War and the body

The papers for the special section of Critical Studies on Security addressing ‘Visual representations of war and violence’ and focusing on embodiment, expertly edited by Linda Roland Danil, are now online.

Linda provides an introductory essay, and the papers that follow are:

Derek Gregory, ‘Eyes in the sky – bodies on the ground’

Catherine Baker, ‘A different kind of power’? Identification, stardom and embodiments of the military in Wonder Woman

Helen Berents and Brendan Keogh, ‘Virtuous, virtual but not visceral: (dis)embodied viewing in military-themed video games

Kandida Purnell and Natasha Danilova, ‘Dancing at the frontline: Rosie Kay’s 5SOLDIERS de-realises and re-secures war’

Dancing with drones

As I near the end – at last! – of my essay on drone strikes in Pakistan, “Dirty Dancing“, I’ve stumbled – the mot juste, given how long it’s taken me to finish the thing – on two very different performance works, both called ‘Dancing with Drones‘.

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First, a dance-technology collaboration from Australia between dancer Alison Plevey and artists Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski.  This is from a thoughtful commentary by Ann Finnegan:

Of drone warfare, Grégoire Chamayou has written the world is a ‘hunting ground.’ ‘The target is unable to retaliate, no quarter can be given in last-minute surrender, and only one side risks being killed’. Chamayou is writing of the extreme circumstance of war, but in many respects, Plevey in her dance-off with the drone, is hunted, a contemporary Acteon, who in Greek myth was hunted by a pack of dogs intent on tearing him to pieces. Plevey comes across as the innocent, occupying a subject position that could be occupied by anyone. While there is a charm to the mimetic sequences and to the innocence of the initial scenes of ‘playing chasey’ with the drone, the dance-game is also akin to those more vicious games of children that quickly turn.

Filmed in big nature, down by a river in the wilds of Bundanon estate [in New South Wales], the dancer-drone partnership is intriguing, somewhat bizarre, an unlikely dance duo, initially suggesting disturbed bucolic innocence. Two regimes of movement seemingly accommodate each other: the curious drone, the responsive human. There’s a mixture of charm and mild annoyance; the drone hobby toy friendly in size, rising and falling in sequences akin to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, no more a menace than the buzzing of a gnat or a bee.

As the dance progresses [and the video projection moves back to Carriageworks in Sydney] the emotional register shifts: pleasure, annoyance, charm, resistance, and eventually submissive acceptance. The disturbing note is that the drone is an invasive species, a technologized interface with nature, intruding into the peaceful ecology with a movement regime that progressively subjugates the human. Given its range of movement, from hovering physical intimacy to the dramatic shifts of its vertical climbs, the drone is an unequal dance partner, an undefeatable adversary. What the dance sequence makes clear is that no matter how brilliant her dance, no matter how fluid, graceful and subtle her human body movements, she will be no match for the superior movements of a drone piloted at a distance by an unseen program or programmer…

Chamayou doesn’t shirk from calling out the ‘inhuman operation [of] a mobile battlefield that potentially spans the globe’, of the potential for drones to target anyone, anywhere, from any satellite mapped point of the world. Furthermore, drones have a capacity for actions at a distance, the like of which the world hasn’t seen before: the ability to group, hover, pursue. If computer were touted in the 1990s as multipurpose machines incorporating calculators, typewriters, cameras, CD players, graphic interfaces, radio, and so on, drones combine a camera with several movement modes: the up and down of helicopters, with the horizontal lines of flight of arrows, missiles and aeroplanes.

The darker notes of Plevey and Cmielewski-Starrs’ collaboration drive these points home, especially when the performance arena is invaded by the live presence of a drone. Plevey is no longer alone on stage dancing with and against the cinematic image of herself and the drone. Her drone combatant has now physically entered the space. This radically recalibrates the experience of the audience, who no doubt subliminally reason that relative safety precautions have been taken. After all, viewing big, dangerous nature from a point of safety has always been key to enjoyment of the sublime. Though the appearance of the drone will most likely trigger a rapidly suppressed involuntary adrenalin reaction—the fight or flight response—this suppression, as in the experience of the sublime, is part of the work’s physical thrill. Whilst certainly the onstage drone is not of war machine scale, not loaded with weaponry, nor combat ready, any audience member would still be very much aware of its capacity to harry, and select quarry other than the dancer onstage.

The gendered aspect of the performance, with an unarmed female quarry, draws further allusions to inadvertent attacks on civilians in combat zones.

The second work comes from a team in Hungary.  Initially a team led by Tamás Vicsek from the Department of Biological Physics at Eötvös University in Budapest created what they called ‘flying robots that communicate with each other directly and solve tasks collectively in a self-organized manner, without human intervention.’  Then, in collaboration with Nina Kov, an artist and choreographer based in the UK, the team developed ‘tools facilitating the interactivity between drones and humans’ and – in stark contrast to the first performance work – staged a ‘cooperation between [a] group of drones and humans through movement, which is instinctive and enjoyable…’  The result is a multi-media entertainment that is intended to show ‘the peaceful, civil and creative applications of drones, made possible by the collaboration between high level scientists and artists.’

You can see some of the preparations for the production in this video from YouTube:

And the stage performance at the Sziget Festival in 2015 in this one:

But you really ought to watch the video here, which opens with the disarming statement that

‘No computer-generated images were used.  No pilots, no pre-programmed routes, only dance and interactions.’

You won’t be surprised to learn that ‘Dirty Dancing” is closer in spirit to the first performance.  But both projects provide considerable food for thought about the incorporation of performance as a vital moment in analytical research, no?  (For my own, beginning attempts at a performance-work see here; this is drama, but I’ll be working with Wall Scholar Peter Klein on a musical collaboration around parallel themes, and now I’m starting to think about video and dance too…  But not until ‘Dirty Dancing’ is done!).

Bodies on the line

The more I think about corpography (see also ‘Corpographies under the DOWNLOADS tab) – especially as part of my project on casualty evacuation from war zones – the more I wonder about Grégoire Chamayou‘s otherwise artful claim that with the advent of armed drones the ‘body becomes the battlefield’.  He means something very particular by this, of course, as I’ve explained before (see also here).

But let me describe the journey I’ve been taking in the last week or so that has prompted this post. Later this month I’m speaking on ‘Wounds of war, 1914-2014‘, where I plan to sketch a series of comparisons between casualty evacuation on the Western Front (1914-18) and casualty evacuation from Afghanistan.  I’ve already put in a lot of work on the first of these, which will appear on these pages in the weeks and months ahead, but it was time to find out more about the second.

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En route I belatedly discovered the truly brilliant work of David Cotterrell who is, among many other things, an installation artist and Professor of Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University.  He became interested in documenting the British military casualty evacuation chain from Afghanistan, and in 2007 secured access to the Joint Medical Forces’ operations at Camp Bastion in Helmand.  He underwent basic training, a course in even more basic battlefield first-aid, and then found himself on an RAF transport plane to Bastion.  The Role 3 Hospital was, as he notes, a staging-ground. ‘Field hospitals are islands between contrasting environments,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘between the danger and dirt of the Forward Operating Bases and the order and convention of civilian healthcare.’  You can read a long, illustrated extract from the diary (3 – 26 November 2007) here, follow the photo-essay as a slideshow here, and explore David’s many other projects on his own website here.

THEY-WERE-SOLDIERS_by-Ann-Jones_72The diary is immensely interesting and informative in its own right, not least about the exceptional personal and professional difficulties involved in documenting the evacuation process.  Here there’s a helpful comparison to be made with journalist Ann Jones‘s no less brilliant They were soldiers: how the wounded return from America’s wars (more on this in a later post), which starts at the US military’s own Level III Trauma Center, the Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram, and moves via Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the largest US hospital outside the United States, to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC.

David’s visual record is even more compelling, as you would expect from a visual artist, not only in its documentary dimension but also in the installations that have been derived from it.  In Serial Loop, for example, we are confronted with a looped film showing the endless arrival of casualties at Bastion: ‘The sound of a continuously arriving and departing Chinook helicopter accompanies images of a bleak and wasted landscape; the banality of the film’s fixed perspective masks the dramas that unfold within the ambulances as they travel to triage.’

9-liner explores what David calls ‘the abstraction of experience within conflict’:

9-Liner explores the dislocation between the parallel experiences of casualties within theatre. It is a quiet study of a dramatic event: the attempt to bring an injured soldier to the tented entrance of the desert field hospital. The screens show apparently unrelated information. JCHAT – a silent scrolling codified message – runs on a central screen. Our interpretation of it is enabled through its relationship between one of two radically different but equally accurate views of the same event. To the left we see the Watchkeeper – a soldier manning phones and reading computer screens in a crowded office. On the right we view the MERT flight – the journey of the Medical Emergency Response Team in a Chinook helicopter.

SHU’s REF submission includes this summary of David’s work (one of the very few useful things to come out of that otherwise absurdist exercise):

The research made clear that soldiers recovering from life-changing injuries had limited means of reconstructing the narrative of their transformative experiences. From the time of wounding through to secondary operations in the UK, many soldiers remained sedated or unconscious for a period of up to five days. The radical physical transformation that had occurred during this period was not adequately reconciled through medical notes, and the embargo on photographic documentation of incident and subsequent medical procedures served further to obscure this period of lost memory.

A culture of secrecy meant that medical professionals were unable to access documentation of the expanded care pathway with which they, and their colleagues, were engaged. This fragmentation of experience and understanding within the process of evacuation, treatment and rehabilitation meant that the assessment of the contradictions and disorientation experienced by casualties and medical practitioners was denied to front-line staff.

Family members, colleagues and members of the public outside the immediate environment of the military were unable to visualise or understand the transformative effects of conflict on directly affected civilians and soldiers. Partly as a result, the scope for public debate to engage meaningfully with the longer term societal cost of contemporary conflict was limited.

The submission goes on to list an impressive series of debriefings, presentations to military and medical professionals, major exhibitions, and follow-through research in Birmingham.

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And it’s one of those follow-throughs that prompted me to think some more about corpographies.  I’d noted the connection between corpography and choreography in my original post, but David’s extraordinary collaboration with choreographer Rosie Kay and her dance company gives that a much sharper edge.  Again, there’s a comparison to be drawn – this time with Owen Sheers‘s impressively researched and executed body of work, not only the astonishing Pink Mist but also The Two Worlds of Charlie F (2012)which was a stage play based on the experiences of wounded soldiers who also made up the majority of the cast (see my discussion of these two projects here).

5 Soldiers started life as a stage presentation in 2010 (watch some extracts here):

A dance theatre work with 5 dancers, it looks at how the human body is essential to, and used in, warfare. 5 SOLDIERS explores the physical training that prepares you for war, as well as the possible effects on the body, and the injury caused by warfare.

Featuring Kay’s trademark intense physicality and athleticism, 5 SOLDIERS weaves a journey of physical transformation, helping us understand how soldiers are made and how war affects them.

5 SOLDIERS is a unique collaboration between award-winning choreographer Rosie Kay, visual artist David Cotterrell and theatre director Walter Meierjohann. It follows an intense period of research, where Rosie learnt battle training with The 4th Battalion The Rifles and David spent time in Helmand Province with the Joint Forces Medical Group.

Rosie explained her commitment to the project (and her training with The Rifles) like this:

“I wanted to look at how the physicality of a soldier’s job defines them –like a dancer, the soldier is drilled, trained, their responses becoming automatic, but can anything prepare you for the realities of war? It is young soldiers and their bodies that are the ultimate weapon in war – their strength and weaknesses may win or lose a battle, their ability to harm or injure others is key to victory. While war is surrounded with weaponry, uniforms, history and ceremony, the real business is human, dirty, messy, painful and happening right now.”

(She is, not coincidentally, an affiliate of the School of Anthropology at Oxford).

5 Soldiers installation PNG

And now there’s a film version that works as a multi-screen installation (screen shot above).

Instead of just creating a short film, the team wanted the web user to get a truly interactive way to watch dance, and actually feel that they can go inside the minds and the body of the work. The 80-minute work was cut to just 10 minutes long, and the company spent one week filming in a huge aircraft hangar at Coventry Airport…

Using a variety of cutting edge filming techniques, the collaborative team have created a 13 angle edit that takes you into the heart of the work, follows each of the dancers, and zooms out so that the performers appear to be like ants in a huge empty landscape.

You can see the interactive, multi-perspectival version here.  This relied on helmetcams, and there’s a fine, more general commentary on this in Kevin McSorley‘s ‘Helmetcams, militarized sensation and “somatic war”‘ here.  But here’s the short, ‘director’s cut’ version:

And look at the tag-line: ‘The body is the frontline’.  It’s not only drones that make it so.

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’…

Staging the landscapes of war – with noises off

NEVINSON The harvest of battle

I’ve been tracing commentaries on Kurt Lewin‘s classic essay on what we might call the topological phenomenology of the battlefield, published in 1917 as ‘Kriegslandschaft‘ (‘landscape of war’ or, loosely, ‘warscape’), which was based on his experience on the Western Front in the First World War. I’ve been particularly interested in his account of the way in which an ordinary landscape is transformed by war.

William Boyd captured what I have in mind in The new confessions:

‘Take an idealized image of the English countryside – I always think of the Cotswolds in this connection… You know exactly the sort of view it provides. A road, some hedgerowed lanes, a patchwork of fields, a couple of small villages… The eye sweeps over these benign and neutral features unquestioningly.

‘Now, place two armies on either side of this valley. Have them dig in and construct a trench system. Everything in between is suddenly invested with new sinister potential: that neat farm, the obliging drainage ditch, the village at the crossroads become key factor sin strategy and survival. Imagine running across those intervening fields in an attempt to capture positions on that gentle slope opposite… Which way will you go? What cover will you seek? … Try it the next time you are on a country stroll and see how the most tranquil scene can become instinct with violence. It only requires a change in point of view.’

lewin_kurtI’ve discussed this passage before, but what interested Lewin was the way in which the landscape changed for the soldier as he approached the front, moving from a ‘landscape of peace’ to a ‘landscape of war’ – what he described as the production of a ‘directive landscape’.  You can find an English translation here, but it’s behind a paywall I can’t scale: Art In Translation, 1 (2)( 2009) 199-209.  (If anybody has a ladder, please let me know).

En route, I stumbled on a fascinating PhD thesis by Greer Crawley, Strategic Scenography: staging the landscape of war (University of Vienna, 2011). I’ve discussed various conceptions of the ‘theatre of war’ several times before (see for example here, here and here), but Greer provides a much fuller and richer account.  Here is the abstract:

This dissertation is concerned with the construction of ‘theatres of war’ in the target landscapes of 20th century military conflict in Europe and America. In this study of the scenography of war, I examine the notion of the staged landscape and the adoption of theatrical language and methodologies by the military. This is a multi-disciplinary perspective informed by a wide range of literature concerning perception, the aerial view, camouflage and the terrain model. It draws on much original material including declassified military documents and archival photographs. The emphasis is on the visualisation of landscape and the scenographic strategies used to create, visualise and rehearse narratives of disguise and exposure. Landscape representation was constructed through the study of aerial photographs and imaginative projection. The perceptual shifts in scale and stereoscopic effects created new optical and spatial ‘truths’. Central to this analysis is the place of the model as strategic spectacle, as stage for rehearsal and re-enactment through performance and play. This research forms the context for an exploration of the extension and translation of similar scenographic strategies in contemporary visual art practice. Five case studies demonstrate how the artist as scenographer is representing the political and cultural landscape.

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And the Contents (the summaries are Greer’s own):

Chapter 1: Scenographic strategies

Theatre of War/Strategic Fantasy/Staging the Landscape

This chapter identifies the scenographic strategies that produce the performance landscape for the rehearsal and re-enactment of the Theatre of War. The aim is to define what is meant by strategic scenography and to establish the basic theoretical foundations upon which to build my argument.

Chapter 2: The Aerial Perspective

Aerial Theatre/The Stereoscopic View

This chapter focuses on the aerial view and the methodology of the stereoscope. This analysis of the relationship between scenography and topography from an aerial perspective expands on theories of aerial perception and stereoscopy. Drawing on the experiences of the reconnaissance pilots and photo interpreters during wartime, it attempts to understand the scopic conditions under which they visualised the landscape.

Chapter 3: Strategies of Perception

Camouflage Strategies/Fake Nature/The Scenic Effects

This is a key chapter which looks at the work of Kurt Lewin’s important contribution to an understanding of the perception of landscape. The second section deals specifically with the camouflage strategies adopted by the camoufleurs when staging their illusions in the First and Second World Wars. It provides a historical overview of the main camouflage strategies and then focus on particular scenic elements, e.g. scenery, lighting, props, sound, costume.

Chapter 4: The Territory of the Model

Maps, Models and Games/ The Model as Spectacle/The Terrain Model

This chapter begins with an examination of the methodologies of the map, model and games; the role of mimesis and performativity and the representation of the terrain. What follows is a consideration of the model as a strategic spectacle and its use to represent political ideologies, commercial and military interests and utopian visions. Within an historical context, it examines how the application of new technologies and scopic regimes has expanded the scenographic possibilities of the terrain model.

Chapter 5: Artists’ Manoeuvres

Wafa Hourani and Michael Ashkin − Nomos/Gerry Judah − The Crusader/Mariele Neudecker – Seduction Chaff/Katrin Sigurdardottir – Mappings/Hans Op de Beeck – St Nazaire

This chapter is an exploration of the deployment of scenographic strategies in contemporary artistic practice. Through five case studies it examines how the artist as scenographer has adopted theatrical practices and the methodologies of the model, camera and film as means of representing the political and cultural landscape.

Greer is currently a lecturer in Scenography at Royal Holloway, University of London and in BA and MA Spatial Design at Buckinghamshire New University.  You can download her thesis here – it’s a feast of delights, with marvellous illustrations and a perceptive text.

MoratSoundsAs you can see, Greer’s work focuses on the visual, and I’m equally interested in the role of the other senses in apprehending and navigating the battlefield – hence my continuing interest in corpography (see here and here).  So I was also pleased to find a newly translated discussion of the soundscape of the Western Front: Axel Volmar,  ‘”In storms of steel”: the soundscape of World War I’, in Daniel Marat (ed), Sounds of modern history: auditory cultures in 19th and 20th century Europe (Oxford: Berghahn, 2014) pp. 227-255; a surprising amount of the text can be accessed via Google Books, but you can also download the draft version via academia.edu.  More on Axel’s work (and other downloads, in both German and English) here.

And this too takes us back to Lewin:

‘…new arrivals to the front had not only had to leave behind their home and daily life, but also the practices of perception and orientation to which they were accustomed. With entry into the danger zone of battle, the auditory perception of peacetime yields to a, in many respects, radicalized psychological experience—a shift that the Gestalt psychologist, Kurt Lewin, attempted to articulate with the term “warscape”: for the psychological subject, objects lost most of their peacetime characteristics during wartime because they were henceforth evaluated from a perspective of extreme pragmatism and exclusively in terms of their fitness for war….

‘In place of day-to-day auditory perception, which tended to be passive and unconscious, active listening techniques came to the fore: practices of sound analysis, which might be described as an “auscultation” of the acoustic warscape—the method physicians use to listen to their patients by the help of a stethoscope. In these processes, the question was no longer how the noises as such were structured (i.e. what they sounded like), but rather what they meant, and what consequences they would bring with them for the listeners in the trenches. The training of the ear was based on radically increased attentiveness.

The subject thrust to the front thus comprised the focal point of an auditory space in which locating and diagnostic listening practices became vital to survival.’

For more on sound analysis, see my discussion of sound-ranging on the Western Front here, and the discussion in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

Drones.

The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College has just posted video of a performance work “Drones.” developed by undergraduates at the College in March this year.  The Center was established in 2012 by Arthur Holland Michel, Daniel Gettinger, and a group of faculty members including Thomas Keenan, Gregory Moynahan, Roger Berkowitz, Maria Cecire, Peter Rosenblum, and Keith O’Hara:

The Center for the Study of the Drone is an interdisciplinary research and art community working to understand unmanned and autonomous vehicles. By bringing together research from diverse academic and artistic perspectives which have, up until now, remained fairly silent on the issue, we aim to encourage new creative thinking and, ultimately, inform the public debate. We want to encourage dialogue between the tech world and the non-tech world, and explore new vocabularies. This is an online space for people to follow the latest news, encounter disparate views, access good writing and art, find resources for research, and engage a diverse community of thinkers and practitioners with the shared goal of understanding the drone.

“Drones.” was created by Rose Falvey, Riley Destefano DeLuise, Julia Wallace, Christina Miliou-Theocharaki, Eamon Goodman, Megan Snyder, and Catalin Moise.  Here’s the video (the music is Massive Attack’s Paradise Circus [Zeds Dead Remix]):

The Center’s website explains:

‘What the video captures best of all is the enormous influence that drones play on our imagination. Except for the name, the video makes no overt references to drones. And yet, the name alone frames the video so that every image, every movement, is connected in the viewer’s mind to UAVs, targeted killing, aerial bombing. Because of the context, the video becomes parody, dialogue, debate, and protest. The piece exercises a kind of restraint and subtlety that is absent from much of the public discourse; and yet,  ”Drones.” forcefully demonstrates the impact of the idea of the drone on aesthetic vocabularies.’

See what you think.

Playing war

SHEERS Pink MistI’ve just finished reading – but certainly not thinking about – Owen Sheers‘ extraordinary dramatic poem, Pink Mist.

It was originally commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for its More than Words Festival in 2012 but sadly it’s not available on the BBC iPlayer Radio – though you can now get it as a physical book and an e-book.

I’ve spent much of the last several weeks reading poetry from the First and the Second World Wars, but few of those poems have affected me as much as Pink Mist.  I noted Owen Sheers’ work in passing, when I was writing about Keith Douglas’s poems from the Western Desert, but Pink Mist is insistently about the present.

It tells the story of three young men – Arthur, Hads and Taff – who grew up together in Bristol, ‘playing war’ like so many other boys. They decide, a spur of the moment thing, to enlist in the British Army and soon find themselves serving together in Afghanistan:

It’s like my recruiter said today,

it’ll be a chance to do the job

they train you for.

Otherwise it’s like going to the fair,

but staying off the rides.

So yeah, I want to go to war.

But of course it’s not a fairground ride, and nobody is ‘playing war’ any more.

Sheers captures in short bursts the surreal violence of war in Afghanistan.  The accidental killing of a farmer’s wife and two year old grand-daughter:

I can still see his face, even now.

An outdoor man, skin leathered by the sun,

The way he unwrapped the end of his turban

to wipe at his eyes, raw with what we’d done.

An illustrated language card issued to troops to help them communicate in Pashto and Dari, ‘a kid’s cartoon book of modern warfare’:

British Army Language CardWhere is the pain? – Dard cheri day?

Blood – Khoon

Dead – Maray

Go home – Khaana burayn

Shot – Wishtalay

Go home – Korta dzai

One at a time – Pa waar yao

One at a time.

And the three friends do go home, one at a time, wrapped in the shadows of violence that now fall across the lives of a mother, wife and girl-friend.

Hads returns without his legs, the victim of a ‘blue on blue’ air strike that killed two of his mates:

… that’s what you’re fighting for.

The man on your left and the man on your right.

Forget queen and country, the mission or belief.

It’s more about keeping your mates alive.

Or avenging the ones who’ve already died.

Taff is so consumed by by PTSD that he is haunted even by the silent, ‘Sunday-morning dead’ streets of his home town:

But all Taff’s feeling is the threat.

The echo of when a village went like this back there,

when the women and kids melted away.

That’s what he’s trying to keep at bay,

plugging in his headphones, turning the volume right up.

Eventually he becomes homeless, like many other vets, living on the streets:

There’s a spread of regiments under those blankets …  

And a spread of wars too –

Falklands, Gulf, Northern Ireland, Iraq.  

Yeah, you walk this country’ streets

and there’s our history, under your feet.

And Arthur? Read it for yourself.

It’s a profound work, I think, at once an art-work and a documentary.  As in so much of Sheers’ writing, Pink Mist is based on careful research and sensitive interviewing so detailed and so intimate you can almost feel it in the sinews of the words and the cadence of the lines.  Sheers records his debt to ‘the many service personnel and their families whose stories have informed this work, especially Lyndon Chatting-Walters and Daniel Shaw, whose own experiences are, at times, closely echoed in these pages.’

bravo22aThose interviews were, in turn, part of Sheers’s research for The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a play not only about the Army’s wounded and injured from Afghanistan but also, and remarkably, largely performed by them.  Sheers describes the project here (and see the clip above).  In Afghanistan 22 per cent of British service personnel have been injured – a higher proportion than in the Second World War – and to prepare for the play Sheers and his director travelled the UK: ‘We became well-acquainted with the names of certain drugs, types of prosthetics, military jargon. We visited barracks, PRUs (Personnel Recovery Units) and rehabilitation centres.’  And then they worked with the soldiers.  There are plans for the production to tour again this year.

I’m making so much of this for two reasons beyond the power of Sheers’s project.  The first is that Sheers has much to teach us about transcending the limitations of conventional academic genres and incorporating the arts into the research process, not only as objects of contemplation and critique but also as ways of working.  (Think how lifeless so many ethnographies and interviews become on the printed page).  The second is that Pink Mist and The Two Worlds of Charlie F ought to confound the politics of care that assumes a concern with civilian casualities is the exclusive preserve of the left, while a concern for military casualties is the exclusive preserve of the right.

As Arthur says, at the very end of Pink Mist,

So that’s all I hope for.

When the debate’s being had,

the reasons given,

that people will remember

what those three letters mean,

before starting the chant once more –

Who wants to play war?

Who wants to play war?