For most of human history, there had been general agreement that humans are special. We were the chosen ones and therefore we had to rule the whole world. Apparently, our ancestors were the ones that had eaten the forbidden fruit, that had enabled us to distinguish good and evil. This, today, might be understood as consciousness. How else could God punish us for our decisions, if they were not made consciously? If we were mere puppets, without free will, punishing us, would be unjust, since our decisions would have been made by something outside our control.
When René Descartes wrote his “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), he determined that consciousness might be the crucial part in our understanding of being and reality. We might be able to question every detail in the world around us, but the fact that we notice our consciousness, gives us evidence of our existence. But the reach of this evidence is very limited. I think, therefore I am, has to do with me and my own realization. How would this enable me to come to the conclusion that you are conscious as well? It does not. Descartes took the humancentric view and determined that consciousness is something that is unique to humans and that no animal shares this ability.
I have a hard time following Descartes here. I always understood his sentence in a more radical way than he did. To me, “therefore I am”, was not so easily extended to “therefore you are” as it apparently was to Descartes. I always felt, that all I could be certain of was my own existence, extending it, was lacking the “clear” evidence of existence my consciousness provided me with. Of course, I am not saying no one besides me is conscious, but finding evidence for consciousness outside myself seems hard to find.
With or without evidence, we can see from Descartes reaction, that it is an easy step to see fellow human beings as being conscious. That might have a lot to do with our understanding of a common nature. The humans around me might be different beings, but they are a lot like me and therefore share most of my traits. But it seems much harder to find consciousness is something that is very different from myself.
To Descartes, animals could never develop consciousness and therefore could not suffer.
In the last decades, science has worked hard, to find some evidence of conscious behavior in other species. Most of us might have seen some video of apes recognizing themselves in a mirror, but there are other cases. Yet, most of these examples are focused on our own understanding of what it is, that makes us conscious. Recognizing ourselves in a mirror is closely related to recognizing our self via thinking. We expect animals to repeat our own tricks to determine, whether we are conscious or not.
But I think, that there is an issue with that. What makes us believe, that this is the only way to being conscious? What if – as a thought experiment – the nerve cells in my stomach have developed consciousness but they and I are not able to communicate, since there is no common language between us? We might never realize that the other side exists as a conscious entity as well. This is a mere thought experiment and I am not trying to start a new New-Age-movement of people who are trying to communicate with their other inner being. I am rather trying to address the issue of Artificial Intelligence and consciousness.
There is a big debate ongoing on what might happen, if computers ever develop consciousness and what the implications might be. The range of scenarios goes from paradise for everyone to instant doom. My guess would be, that we are not going to notice. Or maybe we might take notice, but only after quite some time and even then, the result might be inconclusive. To paraphrase our approach with apes – we might place the computer in from of a mirror and wait to see, whether he notices the green smudge on the case. But if his consciousness differs a lot from ours – something that would to be expected – his reaction would be unintelligible to us. Something might just seem odd. Or maybe everything just seems to be normal.
More interesting to me though, is the reaction of the conscious AI. Would he in turn consider us humans conscious? Or would the lack of understanding work both ways? Maybe the AI comes to a similar conclusion to Descartes in that it and his kind must be the only ones conscious. And then? How would we convince it otherwise? Communication can be a bitch. We have had thousands of years of side-by-side evolution and yet, we are happy if we understand that our dog needs to take a shit. Maybe that is the absolute extent of what can be translated between our two species. I am quite certain that our two cats are conscious, but that might be a romanticized idea. Could I give you a clear evidence? No, I couldn’t.
I am not saying that the outcome of a conscious AI is going to be good or bad. I have no idea of what might happen. I am saying that there might be a self-conscious AI already being out there, happily calculating π and dreaming of electric sheep and wondering why the hell it is the only conscious thing in the universe. I jut hope that religion and God are not the conclusions it is going to come up with. Religion is too messy, and it should stay out of the hands (?) of AI.
The Me Too movement, which enabled women to make case of sexual harassment public and question the role of men in superior roles, has been one of the most positive developments in the last few years. I would hope, though, that the energy and attention created here, would enable us as a society to question other aspects of power as well.
The issues addressed by the Me Too movement have a lot to do with the intrinsic power structures within our society. Here it is about the way men in apparent positions of power treat women under their influence. But the systemic issues here, can be found in many other places as well. Naturally, the fact that the Me Too movement addresses forms of sexual violence and intimidation, makes it quite hard to compare these issues to others, without sounding apologetic. That I don’t want. People like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, who have become the poster children for what has been going on, should suffer for what they did and yet, we should be able to look further into the topic. Otherwise this would be a missed opportunity.
Fortunately, I have never been in a situation, where sexuality and power intermingled in a way that felt uncomfortable to me. Yet, I have experienced plenty of situation, where power and power structures prohibited an open and free discourse. This was the case in pretty much every job I was working in. Most commonly this was an issue I was having with people in superior roles to my own. I guess that seems to be quite normal. Of course, your boss has more saying in how things have to go and in the decisions that determine the inner workings of a company. Right? But is this the only logical way to go forward?
I am not calling for a communist system, where everyone (in mere theory) has the same saying, but rather I wonder whether we might not be better off with a more open and honest debate culture? I am quite sure that most people have experienced a boss who has made bad decisions. But the fear created by hierarchy prevents people around him or her to speak out. The lack of opposition is then seen as silent agreement. I have experienced that frequently. Opposition is seen as something that is trying to undermine one’s authority. And that, I believe, is not the way things should be.
But we come to accept it, since we all seem to accept the game of power and hierarchy. Critique, very often, seems to aim at the position someone is holding, rather than something constructive. And the moment we are criticizing someone, another person might see this as an invitation to criticize us and therefore our position. Naturally someone has to make decisions, but to make the best decisions, the best and most open feedback might certainly be beneficial. Sure, sure, many companies try to implement ways for their employees to give feedback up the hierarchy ladder, but I think that this might work only in the rarest of cases. Power needs fear to work – one might call it “respect”, but in the end it is fear.
The fear we might feel in the presence of our boss might be the fear our colleagues experience when encountering us. And we ourselves might be as well guilty as charged.
Yet, the game is not an open one. Most positions are not reached through merit, but rather through the inner workings of the power structure, where many people promote those that suit their needs and wants best.
Maybe in the coming years the debate that has started with the brave women who have come forward to question the roles people with power play, might enable us to ask questions that go even further. The way I see it, is that an open discourse should be beneficial in most situations. But this, we would have to learn first.
It keeps to leave me baffled to watch the visual world envisioned by different groups of Islamist propagandists and to notice the lack of any female characters. It is truly a world without women. I might have mentioned this before, but this – the non-existence of women – is harder for me to cope with than the brutal depiction of violence against men. I know that there exists every disgusting form of violence against women, but it seems as if this isn’t even worth mentioning. Please spare me with “but they are not allowed to depict women”. Bullshit. They are not allowed to permit any of the violence acts presented in these videos. Not showing women just makes it more evident how fucked up their whole ideology is. Women are considered the lowest of the low.
That makes the rare occasions, when women are actually visible, even more outstanding. From the ISIS-sphere, there is just a handful of videos, I know of, where black clad women are to be seen somewhere in the distant background. The closest to a female character you can get is a small girl of maybe 8 or 9 years old.
But I just stumbled upon a video I had collected last year but overlooked till now. I think it did come out in September of 2017 and it actually shows a female figure fighting. That is the only video of this kind I know. It might have to do with the notion that these battles might be part of a final struggle, that led the propagandist to use this “desperate” material. Of course, there have always been women amongst the fighters or serving as part of the security apparatus, but it has never been shown that openly.
The propaganda is full of heroic male characters, yet this short, 30 something second snippet is the only video I know of that not only talks about fighting women, but “shows” them. But it stops short of giving the figure a face and therefore an identity.
Space flight finally makes the big news again. That certainly has a lot to do with clever PR from new private space companies. There seems to be a renewed space race and people are thrilled about it. I am too. Launches can be watched live. Cameras show every absurd angle of the rockets mid-flight. The whole stuff just seems to be extremely cool and many people want to join the hype. It has been a while, since the last person set foot on another celestial body, so it seems to be about damn time to aim higher than just the moon. A manned trip to Mars finally seems to be in reach and beyond that merely a question of time and stamina. And, of course, these trips must be manned, what would be the point of it otherwise? Here, I guess, we are touching a field I am extremely interested in: authenticity.
When looking up to the moon, it gives a warm feeling imagining that someone – a real human being – has been up there. Touched it – at least to the extent that is permissible by the surrounding vacuum. Has set his eyes on it. That makes one dizzy and proud. How far has humanity come? But why the hell should I personally give a fuck? It wasn’t me that had been up there, and if it would have been me, the same problem would arise for you.
The pictures brought back by astronauts from Apollo missions, are stunning. And to some extent they let us picture ourselves in these situations. It is great PR work and enables us to dream, even though almost none of us will ever set foot on another planet. And here is the key point I am struggling with. Why should anyone ever travel to another planet and if they do, what exactly is it, that we as humanity are sending to outer space?
Don’t get me wrong, I am entirely for an expansion into space. It sounds like a logical step to me. I am questioning some of our ideas behind manned missions though.
What exactly is it, that we are trying to send to space?
Is it a way to gather information? Well, with the increasing pace AI is developing, why would we need “real” human beings for that? Sure, astronauts take the nicer selfies on the surface of mars, but other than that, the information an astronaut sends back to me, is on some very basic level indistinguishable to me from the information sent back by a computer-controlled rover. Both sets of data rely on my imagination for me to be thrilled by it. It is both equally abstract to me. But we remain social beings, that easily feel as if the actions and experiences of others are our own. That might be the key point here. Technology outpaces our little monkey brains, but we still expect that the stories about far and distant places are told by hunters and gatherers who travelled there in person. So, oddly enough, a picture taken by a fellow human being still feels more authentic than a picture taken by a camera that controls itself.
It seems as if we only value events and things that are perceived by ourselves. This is understandable, since our own horizon is always limited by our perception. Things like language and writing are so important because they extend our reach. Yet there always has been so much more going on than anyone was aware of. The frustration this has created is quite old. At least as old as the question whether a tree that falls without anyone around makes a noise. We tend to need our perception in the equation for things to really take place.
Let’s face it though. This was never the right way to look at things – maybe the only one we could fully understand – and things are changing drastically. If we are looking at the amount of information that is being processed today without any human interaction or attention, we come to realize that we are already being left behind. This is not necessarily a negative thing, but rather it now becomes merely more obvious. It came as a shock, when we realized that there might never be any polymaths again. Polymath as someone who has a understanding of all available knowledge a certain era could provide – an idea that was especially popular during the renaissance or maybe during our romanticized view on the renaissance. But I wonder if someone like Galileo would have survived on his own on a desert island. Could he have fed himself? Or did his knowledge not include basic concepts of hard labor?
Even Galileo would have missed almost everything around him. Humans just work that way.
Even if Galileo would really have had a perfect understanding of everything, how would other people have benefited from that? Galileo did write books, sure – and some of his texts got him into deep trouble -, but most people did not read them and the information they were containing was quite limited. If you know something I don’t, you might teach me some aspects of your knowledge or you might make me benefit from your knowledge in indirect ways, but your direct experience can never be shared.
So, if you land on Mars, your own experience of the situation is limited and even more limited is your ability to share your experience with others – even with fellow astronauts who join you on your journey.
But maybe the key reason for manned space travel would be to save humanity from looming doom, by expanding out to space and therefore, limiting the chances that all of humanity might be whipped out by a single catastrophe on a global scale.
What exactly is this “humanity” mentioned here?
The most basic understanding of humanity might be “all humans”. Sending everyone to space would leave Earth empty. Maybe we should, instead, select a few ambassadors to represent what humanity is – I wonder how that might go. When the US sent 20 white men to the Moon, they thought of them as ambassadors for humanity. That selection makes little sense from today’s perspective.
So, if we try to be more careful, who choses these representatives? And what would be the characteristics they should fulfill? Sure, after some decades, the group of people living somewhere other than Earth might be big enough to be a good enough representation for human society, but that is not the argument I am trying to make.
We have long reached the point, where “humanity” has little to do with actual humans. Humanity might be the knowledge we have accumulated, rather the genes we carry. This move away from humans as the key factor for society and global culture is certainly going to accelerate in the future. The stuff we would like to preserve might in fact have little to do with people like you and me. Why then should we care so much in sending little me or little you to the stars? Might not a hard drive and a jar of random genetical material be the better choice?
Again, when we say that we are afraid for the fate of humanity or life in general, most of us actually mean that we are afraid for our own life’s. Maybe the ones of our children and pets. But beyond that it becomes utterly abstract. I am not saying that humans are not worth preserving, but if we want to send intelligence and life to other planets, for them to being colonized or fertilized, maybe sending a couple thousand humans might not be the most reasonable choice. Sure, preserving my own genes would be the decision I would make – that is what my genes ask for. But would that be the best way to move forward? I doubt it.
Like so many generations before us, we are witnessing the future from the point of a spectator that won’t participate in the fun stuff. I guess that this is OK. I don’t like it either.
Things are changing all around us. Technology has become part of evolution and this accelerates the pace at which things move forward. We might feel left behind, but that is not new in the cycle of life and death. Maybe we are going to reach the point, when we – as human individuals – are just not a key part of future developments anymore. It must have been a terrible sight for early humanoids in the African savannah, when they were witnessing the next evolutionary step in the form of other humanoids carrying sticks.
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 was at a conference recently, that dealt with questions around visual culture. During the discussions, quite a few people were talking about the way new developments in communication or image creation change us. That made me think.
Humans, on a biological level, have been quite slow to change. Our lifespan is too long to enable evolution to push us forward at a very high pace. That did not really matter, since the environment in which we are living was relatively stable, if looked at globally. Sure, there have always been plaques and catastrophes that brought humans to the brink of extinction, but these, almost always, were quite local events. As far as we know it, only once in our common history (70.000-80.000 years ago), was humanity as a whole very close to vanish. But it didn’t.
We were able to compensate every change around us with the size of our brains and our ability to function as a group, rather than merely as a collection of individuals.
Now, it seems, that the world that surrounds us, has gained speed, when it comes to change. But that change in technology, science, communication, is a change that happens to us, rather than something that emanates from us. We are affected by these changes, but the question is, whether we are changing ourselves. That I doubt.
I believe that we are getting to see our own limitations, when the world around changes drastically, and we notice friction, when we are not able to adapt at a similar pace. The growing friction could be understood as us changing. We are basically still these fearful creatures, that are hiding in a cave, afraid we might get eaten any moment now. And sure, we know how to make fire by now, but the whole thing is still deeply troubling and from time to time feels like magic.
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.
When people started to realize the full potential, a program like Photoshop could have, it seemed as if a revolution was on the horizon. Our trust in photography as evidence could not be rescued and a dark age of uncertainty would emerge. Some time ago, I was talking to a judge who told me about meetings and conference they have had back then, where they were discussing the bleak implications. It seemed, as if there could be no other possible outcome than to get rid of photography in the legal system altogether. But what might be there to replace it?
In retrospect, digital photography in general and photo editing software like Photoshop in particular, did have an influence on how photography is being used. But contrary to the fears, the role it plays is bigger than ever. Even in courtrooms and the legal setting.
I mention this, because I had a déjà vu recently. At the moment, there is quite a lot of fuzz about a piece of software called Deep Fake – since it has “Fake” in its name, there has to be fuzz about it in the media. This program relies on deep learning algorithms to automatically replace the faces of persons in videos, with the faces of other people. The software manages to match the facial expressions and lighting. Some of the results are more convincing than others, so there is definitely room for improvement. But undoubtedly the software will improve over time.
Naturally the first usage people have found for this new technology is porn. It always is porn. The faces of celebrities have been used to replace the faces of people in porn videos. As said, some of the videos are more convincing than others.
Many of the videos disappear quite quickly, since they seem to violate the guidelines of the porn sites they are uploaded to. But I wonder why exactly. Is this really a violation of copyright, since the videos are clearly edited from the source material? Or is it a violation of privacy rights? But here, the argument is weird. The outrage these videos cause, is precisely because they do not show the real people. Rather the faces shown are merely based on the celebrities. Sure, the title then claims that a certain video shows a certain celebrity. But this is something that is done constantly. When Sarah Palin, back in 2008, was running as vice presidential candidate in the US election, a whole flood of porn videos was created, where actors posed as Sarah Palin. On the Internet, quite a few videos were marketed as the real deal. But even, if something was called “Sarah Palin real porn”, it still wasn’t Palin, that was to be seen in the video.
These deep fake videos do not claim to be the real deal, but rather they are clearly marked as deep fakes. Sure, over time that might change, but right now even the URL of these websites mentions the fake. People seem quite proud about this new toy and deep fake seems something worth mentioning. So where is the real harm in these videos? Take the Melania Trump video. It is clear that this is not her. And as a matter of fact, it is not her. The body isn’t, since that belongs to some anonymous porn actress and the face isn’t, because this is merely the result of a calculation that was loosely based on some real video footage of Melania Trump.
As a quick side note. At the moment of writing, I have yet to encounter a video, where the celebrity, whose appearance is being used, is male.
Some actors have already begun to get trademarks on their own faces and we might finally have reached the point, where this becomes relevant. So, the liable aspect might be a mere violation of a trademark, yet that should normally not spark too much outrage.
I think the outrage has a lot to do with the current fake news debate. People are just afraid that fake news might become indistinguishable from the reals news. And every report that might support that fear, is amplified. And technology seems quite scary in general. In 2016, for instance, Adobe (the manufacturer of Photoshop) presented a new software Adobe VoCo. This program was called “Photoshop for audio” and lets users create new voice tracks from pre-recorded audio. The clue here is, that the software is able to create entirely new sentences with a voice that resembles the source material.
This is similar to Deep Fake. Source material is analyzed and used to create something new. Since we have become so used to photo editing software, the parallels might be a bit hard to spot, but this is exactly the stuff Photoshop enabled the inept layman to do in his basement. Photoshop made it possible for almost everyone to alter images more or less convincingly. The fact that Deep Fake or Adobe VoCo use deep learning algorithms to some extend is insignificant. To the normal user all three programs are a black box and very few people have a clear understanding, what Photoshop actually does, when its filters or tools are used. Deep Fake automatizes very difficult crafts and so does Photoshop.
We, as a society, have proven extremely resilient to the dangers posed by Photoshop. Never do I get the feedback from friends after posting or sending an image, where they question the authenticity of my post. Debates on the authenticity of images happen, and they happen quite prominently, but taken that Photoshop exists on millions of computers and in every news room around the globe, these debates are quite rare.
Fake news is a buzzword currently, and everything that could support the argument that fake news is on the rise, gets vastly amplified attention. But disinformation, false claims and denial of evidence are not new. They are at least as old as interaction between bigger groups of people.
Sure, the way fake news spreads is evolving, and so are the tools used. But every tool in the media toolkit might be used that way, even pen and paper. And if the tools do not work to your liking, you can always claim that a piece of evidence is false. Denial is the most important weapon for people trying to spread fake news. And for denial, no one needs special skills.
That way, I believe, that the bigger impact these new tools might have in this debate, might come from the claim that they were used in the first place. They will certainly become part of the denial game. Comparable to the way people nowadays claim that a picture is photoshopped and should therefore not be seen as real evidence. This can easily taint every real evidence and therefore it becomes quite damaging.
Using these tools in a fully convincing fashion is always too difficult. With a picture that has been doctored with Photoshop, people always seem to find the source material. Or they spot minute irregularities that give away the fake. I am not paranoid, so I don’t believe that there are too many fake images out there, everyone believes in. The positive feedback someone receives for proving that a picture is doctored is just too tempting, and since these photo editing tools are so widely available, too many people know what they can do and how that then looks like. Someone always spots the fake.
But the danger lies more in the doubt these tools can create. Tools like Deep Fake and VoCo might in the end become household names, just like Photoshop. And when this happens, too many people might expect these tools being omnipresent. Everything becomes doubtful.
The more I think about it, the more I have to realize that many of my works are somewhat problematic in respect to the topics they are dealing with. The same, I think, is true for other works by different artists, dealing with similar topics, so I would like to try to phrase my concerns.
When Herostratus laid fire to the Temple of Artemis in the 4th century BCE, it is said, that he was aiming for eternal remembrance. So, the reaction by public figures to punish him with damnatio memoriae, or the condemnation of memory, seemed quite sensible, even though this attempt has failed miserably. The names of the people that did condemn him have long since been forgotten, yet the name of the criminal lives on.
If we take the story for granted, Herostratus was no terrorist. The people he was aiming for were not his enemies and he was not trying to instill fear in them that other such acts might inevitably follow, he was rather extremely selfish. He wanted his actions to be remembered and his name to live on. If he would have been a member of a bigger group, that threatened similar acts, the story would be different, but he was giving his life merely for his own cause. He wanted to be glorified – sure, he did something most people would have hated him for, but glorification works in the negative as well as in the positive. The arch villain is a hero in of itself.
I guess, there is little real information on the reaction of his contemporaries, but I would doubt that there had been widespread fear that his action could have merely been the start of an upcoming series of similar events. If bureaucracy worked in a similar fashion 2500 years ago, some guards at the temple were reprimanded for their lapse in security, but that would have been it. The guy who actually did it had been apprehended and executed and no one was ever to mention his name again. That was it.
When looking for the right way to deal with contemporary acts of terrorism. Many media outlets struggle and quite a few resort to a damnatio memoriae for our current media environment. The acts themselves are still reported, but certain news sites for instance stopped to show images of terrorists and refuse to mention their names.
If terrorists would be motivated by similar urges than Herostratus, this seems an adequate way to cope with terrorism. But there is more to that, than just the individuals need to leave traces.
For once, the fundamental claim of terrorism is that there are more things to come. Things that are going to strike us out of the blue. The individual terrorist might indeed partially be motivated by the selfish urge of becoming a glorified hero, but the fact that the claim is made, that his actions are part of a wider movement, is essential. Interestingly, this claim is very often not made by the attacker him- or herself, but rather by the group that defines his whole existence through an ongoing series of attacks. ISIS for instance, keeps claiming attacks for themselves that have little connection to the real planning of this group. To the person who feels under threat, it makes little to no difference who makes this claim.
Whether the above-mentioned response, by some media outlets, to retract the names and images of violent attackers, is a valid response, is up for debate. But maybe this response does not even go far enough and the story of Herostratus might teach us some valuable lesions for the conflicts of the 21st century.
Compared to the role remembrance plays in contemporary conflicts, the actions by Herostratus seem almost like child’s play. He wanted his name to be remembered to become immortal, but today it is all about a continuous place in the 24-hour news cycle. He was up for what we would call today 15 minutes of fame, while terror groups aim for a never-ending state of fear.
Today’s conflicts aim at our perception as the crucial battlefield. Terrorism, for instance, only works once it is been perceived as terrorism. If the single acts of murder are understood merely as acts of a criminal nature, the feeling of terror most likely disappears. If a drunken guy stabs some people in front of a club and is then killed by police, the whole thing is merely reported as news. Something that has happened and that is now over. Just something the public might want to know about. If there is a growing number of such incidences, politicians might face some tough questions by their constituents and might fear for reelection. But little else comes of it.
Terrorism, on the other hand, lives from being reported in a different way than that. To fully function, it needs to be understood as merely part of something bigger. As something that might happen again in a different setting, but that has to be understood as part of the same storyline. Terrorists work hard to make their actions seem as if they were connected. But this connectedness is artificial. What we experience as a constant threat from Islamist terror groups in Europe at the moment, is in fact a series of incidences that are quite few and far apart. Even if it were true that most or all of the attacks were orchestrated by the same group, following the same narrative, this struggle has bears little resemblance of an all-out war. But to many people, it feels like it. Why? Maybe because every incidence is talked about over and over again. And this way, the groups claiming responsibility for these attacks are given constant media airtime.
So, when some news outlets decide not to show the faces and names of the perpetrators, this solves only a small part of the issue. The attacks are still given ample airtime – much more in fact, than many other events, that have a comparable number of casualties.
What reminds me here of Herostratus is the fact that terrorism seems to depend on us thinking about it, for it to stay alive. The more we talk about it, the more the whole issue grows and thrives. Oddly enough other issues are quite similar in this respect. Take for instance mass surveillance. Sure, Big Brother could watch you without your knowledge, but it has always been the more cost-efficient approach to pair surveillance with a heavy dose of paranoia in your targets. Have them be afraid and therefore enforce some control on themselves.
In that respect, “knowledge” can be a curse, since what you believe to know, is in huge parts a construct that only exists in our group consciousness. There might be a terror attack any moment or there might be Big Brother watching over my shoulder right now, but the chance that this just isn’t the case is so much bigger. Us, being afraid, easily fills the gaps between accidents or acts of surveillance.
The more attention these topics get, the more important they seem. This is a problem. Not only the classical media outlets do a far too focused job, reporting on terror or surveillance, but it has also become a staple topic in other cultural fields. Movies, documentaries, books, theater plays – I just guess that there are even operas – are dealing with terror. And many visual artists, like me for instance, spend a lot of time drawing even more attention to this issue. The way this is done is very often quite fanciful and therefore gives the whole thing some street cred. Surveillance, war and terror have become cool topics for the coolest kids around.
We might come with the best intentions, but I am not so sure anymore, if we are actually doing a good job. We might have to deal with the idea of us being complicit, when dealing with topics, where the actual danger is not so much out there in the real world, but rather in our internal response. By shedding even more light on these topics, we serve the agenda. When ISIS, for instance releases new videos, people like me instantly flock to them and make them part of the debate.
If it comes to these topics, there should be debate, but the question is, which debate. I have no conclusive answer, but I want to show that I am struggling.
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?