The lack of terrorist mouse droppings

“You can not prove a negative”

For quite some time I thought the sentence above was a widely used English saying. More recently I looked into it and found that it actually is a quote by James Randi, the American magician and skeptic. Very brilliant guy. So I might have to tone down my appreciation for the English speaking world and raise the one I am feeling towards James Randi. The sentence sounds very trivial and Randi is certainly not the first one to understand the concept – Russels Teapot points to the same conclusion -, but I find this idea to be absolutely crucial for many of the problems we are facing today.

The idea of the sentence above, is that to prove that something does not exist you could never find a positive evidence. The absence of something leaves naturally no trace. So if there is a mouse in your attic, you might find mouse droppings and these could be counted as evidence. But a non-existing mouse would leave no droppings. But the thing is that the absence of droppings could never be considered evidence for the absence of the mouse. Maybe the mouse is too clever and shits somewhere else. The absence of evidence is not the evidence for absence.

But I am not so much interest in mouse poop, but rather this – quite simple – concept might explain a lot. Or better, the problems people are having coping with this concept explains a lot. Why is terrorism so scary? Why does society freak out when a pig somewhere sneezes and dies of the flu?And why do surveillance operations keep growing? Maybe many of our fears come from our inability to deal with the concept on non-existence.

Terrorism is scary, because we are made to believe that terrorists are hiding within our society – and since we could not prove otherwise, the only valid response seems fear.

While working on my Stasi project, I came to the conclusion that surveillance systems actually like this fear created through absence – you can never be sure that big brother is not looking in your direction and therefore you better control you own behavior.

But the same mechanisms might have helped to destroy the system. The Stasi was a massive undertaking. 80something thousand full-time agents and tens of thousands of informers. And this operation kept growing over time. In fact it peaked a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This decline was due to the economic troubles in the GDR and not due to a voluntary decision to take things easier. But why did the Stasi grow? There was not much of a demographic grow – quite the contrary, the population was in constant decline due to low birth rates and emigration towards West Germany. The Stasi grew because of paranoia.

Systems like this one – I would argue – lack the power to question its own existence. You can easily question everything, but questioning your own being and your role within you part of society is hard, the same is true for large scale organizations. So, since the Stasi would not or could not question its own existence, it seemed clear that there must be a threat to society – that was basically the premise for the whole Stasi operation. The idea was that, the West was constantly trying to undermine the system and topple the regime. So all the Stasi needed to do was to find evidence for that.

But as matter of fact, it turned out that most politicians in West Germany and Western Europe were too afraid of instability on their eastern borders and the incalculable risks this instability might bring. Therefore West Germany prolonged the life of East Germany by giving loans and paying ransom for political prisoners. As far as we know now, West Germany never actively tried to topple the regime. Sure, there was support for dissidents, but that was not like funding an underground army. But since the absence of a plan to bring down the regime could never be proven by a surveillance apparatus, the Stasi could never come to the conclusion that the threat they felt was not real.

Poor Stasi guys. How could they have reacted? Once they did not uncover “The Big Plot” for ten years, who would have gotten up to tell his colleagues “Guys, listen! We have been searching for ten years and we did not find any evidence. So lets all go home.”? Of course no one does that, since the guy who desperately wants a promotion, would answer that the enemy is just too clever and therefore the threat is just very hard to uncover. But one day, for certain, evidence will be found, all that is needed is just one thousand new agents. Maybe it is just me, but to me that sounds very contemporary.

It is the same dilemma the NSA, CIA, BND and all the others are facing. Once you come to the conclusion the threat you are facing might be invisible you have already lost. There is no way to find any evidence that gets rid of the fear that you have just created. Maybe the fear becomes weaker, or it is covered by more powerful fears, but it is here to stay.

 

“the horse”, Sir Winston Churchill, 36p

Copyright is badly broken. I guess that is not news. But I am not arguing that the way copyright is implemented might be broken, rather it is the entire concept of copyrighting something that is just wrong.

Some time ago, I did read the short text “I, Pencil” by Leonard E. Read and recently I was reminded by it, when listening to a podcast. The text from 1958 is about the idea that today so many people are involved in the production of such a simple item like a pencil, that one could argue that there is no one in the world who could make one by himself. From cutting down the trees, to mixing the paint, to mining the graphite for the lead – in the end maybe millions of people are involved in the making of one. Most of them without being aware of their participation in the making of a pencil.

I do see many parallels to the idea of copyright. Image the last person in line of the production declaring that the pencil is his and his alone. There should never be another pencil beside it, since even the idea of pencil is his.

Sure, the text “I, Pecil” is about market and money, but so is copyright. In some ways I am considered a creator. And lets just forget about the projects for which I used found footage but focus on those works who might be considered truly mine. I have an idea, I take my camera, I do my shots, I process the files and in the end the result might represent my idea. But do I really believe that I am the sole creator of a work? I am not talking about the production process – here I am moving away from the “I, Pencil” text. So I am not talking about the manufacture of the camera or the processing by the lab. Or the company who produced the components of my computer. I am talking about the intellectual part of my creation. I am a creature, but I could not fool myself into believing that the ideas I have come purely form inside of me. No. I am fully aware of the things that influenced me and even though sometimes the details are slightly blurry, quite often I know most of the impulses by the outside world that brought me to the creation of one work or the other. Like the pencil, an idea is just the end result of a cooperation of a huge number of people who have no idea they were cooperating.

But in the end someone claims authorship. “Now the idea is mine. And it is going to be mine until many years after my death.” That, to me, feels wrong, unfortunately I myself am participating in this claim-making business, since I have to try to make ends meet.

Take for instance the estate of Winston Churchill. I am not entirely sure, what the legal situation is right now, but at least their website says, that they license those works they hold the copyright to for commercial use. They state that: “The fee will vary depending on the scale and importance of the publication involved, but a rough guideline is £175 per 1000 words.”. I find that ridiculous. I am not so much taking offense by the fact that maybe the speeches of a publicly elected official have to be paid for. It is more the concept of such a license that offends me. For some time, I am playing with the idea of approaching them to purchase a “the” by Sir Winston Churchill. Just one word. I should be able to afford it, since it should be just 18 pence. That is a bargain. I might even buy “the horse” for 36 pence. Yeah, the whole thing is ridiculous. What does one pay for actually? Words? Churchill definitely did not invent those? Well then it must be ideas. But how many original ideas does a Churchill speech contain? How often can we be sure, that it was actually his idea and he has not been influenced by something he read or someone he spoke to? We could never be certain. And I guess that almost every sentence Churchill spoke in his life, was spoken before.

So it might be that we are not actually paying for words or ideas, but for the right to use a brand name such as Churchill. Copyright is broken and it always will be.

Watch out! The Internet is heading your way!

The Internet is a strange place. Never before has it been possible being ignored on such a global scale. Hype normally does not change that too much. I have had my small share of hype in the past. Not the Gangnam Style kind, much smaller, but still I would call it hype.

The first time something like that happened to me was shortly after I have finished university, when an (apparently) important Dutch blog wrote about one of my projects and linked to my site. Sure enough, the server that hosted this site went down and availability was quite shaky for a couple of days. Looking at the statistics I realized that over the course of a weekend something like 40.000 visitors from the Netherlands still managed to see the work on my site. Wow! I thought that was it. I finally had my breakthrough as an artist. I was happy and waited for all the feedback that was certain to come. How much feedback did I end up getting? None. Not a single email. Why? Because when was the last time you have seen something on the Internet and you did not just repost it, but rather you contacted the person who created the original material to tell him or her how awesome you find what you have seen? See, I don’t do that either.

After telling my girlfriend about that, at the time, she felt sad and started to actually tell people, if she found something interesting the had done online. The feedback she received for that was very nice, but I think she stopped doing that soon after. It is just nothing most people normally do.

Now once or twice a year, the server my site is running on struggles to keep up with the amount of traffic it gets. Mostly that has to do either with my work on the Stasi or my project on snipers. And mostly it is because some site writes about something someone else has written about my work. That is another strange thing – attention on the Internet is mostly layer upon layer of copies. Most people do not bother asking to use material, others do. Sometimes I have my fun moment answering some of these requests, when someone wants material based on copies of copies of copies. Most people do not even bother asking a single question, but rather take everything just as it is.

I get it somehow. I wouldn’t want to be in the position of an editor of a website that has to keep pace with all the other sites around. You couldn’t possibly come up with the amount of original material necessary to fill your site. So copying it is.

Dealing with these things, I learn a lot and I am quite grateful for that. For instance earlier this year I found out that a huge US site was using an article from a smaller blog about my sniper project. Seeing that I thought: “that is odd, when did I give permission to sharing the content in this way?”. Turns out, I did not. Interesting about this was the fact that this site boasts with the clicks their articles get. According to their site, over the past twelve months they did run the same article (which was not theirs in the first place) four times. The first three times the article was clicked on 500.000 times each. The last time, this number went all the way up to 3.5 million. That was at least until I forced them to pull the plug. The interesting thing was that I did not really notice the first three times. Even though they had a link to my website, the amount of traffic this generated was quite low. Every couple of days I check the traffic on my server and that is normally how I notice that someone is linking to my site. The last time was the thing that gave them away. Maybe twenty thousand viewers this time actually clicked this link. That was something I did notice.

Twenty thousand out of 3.5 million, that is nothing. Especially, once you take into consideration that actually no one does anything to you besides spending three or four minutes on your site. Nevertheless, I receive quite many requests for material by huge sites that ask for free stuff, since “attention” is the currency they are going to pay me in. I don’t know if any one of them actually believes this bullshit. I am afraid some actually do.

Normally these blips of hype come unexpected. Someone writes something or copies something – and there is the peak of traffic on my site. And still, the whole thing can be tempting, I have gone through this quite a few times by now, but deep inside of me I am always strangely hopeful. In a way I feel like an old fisherman, who tries to keep his vessel in working condition, just in case he has to go through a storm. So I keep my site up to date. Check from time to time if the links are still working. If it would be a boat, it would get fresh layers of paint once in a while. And then storms come and go. And they leave hardly any trace behind. Can be frustrating.

I found myself in the fisherman-mood over the last few days. I realized some new projects and wanted to send out a newsletter – that is different from the storms above, since that creates just a fraction of the traffic. But still, the website needed, if not fresh paint, so some polishing. And today I was briefly interviewed by two very big sites, who are going to feature my new sniper images early next week. For once that is a storm I see coming and once again this strange feeling of hope sets in. But one has to learn to fight that, since the weekend after, everything should be over and things should return to being ignored entirely by the whole world.

PS – I still think that the Internet is important as a way for people to access ones work and I like having a website. It is a general problem that art almost never gets the amount of attention the artist would like for it to get. A normal opening of a small gallery show here in Berlin might draw fifty to a hundred people and if you are lucky you are having a nice time. Still the amount of real feedback could be somewhat compared to what you get online. So the Internet makes things accessible to other groups of people, but I guess we might have to agree on the one thing, that most people don’t give shit about most of the stuff they are encountering. It just becomes more obvious once you are working in the creative field.

Filming Aniconism

I might repeat myself, when I briefly point out the two following images, but since I find this whole topic extremely fascinating, I might as well do. In the first picture you can see five ISIS fighters during a staged exercise, all wearing action cameras on their heads. The whole video is mostly shot for the camera and part of the normal propaganda one can expect from these sources. But still, you see quite a lot of battle footage that is obviously shot with similar cameras. It just looks somewhat absurd. And the more so, if you compare this with another still from another recent ISIS video. Here you see some guys painting over advertising portraits. The fact that the face of the lady on the left is censored seems almost like the normal thing one can expect in this setting. But the fact that the two other faces (both male) are censored as well, shows that this censorship goes beyond the “regular” misogynistic prohibition of the female image and more towards the aniconistic tradition of some radical versions of Islam. Aniconism, or the religious prohibition of depicting sentient beings, has definitely followers amongst islamists, but filming the act of enforcing this god given rule on video, makes the whole thing appear very strange. Keep in mind that the Taliban were killing photographers for breaking this interpretation of the law. Today, they might still kill people for the same reason, but I guess that this would be filmed and the result would end up on Youtube. It is really about a power struggle and not so much about religious believes. Filming aniconism…. well that is definitely something.

Five Gopros

Aniconism

Poor Man’s Cruise Missile

The changes in media representation of war and the changes in propaganda, altered the presentation of these suicide attacks. With the widespread availability of mobile phones, it seems as if no one blows himself up anymore without several cameras filming. And the increasing video quality of modern smartphones, increases the quality of these videos as well. But in recent months more and more videos appeared that went beyond hand held cameras and towards the use of small, remote controlled drones to document these attacks.

You don’t see the car or truck driving away anymore and some time later an explosion somewhere in the distance, but rather these drones are following the vehicle on its course through the landscape until its point of detonation. Very often one can see small explosions left and right of the vehicle – apparently attempts of stopping the attack -, or soldiers running away from the coming carnage. The image below is from one of these videos. In the center is the compound that is been attacked. To left of it, highlighted by me, is the truck with explosives on board. In the end, the truck is going to reach its target, blowing up the whole compound.

Poor Man's Cruise Missle

It might be, because the aesthetics of these videos is quite new, but it appears to me the the strangeness of this material goes beyond their mere newness. Whoever takes these videos and publishes them, tries to emulate the idea of a striking airplane. This becomes even more obvious, when video-game-like markings are added to these videos, as seen below. Of course these markings have nothing to do with the real avionics of the drone, the video was shot with, rather it try to make the footage easier decipherable. The audience of these videos has learned through computer games, media representation and movies, what the footage from a attack plane or drone is supposed to look like.

Poor Man's Cruise Missile 2

It interesting though, when you compare these videos with the ones released by the US military to document their “successful” air strikes. For some reason, the quality is much worse. That might be because the planes and drones are flying at a much higher altitude, but I guess the main reason might be censorship. The quality is made crap on purpose and even the flight informations, the ones ISIS form time to time adds to its videos to appear more authentic are hidden. These videos by the US military are not supposed to show anything, rather they are meant to just represent themselves. We have grown accustomed to the way such videos are supposed to look and therefore they can look the way they do. These videos are meant as mere illustration of the things, the PR department tells us they do show. It would be difficult anyway to confirm that the claim that is “proven” by these videos is true or false. This might be why, these videos can so easily be recycled on the Internet. The same video can be used to show a drone strike in Afghanistan or a plane attack in Yemen. It does not really matter. These drone strike videos function as a blank canvas for whatever story you wish to tell. But even this blank canvas makes things appear more authentic.

Drone Strike

Of course the ISIS videos of wish-to-be drone strikes do not reveal too much. But I think that the quality of these videos does make a difference. Even though the ISIS videos might be as censorship-laden as the videos released by the Americans, the censorship in the high quality, posh videos is far less visible and so they appear to be more honest. Plus their sexiness is definitely much higher to the audience they are aiming for.

Darkroom Nostalgia

Camera ObscuraWhile studying, I spent a lot of time in the darkroom. And man, I really liked it. Since the class I was in, was without a professor for most of the time, class size was quite small and no one really seemed to care what was going on. So I pretty much had my private, fully equipped darkroom to do whatever I wanted. I was amazed by the medium of photography and wanted to know as much as possible. That was in 2002 and analogue photography was still a big thing. Quality was much better than with digital cameras at the time and materials were readily available. But somewhere on the horizon loomed a thing people called “digital revolution”. I, like many people around me, thought that this shift was going to create a huge loss. Photography would change and the magic would disappear.

Did it? The technology most certainly changed, but did the magic go away? Sure, working in a darkroom gives you the feeling of being a magician. All the vats and liquids, the smell, the chemicals and much of the ritual is performed in the dark. So light creates an images that appears from the dark. That already almost sounds like a plot for a chapter in a Harry Potter book. But upon closer inspection, most of the technologies we encounter today seem to be in part magic driven. The silicon in your computer is sand that does calculations. The light in your light bulb is wind or water creating light. Describing the world around us can be very poetic. So working in the darkroom can be overwhelming, but the magic is more a magic deception. Sure, a powerful deception, since you are standing in this dark room, fully immersed.

That said, I do believe that photography itself has a lot of wonder to it. But this is not related to the technological details of its creation, it has more to do with the picture itself. This strange relationship between the picture, our perception of it and its connection to the outside world. That, I think, is the part that is really fascinating about this medium. And this strange relationship seems getting stranger and stranger from minute to minute. Photography is the most interesting and important medium today. (I do not really distinguish between photography and video. The aspect of time might be more visible in video, but it also exists in photography. To me, video is just moving pictures.)

But it very strange to me to see that many art schools still put much emphasis on the analogue side of the medium. The argument would normally be, that this is important for students to understand the basic functions of photography, I get that – kind off. Still, these functions could be learned by merely looking at the way the technology works today. It would be different, if many important photography projects deal with questions of analogue versus digital. Yes, there are some projects that actually do that, but it is more common for artist to tell you that this is the question they are after, when their works are actually about something completely different. Using analogue techniques, very often gives these artworks the notion of being handcrafted – as if this would raise their quality. Most pictures don’t gain anything from being processed in the darkroom. Still, one can boast about it. “This was made in the old way”. It feels like writing “Same recipe since 1839” on all your images and sell them at a local hipster store.

Focusing on these old techniques, takes away time and resources from the more important aspects of this medium, that should be researched. It is not the role of art schools to preserve old technologies beyond the point of addressing their importance today. I am suffering from darkroom nostalgia myself, so it makes me quite sad to say, that there might be no real need for darkrooms in these schools anymore. I myself had a great time, performing these magic tricks in the photo lab, but not once did I plan of setting up my own lab at home or in my studio. I might have been in the top 5% of heavy darkroom users at my school. So some months ago, I was curious and asked the staff at the photo lab of my old school, if they knew of anyone who finished within the last eight years (since I had finished my degree), who actually did set up his or her own lab. They did not. So there might have been hundreds of students who worked in the university lab and a few of them might on occasion rent a lab to work in, but no one saw this as important enough to set up a lab for themselves. And keep in mind, thanks to Ebay, it is extremely cheep to by all the tools necessary to do so.

For some of my projects I am still using my old medium format camera. But that has nothing to do with any kind of magic. I just happen to have this camera and a very good film scanner. Achieving the same quality with digital equipment is something that would not make financial sense for me at the moment. On my last trip to the Latvia and Lithuania, I spent maybe €300 on films and processing. I do something like this maybe twice a year. So spending €20.000 on a very good digital camera wouldn’t make much sense for me at the moment, even if I could afford that. Plus, if something happens to my old camera, €200 would get me a “new” old replacement on the Internet.

Art schools should help young artists to develop the set of skills necessary to tackle important issues they encounter. That is not done by focusing too much attention on techniques that are currently dying out, and it is not done by giving them access to tools that are beyond their reach once they have left art school. Art school is wonderful, it lets you try out so many fancy toys in so many wonderful fields. The problem here is, that just a few percent of the people finishing art school can financially participate on this level. So it might be nice to use a digital medium format camera that costs tens of thousands of Euro, while you are in art school. But what is the point of developing ideas for that set of equipment, if the chance is very real, that you might have to live just above poverty level once you have graduated? Maybe later, once you are successful, you might be able to afford more expensive equipment. But, the most crucial time for young artists is just after their degree. Art schools should really focus on developing the skill set needed to survive this terrible time. And maybe, as a result, a higher percentage of graduates would still make art five years after graduation.