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.

2011-02-25_0648070 (dragged)

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  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).

In plain sight

I’ve posted about camouflage before, but mainly in an historical context: the issue looms large in two recent essays, ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and the soon-to-be-completed ‘The natures of war’.  But it is, of course, of vital contemporary importance, and I’m thinking through its implications for my ‘Militarized vision‘ project.  After all, ‘seeing like a military‘ also involves what is not seen…

Here the work of Isla Forsyth is indispensable: see in particular her ‘Subversive patterning: the surgical qualities of camouflage’, Environment and Planning A 45(2013) 1037-52 and  ‘Designs on the desert: camouflage, deception and the militarization of space’, Cultural geographies, online July 2013; I also like James Philip Robertson‘s ‘Darkened surfaces”: camouflage and the nocturnal observation of Britain, 1941-45’, Environment and Planning A 45 (2013) 1053-69.

But these are all historical investigations, and for those new to contemporary camouflage Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan has a helpful summary of advances (and failures) in ‘digital’ camouflage over at Gizmodo, ‘The history of invisibility and the future of camouflage’.

Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corp

The article takes off from the failure of the US Army’s ‘Universal Camouflage Pattern’ introduced in 2004, which was supposedly designed to work anywhere: not surprisingly, it didn’t. Cindi Katz‘s wonderfully waspish descriptions of the post-9/11 deployment of the National Guard in New York City are irresistible:

‘I’ve grown accustomed to their presence — frighteningly so — but still can’t get over their costumes. Green, woodsy camouflage. To blend with Penn Station?!’

Kelsey interviews Guy Cramer, CEO of Hyperstealth Biotechnology, ‘leaders in camouflage, concealment and deception’, and one of four finalists in the US Army’s Camo Improvement project. He has interesting things to say about fractals, pattern and scale but also about the temporal horizon of camouflage: how long does the deception have to work? Perhaps it will soon be time to head over to Penn Station again….

UPDATE: I’ve just stumbled across Stefka Hristova‘s ‘Digital Animalized Camouflage: A Zone of Biopolitical Indistinction’, from interstitial last year, which make a series of imaginative connections between digital camouflage and the state of exception: you can access it  here.

Hide and Seek – and Show

Ever since I heard Isla Forsyth give one of her marvellous presentations on camouflage I’ve been fascinated by the subject – all the more so since it intersects so artfully (and, as Isla would quite rightly insist, scientifically) with my work on aerial reconnaissance, bombing and modern war.  You can get an early sense of Isla’s work from this presentation, ‘Shadow chasers: exploring the vertical and angular geometries of camouflage‘, which includes a gallery of images.  Isla’s Glasgow PhD thesis, From Dazzle to the Desert: A Cultural-Historical Geography of Camouflage, was completed last year – and I hope will appear in book form.


There’s a great blog on camouflage – Camoupedia – which includes an appreciative notice of Isla’s work and, amongst a feast of deceptive riches, a stunning series of posters by graphic design students to advertise a talk by Claudia Covert (that really is her splendid name) on dazzle ship camouflage in World War I, a post about the newspaper of the American Camouflage Corps in 1917 (above), and a remarkable extract from a letter from Reginald Farrer later published as The Void of War: letters from three fronts (1918):

FARRER Void of WarThe real thing about the human side of the war is the sheer fun of it. In certain aspects the war is nothing but a glorious, gigantic game of hide and seek—camouflage is nothing else. It is not only the art of making things invisible, but also of making them look like something else. Even the art of inconspicuousness is subtle and exciting. What glory it must be to splash your tents and lorries all over with wild waggles of orange and emerald and ochre and umber, in a drunken chaos, until you have produced a perfect futurist masterpiece which one would think would pierce the very vaults of heaven with its yells..

But disguise is an even higher branch of the art: you go on to make everything look like something else. Hermit crabs and caddis worms become our masters. Down from the sky peers the microscopic midget of a Boche plane: he sees a tree—but it may be a gun: he sees a gun—but it may be only a tree. And so the game of hide and seek goes on, in a steady acceleration of ingenuity on both sides, till at last the only logical outcome will be to have no camouflage at all. You will simply put out your big guns fair and square in the open, because nobody will ever believe, by that time,  that anything really is what it looks like. As far as the guns go, the war is developing into a colossal fancy dress ball, with immunity for the prize: wolves in sheep’s clothing are nothing to these gentle shepherdesses of the countryside. The more important they are, the more meekly do they shrink from notice under dominos of boughs or sods, or strawberry-netting tagged over with fluffets of green and brown rags. And sometimes they lurk under some undiscoverable knoll in a coppice, and do their barking through a little hole from which you would only expect rabbits, not shells..

And, of course, this fun sense of his [the individual] has full play in this new warfare. It is all “I spy,” on terms of life and death: the other fellow must not spy, or you hear of it instantly, through your skull. Think how it must sharpen up the civilization-sodden intelligence of a man, to have to depend for dear life on noticing every movement in a bush and every opening in a bank. Now we are getting back with one hand what we had lost by giving up the other to machinery. We are growing to make the best of both worlds, the mechanical and the human, without giving up our mental balance by relying exclusively on either. I only wish I could give you an idea of the devices and ingenuities that these grown-up hide-and-seekers have elaborated. All sorts of ludicrously simple things, the more ludicrously simple the better

Every blank-faced trench rampart of sandbags has its hidden eyes—eyes perfectly wide awake all the time, and winking at you wickedly with a rifle. But for your life you could not spot them, until you had had weeks of training, and learned the real meaning of every tiny unevenness or discoloration or bit of darkness. And even then you have to learn to guess which of these is harmless—so as to blind the others with your own fire. Or there is an innocent, untidy, earthy bank, a dump of old boots and tins and bottles and teapots without spouts. But any one of those forlorn oddments may also be the eyelid of a rifle. Only you do not know which—until you have found out! In the beginning of the war you did not find out. Everything was neat and tidy and civilized and well arranged: so you merely got killed.

I’ve quoted this at length because it seems such a radically different view of the new geometries of the First World War to that taken (as I noted here) by Charles Nevinson in his early paintings of the Western Front – at least in its celebratory temper.  And yet, in its acknowledgement of the entanglements of the machine and the human, it’s also subversively the same.  (Not surprisingly, both Isla and the author of the blog – Roy Behrens, who also wrote the book Camoupedia (2009) – pay close attention to camouflage artists, and there’s also a brief blog post on Camouflage as Futurism that notes Nevinson’s work).

All of this is on my mind today for two reasons.  The first is that Farrer’s letter was published in part under the title ‘Hide and Seek‘, which is also the title of a brilliant book on camouflage I’ve belatedly discovered (perhaps that’s appropriate): Hanna Rose ShellHide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography and the Media of Reconnaissance, published by the ever -inventive Zone Books in March last year.  The more books I buy from Zone, the more I realise that this is a wonderful platform for books that depend on images – not surprising since they are edited by Jonathan Crary,Michel Feher, Hal Foster and Ramona Nadaff.

SHELL Hide and seek

You can get a sense of Hanna’s (early) work from this essay, ‘The crucial moment of deception’, in Cabinet.  There’s also an excellent article on her work in the Paris Review here , another at rhizome here, and a short interview with Hanna here:

The main focus of my book is on the period between the late 19th century and World War II, but I also show how photographic camouflage is present in military research today. What I call an enduring “chameleonic impulse” continues to motivate military R&D of wearable camouflage technologies. There is also an ongoing quest to develop “invisible cloaks” to serve simultaneously as skins and … screens onto which one’s visual environment might be projected.

Many times, people’s first association with camouflage is with the natural world — it’s often the story of the evolution of the “peppered moth” that schoolchildren learn in biology class. But it’s only when humans had to hide from the camera and other optical devices that animal protective concealment began to fascinate people … and then became a model for the development of new human technologies.

Camouflage Project

There’s a second reason.  I’m presently developing a performance work, provisionally called “The social life of bombs“, where I want (among other things) to integrate the performing and visual arts into the research process (as part of my Killing Space project).  My inspiration is in part Gerry Pratt’s Nanay, but more proximately Boca del Lupo‘s Photog, based on the experiences of four combat photographers and using cutting-edge visual technologies to mesmerising effect (I’m going to talk with them next month), and in part Ohio State University’s  The Camouflage Project (above).  The project involved OSU’s Department of Theater and the Mershon Center for International Security Studies:

The camouflage project/2The goal of The Camouflage Project is to create, organize and execute a three-part interdisciplinary endeavor linked to the theme of secret agents, camouflage, deception and disguise in World War II, specifically the F section (France) of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The three parts are as follows:

Performance: To devise a new performance work as a collaboration between Ohio State University Theatre and the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD). This will be a multi-media work combining digital animations and video projections with experimental use of 3D printing, 3D scanning and projection mapping.

Exhibition: To create a visual environment parallel to the performance space, which will have a second life as an installation/exhibition. The installation will feature historical background (interviews and soldier training films) on the science and art of camouflage in both World Wars organized around a visual study of selected SOE (principally female) agents and espionage circuits in France, examples of military equipment, devices, disguises, gadgets and weapons of deception.

Symposium: To organize and host an international symposium on the multiple artistic and instrumental meanings of camouflage, to be held in May 2011. The symposium will feature panels of Ohio State and international experts from military history, political science, and the Imperial War Museum addressing the subject of camouflage and the SOE.

The project offers a fresh meaning to the expression ‘theatre of war.’ On one level it theatricalizes the history of military camouflage, particularly the SOE and the role played by women agents in its espionage activity. On another it reveals the artistic dimensions of these activities: a variety of theatre artists—scenic, costume, make-up designers, and vaudeville magicians—were employed to use their theatrical skills to deceive and fool the enemy. Rather than tales of derring-do and spying, this project seeks to look at different and often hidden aspects of the war: the use and creation of camouflage, both literally and metaphorically, by people who had to work secretly behind enemy lines. The performance storyline will highlight the work of women agents, many of whose accomplishments have been concealed, erased or obscured for a variety of reasons. A narrative strategy will be to include elements of the training process involved in preparing agents for the field and the often-disastrous consequences of strategic decisions made by the SOE leadership.

This all came together in May 2011, though the performance work has subsequently been on tour; the programme for the symposium and performance is here, a review of the 90-minute performance here.  My subject is different, of course, but I’m really taken by the tripartite structure of the project and its collaborative nature.  Perhaps I have nothing to say, only to show…