm ahead and open up new fields for society. This is not what I meant, when talking about poking around. Society does not move in a straight line, nor is art able to predict further developments. All art can do is to try things out. If there is enough poking, some of the stuff discovered might even become relevant, but that is mere chance. Most of the claims artists have made in the past, have left little traces beyond the inside of books on art history. Avantgarde feels like “told you so”, by people who make every possible claim beforehand.
It seems difficult for many fields within academia to open themselves to other fields. Sometimes there seem to be common interests and a cooperation seems sensible. But more often it is unclear what the direct benefit of a cooperation might be. Often, funding leaves not enough space for experiments. In countries like the UK, it has become relatively normal though, to open big research projects to artists. This is precisely what art schools should actively try to develop further. Artists as mediators between different fields.
But the way I have experienced German art schools, this might mean that one has to overcome the internal pressure from art students themselves. If you ever wish to see a human hornets nest in action, you should try to give art students the idea of limiting their creative freedom in any way. Best not to disturb an art student in its natural habitat. That is sarcastic, but that might in part be what makes it so difficult to prepare art schools for the future and help young artist cope with their shitty existence. Only working on the stuff, you feel like working on (the students) and not trying to come up with stuff for young artists to work on (teachers) is the path of least resistance. Maybe even the path of no resistance. The last time a professor at an art school ever told me to do something particular was on the day I did my entrance exam. After that no one ever gave a shit. That was absolutely not what I had expected. To be honest, I felt offended. I really expected people to teach me things. I was eager about that. But no. After some acclimatization I managed to blend in by becoming lazy.
I get the call for freedom to some extent, when talking about grad students. They should be able to try out the real live after graduation, while still being in the protective environment of the art school. But this call goes beyond that and seems to include everyone from the first semester on. Art school taught me almost nothing of value for my live now. I have realized that by now. Did I have a good time? Sure. I had a space to work, the tools to work with and no outside pressure to come up with plan-B, since I was already attending one of the most prestigious institutions. But I constantly doubt that this was in fact the right decision. In retrospect, I would have loved someone forcing me to learn stuff and find my role in the structures of society outside the narrow art world.
Since having students take care of themselves is so convenient for the teachers, it might be a lot for them to simultaneously come up with stuff to teach and face the uproar by students who think you try to limit their liberty by actually force them to do something. But someone should try it.
Of those people, who have attended art school, very few manage to make their living from selling their art afterwards and even fewer get rich. Everyone seems to have accepted that and even while I was attending art school, that was constantly something people were talking about. It is now ten years since I have left art school and maybe things have changed drastically, but from the outside glimpses I get, I doubt it. Back then, the main goal for most students seemed to be the art market. That was the stuff worth hoping for. Whenever a gallerist came for a visit, people got excited. When there was the annual open house event, people were hoping to be discovered or to meet affluent buyers. Very few did. But the excitement remained. Just hope, maybe the next gallerist visiting might discover your potential or maybe the next group of visitors is going to make you rich.
In retrospect, the whole thing has some characteristics of a cult or a Ponzi scheme. The promise to make it in the end keeps everyone involved, even though most people fail in one way or the other.
I think that the focus should be entirely different. Art schools should distance themselves from the art market and understand themselves as scientific institutions. Not sellability should be the focus, but research. This goes even further. Does it really matter how often one’s art is being shown in a museum or gallery? Right now, with the way the art world is structured, it certainly does. I am struggling with the whole topic myself, maybe art should become something that works as pure discourse, without being shown. I am not talking about artist who present this discourse as performative works – that would be once again an attempt to please the established environment of exhibitions in museums and galleries. No, artists should be able to participate merely in the discourse itself and still be considered artists.
Creating stuff has become a key part of modern, middle class lifestyle. Only if you are somehow creative, you seem to be a full-fledged member of society. And not only do people create stuff, the creations are shared constantly. There is this “five stages of grief” thing (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). I wonder what stage the art world might be in. Sure, that is self-help-guidebook nonsense, but poking at these things can be fun.
Recently I went to an exhibition opening. There were some video projections, the content did not really matter. While holding a glass of wine, I came to talk to an elderly man. He mentioned to me that the videos did remind him of some Fluxus works, he had seen in one of the earlier Documenta shows in Kassel. Back when he was a student there. He went on to complain about Fluxus and the new work he had just encountered. I found that interesting. He could still describe the Fluxus works in great detail, after so many years. He was talking about him not understanding what he had encountered back then. But still, the works had left such a deep impression with him. I questioned him, if, in a week or two, he might still be able to remember any of the content of the new work on display at the place we were just visiting. He was absolutely certain that he would not.
That is quite important, I guess. I am struggling with folks like Joseph Beuys and Fluxus as a whole, but maybe these works did fit the time they were created in. They have been powerful enough, that after fifty-odd years, someone might still be confused to the point of talking about it. They must have been extremely authentic. Maybe this gets lost on me, since I am born many years later and the circumstances, in which I have encountered them is all so different. To him, they certainly had a huge relevance. He did not seem to like these works all that much, but even from disgust might come something deep.
But what would be the relevance of the new work then? I am not mentioning the show, nor the artist, because it would be unfair to boil it down to it being just a reference to some Fluxus piece. But it seems as if it nevertheless misses relevance to today. It did not leave me baffled, nor did it make me feel the slightest bit inspired. The conversation I was having with this nice man, easily outshone the art presented.
There are plenty of “new” works that copy the struggles fought by old ones. The revolution we might need to fight today, would look different than the revolution that was fought by Beuys and CO. So, when young artists create works that copy other people’s struggles, the work might be easily recognizable, but it’s relevance is at least questionable. At least.
I am currently applying for a research position. I am not going to get it – why should I? I am just an artist. Part of the requirement though was to send in some writing samples. I took this as an excuse to write some stuff. Part of it might repeat some of the ideas I have already mentioned here. But much of it is new. So I just post it.
If you wanted to film an execution, how would you go about?
The boundless Stage
If the question in the title of this text would not be about how to film an execution, but how to film a birthday party for a small child, the answer might apparently be easier to answer. We might go and check how others have done it. We visit sites like Facebook or YouTube, we check our personal archives, we ask others. We remember how Hollywood does it. In general, we try to remember our common visual language, which in return might give us guidance on how something like this is properly done. Certainly, the key shot has to be, when the child blows out the candle. People in the background do a countdown and then, oh joy, the happy moment. We all know how this looks like. Even those of us, who have actually never attended a single birthday that had been celebrated in this fashion.
There are two sides to that. There is the ritual. The fact that we celebrate a special day for each person, once a year. The cake. The presents. The songs.
And then there is the visual aspect. Try to picture a birthday party and we all can agree on a basic appearance. But many of these images that come to mind, are actually not of events, you have been participating in. They have come to you through the broadest variety of media. From the picture albums of friends and family, to movies and TV.
In our visually driven society, the image has become a key element in the ritual itself. Pictures must be taken and shared for the event to be valid. The ritual is set up in such a way to be easily photographed or filmed. And all too often, the images seem to be more important than what had originally been the key aspect of the ritual.
Recently, I had been invited to the birthday party of a one-year old child, whose parents had to flee the civil war in Syria. Once the decoration was up, the food was on the table, the candle lit and the child in its seat of honor, there was a ten-minute frenzy, when everyone was trying to get the right shot. Many of the images were instantly shared online. Relatives were connected live via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. The adult guest queued to get their picture take with the toddler. The candle was lit multiple times, to be blown out repeatedly. Once all the pictures had been taken and the food was on the plates, the toddler was put back into its play pen and mostly ignored for the rest of the evening. His job in the ritual was done, even though, originally, the ritual was meant as a celebration of his birthday.
The pictures had been taken and the event was a full success – maybe especially since the pictures looked like ones from a successful event.
Not only do the pictures become part of the ritual, the taking of the pictures too has become a key element. We all remember “Uncle Herbert” taking pictures on certain private occasions. And there were the professional photographers during public events. This is why we know how to pose in front of the camera. And we know how to do this differently in different circumstances.
So, the ritualized aspect of image taking isn’t new, yet the reach of the medium is far greater today than ever before and I would argue that photography and video certainly help to ritualize our lives even further than before. More and more moments in life are photographed constantly and more and more of these moments develop a “correct” look.
With the omnipresence of cameras, we have come to expect pictures to be taken in every imaginable situation. Parts of private life, that had remained private before, become public. But this might also create another feedback loop. Since more and more things, events, places become potential interests for the camera, it becomes crucial to be photogenic. Like the table at the birthday party, many things and events around us, are set up in such a way to easily create pleasing images. This seems to be dictated by the images already associated with a certain object or situation. So, the visual language of images is being transferred into the real world. Not long ago, food photography was a sub-genre with a very limited application. Today, many people replace the short prayer before the meal with a picture of the way the food is served. And this certainly has a big influence on how the food is served – and maybe even what food is being eaten.
In the setting of a TV studio, this seems natural, since everything is created for the camera. But the cameras today point in all directions. The stage has lost its boundaries. But on this boundless stage, everyone becomes an actor and every moment in life part of the play.
This is evident in almost every public event today. There always seems to be a multitude of cameras pointing at every little detail.
It is even true, when looking at many of the public executions shown in Islamist propaganda videos. Of course, to the audience that (quite often forcibly) attends these, they are a spectacle and we have learned that spectacles need to be recorded visually. Filming and taking pictures during the suffering of fellow human beings seems to be a sign of an evil and perverted culture, but I believe that the lack of such images from our society only has to do with the lack of public executions, and not with higher moral standards. During the public lynchings in the US of the early 20th century quite a few photographers made good money by taking pictures of members of the crowd. Even postcards of these events were produced and sold.
Today, almost everyone carries a camera and many people are inclined to document almost everything they encounter. If there would be public executions in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, there would certainly be images of them on Instagram.
How to die the right fashion?
I always wonder, how far our visual training has taken us. With a smartphone in easy reach such a huge chunk of humanity, almost all of us have become image creators. But far longer have we been consuming and reading images.
Hundredandsixtysomething years for the medium of photography might be a short period of time in the big scope of human history, but on a personal level, we do not work like this. Not a single person alive has met someone that has not grown up in the age of images as a form of mass communication. (I am ignoring those rare encounters with remote tribes made first contact in the last few decades.)
Movies try to recreate human interaction and behavior. But they also teach us interaction and behavior.
It has always been true, that most of a person’s knowledge is not based on his own experience, but on experience that others have made and that has been shared. That was true in the age of the hunter-gatherer and it is true today. What has changed is that, today, more and more knowledge comes with images attached. The hunter-gatherer might have heard the tales of far and distant lands, but we feel we have been there, since the images we have encountered have become part of our own memories.
My mother has never been on a plane. And she has never traveled outside Germany, Switzerland and France. But as an avid TV consumer, if you’d ask her, she would certainly have an apparent knowledge of many places around the world. Hell, I know what a volcanic eruption looks like. Have I ever seen one in person? Well no, but I have been taught how it looks and I am quite certain to recognize one, when I see it.
It might be relatively evident, which things we know, that we have never really encountered ourselves. I am phrasing this slightly vague, since our visual knowledge of things we have really encountered is also a mixture of personally experience and tales told. I have seen the Eiffel Tower on several occasions, yet the picture I have in mind is most certainly not one that is solely based on my personal gaze.
But it becomes really vague, if we talk about behavior and interaction. How many of the soldiers that die on the battlefield, unconsciously recreate in their last moments stuff they have learned through movies and TV? Like, “tell my family….”. Maybe I am completely misguided and there is something in our genes, that makes us act this way, when we die. But I highly doubt it. I think it is cultural training and much of that, today, comes to us through media.
So, what should be the most personal event possible, also becomes a ritual. Thinking back, when visiting my later father-in-law at his deathbed, I almost expected theatrical last words from him. Of course, he was too sick. And at the time, I had other things to think about, then the botched movie ritual. But later I came to realize that something had been missing.
The glitter Taliban
When comparing three or four year old Islamist propaganda from sources connected to ISIS and sources connected to al Qaeda the differences were somewhat striking. Even back then, ISIS propaganda was extremely posh and fancy. Yet, the al Qaeda propaganda was somewhat lacking behind.
Not the cool special forces outfits. Not the paramilitary drill. Not the action scenes normally found in Hollywood blockbuster movies. And exactly that might the point. What seems off with this propaganda, is the fact that it barely resembles the propaganda we normally encounter, when watching TV or going to the movies. This certainly has to do with the fact that much of this kind Western media has never reached the religious parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it is precisely here, where many of the recruits for al Qaeda and the Taliban come from.
They have not come to expect the propaganda to look the way a Hollywood movie would depict a powerful group of fighters.
It looks as if local traditions and fashion are far more important to them than the latest style of military gear. Certainly, as deadly as ISIS fighters, sometimes it is difficult not to chuckle looking at these images.
On the other hand, ISIS media operatives apparently have seen a ton of Western propaganda. So much so, that their visual language is mostly indistinguishable from what the West might produce. Of course, there were many Western fighters amongst their ranks that brought along their visual culture. But Iraq and Syria themselves were not disconnected from Western media, the same way, a remote and religious area of Afghanistan might have been. People, growing up in the 80s or 90s in Syria and Iraq, most certainly know their way around in Hollywood.
But from this difference in appearance, we can read how much Islamist propaganda is actually a response to the prevalent visual language. Many ISIS videos could be classified as music videos without music – since the use of music is prohibited. Others appear more mundane and boring and better resemble documentaries. But the genres in general seem quite clear and well known.
Over time though, the propaganda emanating from the Hindukush (and in lower quantity from Yemen) has changed drastically. Al Qaeda and the Taliban seemed to have faced a dilemma. On one hand, making the propaganda look to Western would be a kind of moral defeat on the other hand, they were losing the war over global attention against media outlets associated with ISIS. And more attention means more recruits and more money donated to the cause.
It is still relatively easy to say which side of the struggle a certain video comes from. Especially looking at the way graphic violence is depicted (ISIS) or is not depicted (al Qaeda) and looking at some cultural hints, like certain ways to dress and so on. But they are much more similar than before. Both sides now show SWAT team like military training. Both sides show off military gear and equipment. And both sides pay more attention to fast cuts and appealing action scenes.
An interesting case is the use of remote controlled video drones to document suicide attacks with cars (VBIEB for vehicle-borne improvised explosive device). The drone flies some distance away from the car and records the explosion. Quite often these videos also show the unsuccessful attempts to stop the car by opposing forces. Many attacks fail, but naturally, these failures rarely make it into the final cut of the propaganda video. If you want to see the failed attacks, you have to look for the successful prevention of these attacks in the propaganda of the respective opponent.
The first use of remote controlled video drones – without the suicide attack – I have seen, was from Russian “journalists” operating embedded within Assad troops. These videos were showing the destruction the war has caused and successfully liberated neighborhoods and towns. Very quickly though these drones were adopted to document attacks and in this way, they were mostly used by ISIS. The first encounters with these videos left me pretty speechless. The image quality was brilliant, and the footage was something I had never seen. It really gave the impression of a true birds view on an actual battlefield. With this brutal clarity, the attack seemed even more cunning than if it were filmed from the ground.
That must also have been the reaction of Islamist forces in opposition to ISIS. Because quite quickly, other groups in Iraq and Syria adopted the same kit to document suicide attacks. And quickly more of the attacks shown were filmed by drones than from the ground. Maybe because drones are hard to find in Afghanistan or maybe there were some resentments against the use of these cameras, but it took the Taliban almost a year to visually catch up. But in the end, they did. And now even in Afghanistan attacks are filmed using drones.
So, propaganda, it turns out, has become a fast-paced arms race. Technology changes very quickly and the needs and wants of the online audience forces propagandists to adopt. That way it is not different from other forms of advertising. It is interesting to me to see, how the Internet dictates even the inner workings of Islamist propagandists. Even though they wish to promote an unchanging religious set of values, that is 1400 years old – at least that is their claim -, they have to change the way they transport the message constantly. The audience demands it, or otherwise it is going to click on another link.
Most of us might know Robert Capas famous image of a dying Spanish soldier during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. I am aware that there is some debate on the authenticity of this image, but let’s just – for the sake of my arguments – assume that the image does show the precise moment this soldier is being killed. Robert Capa, in his role as a war photographer, was certainly hoping to take images like this one, but the image itself wasn’t something he was able to plan. He was just at the right place at the right time to document this event.
Even the images of the attacks of September 11th 2001 in New York were more or less results of chance encounters. The al Qaeda operatives, involved in the planning and execution, would certainly have hoped to create images, but they relied on cameras already filming (tourists and surveillance cameras) or news crews gathering to record the aftermath of the attack. They did not set up their own cameras. Nor was this the case for most of the other terror attacks of the early 2000s that made the headlines.
The conflict in Syria can be seen as part of the Arab Spring series of popular uprisings. In these struggles social media like Twitter and Facebook played an important role from the very beginning. When people went to the streets in protest, the took with them their phones to share images and videos with the world. The same happened in Syria. When the peaceful struggle became the Syrian Civil War, people kept recording and sharing. And when protesters became combatants, the filming of protests became war photography and propaganda. Maybe two years into the conflict, there was a noticeable shift. For quite a while, suicide attacks had been filmed with cellphones and the propagandistic use of images of executions was quite limited.
More and more, cell phone cameras were replaced by more professional equipment. And the filming of attacks was planned more carefully. It became clear that the production of images for the use in propaganda videos had become a crucial element in the planning of attacks. Cameras were not aiming in the general direction of the oncoming attack, but many videos were carefully framed. To an extent, where one might wonder, whether some targets might have been chosen not for their military value, but for their visual appeal.
Images are not a by-product anymore, but rather a key element in the struggle. This changes everything.
The dramatic shift is especially visible in videos that show the work of snipers. These videos are one of the many sub-genres of propaganda that come out of the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These videos pretend to show the successful work of snipers from their own point of view. Of course, these videos are part of the propaganda and therefore their authenticity can never be fully trusted, nor will they ever be impartial. But it is quite clear that at least some of these videos in fact do show the “successful” killing of people. Whether these are enemy fighters or innocent bystanders is not important here.
People are killed to produce images. Of course, the sniper waits for the person with the camera to tell him that the camera is recording. Of course, he waits for the victim to enter the field of view of the camera, before he pulls the trigger. This is not the view of a person like Robert Capa, who tried to document the brutality of war. Here, the only “successful” kill is one that produces an image that can be used for propaganda purposes. It does not matter, whether the person killed really poses a threat or not.
The same is true for videos that show executions. Many people are killed for their deaths to be used in propaganda videos.
It is interesting to see this drastic shift so clearly in organizations (ISIS and al Qaeda), that historically were extremely negative towards the use of images altogether. Not long ago, Islamists in Afghanistan actively prosecuted photographers for breaking aniconic rules. And now, they themselves are producing propaganda videos and release them to the public. This might be a hint, that it isn’t necessarily the propagandist who decides on the way propaganda evolves. Maybe it is rather the collective audience that pushes certain developments. With view counters and user statistics, the Internet makes it possible for the viewer to leave a feedback to the creator of content, whether he is aware of that or not.
The Problem of the new
When YouTube celebrity Paul Logan shocked parts of the internet community by filming and mocking a dead person in Japan, this seemed to cross the line for many people. He and his team had been roaming a forest in Japan, that has gained some notoriety, for the high number of people going there to commit suicide. Clearly, he was hoping to find a corpse, and in the end, he was lucky in that respect. YouTube tried to counter the outrage, this video caused, by briefly restricting Logan’s ability to monetize his content on their platform. Only briefly though. Did this hurt Paul Logan? Not really. Especially not amongst his key audience. The video that caused so much outrage has now been viewed over 50 million times and the number of subscribers of his channel keeps growing.
Logan is following one of the simpler rules of the Internet. You want to be noticed? Then break the rules and make that public. Do something that shocks people and they will watch and listen. It is the same set of guidelines that is followed by ISIS in many of their most brutal videos.
But this also creates some problems. The audience, that is eager to follow you, expects you to constantly repeat your stunts with more and more audacity. It is not your amazing set of skills or your magnificent creativity that makes people watch your videos, but rather it is your ability to provide something that appears to be new and bold.
After the outrage over the mocked corpse had settled down and a short while after a show of public apology, Logan released another video, in which he tasered two dead rats. Bad taste? Certainly. But neither all that creative nor all that bold – maybe mostly desperate. But how would one go about to surpass the hype created by you mocking a corpse? To Logan the options are quite limited, since killing someone seems to be not an option. Ending up on death row or on a life sentence would certainly make the news, but keeping up the hype and benefiting from it afterwards would be rather tricky.
ISIS on the other hand can kill people. It is quite normal for this group to kill. So why not film it and make it a propaganda thing? When these videos appeared at first, they were extremely shocking. They were showing real murders on camera, something our mass media normally would not show us. Videos like these might have been found before already in the deepest depths of the Internet. On some gore sites like theync.com and maybe someone managed to sneak something into a 4chan /b. But these videos always appeared to be shot on accident or by someone who was having other priorities than to film someone being murdered.
The ISIS propaganda came as a shock. And it became an instant blockbuster on schoolyards in many Western countries.
But the Internet dictates, that the new does not stay new for long. Your audience might admire you for the furour you create, but most of them are very loosely attached to you and your cause. You have to keep them entertained for them to stay focused.
The propagandists of ISIS and Co face a dilemma. They created an audience by producing videos that were deliberately violating social norms, by showing violence in a taboo braking way. This has created a lot of response, both from other media and the audience. Hype is gone as quickly as it comes, yet hype is addictive. And the Internet works by its own set of rules. It does not matter, whether you are a YouTube star, that dreams of a bigger house and more women, or a group of Jihadi fighters, trying to promote a social agenda from the 7th century BC. You want to be noticed and want to enjoy the short high only hype can provide? Than follow the rules of the online community.
I must say, that I find the thought very soothing, that even jihadi fighters have to agree to the terms and services of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
This might explain, why execution videos changed over time. More attention is paid to the setting. The camerawork has become more professional. More shots from different angles. Etcetera. But most astonishingly, the violence itself has changed. In the beginning, the decapitations were a relatively swift matter, shootings were done quickly. Later, the whole thing turned to butchery. Sometimes quite literally, by hanging the victims upside down from hooks, cutting their throat, letting them bleed out. Just like a butcher would do it. These videos constantly try to reinstate the feeling terror, that caused people to talk about them in the first place.
Shooting a hostage just does not cut it anymore. Nowadays you have to shoot in groups, burn, blow up, use shotguns and slow motion. You have to deliver something unseen before, to make the news. To the victims, of course, this is terrible. They become objects of perverted content creators. Much of this increase in violence is driven by an urge to create something new. And it appears to me that there are even persons killed, whose death normally would not be justified, unless someone needed some victims to create a video. If you constantly need to create new shocking videos, featuring the murder of your opponents – well maybe you become somewhat desperate to find opponents that are really worthy to die in the most terrible fashion. Maybe you let your standards slip slightly, just to be able to declare more people enemies of the level.
That is not to say that all there is to ISIS propaganda are the killings. That isn’t true. But many of the most brutal ones share some traits with viral advertising. Viral ads try to make us listen to an extremely bland message of “buy this”, by wrapping the message in an outer shell that is unexpected or outrageous, funny or just amazing. ISIS videos are, at the core, as bland as the sales pitch for a car insurance. Maybe even blander, since many of the ideas propagated are extremely old and remote from a reality in which the Internet exists and in which every imaginable content is just a few clicks apart.
The brutality is the shell, that makes to message easier to swallow. Many of the mayor jihadi video productions are truly wrapped in viral content. At the beginning, you see some flashy intro, maybe some fighting and some battles, then comes the boring part, where you someone explains the boring details of the world view of the group and the execution at the end serves as your reward for staying focused. Really, not that different from a sales pitch for a car insurance.
But once the appeal of the facade wears off, it becomes all too clear how desperate the middle part sounds. This would not necessarily affect the true believers, but the propaganda tries to recruit new people and that becomes much harder, once people lose interest.
If we compare the two images on the previous pages, we can see two persons playing the same role. One is working for ESPN, a big US TV station that focusses on sports, the other an operative for a group that associates itself with ISIS. But both act in a similar fashion and even though, he might lack the standard business suit, the ISIS guy even has the ISIS logo on a small cube attached to his microphone. Over the course of the two videos snippets, both men perform very similar looking interviews.
The ESPN journalist talks to an American Football player and the ISIS guy to a group of people in cages, that are burned alive after the interview.
The last detail makes the whole thing fall apart. Why would someone clumsily act like a journalist, just to perform some mock interviews with a group of men that are killed in such a horrifying way shortly after?
How should he do it otherwise? If we turn on TV, we can see that it is really difficult, to come up with a unique visual language, that is still comprehensible. Some people try, and almost all of them fail miserably. To play it safe, it is easiest to just reuse the codes and sings already in use. Everyone does it. The ISIS guy isn’t influenced by the guy from ESPN, rather both follow the same lead. Neither is truly authentic, but that might not matter.
Not everyone that uses spoken language has to reinvent it constantly. Why should that be any different, if it comes to images? The media dictates how a story is best told and therefore the jihadi journalist or the Taliban-made TV studio actually make sense. It feels absurd though, to watch Islamists call for the “death of the West”, while at the same time following stereotypes invented by and for Western media. A typical example would be an attack in Kabul by a group that associated itself with the Taliban. The attack was aimed at a TV station and four people working there were killed. Shortly after the attack a press release was issued by the Taliban, claiming responsibility for the attack. The press release, of course, was aimed directly at media outlets like the one that had just been attacked.
One might call for the destruction of all media, but to reach the public, this call should best go through as many media outlets as possible. It is very similar to populist politicians, that seem to complain about “fake news” every single time, they are being interviewed on TV.
I had a conversation recently with a photo student, who wants to do a work on some Stasi related issue. She was mentioning to me, that she was planning on taking pictures in a former Stasi prison in Berlin. Since the Wall came down, this has been turned into a museum. When asked why, she said something about the authenticity of this place and quoted some people that had been imprisoned there saying something like “the smell is very special and authentic, the real smell the place had back then”. To that I say: bullshit.
The wall came down 28 years ago and the prison was closed shortly after. No smell in the world lingers on for that long. No matter what chemicals would constitute the smell, their composition would change over time and therefore the smell would certainly not be “the same” as thirty years ago. Plus, back then, the building was in use. People worked their every day and other people were forced to live in this very building. We all have experienced that the smell of our apartment seems to change, while we were on vacation for a week or two. It might be that the smell did not change, but our perception of it has, but in the long run, we certainly play a role in the olfactory composition of the place we live and work in.
I am not that interested in the mechanics of smells, rather the way this student was talking did remind me of a general issue I am having with the culture of memory.
We tend to expect of certain places of historical importance, to give away part of their story through their outside appearance. A terrible place needs to look devastating to fully trigger our moral switches, and a bad scent certainly helps in this regard. The more devastating a place looks, the more devastating a place it must have been back then. I guess, this can easily become a feedback loop.
When talking to the student, I asked her, what the place looks like right now. I have been there twice myself, but I wanted to hear it from her. Of course, everything looks grey, there are cracks in the plaster on the wall and in some places chunks have fallen off, the furniture looks very outdated, the bathroom fixtures were terrible. How is this authentic? I am quite sure that back, when the prison was still operational, the paint would have been much fresher, cracks in the wall would have been taken care of, and both the furniture and the bathroom fixtures were quite close to what people had at home.
I am not saying that back then this place wouldn’t have been a terrible place to be imprisoned. I am trying to make the point that a place does not need to look terrible to be terrible. Take Auschwitz for instance – just as a thought experiment. There was a time – maybe a very short one, but still – when the barracks were brand new. Maybe they even smelled of fresh sawn lumber, the paint was fresh and maybe the trees outside were in full bloom. Auschwitz at such a moment was as much of a terrible place as Auschwitz at the time the Red Army liberated the place. But it does not really fit our mental image.
Now, when these places – Auschwitz and the prison in Hohenschönhausen – are preserved for the future, much care is taken to preserve the general spirit of the place. But what spirit might that be? I guess it is the spirit we expect to find. If the decision is made to do some work on the place to preserve it for the future, this work is one of restoration, rather than renovation. But wouldn’t a place like the Stasi prison be better off with a fresh coat of paint, that aims to set the place back in time by 20 years, rather than a careful touch-up of the weathered paint that has come to represent the grey image we expect?
This also reflects in movies that try to show the terrors present at these places. To me, this seems quite natural. A location scout is sent to document the place, the movie is going to depict. He or she finds it in a carefully preserved state of despair and comes back with a set of images that depict precisely that. This material then is given to set designers to replicate. If a movie-goer, after seeing the film, visits such a place, the images encountered in the movie tells what the place needs to represent to “feel” real. This is a circle.
A similar thing can be seen in the depiction of inmates. Of course, places like Auschwitz did provide a terrible sight and starvation and murder were rampant and these things did take a toll on the inmates. But there might have been many people suffering, where this did not present itself in a similar fashion on the outside. Well-fed people with clean clothes and tidy faces can be killed and traumatized as well.
I believe that this isn’t merely a question of aesthetics, but this carries with it real life consequences. We may have reached the point, where we distrust a place or situation to be terrible, if it does not appear the way we expect these things to appear. During the current refugee crisis, politicians took the stage pointing out that many of the refugees carried smartphones and had nice clothes. The logic behind that seemed to be that only those in rags with dirty faces could be the ones that had an excuse to flee their countries. Surely, a nice-looking environment cannot be filled with trauma. Right?
This might exactly be the point the US government was aiming for, when creating the new housing at for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Many of the images coming out of this place, look more like a very clean hospital, than a place we’d associate with torture. This is not done by accident, but our expectation that terrible places look a certain way, makes it very easy to fool us. And just because a camp for refugees is made to look nice, does not mean that it isn’t a terrible place.
But back to the smell at Hohenschönhausen prison. I find it fascinating that not just we, the spectators, fall for this trap. But even people who had been imprisoned there alter their memories over time. That way, the place is going to look more and more like the place should look like to suit the terrible things that took place there. I wonder though, how much the growing despair in the outside appearance, is going to influence the way the stories of despair are told – and maybe even the way they are remembered?
Some time ago – late 2014/early 2015 or so – there appeared a mod pack for the shooter game Arma III that allowed you to play the game as a member of ISIS. In case this needs some explanation, mod packs are software additions to computer games that enable you to change the appearance or the rules of a game beyond the things normally available. Very often these mod packs can be created by anyone technologically savvy enough and are meant to broaden the community appeal of games. Very often this creates almost entirely new games on the framework of the original one.
Here though, in the case of Arma III, a shooter by a Czech company, that would normally focus more on a western perspective, all the sudden became something very different. That is at least the way the media picked up on the story.
I must confess I did not follow the story back then, but from what I find on the Internet today, it seems more likely to me that at the time a group of script kiddies was merely trying to give the game they were playing a very contemporary appeal. To me that makes sense. Late 2014 saw the emergence of the Islamic State as it swept through huge chunks of Syria and Iraq. It still had a lot of sex appeal to it – so much so that even Vice Magazine reported on it in their fancy style. I have even found a quote in a forum that discusses this mod, where someone comments: “The IS units on the other hand are based directly off of footage from VICE News.”.
The true terror was not fully revealed and neither was the true extend of the oncoming struggle. It just must have seemed like something that was out there and that was new. I might be completely wrong, but from the way I have seen ISIS propaganda develop, 2014 seems to be too early for them to produce this kind of mod pack. But it would have been a great story, since this would have perfectly followed the narrative that ISIS is a highly-sophisticated organization, that follows the US Military in its footsteps.
The US military has indeed quite a history of using computer games as a means to recruit young men (mostly men). The game “America’s Army”, that in 2002 started a whole series that continues up to today, would be a classical example. Targeting young men through computer games – they definitely know their audience!
It certainly would make sense for ISIS and Co to utilize similar mechanisms and I am quite sure that you would find plenty of people who ended up fighting in Syria or Iraq, that indeed did play with the ISIS mod pack, but most people who played it would have since then just moved on to other games.
That does not mean that these groups do not utilize digital techniques, beyond video and photographs, when it comes to the creation of their propaganda. For instance, groups close to ISIS have, in the past, released at least two apps that were aimed directly at children. So maybe a full-scale computer game might be too big of a task, but relatively simple apps are certainly within reach.
The thing that brought me to write this brief text isn’t something interactive, but rather a 6 ½ minute long video that is entirely computer generated. I have seen other examples before, where these visuals appear, but so far these made up only parts of the video and were always of a very questionable quality.
What is fascinating about this new video is, that it tries to resemble closely a common type of propaganda videos, that makes up quite a big part of the propaganda output at the moment. These videos show attacks by little remote controlled drones on soldiers and fighters in Syria and Iraq. The parallels drawn to these videos are striking. The first scene shows two soldiers launching a drone. This drone flies through a dessert landscape and carries out a series of attacks.
It is already striking that the way these attacks – the ones in real life – have spurred an iconic way to depict them. Shot from straight above the first shot shows the bomblet being dropped, then the scene same scene is repeated with the image zoomed in to show the target more clearly and give an idea of the result of the attack. Naturally, since the zoom is done digitally in retrospect, the footage of the second part is quite grainy and shaky – even this is reproduced in the animated video. That I find quite fascinating.
Even though this video looks quite sophisticated – and to some extent this certainly need some skills –, upon closer inspection it becomes clear, that this is very much related to the example of the Arma III mod pack. Similar story, different game. It is quite clear that the basis for the video is the latest edition of the Grand Theft Auto series of games. The landscape shown therefore is not originally meant to represent the Middle East, but rather a fictitious Island that is modeled after California. A clear hint is given when a truck is shown and the license plate reads “San Andreas”. This is the name of the main city in the game.
Still, even though much of the work was done using a preexisting game that provides many of the graphics, it would have taken quite a bit of work to create this video. Why bother? Especially, when it tries to copy many of the scenes available as real-life footage? I can only provide some guesswork. One detail worth mentioning is that the Telegram channel that uploaded this video. Was none of the “more official” ISIS channels. And even though it uses the flag ISIS uses as a logo, this flag is on the left side of the image (as far as I have encountered it is always on the right) and the name “Al-Haqq Media” does not ring a bell. I have never heard of this media outlet (please remember that there are in fact different “official” media outlets in the ISIS sphere of influence), nor does a quick Internet search provide much information.
So, the source might be just an enthusiastic individual, or a group of people who have little, if any, real connection to ISIS. But that is so important to me. I find it fascinating that the propaganda that emanates pot from the Middle East has already become iconic in itself. I have mentioned quite a few examples before (the way people are executed, the way suicide attacks are filmed, etc.), yet here, the whole genre of Islamist propaganda, is copied into another medium. The way the storyboard of this short film is developed could serve as the blueprint for a huge chunk of storyboards found in terror propaganda at the moment. True, there are also different types of videos, but the one this resembles (Preparation – Drone Strike – Car Bomb shown – Suicide Attack – Execution of a Prisoner in Orange) is extremely common at the moment.
But then it also reveals the bigotry of people involved in the creation of this kind of propaganda. Of course, whoever has created this video has also played the game. That is just something you do. You are not going to buy or download Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a video editing program with the sole intention to produce a ISIS style propaganda video. You have to play the game first to see its full potential. And the worldview represented by such a video game – love it or hate it – certainly has little to do with the world view of ISIS. And no, I am not going to agree with people who are going to say: “That makes so much sense, ISIS calls for violence and Grand Theft Auto calls for violence, therefore both are related.”. Games like GTA are about violence, they let you envision violence. That is nothing new. The medium is, yes, but there have always been tales of violence and brutality been told within our cultures, very rarely were they meant to incite violence.
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.
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.