Being complicit

I have some doubts about my own work.

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

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

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

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

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

Propaganda plays a crucial role.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL:DR