ISIS, Putin and the claim of responsibility

An image from a recent attack on a casino in the Philippines. Contrary to initial reporting and even a tweet by Donald Trump, the perpetrator was no ISIS member, but rather an indebted gambler.

Claiming or denying responsibility for things that happen, seems to have become almost an art form.

Imagining a criminal, confessing to a whole bunch of crimes he did actually not commit, is quite an extraordinary thought. But this is pretty much normal, if it comes to certain terrorist organizations. It appears as if ISIS in particular, claims almost everything at one point or the other. Sure, there are the official looking ISIS channels who seem somewhat more cautious, but even they did claim responsibility for the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando for instance, where the perpetrator in part seemed to have been motivated by his inability to cope with his own sexual orientation. OK, if I think about it, this might exactly be the reason that incites a huge chunk of religious violence, but normally this is not the stuff a group like ISIS wants to be openly associated with.

The point is though, that Islamist terror groups tend to claim responsibility for far more attacks and events, than what they have actually organized. The attacker in Orlando might have mentioned ISIS in a phone call, he made to the local police during his attack; so, he might have been inspired by the Islamic State; but if we look into it, there seems to have been little actual relationship between the attacker and the group he did mention. Inspiring someone and being fully responsible for his actions, are indeed two separate things.

One the other extreme we find Russian president Vladimir Putin. Whenever someone makes any claim of Russia being involved in anything, Putin instantly seems to deny any connection. Be it meddling in the US election, the support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine or the killing of figures of the Russian opposition in Russia and abroad, he instantly denies any involvement and frequently calls the accusations conspiracy theories.

Neither Putin nor ISIS are stupid, let alone inexperienced, so rather than dismissing their difference in style as merely a personal preference, one should look at this as a strategic decision.

A terror group like ISIS tries to spread terror and fear, precisely to extend its otherwise very limited reach. Claiming responsibility for a multitude of events – these do not necessarily need to be attacks – does make sense. Especially in a media environment with an ever-shortening attention span. The way events are perceived is decided in the first couple of hours, until the whole media circus moves on. So, by pretty much claiming everything almost instantly, some claims might make headlines and that is all ISIS needs. That way, ISIS is more of a claim-machine than one that needs to orchestrate terror.

To law enforcement or the judiciary system – and to the victims – it is important to determine, if something had been an attack and who was behind it. But the panic element, that makes terror so devastating, relies on fast paced judgements. If prosecutors, weeks after an event, find out that a blast had been a technical malfunction, the battle over our perception has already been lost.

The reaction of denying any wrongdoing seems quite “reasonable” as well. If you deny any involvement in anything evil, that might limit your liability. Every two-year-old knows that. It becomes odd, when everyone knows that you are lying. Take for instance the fighting in Eastern Ukraine that goes on for years now. Putin denies any support for the so-called separatists. That seems odd, since the lack of support by official channels in Russia make it very hard to explain, where all the shiny new Russian tanks and small-arms are coming from.

Everyone knows, that there is support from within Russia and either Putin is extremely naïve, or he is lying. But constantly lying might in fact be a clever political move. People know that you do at least some of the things people claim you do. By appearing untrustworthy to your opponents – in Putin’s case the West -, people might start to believe that you are responsible for almost everything. You might become the focus of a conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories are funny, since, when you fall for them, they always seem to be directed against you. I have yet to find a person, who thinks that there is a conspiracy going on that aims at making his life better. That way, these conspiracies are always aimed at something extremely powerful, lurking in the shadows. But what if you are at the receiving end of such a theory? To some groups – i.e. the Jews, Freemasons, Communists -, this can have dire consequences. But if you are an organization that holds real power and whose job it is to use that power, people associating even more power to you, might certainly have some benefits.

I believe for instance, that American institutions, like the NSA and CIA, that are constantly under suspicion, do certainly realize that this conspiracy theory that is associated with them isn’t necessarily the worst thing. There are quite a few people, that almost believe in the omnipotence of these US agencies. And you do not want to pick a fight with such a powerful organization willy-nilly. That way, the CIA reaches parts of the world, where there is no agent present.

Strangely claiming everything and denying everything might create a similar outcome. It widens your reach. But the constant claim is the tool of the weak and the constant denial is the tool of the actor, people already think is powerful. There comes the point, where you should start switching from one to the other. If you have widened your virtual reach to a point, that people start believing in your godlike powers, it might become favorable to deny everything.

How to report on terror attacks

In light of the recent terror attacks, I believe that the media is obliged to report these attacks with a high level of care. The reach of terrorism is always extremely limited and terrorist organizations heavily rely on the media attention their attacks create to spread fear. The role of the media should not be to widen this reach, but moderate it.

These are some guidelines I believe might be important to follow.

– Treat it as a crime, until local law enforcement says it has been a terror attack.

– Ignore statements by ISIS, al Qaeda and such. What they are saying is propaganda and should therefore be ignored. By repeating their statements, you spread propaganda and therefore make the attack more successful. Just because they make the claim, that they have orchestrated something, does not mean anything.

– People feel the need to upload videos and images taken during attacks. Other people have the urge to search for these videos. Refrain from using these videos. The information value of these videos for the public is extremely limited, unless your goal is it to show people in distress.

– Images of the perpetrator should only be used when law enforcement asks the media to do so. What you might believe is reporting is in fact a glorification of attackers?

– Report facts and not feelings. Of course, people had been confused and scared during the attack. There is no point in putting emphasis on that, unless you wish to spread fear and uncertainty further.

– Only report things that are important for the public to know. Overreporting makes things more difficult for law enforcement and makes it harder for the public to understand.

– Try not to report everything law enforcement does live. If you want or not, you might help the attackers.

– If the whole event is still unfolding, does the general audience really need to know the names, genders and ages of the victims? Let the families come to terms first and then, later, we might join them in their grief.

– If you make a claim, that later proves to be false, at least have the decency to report your correction with a similar emphasis than your original statement. Otherwise the misleading claim is going to stick with the audience.

Perception Perception Perception

What makes terror so devastating is not the reach of a certain blast or the number of people killed; it is the way it manages to embed itself deep into our perception. It makes us scared and keeps us preoccupied with an idea of constant danger.

This feeling of terror has to be understood at a personal level. Each one of us is a possible target that might be overwhelmed by this feeling.  Only at a later point would the reaction of our society as a whole be of interest.

We personally feel threatened. Terror is this invisible threat that seems to be directed at people like us and therefore might harm us any moment from now. So being afraid almost seems to be a valid idea. The way we feel these threats apparently needs no explanation to be real.

What is much harder to grasp, is to understand threats that are directed at people, we do not associate with – others. Empathy might enable us to get a hint of what the other person might experience, but even with an empathetic approach, there is little present of this deep-seated feeling of terror.

This feeling of terror is linked to phobias in that the threat might be real, but my reaction has little connection to the level of the threat. I for instance am afraid of heights. To some extend that is a valid fear, since falling off a ladder might carry some dire consequences. But most people don’t just fall off ladders. Accidents happen, just not all the time. Normally being careful should be enough. My phobia does not care though. Standing next to a ladder and looking up, very often the fear of the height feels illogical – even to me. Once I try to ascend it though this question of whether it is logical or not completely disappears. Friends of mine “know” that I am afraid of heights. Can they understand it? I have my serious doubts. They are be able to see the same threat I do – falling off a ladder – just it does not seem to be similarly directed at them. For them, “being careful” is all that is needed.

With the way Islamist terror currently has a firm grasp on media attention, it is somewhat hard to see that there are other, quite similar, threats aimed at other groups. And this, I believe, is a very serious issue. If we look at racist violence against immigrants, the drone warfare by the US in different parts of the world or the police violence in the US against people of color and so on; these are all things that cause a similar form of anxiety in those who feel under threat. I am not saying that police violence in the US is a terrorist operation, but it does certainly create the feeling of being terrorized in those who feel targeted. The threat become something that is unavoidably directed at you.

I recently had a discussion with an openly racist person here in Germany. He did not deny that there were “some” acts of violence against refugees in Germany, what he denied though was my claim that this is terror quite similar to the terror by Islamists. For him one thing is merely a series of criminal events and the other stuff is pure terror. This is what I tried to explain earlier. Terror is very hard to see if it affects others. Or, to phrase it differently, terror is what affects you.

Most of us will never become victims of terror attacks. Most refugees in Germany will never be harmed by Nazis. Most Afghans are never personally harmed in drone strikes. And most people of color in the US will never be harmed by police. Yet, the feeling of terror that unites these groups, isn’t entirely baseless. There are people that are harmed or killed. And the feeling of terror is real. So how should we address this?

Even though this is hard, we must try to separate the personal level from the level of society. The events that cause terror, like attacks by ISIS and Co, attacks by Nazi on refugees, the police brutality, these are real life events that have to be addressed. This should be the job of lawmakers or law enforcement. But the terror itself, in that it exists on a personal level of perception, is trickier to address. We see the main problem already. If we look at a country like Poland that hasn’t seen a single Islamist terror attack and that has a minuscule number of Muslims, we might still be able to find a similar level of terror in ordinary people, then within a society that suffers heavily from this kind of attacks.

So, if even the absence of terrorism is no guaranty for the disappearance of the feeling of terror, not too much hope should be spent on extremely tough laws and wide-reaching surveillance. Even outrageous demands like the deportation of all Muslims would just not help. The terror is a feeling that rests in us and it is quite hard for the government to rescue us from ourselves. On the contrary. Us, being afraid, is quite handy. Laws and restrictions are easily argued for and populism feasts on it.

The lack of empathy – or the limited reach of empathy – makes things quite difficult to cope with. When different people with different fears communicate, quickly it feels like both sides just won’t take the other side seriously. When Germans show their fear, when a terror attack takes place, and refugees do not show a level of outrage that is considered adequate, this is understood either as their them being complicit or them lacking compassion. But the same could be said the other way around. When refugees are under attack, so many Germans just do not seem to care? Are they complicit? Do they lack compassion? Some certainly do, as do some of the refugees in the first example. But I believe that most just do not really understand that the whole thing is that big of a problem.

Take the troubles in Israel and Palestine. Just imagine that both sides might be right and both sides might do wrong. It could be, that some of the actions both sides undertake, might be understood as acts of terror on the other side.

 

The Stuff that is wrong with Intelligence

I have listened to the latest podcast by Sam Harris earlier today. I am not following him that closely, so when he was talking about the heat he was getting on the Internet recently that was new to me. I did not spend too much time looking into it but merely rely on what he was telling on his podcast, but that I take as an excuse to write about something that bothers me for quite some time.

So, Harris seems to have drawn a lot of criticism for talking about research that links intelligence to genes – more specifically genes that are linked what is classified as race. The second cause for outrage seemed to be that he was talking about this with Charles Murray, a right-leaning researcher that talks maybe slightly too much about this connection to be considered open minded about the topic of race – to be polite. Harris complains about the debate culture today, that prevents researchers like him, to talk about certain findings in certain fields, that cannot be addressed without facing criticism on the basis of political correctness.

I have serious issues with the idea of political correctness as it is enforced by some groups and individuals today and would be the first to protect Sam Harris in that respect. I think this has become a curse, that makes a badly needed public discourse in these fields unnecessarily hard and plays in the hands of groups on the right. The left had always had a wonderful talent to tear itself apart, rather than focusing on it’s real opponents.

That aside, I do believe that Mr. Harris is badly wrong in many ways.

Let us just assume that there is no issue with the general concept of intelligence – I’ll come back to this point later, since this would be my key theory. So, let’s assume that intelligence does exist and it can be measured, since this is definitely a prerequisite when arguing that intelligence and a selection of genes are somehow connected. To say that changes in certain genes have a positive or negative effect on the level of intelligence, one has to define what would be counted as intelligence.

The problem I see with this is one that has to do with the general nature of human beings. Humans tend to form groups and associate themselves with others that share interests and traits. In a professional environment that seems quite logical. Physicists have more in-depth interaction with other physicists than say with janitors. But this lumping creates little echo chambers. Not only are you biased on your own towards what your interest is in, but the people around you give you the impression that these biases might be valid. Conferences are a good place to see this in action. I went to a conference, where archivists all agreed that their field was the most crucial for the development of society and I went to another, where historians claimed the same about their trade. I guess that this might explain why many janitors share some prejudice against “learned people”. The janitors know something we have missed – that is that the world would fall apart without them. At least that might be the stuff janitors agree on.

Maybe you get my point.

I believe that a similar thing is at stake once we look at how intelligence is measured. If the definition of what intelligence is and the development of adequate tests would be left up to the combined force of janitors, the outcome might be different from what we have in place now. But they are not the ones to decide. It is another sub-set of society that has taken on this task. Still, the problems are the same. Whatever group plays the most important role in developing the definition of intelligence, social science relies on mostly, there are certainly a lot of similarities between its members. And these members – knowingly or not – are biased to include those things in their classification that are skills needed to be successful in their own trade. If they even work on a classification of intelligence, well they have certainly to be included – right?

Sam Harris, in his podcast, talked about quantum physicists as a group that certainly excluded people of average intelligence. Ok, I have rarely met quantum physicists, but the physicists (more of a macroscopic kind) I have met would have a hard time holder a hammer at the right end. Not saying that this would be a skill that best defines intelligence; I am rather trying to make the point that any definition of intelligence might be tailored to include certain groups and exclude others.

Of course, this is oversimplified. These definitions are not developed with a group of people having some beers and musing over what it is that makes them so amazingly clever. It is far more subtle and I have no doubts that most of these researchers have the best intentions. They work hard to make their definition as waterproof as possible. Still, the bias, it always finds its way.

Even if one could come up with a virtually bias-free setting, this still would be no solution for the issue I am having.

The fundamental problem with the concept of intelligence

A certain level of intelligence is something we attribute to each and every individual. And I believe that herein lies the problem. Humans have never existed outside a group structure. Even if you would end up – Robinson-style – on a remote desert island, you would still rely on every knowledge society has bestowed upon you to that point. But not only our practical knowledge relies on the knowledge already in existence within the society that surrounds us, but so is every last concept of abstract things, such as logic.

I think we ought to look at intelligence as something that is inherit in our society as a whole rather than something that could be coped with on an individual level. I find it very amusing, when people freak out about the rise of intelligent machines. “Oh my god! Computers are going to be more intelligent than humans!”. That is the fear. If we just look at humans and the idea of intelligence, we should realize that even though there might have been a person with the highest IQ amongst them all, this person was always just a speck within the bigger group. No matter how intelligent you are, you are insignificant compared to the group you are in. This way, Computers are merely going to add their intelligence to the group total – as was true with the very clever hunter in the Stone Age.

This way, intelligence is derived from diversity. The more diverse a group is, the better it is able to tackle new problems. This reflects back to the basic concept of intelligence. If we test individuals for their IQ, we tend to look at how well they react to different kinds of problems. In a group of people, this is somewhat related to genetics. When a new disease appears, a population that is genetically diverse has a better chance of dealing with the new threat than one that is genetically very homogeneous.

The question of which way to look at intelligence – on an individual level or on the level of the group as a whole – isn’t merely one of a certain perspective. Rather, I would argue, judging intelligence on a person to person basis is highly dangerous.

It is tempting to judge every individual based on his or her intelligence. This way, it is very easy to alter the intelligence of a group by adding more intelligent people or removing less intelligent ones. Sounds familiar? Sure, this is Eugenics. Something that was very much en vogue in the late 19th and early 20th century. Then it lost a little bit of favor due to the work of wee men with concentration camps. But with the promises made by genetical engineering, it is once again gaining ground. It is strange to see that, once more, scientists and racists are combining their forces.

But of course, the “intelligence” they want to enhance is shown by skills they tend to cherish in themselves. Maybe it should be classified as a cloning operation, rather than one that is aimed at improving the average intelligence of our society.

Again, I am arguing that the average intelligence of a given group rises with every different member that is included. This is why, multicultural societies are going to prepare us much better for things to come that the Easter-Island-style of culture racists dream about. Having handicapped people, people with mental problems, healthy ones, old, young, gay, straight, religious, atheist … this is the stuff that raises our intelligence – and don’t forget janitors for gods sake! And if the machines are raising? We’ll just invite them in. They will certainly be able to add their share.

 

The ghost of van Gogh’s ear and the wonders of being misunderstood

I was at a big event conference recently and during one talk there were two people on stage complaining about the fact that many of the issues they were addressing were taboo and therefore had little exposure in the media and in society. And yet, there they were. On stage, in a room with a couple hundred people, at a conference with some thousand attendees and having their talk recorded to be shared on different websites. And journalists everywhere. Somehow the fact that there seemed to be an audience for their talk did not dawn on them. Even though there were a couple hundred people right there. Just in front of them. I find that amazing. Maybe, just maybe, art could be able to teach us something here.

Ever since, on December 23rd, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear, failure plays a weird role in the arts. Of course, I am aware that at the time no one took notice of this mentally ill man in a small French town, especially no one in the art world – which is part of the whole issue. I am just mentioning this one event for the sake of my argument and to make things slightly more funny. Years later, when van Gogh posthumously started to be sold for huge wads of money, the world finally took notice of his plight. The ear and the fact that he was financially unsuccessful during his lifetime became the material for 500 Euro questions in TV shows and answers in beginner’s crosswords puzzles. And it became a curse.

The story that society fails to see the real genius that hides in plain sight isn’t merely the stuff that keeps untalented hobbyists painting, it rather might form the basis for much of what is understood as “avantgarde”. Every new avantgarde seems in part to feast on the idea of being misunderstood within the surrounding society. It is almost as if this has become a measurement for the real success. Even collectors and gallerists have fallen in love with this mechanism. “Outsider Art” is an ever-changing sub-genre that carries those who are handicapped in a multitude of ways. Once an outsider starts being valued by the market, new kinds of outsiders appear and take over the classification. And then there are bullshit artists like Jonathan Meese, who make lots of money from being “outsiders”.

This might explain the arrogance that comes out of many art schools. Much of what is created is hard to understand – even for me and I studied fine arts. Some time ago, I went to an “photography” exhibition with works from current students at a big art school. There, I tried desperately to explain some of the works to an architecture professor I met there. Desperately, since much of it remained unexplainable to me. I think that this is problematic. If a professor at the same school does not understand what the stuff is about … well, the works seem to lack something. Not necessarily from the perspective of the young artists though. I believe that there is the curse of the misunderstood artist at work here. To them, not being understood might not be an issue at all, but rather a weird sign of success.

Being misunderstood or mishandled, underrepresented or underreported has become almost something like an accolade, not only in the art world. Of course, the world is full of people who are underreported or victims of a multitude of mistreatings, but these are the people we are not hearing about, because they lack a voice. I am rather talking about complaining on big stages that your ideas are underrepresented – that seems weird to me. Reading or seeing statements publicly that begin with “No one talks about ….” almost feels like theatre of the absurd. And the Internet is full of it.

Sure, if you want to be a revolutionary, you should distance yourself from whatever mainstream there is. That is not new. What is new is the sheer number of people, groups or organizations who simultaneously claim to be “the revolution”. Even a billion dollar news-network like Fox News chips in, by trying to pretend not to be “mainstream”. Everyone wants to be an outsider, since only as such you can be a true revolutionary. So, there are millions of little revolutions with little – or no – agenda in place. Who needs an agenda, if you get your justification from the fact that you are misunderstood? The idea that you might not be represented to the full extend, because your ideas are just not worthwhile, almost never occurs. Everyone just smells a conspiracy theory directed against them.

As we have seen with Fox News, today, even representatives of the status quo claim to be the victim and thus demand the role of the revolutionary.

Yet drowned are the voices that really deserve to be heard. But how to find them, since everyone is so much better connected than those who are truly desperate? Now, this might cause anger, since every little group of equal minded people always comes to an agreement that their cause is the most valuable – or certainly amongst the most valuable. This way journalists, bankers, white nationalists and feminists meet for once on a similar playing field.

One way to look at terror propaganda: Grab a beer and laugh your ass off!

Twice the guns, double the scariness? No, it is just ridiculous. The fact that he shoots two guys at the same time? Even more so!

After a recent talk at the Re:Publica 17 conference in Berlin, some people criticized I was criticized that I was trying to get cheap laughs out of the audience. The topic of the presentation was about the visual culture of jihadist groups. To some extent, I was certainly carried away by my presentation – as I normally are -, so I am guilty in that respect. Do I believe that ISIS videos are funny? Well, I absolutely do. More than that, many of the videos and many of the scenes shown are just hilarious. Does that mean that they are not terrible? No, they are terrible and brutal and disgusting – yet hilarity and brutality do not necessarily live in separate spheres.

I could come up with many examples for both, the brutality and hilarity – and even for as many examples, where both extremes meet directly in an environment of absurdity -, but counting or comparing is really not important here. How many funny scenes would equal a terrible on? Treating it this way makes little sense to me. And it would completely miss the point, why I believe that it is very important to treat these videos and documents lightheartedly.

Talking about these videos as if they would be just one homogeneous entity is somewhat simplifying; I am aware of that. Sorting them into different categories under different themes, and analyzing the different goals they might aiming for, is very tempting and as a matter of fact, I do this quite extensively; but here, I would look at these videos, as if they were aiming for just one goal. Instilling fear. And since I am writing this from a Western perspective, I am focusing on the attempt to instill fear in the West.

Judging by the political climate and media reporting in many European countries, Islamist terror groups are currently quite successful in that regard. Having the occasional terror attack certainly helps in the creation of fear, but the propaganda is plays an important role. I am even making the case that the terror attacks themselves should be classified as another form of propaganda.

Terror, pretty much by its definition, feeds on our fears; it needs us to be afraid to work at all. Killing people does have an impact, but this impact is very limited. Propaganda tries to extend this reach. I have mentioned this on this blog very briefly before, but I think that propaganda itself is a sign of weakness. It is the attempt to extend the reach into otherwise unreachable realms. Systems, who heavily rely on propaganda, reveal that they have little influence on parts of the world or parts of our minds, they are trying to occupy. If the words Fascists or Stalinists struggle to make people happy by providing them with the basic needs, to fulfill their urges for freedom or prosperity, they are always relying on propaganda to reach them by other means.

In this respect, terror propaganda, that merely tries to instill fear, is much cruder. Spreading fear, when there is little to be afraid of, is much simpler, than spreading the idea of a wonderful life that is contradicted by the harsh reality that surrounds you. Scaring people is much easier than to make them happy.

There are different ways to let terror propaganda suffer. The simplest way would to just ignore it. Stop reporting about it and that would be it. But in our current 24-hour media cycle, this could never be implemented. Hour long news shows have to be filled. Breaking news must constantly flash our screens. And in-depth analysis has to be written. Plus, not reporting on the propaganda that is aimed at us, would in fact be a kind of censorship.

I am not saying that this constant reporting on the slightest bit of propaganda or any attempted terror attack somewhere is a good thing. It is not. In fact, this over-reporting is the stuff of nightmares, since this is precisely what fuels the fears within our societies. I am saying that, blocking the reporting is not feasible and blocking it might backfire in unintended ways.

But, besides being noticed and reported on, another key element that is necessary for terror propaganda to spread fear is that it is taken seriously. Apparently, this is something that can be quite easily achieved. As a society, taking pity in the suffering of others, is a key element for the functioning of our social structure. This is what many of the terror threats and terror attacks aim for. While showing people suffer in their videos, while making them suffer during their attacks, terror groups grab our undivided attention. We have come to accept that, once suffering is involved in an event, we must block out all the other aspects that might be visible.

Once people are grieving, right response is to join in and grieve with them – that is the rule.  That is true and important. But prohibiting ourselves from finding another narrative for these violent attacks or brutal videos is a missed opportunity to disable many the mechanisms that make them function.

Terror is brutal and violent and as long as we feel terrorized, it remains what it wants to be: Terror. As soon though, as we stop taking it seriously, it does not lose any of its violence or brutality, but it stops being terror.

We can already see part of this at play during some of the last terror attacks in Europe. Take for instance the Christmas market attack in Berlin. The mood in the city did not change all that much. Or, it did change, but life did not come to a standstill as had happened as a reaction to other attacks. Life went on and that limited the reach of the terror attack by quite a bit. It seems as if people did not take this as seriously as they did many other attacks before.

Humor, I argue, might drive this even further. C’mon! Many, if not most, of these videos are ridiculous. It might be tricky to see at first, with all the moral blocks in place, but once one manages to overcome some hurdles, it becomes obvious.

It is the stuff I would have come up with as a teenager, when someone had asked me to scare the shit out of people. There are so many funny and absurd elements and we should wet ourselves laughing, while watching them. There should be enough room to grieve with the victims and the ones they have left behind, but I truly believe that it is our civic responsibility not to take this shit seriously. Because if we did, they would have achieved their goals and terror and fear would continue to spread.

 

Why is it easier to explain the Holocaust than a work by Joseph Beuys?

There is this group of Syrian refugees that I know, that are mostly part of an extended family. Since they are all – on very different skill levels – struggle somewhat to cope with the German language and culture, I take them to different museums from time to time. I find that this is a far better way to teach them some German words or basic concepts than have them cook me some delicious Syrian food and stick with them in their regular environment. There is a huge number of museums in Berlin. And that is great, since it might take a while for us to run out of opportunities.

A work by Joseph Beuys

But whenever I think of taking them somewhere, I also think about the fact that I would not take them to any of the contemporary art venues, like the Hamburger Bahnhof, KW or HDKDW. When talking about this to a friend, I phrased it this way: I could easily explain them the concept of the Holocaust, or why Germans hated the Jews, while visiting the Jewish Museum; but explaining the shit Joseph Beuys has done is beyond my grasp. So, the Holocaust is a much easier concept than contemporary art, and that, I believe, is an issue.

That does not necessarily mean that I myself do not grasp some of the ideaspresented in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Keep in mind, I studied the topic quite extensively and I might even have gained some level of expertise. It is the fact, that much of it is so far beyond the reach of someone less qualified, where the problem lies. It might be that the topics many of these artists work on are just too complicating for mere mortals to understand – I don’t think that this is the case. On the contrary, most of the artists presented in a contemporary setting deal with extremely basic issues and ideas. Yet, the artists and the museums often fail completely when trying to make things accessible.

Other museums, like those who deal with science or history, manage it quite well to make hard to understand topics accessible to a huge fraction of the society – even to people who did grow up in a different country and culture. Sure, they are very often overdoing it in a Disney-theme-park kind of way, with a lot of fancy buttons and lots to touch and awe about. On the other hand, contemporary art functions in a way like “understand it or get the fuck out”. This approach is extremely elitist. It might have to do with a misunderstood concept of Avantgarde. Artists seem to believe that to really be revolutionary, one has to be constantly out of line with society. This is sad.

Medusa and the Taint of Child Pornography

In ancient Greek mythology, Medusa is a monster that looks so terrifying that gazing at her face turns everyone into stone. This even works when once her head has been cut off and is utilized by Perseus as a weapon. I find this story quite fascinating in that it envisions something that is so terrible that even gazing at it briefly taints you beyond hope.

In a way, I would like to draw some parallels to the concept of child pornography in our current cultural environment. I have mentioned this in an earlier post, but child pornography is almost the only thing on the Internet, where merely looking at it is something that is illegal. Maybe it is the only thing, where this is true. There are quite many things, like gore, violence or racist acts, where looking at it might not be too good for your career, but looking at it is more classified as “bad taste”. So, there might be consequences for you, but maybe not direct legal ones. Currently there seems to be a push to move images and videos from certain terrorist groups into a category similar to child pornography, but we are not fully there yet.

But what is it about a certain image that could be so tainting? Please note that I am not talking about the terrible acts that are perpetrated while creating these terrible images, but rather the gaze that looks at them. This is the issue that baffles me. Especially, once we look at the laws that cover it more closely. In Germany, for instance, there is no need for the image to be a photograph of a real person to be classified as child pornography. It could be a fully fictional drawing and the law would regard it as similar to photograph that documents a rape. But the drawing would be the perfect example of a victimless crime. Right? There is no victim that could be associated with such an image and therefor the incriminating aspect must lay within the image itself.

Currently, there are other examples that point in a similarly strange direction. In the US, for instance, teenagers have been prosecuted for having nude images of themselves on their phones, taken by themselves, while they were still underage. Again, I find it quite difficult to point out the victim here.

Under these rules, sharing this image here might be illegal. By the way, that wonderful little Adonis would be me. Normally I would believe that I have every right to decide if an image of me can be shared or not. But oddly, the law seems to believe that there is a gap, that separates me from my underage-me, that cannot be bridged. Somehow the image of me seems to be closer related to this earlier self of mine than me myself.

Wikipedia taught me that, for some time in the US – until the Supreme Court invalidated the law –, porn was considered child porn, when the actors looked too you. For instance, by dressing younger or having braided hair. Again, something that can not easily be explained with a certain victim in mind. It is as if the depiction of violence in Hollywood would not be seen fully different from the real violence it might refer to.

I am not writing about this, because I believe child pornography should be easily accessible. There is far too much suffering involved in these images for me to request that. But I find the way our society deals with these images very fascinating. There seems to be an odd power associated with images themselves. Even some people I was talking to, argued that the reason why these images are buried under so many layers of taboo, might stem from the “fact” that looking at them might tempt pedophiles into committing more of these horrendous acts. But this is the argument that is almost always been used. Violent computer games are supposed to bring you closer to the violent acts. Watching porn might make you a sexual pervert. And so on. I believe that watching sports on TV does not really help with your general fitness. Maybe on the contrary.

To be honest, so far, I have not put too much effort in researching the whole issue, but until this point, I don’t think I have encountered a study that supports the “fact” my friends were stating. Maybe there is extensive research done in this field that points to precisely this conclusion that I am just not aware of.

Sure, the issue that differentiates this topic from others, is that it is children we are talking about. Terrible things are done here to some of the most innocent members of our society. At least that is the wording that is normally been used. But almost all victims of crimes are innocent. So, how can a child that is been raped be more innocent than a woman that is been raped? Maybe cruelty towards children is something that creates easy political consent. Something I have learned through Bill Bryson is that the first organizations working against cruelty towards animals predate similar organizations against cruelty towards children by many decades. Just as a side note.

But to me that still does not fully explain the unique role images play in this very special field.

What bothers me though is the fact that this level of illegality keeps me from researching some topics I am quite interested in. Quite a few of my projects deal with visual environments at the fringes of our visual culture. Surveillance and terrorism, for instance, both react to the developments within the broader visual language, but remain somewhat distanced. The images terrorist groups use for their propaganda want to become as visible as possible, but society fights to keep them secret. On the other hand, the images that are the result of surveillance operations, very often try hard to remain inaccessible. This is a very simplified summary, but maybe child pornography is something of both worlds. It has its niche audience, for which it tries to be as accessible as possible, while at the same time it has to remain perfectly invisible.

So, what is the visual culture of child pornography? How does it develop over time? How do the perpetrators depict themselves? Since my uninformed idea is that these videos serve as a kind of perverted trophy, I would believe that part of the thrill comes from the self-representation of the preparators in these images. How do they do it? Do they pixelate themselves in certain ways to let everyone else know that they are the creator of a certain video? Do the use watermarks or logos?

I would be interested in finding out, but I might never will be able to.

Propaganda is a sign of weakness

I find it strange that the propaganda by groups like ISIS causes such great uproar in western media. Propaganda aims at creating a strong image of the group that creates and circulates it. But I would argue that this attempt to look strong might just be another hint at the fact that propaganda is in fact a sign of weakness. If you are strong and you are fully confident that you are, there is absolutely no need for you to appear strong. Only if you lack the confidence or – god forbid – the actual strength, creating propaganda and spreading it might make sense.

So, when people ask me, whether I am not scared discussing the topic of ISIS in my work and on my website, since “they might come for me”, I reply that this question alone tells me much about the whole issue. The reach of groups like ISIS is very limited and this is precisely the point why they use this aggressive form of PR. The try desperately to appear bigger and stronger – and to some extend even omnipresent. Conflicts today aim at our perception and in this way, propaganda can be a very potent tool to spread fear. This is what they are trying.

Of course, someone could always “come for you”. But that is true to the same extend as a with multitude of things that might happen to you at any moment now. Since there is a psychiatric term for it – paranoia – we should be careful before implementing these strategies in our daily lives.

Contemporary Art and the Beautiful Clothes of the Emperor

In general, I am not very patient, when it comes to much of contemporary art. To me at least, quite a huge chunk is bullshit and I always wonder how artists manage to present it without either being so embarrassed that they do not attend the opening or so thrilled about the way they have fooled everybody that they cannot stop laughing manically.  But neither happens very often. Artists attend their openings and little laughter is to be heard.

I know that this expectation might be a deficit on my side. I might just not be able to understand quite a bit of what is shown in galleries and museums. Maybe this is true, but certainly I am not alone in this lack of understanding.

But recently I was amused, when two people on separate occasions made a connection from contemporary art to Hans Christan Andersens “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. I made that connection before, but here it was from someone else. Plus, the two persons I am mentioning here are both working in museums for decades and are normally much more open if it comes to looking at art.

When Marcel Duchamp presented his work “Fountain” to the public, this might have been a critique of the institutions and committees that control the art world – at least this is the way I understand it. To that it was certainly an important statement. But the question of how successful it has been might remain open, even 100 years after its creation. The urinal is just one of many works that before and since then questioned these structures within the art world, but the revolution they have caused did something else.

These works are now symbolizing the idea that everything is possible in art. That much might be valid, but the next step is that, since everything is possible, there should be no way to judge and distinguish. That Is bullshit.

So much of contemporary art does not matter and does not even try to matter. Much of the works that try to matter fall in the first group though. If someone, who works in the art field for decades and who has kept his curiosity ever since, walks out of a performance work that has won a huge award, feeling not just confused, but utterly disillusioned, there is certainly something wrong with the art world. Yet, the artist shown there is going to present her work in Venice this year. And there are definitely going to be many claqueres who keep telling everyone how amazing this work is. This is precisely what the story Andersen was telling is about. When my friend left the performance, there were certainly many people who stayed. And the artist felt acknowledged in what she did.

There is currently so much at stake if we look at democracy and value systems, but so much of the art world does not really care. Just take another urinal and call it “revolutionary work” for the millionth time, that does not serve as the basis of a revolution.

Maybe Duchamp or Beuys had the best intentions, but maybe their revolutions failed entirely and caused more damage than good.