Situation Rooms

I’m back from Europe at last, including a presentation of Angry Eyes at Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin.  It was a sort of Berlin Wall Exchange, and I had a wonderful time; my interlocutor was Martin Gak, who raised a series of probing and thoughtful questions about drones and military violence to which I plan to return, and I had some exhilarating conversations extending over two nights about HAU’s three performance spaces and in particular its investment in documentary drama.

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Which brings me to Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms playing at HAU 2 also as part of its Waffenlounge (‘Weapons Lounge’: its logo above uses a silhouette that must rank alongside the AK-47 as one of the most iconic – and in this case, of course, German – guns in the world; one of the aims of ‘Weapons Lounge’ is to drive home the point that, after the USA and Russia, Germany is the third largest arms exporter in the world).

The title Situation Rooms is of course provoked by this famous image:

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Here, incidentally, I recommend Keith Feldman‘s bravura reading in ‘Empire’s verticality: the Af/Pak frontier, visual culture and racialization from above‘ in Comparative American Studies 9 (4) (2011) 325-41; I’ll return to its relevance at the end.

But Situation Rooms provides an even more dispersed, global mapping of contemporary military violence:

Situation Rooms gathers together from various continents 20 people whose biographies have been shaped by weapons in a film set that recreates the globalised world of pistols and rocket-propelled grenades, of assault rifles and drones, of rulers and refugees, becoming a parcours of unexpected neighbourhoods and intersections.

With the personal narratives of the ‘inhabitants’, the images start to move and the audience follows the individual trails of the cameras they have been given. They start to inhabit the building, while following what they see and hear on their equipment. The audience does not sit opposite the piece to watch and judge it from the outside; instead, the spectators ensnare themselves in a network of incidents, slipping into the perspectives of the protagonists, whose traces are followed by other spectators.
One spectator sits at the desk of a manager for defence systems. At the same time, another follows the film of a Pakistani lawyer representing victims of American drone attacks in a cramped room with surveillance monitors. On her way there, she sees a third spectator who follows his film into the shooting range of a Berlin gun club, listening Germany’s parcours shooting champion. Around the corner stands another spectator in the role of a doctor carrying out amputations in Sierra Leone, while in the room next door a press photographer sorts pictures of German army missions in Afghanistan, only to stand in the shooting range himself a little later to do exactly what he was able to observe in passing just a while ago, thereby becoming a subject for observation himself.

The audience gradually becomes entangled in the film set’s spatial and material labyrinth; each individual becoming part of the re-enactment of a complicatedly elaborated multi-perspective “shooting”.

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As some readers will recognise, there are all sorts of formal parallels (as well as the obvious disjunctures) with Gerry Pratt and Caleb Johnston‘s  Nanay: a testimonial play – in staging, in evidentiary base – which was in fact performed at HAU in 2009 as well as in Vancouver and Manila.

You can read an extremely informative interview with Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel, the three architects of Rimini Protokoll, here, and what they have to say collectively about the politics of staging – about perspective, spectatorship and situation – is particularly illuminating:

‘We’re … creating a way to access what certain people, who have experience with weapons, arms trade, weapons use and war, have to say… It is not the experts that can be seen, but the situation in which they find themselves, from their perspective. That’s the shift. Instead of looking at a protagonist from outside, to a certain degree you look at an event “from inside”…

‘You hear their voices through headphones. On the iPad or as you walk through the rooms of the film set you see their typical work situations. The visitor is always following the path, so to speak, that the expert in each case has paved by narrating/filming. This kind of approach is quite different than it would be looking at these people from a comfortable theatre seat. The piece operates from the sentence that is often used to explain things in conflicts: Put yourself in my shoes! It is about creating a form of proximity that is also perhaps a bit disturbing…

‘You don’t look into a room from outside, but instead find yourself in it – in this case, although it’s theatre, there are four and not three walls. You also see the behaviour of other participants who are following the films of other experts. The 20 perspectives of the 20 experts collectively produce a sort of clockwork. The participant lands in a mechanism, and it has a certain rhythm. It jumps back to zero every 7 minutes. Then it moves the participant on into the perspective of a different expert, from which you can suddenly also observe the role that you had previously assumed.’

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With good reason, this started me thinking about the multiple ‘situations’ folded into a single air strike orchestrated by a drone.  Daniel emphasises that the different situations are connected ‘through their lack of connectedness’, and yet what comes into view is precisely the dispersed, uneven and labile formation of what Foucault called a dispositif.  Daniel again:

‘First “you are” an off-duty general from the Indian Air Force. He sees drones as the military device of the future, a boon for humanity. Seven minutes later “you are” a Pakistani lawyer who represents victims of drone attacks and says that they trample on human rights…’

So the challenge for me, now, is to think about how I might stage the multiple situations that punctuate and animate the ‘incident’ in Afghanistan that I describe in Angry Eyes.… and, in particular, to incorporate the ‘situations’ of the Afghan victims who survived the attacks and who were treated in military hospitals for their awful injuries.

Thinking explicitly about how to stage all this is a way not only of presenting research differently but of conducting research differently.  Because once you start to think in these terms, you begin to see things that were otherwise at best at the very edges of your field of view.  Daniel insists that there is no overarching point of view, no ‘God trick’ (which, in a different register, is precisely what I sought to show in Angry Eyes):

‘The ten stories that everyone sees, the 20 stories [from which they are drawn], are also only a small excerpt from an infinite number of stories. What you see is an excerpt of an excerpt of an excerpt. What you don’t see, and the knowledge that there’s a lot that you don’t see – this is just as important as what you end up seeing. “Situation Rooms” is also a project at the interface of film and theatre.’

It’s also at the creative interface of the performing arts and critical research and I think offers another way of disclosing ‘Empire’s verticality’ and its imbrications with ‘Angry Eyes’…

The Days of the Roundtable

I’m very pleased (and relieved) to say that I’ve received two new grants for my work.

The first is an Insight Grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council for my project on Medical-military machines and casualties of war 1914-2014.  I’ve provided an illustrated version of the substance of the application under the DOWNLOADS tab.  The plan is to explore the human geographies of evacuation and treatment of casualties, both combatant and civilian, in four major combat zones: the Western Front 1914-1918; the Western Desert, 1942-1943; Vietnam; and Afghanistan.  Since submitting my application, though, I’ve also become interested in the medical geographies (what my good friend Omar Dewachi calls the ‘therapeutic geographies‘) in which people suffering from both war-related injuries and chronic diseases in Syria make their precarious journeys into Lebanon and Jordan for treatment.  All that in four years…

PRT Farah Conducts Medical Evacuation Training with Charlie Co., 2-211th Aviation Regiment at Forward Operating Base Farah

The second is a grant from the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC to support an International Research Roundtable in May 2015 on The contours of later modern war.  This will be an invitation-only event (the grant provides for travel and accommodation for each participant), but here is the pitch.  I wrote this in an hour just before leaving for Glasgow, so forgive the rough edges:

Background

Commentators often insist that in recent years the nature of war has been transformed. Military historians who address this question display a fine-grained sensitivity to the details of armed conflict, but the imaginative (theoretical) framework they deploy usually returns to Clausewitz’s nineteenth-century theses On War. Philosophers and social scientists work with a more refined theoretical apparatus, though too often this seems to be confined to annotations of Foucault’s Paris lectures in the 1970s, and yet – unlike Foucault himself – they typically show little interest in the specifities and materialities of armed conflict. The Roundtable seeks to finesse this impasse by bringing together a group of scholars, each of whom has demonstrated both a theoretical and an empirical sensibility, to consider crucial questions about the transformations of modern war.

CREVELD Changing face of warThe objective is not to identify a single rupture – the Vietnam War, the end of the Cold War, the wars conducted in the wake of 9/11 – but to recognize that multiple temporalities are at work so that there are both continuities and contrasts to be identified and understood. Similarly, later modern war cannot be reduced to arguments about the Revolution in Military Affairs and its successor projects, which have indeed changed advanced military operations in all sorts of ways, or to the ‘new wars’ supposedly waged by non-state actors in the rubble of the Cold War and in the peripheries of empire: these twin modalities need to be thought together to provide a more inclusive understanding of the shifting contours of military and paramilitary violence.

In speaking of ‘later modern war’ the intention is to avoid the now tired discussions of the postmodern (what comes after that?), while indicating that the closing decades of the twentieth century witnessed a series of changes – political and legal, social and cultural, scientific and technical, legal and ethical – that started to distance armed conflict from the forms it had assumed during the First and Second World Wars. The term also suggests connections to the logics of what is sometimes called ‘late capitalism’ and to the evolving impositions of neo-liberal political and economic formations.

STRACHAN Changing character of warAdvanced militaries often claim that their conduct of war has become surgical, sensitive and scrupulous. The first of these relies on technical advances in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (much of which now takes the form of geospatial intelligence and high-resolution, near real-time imagery) and on advances in military networks, targeting and weapons systems. The second involves the incorporation of cultural knowledge into asymmetric warfare and counter-insurgency, but it also involves a new sensitivity to public opinion: thus media operations have become central to military campaigns in an attempt to win support from populations both at home and abroad. There is also an increasing sensitivity to casualties, both combatant and civilian, and many commentators have spoken of the humanitarian armature that attends contemporary military interventions as a new ‘military humanism’. Finally, and following directly from these observations, contemporary military power is supposed to be characterized by a heightened ethical awareness and the unprecedented incorporation of international law (and military lawyers) into its operational decisions.

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All of these claims invite critical scrutiny, to recover their developing genealogies (how novel are they?) and to evaluate their practical consequences (what are their material effects?). They assume particular importance as interstate wars have declined, and transnational conflicts have become the dominant modality of armed conflict, as ‘war’ bleeds into terrorism, counter-terrorism and new modes of transnational policing. These changes in turn affect the sites and locations of military violence, and these in turn may be transformed not only by geopolitics and military power but also by global environmental change and the political ecologies of war. In short: is the locus of war shifting in decisive ways?

Programme

The Roundtable will address these questions through four intersecting and interlocking themes that allow for theoretical interrogation and empirical scrutiny: each of these is a stark signpost but its simplicity allows multiple questions (and the connections between them) to be addressed under each heading. In capsule form these are:

IMAGE – the role of imagery (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance); the images of war that circulate through media, old and new, and their role in public debate;
AGENT – the agents and vectors of military and paramilitary violence; the changing human/technological assemblages through which war is conducted;
VICTIM – the casualties of war (the dead, the wounded, the captured, the displaced); the political, cultural and legal armatures that regulate military and paramilitary violence;
LOCUS – the changing targets, spaces and ecologies of war

When they accept the invitation, each participant will be asked to provide a one-paragraph summary of their present research for posting on a dedicated website. Four weeks before the Roundtable everyone will provide a short (six page maximum) essay, written in an accessible and reference-free form, illustrated as appropriate, and drawing from their work. These may address the theme of the Roundtable in general or in detail, and will be posted on the website. Formal papers will not be presented: the emphasis will on discussion and debate.

There will be four main sessions addressing each of the four key themes:

Day 1:  Arrival

Day 2:

Morning – Walking Seminar (Stanley Park): participants will walk the Seawall as a group but in pairs, changing every 20-30 minutes, to share their research and ideas with one another.

Afternoon – IMAGE (discussion led by four participants)

Day 3:

Morning – AGENT (discussion led by four participants)

Afternoon – VICTIM (discussion led by four participants)

Evening – Public Performance: Either a staged reading of Owen Sheers’ radio play Pink Mist [about soldiers returning from Afghanistan] or George Brant’s Grounded [about a female drone operator], to be followed by public discussion led by scholars on either the Wounds of War or Drone warfare

Day 4:

Morning – Exchanges: small-group discussions (informal) about the key themes and to plan future collaborations and research projects

Afternoon – LOCUS (discussion led by four participants)

Evening – Roundtable Dinner

Day 5:  Dispersal

I also want to invite one or two visual artists to attend the Roundtable, both to take part – the visual is a vital register for both the conduct and the critique of modern war – but also to use the discussions as a provocation for their subsequent work (to be posted on and/or linked via the website).

I’ll keep you posted – I’m immensely grateful to Janis Sarra, Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, and to my colleagues and friends for their support and encouragement.

I’ll keep you posted.

Drones and drama

I’ve noted several performance works that address drone wars before, and I’ve now encountered two more.

BRANT GroundedGeorge Brant‘s new play, Grounded, has been acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic.  It’s a solo drama (‘monologue’ really doesn’t do it justice) about a US Air Force pilot who has been obliged to switch from flying F-16s to Reapers (and so to the ‘Chair Force’) after her maternity leave.

The focus is on a domestic geography of remote operations that is beginning to attract more critical attention and which resonates with what Grégoire Chamayou calls the ‘psychopathologies of the drone‘: the difficulty of switching every day, every shift, from being in the war zone, at least virtually – what she calls being “downrange” – to being at home with a young family.

‘We’ll be working in shifts. Tapping each other out and taking the controls. A never-ending mission. Home will be training too. Getting used to the routine. Driving to war like it’s shift work. Like I’m punching the clock. Used to transition home once a year. Now it’ll be once a day. Different. Definitely different.’

The pilot finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the separation – to decompress – and gradually and ever more insistently one space keeps superimposing itself over the other; the fixed, precise sensor of the Gorgon Stare yields to a blurred vision in which the pilot finds it increasingly difficult to know where (or who) she is.

She begins by familiarising herself with the landscape in Afghanistan and the spectral figures moving through it:

‘I stare at the desert. They’re twelve hours ahead there. Night. Weird. I stare at the screen. It’s not like a videogame. A videogame has color. I stare at grey. At a world carved out of putty. Like someone took the time to carve a putty world for me to stare at twelve hours a day. High-definition putty….

‘The eye in the sky waits for the putty people to get closer together. Just a little closer. Closer. Closer. There I press the button. I watch the screen. A moment. A moment. And boom. A silent grey boom.’ 

628x471-1‘It becomes your world,’ she says, a world populated by the living and the dead whose greyness bleeds one into the other:

‘Lingering over the dead. A mound of the dead. Our dead. They were ambushed and I am to linger over their bodies. I do. With no idea of who they are or how they got here. A mound of our grey. Our boys in grey. Please let me find the guilty who did this the military age males who did this send me to shred their bodies into pieces too fine for my resolution…’

But then the Nevada desert on the drive home starts to resemble the landscape in Afghanistan; the face of a little girl on the screen, the daughter of a ‘High Value Target’, becomes the face of her own child:

‘The girl Her face She stops running and I see it Her face I see it clearly I can see her It’s Sam It’s not his daughter it’s mine…’

There’s much more – much of it turning on imagery and surveillance – and it’s richer and less linear than I can convey here.  You can download the script from Amazon or buy hard copy from Oberon Books here; in the UK Grounded has just transferred from the Edinburgh Festival to the Gate in London until 28 September: details here, and other dates in the US here (scroll down).

I’ve also received a message from Hjalmar Joffre-Eichhorn, a German-Bolivian theatre-maker who has lived and worked in Afghanistan for the last six years.  Hjalmar brought the “Theatre of the Oppressed” to Afghanistan and co-founded the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO).  He’s currently writing a new play to be premiered in Kabul in November, which focuses on drones and suicide bombers in Afghanistan and Pakistan: clearly another parallel with Grégoire Chamayou‘s work.

More to come, I hope, and I’ll keep you posted, but you can watch and listen to an inspiring talk by Hjalmar on Afghanistan and community-based theatre here:

Note: Back to my reading of Théorie du drone next week – this week has been filled with preparing for the new term which starts on Tuesday (so I’m updating the course outlines under the TEACHING tab).  I’ve also had a lovely e-mail from Grégoire Chamayou, and we are going to try a digital conversation – once the dust of the beginning of term has settled – and when we’re done, I’ll post the transcript here.