Material Witness

A new book from the wonderful Susan Schuppli – I was going to say ‘of Forensic Architecture‘ fame, except that her work involves so much more than that!  You can see both her entanglements with forensic architecture and the ‘so much more’ on full display in Material Witness: media, forensics, evidence (MIT Press):

In this book, Susan Schuppli introduces a new operative concept: material witness, an exploration of the evidential role of matter as both registering external events and exposing the practices and procedures that enable matter to bear witness. Organized in the format of a trial, Material Witness moves through a series of cases that provide insight into the ways in which materials become contested agents of dispute around which stake holders gather.

These cases include an extraordinary videotape documenting the massacre at Izbica, Kosovo, used as war crimes evidence against Slobodan Milošević; the telephonic transmission of an iconic photograph of a South Vietnamese girl fleeing an accidental napalm attack; radioactive contamination discovered in Canada’s coastal waters five years after the accident at Fukushima Daiichi; and the ecological media or “disaster film” produced by the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Each highlights the degree to which a rearrangement of matter exposes the contingency of witnessing, raising questions about what can be known in relationship to that which is seen or sensed, about who or what is able to bestow meaning onto things, and about whose stories will be heeded or dismissed.

An artist-researcher, Schuppli offers an analysis that merges her creative sensibility with a forensic imagination rich in technical detail. Her goal is to relink the material world and its affordances with the aesthetic, the juridical, and the political.

Susan’s own, endlessly interesting web page is here, which includes links to some of her writing here.

Post-Atomic Eyes

An age ago I was asked to contribute to a symposium in Toronto on ‘Post-atomic eyes‘; I confessed at the time that I was taken aback – what on earth were the connections between drones and nuclear weapons?  Eventually I realised the root of the problem: I knew a lot about drones and other forms of more or less conventional aerial violence, but next to nothing about The Bomb (see here).

As I worked on my contribution – nervously, I freely admit – I came to realise that the connections between the two were close and intimate, and immensely consequential for both.  This is a tragically overlooked episode in the genealogy of drones (and aerial violence more generally), and I was asked to turn my presentation into an essay for an edited volume based on the conference.

You can find my first attempt under the DOWNLOADS tab – “Little Boys and Blue Skies“.  The essay was way overdue and over length; I’ve never found it easy to translate a presentation into a text.

But to my surprise (and delight) the editors, Claudette Lauzon and John O’Brian, graciously accepted the essay more or less as is, and the volume (also called Through Post-Atomic Eyes) is now published by McGill-Queens University Press:

What can photography tell us about a world transformed by nuclear catastrophe?

What does it mean to live in a post-atomic world? Photography and contemporary art offer a provocative lens through which to comprehend the by-products of the atomic age, from weapons proliferation, nuclear disaster, and aerial surveillance to toxic waste disposal and climate change.

Confronting cultural fallout from the dawn of the nuclear age, Through Post-Atomic Eyes addresses the myriad iterations of nuclear threat and their visual legacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Whether in the iconic black-and-white photograph of a mushroom cloud rising over Nagasaki in 1945 or in the steady stream of real-time video documenting the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, atomic culture – and our understanding of it – is inextricably constructed by the visual. This book takes the image as its starting point to address the visual inheritance of atomic anxieties; the intersection of photography, nuclear industries, and military technocultures; and the complex temporality of nuclear technologies. Contemporary artists contribute lens-based works that explore the consequences of the nuclear, and its afterlives, in the Anthropocene.

Revealing, through both art and prose, startling new connections between the ongoing threat of nuclear catastrophe and current global crises, Through Post-Atomic Eyes is a richly illustrated examination of how photography shapes and is shaped by nuclear culture.

Contributors include Karen Barad (UC Santa Cruz), James Bridle (Athens), Edward Burtynsky (Toronto), Blaine Campbell (Edmonton), Eric Cazdyn (University of Toronto), Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge (Toronto), Robert Del Tredici (Atomic Photographers Guild; Concordia University), Matthew Farish (University of Toronto), Blake Fitzpatrick (Ryerson University), Lindsey A. Freeman (Simon Fraser University), Derek Gregory (University of British Columbia), Kristan Horton (Berlin), Mary Kavanagh (University of Lethbridge), Kyo Maclear (Toronto), Joseph Masco (University of Chicago), Katy McCormick (Ryerson University), Karla McManus (University of Regina), David McMillan (Winnipeg), Andrea Pinheiro (Algoma University, Sault Ste. Marie), Public Studio (Toronto), Mark Ruwedel (Long Beach, CA), Julie Salverson (Queen’s University), Susan Schuppli (Goldsmiths, University of London), Erin Siddall (Vancouver), Charles Stankievech (University of Toronto), Peter C. van Wyck (Concordia University), Donald Weber (Royal Academy of Art, The Hague), and Eyal Weizman (Goldsmiths, University of London).

The Arab Archive

News via the War & Media Network of an important collection of essays edited by Donatella Della Ratta, Kay Dickinson and Sune HaugbolleThe Arab Archive: Mediated Memories and Digital Flows.  It’s available as a free pdf or e-book download here.

As the revolutions across the Arab world that came to a head in 2011 devolved into civil war and military coup, representation and history acquired a renewed and contested urgency. The capacities of the internet have enabled sharing and archiving in an unprecedented fashion. Yet, at the same time, these facilities institute a globally dispersed reinforcement and recalibration of power, turning memory and knowledge into commodified and copyrighted goods. In The Arab Archive: Mediated Memories and Digital Flows, activists, artists, filmmakers, producers, and scholars examine which images of struggle have been created, bought, sold, repurposed, denounced, and expunged. As a whole, these cultural productions constitute an archive whose formats are as diverse as digital repositories looked after by activists, found footage art documentaries, Facebook archive pages, art exhibits, doctoral research projects, and ‘controversial’ or ‘violent’ protest videos that are abruptly removed from YouTube at the click of a mouse by sub-contracted employees thousands of kilometers from where they were uploaded. The Arab Archive investigates the local, regional, and international forces that determine what materials, and therefore which pasts, we can access and remember, and, conversely, which pasts get erased and forgotten.

It includes several vital, thoughtful and thought-provoking essays that address the political and ethical questions surrounding the use, abuse and circulation of images from the Syrian war.  I particularly recommend Mohammad Ali Atassi, ‘The digital Syrian archive between videos and documentary cinema’ – which en route draws on Judith Butler‘s critical reading of Susan Sontag, and on Stefan  Tarnowski‘s ‘What Have We Been Watching? What Have We Been Watching?’ (which makes important distinctions between poetic images, forensic images and commodity images from Syria) – Enrico de Angelis, ‘The controversial archive: negotiating horror images in Syria’, Hadi al Khatib, ‘Corporations erasing history: the case of the Syrian Archive‘, and Donatella Della Ratta, ‘Why the Syrian archive is no longer (only) about Syria.’

Wars in Words

New books forthcoming from Duke University Press (for my money, one of the most interesting and innovative of university presses – beautifully produced and at accessible prices too: UK publishers please note….)

First, Achille Mbembe‘s keenly awaited Necropolitics (coming in October):

In Necropolitics Achille Mbembe, a leader in the new wave of Francophone critical theory, theorizes the genealogy of the contemporary world—a world plagued by ever-increasing inequality, militarization, enmity, and terror, as well as by a resurgence of racist, fascist, and nationalist forces determined to exclude and kill. He outlines how democracy has begun to embrace its dark side, or what he calls its “nocturnal body,” which is based on the desires, fears, a ects, relations, and violence that drove colonialism. is shi has hollowed out democracy, thereby eroding the very values, rights, and freedoms liberal democracy routinely celebrates. As a result, war has become the sacrament of our times, in a conception of sovereignty that operates by annihilating all those considered to be enemies of the state. Despite his dire diagnosis, Mbembe draws on post-Foucault debates on biopolitics, war, and race, as well as Fanon’s notion of care as a shared vulnerability, to explore how new conceptions of the human that transcend humanism might come to pass. These new conceptions would allow us to encounter the Other not as a thing to exclude, but as a person with whom to build a more just world.

Contents:

Introduction. The Ordeal of the World
1. Exit from Democracy
2. The Society of Enmity
3. Necropolitics
4. Viscerality
5. Fanon’s Pharmacy
6. This Stifling Noonday
Conclusion. Ethics of the Passerby

And here’s Judith Butler on the book:

“The appearance of Achille Mbembe’s book, Necropolitics, will change the terms of debate within the English-speaking world. Trenchant in his critique of racism and its relation to the precepts of liberal democracy, Mbembe continues where Foucault left off, tracking the lethal afterlife of sovereign power as it subjects whole populations to what Fanon called ‘the zone of non-being.’ In these pages we find Mbembe not only engaging with biopolitics, the politics of enmity, and the state of exception, but he also opens up the possibility of a global ethic, one that relies less on sovereign power than on the transnational resistance to the spread of the death-world.”

Second, Ronak Kapadia‘s Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War (also October):

In Insurgent AestheticsRonak K. Kapadia theorizes the world-making power of contemporary art responses to U.S. militarism in the Greater Middle East. He traces how new forms of remote killing, torture, con nement, and sur- veillance have created a distinctive post-9/11 infrastructure of racialized state violence. Linking these new forms of violence to the history of American imperialism and conquest, Kapadia shows how Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic multimedia artists force a reckoning with the U.S. War on Terror’s violent destruction and its impacts on immigrant and refugee communities. Drawing on an eclectic range of visual, installation, and per- formance works, Kapadia reveals queer feminist decolonial critiques of the U.S. security state that visualize subjugated histories of U.S. militarism and make palpable what he terms “the sensorial life of empire.” In this way, these artists forge new aesthetic and social alliances that sustain critical opposition to the global war machine and create alternative ways of knowing and feeling beyond the forever war.

Contents:

Introduction. Sensuous Affiliations: Security, Terror, and the Queer Calculus of the Forever War
1. Up in the Air: US Aerial Power and the Visual Life of Empire in the Drone Age
2. On the Skin: Drone Warfare, Collateral Damage, and the Human Terrain
3. Empire’s Innards: Conjuring “Warm Data” in the Archives of US Global Military Detention
4. Palestine(s) in the Sky: Visionary Aesthetics and Queer Cosmic Utopias from the Frontiers of US Empire
Epilogue. Scaling Empire: Insurgent Aesthetics n the Wilds of Imperial Decline

And here’s Chandan Reddy on the book:

“At its core, Insurgent Aesthetics reminds us that war and security are—despite the modern ideologies that would declare otherwise—fundamentally racialized social practices that seek to manage their violence in everyday life through controlling what can be felt and known. By looking at the ways diasporic communities interfere with sovereign and statist logics that conserve the knowledge of loss for the national community alone, this exquisitely written book powerfully argues for the insurgent abilities of culture to interrupt, deform, and repopulate our felt and known worlds in ways that force a reckoning and connection with the racialized death and detritus that U.S. security at once creates and tries to disappear.”

Next month sees the publication of Leah Zani‘s Bomb Children: Life in the former battlefields of Laos:

Half a century after the CIA’s Secret War in Laos—the largest bombing campaign in history—explosive remnants of war continue to be part of people’s everyday lives. In Bomb Children Leah Zani offers a perceptive analysis of the long-term, often subtle, and unintended effects of massive air warfare. Zani traces the sociocultural impact of cluster submunitions—known in Laos as “bomb children”—through stories of explosives clear- ance technicians and others living and working in these old air strike zones. Zani presents her ethnography alongside poetry written in the field, crafting a startlingly beautiful analysis of state terror, authoritarian revival, rapid development, and ecological contamination. In so doing, she proposes that postwar zones are their own cultural and area studies, offer-ing new ways to understand the parallel relationship between ongoing war violence and postwar revival.

You can read the devastating, exquisitely compelling introduction (pdf) here.

Here’s Ann Laura Stoler on the book:

Bomb Children is a riveting and reflexive account of war remains, military waste, and ‘development’ in contemporary Laos. As a document it bears/bares the hazardous conditions of its making, poised on the edge of blasts in the margins of safety zones that are never safe, in the collision and convergence between social ecologies riddled with minefields, and between remains and (economic) revival. Tacking between these ‘paired conceptual frames’ and a set of parallelisms that collapse war and peace and life and death, Bomb Children labors in an ethnographic mode that eschews the pornography of detailing mutilated bodies and instead looks to the war damages that are not over and that remain viscerally present in the everyday of people’s lives.”

Also in August, Jairus Victor Grove‘s Savage Ecology War and Geopolitics at the End of the World:

Jairus Victor Grove contends that we live in a world made by war. In Savage Ecology he offers an ecological theory of geopolitics that argues that contemporary global crises are better understood when considered within the larger history of international politics. Infusing international relations with the theoretical interventions of fields ranging from new materialism to political theory, Grove shows how political violence is the principal force behind climate change, mass extinction, slavery, genocide, extractive capitalism, and other catastrophes. Grove analyzes a variety of subjects—from improvised explosive devices and drones to artificial intelligence and brain science—to outline how geopolitics is the violent pursuit of a way of living that comes at the expense of others. Pointing out that much of the damage being done to the earth and its inhabitants stems from colonialism, Grove suggests that the Anthropocene may be better described by the term Eurocene. The key to changing the planet’s trajectory, Grove proposes, begins by acknowledging both the earth-shaping force of geopolitical violence and the demands apocalypses make for fashioning new ways of living.

You can read the introduction (pdf) here, and here is the Table of Contents:

Aphorisms for a New Realism

Part I. The Great Homogenization
1. The Anthropocene as a Geopolitical Fact
2. War as a Form of Life
3. From Exhaustion to Annihilation: A Martial Ecology of the Eurocene
Part II. Operational Spaces
4. Bombs: An Insurgency of Things
5. Blood: Vital Logistics
6. Brains: We Are Not Who We Are
7. Three Images of Transformation as Homogenization
Part III. Must We Persist to Continue?
8. Apocalypse as a Theory of Change
9. Freaks or the Incipience of Other Forms of Life
Conclusion. Ratio feritas: From Critical Responsiveness to Making New Forms of Life
The End: Visions of Los Angeles, California, 2061

Here’s James Der Derian on the book:

“What Beck did for risk society, Hardt and Negri for empire, and Barad for technoscience, Jairus Victor Grove does brilliantly for global violence, delivering an ecology of warfare that is not only a corrosive critique of the three horsemen of our now daily apocalypse—geopolitics, biopolitics, and cybernetics—but a creative strategy for sustaining life now and thereafter. Grove is a philosopher with a hammer, writer with a stiletto, and artist with a spray can.”

Finally, we have to wait until December for a mammoth reader on Militarization, edited by Roberto J. González, Hugh Gusterson and Gustaaf Houtman.  No word on the contents just yet.

The aesthetics of drone warfare

A conference at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield (UK), 7-8 February 2020, organised by Beryl Pong – Vice Chancellor’s Fellow in English at the University of Sheffield – as part of a wider project funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award for 2019-2020:

Drones have now become commercial and readily available, with innovators promising unprecedented solutions to sectors as wide ranging as agriculture, energy, public safety, and construction. But this multi-billion-dollar industry is founded upon the technology’s origins in a military context, and drone warfare is rapidly redefining the meaning of war, peace, and their temporal and geographical boundaries. Combining surveillance with targeting, satellite imaging with ground-level intelligence, human observation with algorithmic apparatuses, drones have catalysed new ways of making and experiencing war. This international two-day conference explores the issues surrounding drone warfare through the prism of aesthetics: aesthetics understood as art, and as the relationship between the body, the self, and the material environment. How does drone warfare extend and augment the human sensorium? How have writers and artists engaged in new forms or genres to address drone warfare? What is the role of the human in future war? What opportunities and challenges does information-based warfare pose for human rights and peace work? Approaches from all fields are welcome, including literature, history, geography, philosophy, political science, and visual art.

Proposals are invited for 20-minute presentations or for three-paper panels. Topics could include but are not restricted to the following:

Literature and the arts which thematise or feature drone technology and drone warfare
The history and pre-histories of drone warfare, such as aerial bombardment
The relationship between war, technological innovation, and the entertainment industries
Narratives of robotics, artificial intelligence, and information-based warfare
The relationship between peace, surveillance, pre-emption, and human rights
Drones, drone warfare, and social media
Posthuman warfare

Please send 250-word individual paper proposals, or 350-word proposals for fully formed panels, along with short biographies, to Beryl Pong at artofdronewarfare@gmail.com

Note:  There will be a workshop, for postgraduates and early-career researchers, led by Drone Wars UK: an NGO that conducts research, and maintains an up-to-date public dataset, on the U.K. use of armed drones. If you are interested in participating in the workshop, please indicate this in your application.

You can find more about Beryl’s project, and the conference, here.  Conference keynotes from Debjani GangulyDirector of the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures at the University of Virginia, and me.

What Remains

As part of its Culture Under Attack season, the Imperial War Museum in London is staging a new exhibition (5 July 2019 – 5 January 2020), What Remains:

From the Nazi theft of art and the bombing of Coventry Cathedral to the destruction by ISIS of objects from Mosul Museum in Iraq, war devastates lives, kills people and destroys the cultural heritage that they hoped would outlive them. Sometimes destruction is accidental, but often our cherished places, objects and stories are deliberately targeted in conflict.

What Remains, our new exhibition at IWM London, in partnership with Historic England, explores why cultural heritage is attacked during war and the ways we save, protect and restore what is targeted. Over 50 photographs, oral histories, objects and artworks will be on display, from both IWM and Historic England’s collections.

Destroying cultural heritage often strikes at the heart of our communities. What Remains highlights historic and contemporary moments where places, art and artefacts have been attacked by those who wish to exploit or even erase whole civilizations from history. Spanning 100 years, discover stories such as Hitler’s Baedeker Raids in 1942, where German bombers targeted historic towns and cities noted in travel guides of Britain, and the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.

Just as cultural heritage is attacked, it is also bravely protected, restored, or rebuilt into new forms that let us commemorate and reflect on loss. Learn about individuals and groups who risk their lives to protect culture, including Khaled al-Asaad, who died trying to protect the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, Syria, from ISIS in 2015.

There’s a preview by Oliver Wainwright here.

The Airspace Tribunal

News of a project dear to my research (and my heart):

Towards a new human right to protect the freedom to exist without a physical or psychological threat from above

by The Wapping Project

Doughty Street Chambers, 54 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LS

21st September 2018, 10.00 AM – 4.30 PM

Over the last century, humans have radically transformed airspace: chemically, territorially, militarily and psychologically. Technological developments mean that this transformation is accelerating and growing in complexity. There is widening disparity in the global landscape of power, with civilians increasingly subject to expanding commercial and military exploitation of technology in airspace and outer space and to the consequences of environmental change. The associated threats are not adequately addressed by the contemporary legal framework. There is an urgent need for new thinking.[1]

The Airspace Tribunal invites representations from experts across a broad range of disciplines and lived experience, such as human rights, contemporary warfare, new media ecologies, environmental change, neuropsychology, conflict and forced migration, to discuss the challenges and consider the case for and against the recognition of a new human right to protect the freedom to exist without physical or psychological threat from above.

Speakers include:

  • Nick Grief –  member of the legal team that represented the Marshall Islands and took the UK, India and Pakistan to the International Court of Justice for violating their nuclear disarmament obligations;
  • Conor Gearty – professor of human rights law who has published extensively on terrorism, civil liberties and human rights;
  • Andrew Hoskins – media sociologist known for his work on media, memory and conflict;
  • Martin A. Conway – cognitive neuropsychologist and expert on human memory and the law;
  • Shona Illingworth –  artist whose video and sound installations investigate memory, cultural erasure and structures of power in situations of social tension and conflict;
  • Maya Mamish – psychologist researching integration and well-being of Syrian youth affected by armed conflict and displacement;
  • Melanie Klinkner – transitional justice scholar majoring in international criminal justice with a background in philosophy, anthropology and biology;
  • William Merrin, a specialist in digital media and author of ‘Digital War’.

Conceived and developed by Nick Grief and Shona Illingworth, the Airspace Tribunal’s judges will include members of the public, challenging the traditional state-centric view of how international law is created. The hearings will be recorded and transcribed to document the drafting history of this proposed new human right.

The Airspace Tribunal is part of Topologies of Air, a major new artwork by Shona Illingworth, extract above, commissioned by The Wapping Project, that will be exhibited at The Power Plant, Toronto, in 2020 (more here: scroll down).

The London hearing of the Airspace Tribunal is supported by the University of Kent, The Wapping Project and Doughty Street Chambers.

[1] See Nick Grief, Shona Illingworth, Andrew Hoskins and Martin A. Conway, Opinion, ‘The Airspace Tribunal: Towards a New Human Right to Protect the Freedom to Exist Without Physical or Psychological Threat from Above’, European Human Rights Law Review, Issue 3 (2018) , pp 201.  You can download the brief via the War & Media Network (to whom I owe all this info) here.

Space is limited and booking is essential here.