Borderization and bombs

Just as I started to think about the Annual Lecture I have to give at the Kent Interdisciplinary Centre for Spatial Studies (KISS) next month, on the spaces of modern war, I stumbled across a splendidly angry and wonderfully perceptive new essay from Achille Mbembe on ‘Deglobalization‘ at Esprit (via Eurozine), 18 February 2019:

The spare abstract doesn’t begin to do it justice:

Digital computation is engendering a new common world and new configurations of reality and power. But this ubiquitous, instantaneous world is confronted by the old world of bodies and distances. Technology is mobilized in order to create an omnipresent border that sequesters those with rights from those without them.

The essay opens with some characteristically perceptive insights into digital computation (which Achille understands in three distinct but related ways) and its world-creating and world-dividing capacities, but given my KISS Lecture, I was much taken with this passage describing what Achille calls ‘borderization‘:

What is borderization if not the process by which world powers permanently transform certain spaces into places that are impassable to certain classes of people? What is borderization if not the deliberate multiplication of spaces of loss and grief, where so many people, deemed undesirable, see their lives shatter into pieces?

What is it, if not a way to wage war against enemies whose living environments and chances of survival have already been devastated? The use of uranium armour-piercing ammunition and prohibited weapons like white phosphorus; the high-altitude bombardment of basic infrastructure; the cocktail of carcinogenic and radioactive chemical products deposited in the soil and filling the air; the toxic dust raised by the ruins of obliterated towns; the pollution emitted by hydrocarbon fires?

And what about the bombs? Is there any type of bomb that has not been dropped on civilian populations since the last quarter of the twentieth century? Classic dumb bombs repurposed with tail-mounted inertial measurement units; cruise missiles with infrared seekers; microwave bombs designed to paralyze the enemy’s electronic nerve centres; other microwave bombs that do not kill but burn skin; bombs that detonate in cities releasing energy beams like bolts of lightning; thermobaric bombs that unleash walls of fire, suck the oxygen out of more or less confined spaces, send out deadly shockwaves and suffocate anything that breathes; cluster bombs that explode above the ground and scatter small shells, designed to detonate on contact, indiscriminately over a wide area, with devastating consequences for civilian populations; all sorts of bomb, a reductio ad absurdum demonstration of unprecedented destructive power – in short, ecocide.

Under these circumstances, how can we be surprised when those who can, those who have survived living hell, try to escape and seek refuge in any and every corner of Earth where they might be able to live safely?

This form of calculated, programmed war, this war of stupefaction with its new methods, is a war against the very ideas of mobility, circulation and speed, despite the fact that we live in an age of velocity, acceleration and ever more abstraction, ever more algorithms.

Its targets, moreover, are not singular bodies; they are entire human masses who are dismissed as contemptible and superfluous, but whose organs must each suffer their own specific form of incapacitation, with consequences that last for generations – eyes, nose, mouth, ears, tongue, skin, bones, lungs, gut, blood, hands, legs, all the cripples, paralytics, survivors, all the pulmonary diseases like pneumoconiosis, all the traces of uranium found in hair, the thousands of cancers, miscarriages, birth defects, congenital deformities, wrecked thoraxes, nervous system disorders – utter devastation.

All these things, it bears repeating, are connected to contemporary practices of borderization being carried out remotely, far away from us, in the name of our freedom and security. This conflict against specific bodies of abjection, mounds of human flesh, unfolds on a planetary scale. It is poised to become the defining conflict of our time.

Achille then connects this to Grégoire Chamayou‘s arguments about ‘manhunts’ (see my discussion of ‘the individuation of warfare’ here – though, like Achille, I’d now insist that ‘individuation’ is only one modality of later modern war and that, as I’ve suggested here, aerial violence and siege warfare both continue to target ‘the social’, those ‘entire human masses’):

This conflict often precedes, accompanies or supplements the other conflict being waged in our midst or at our doors: the hunt for bodies that have been foolish enough to move (movement being the essential property of the human body); bodies judged to have forced their way into places and spaces where they have no business being, places they clog up by simply existing, and from which they must be expelled.

As the philosopher Elsa Dorlin remarks, this form of violence is directed towards prey. It resembles the great hunts of the past – tracking and pursuing, laying traps and beating, and finally surrounding, capturing or slaughtering the quarry with the help of pack hounds and bloodhounds. It fits into a long history of manhunts. Grégoire Chamayou studies their various manifestations in Manhunts: A Philosophical History. They always involve the same sort of quarry – slaves, aborigines, dark skins, Jews, the stateless, the poor and, closer to home, the undocumented. They target animate, moving bodies that, marked out and ostracized, are seen as entirely different from our own bodies despite being endowed with attractive force, intensity, the capacity to move and flee. These hunts are taking place at a time when technologies of acceleration are proliferating endlessly and creating a segmented, multi-speed planet.

And finally this:

What is the deadliest destination for migrants in an increasingly balkanized and isolated world? Europe. Where lie the most skeletons at sea, where is the biggest marine graveyard at the beginning of this century? Europe. Where are the largest number of territorial and international waters, sounds, islands, straits, enclaves, canals, rivers, ports and airports transformed into technological iron curtains? Europe. And to crown it all, in this era of permanent escalation, the camps. The return of camps. A Europe of camps. Samos, Chios, Lesbos, Idomeni, Lampedusa, Ventimiglia, Sicily, Subotica – a garland of camps…. [I’ve taken the map below from ‘Camps in Europe’ here].

It bears repeating that this war (which takes the form of hunting, capturing, rounding up, sorting, separating and deporting) has one aim. It is not about cutting Europe off from the world or turning it into an impenetrable fortress. It is about arrogating to Europeans alone the rights of possession of and free movement around a planet that rightfully belongs to all of us.

I’m not sure about all of this, not least because that precious right of ‘free movement’ within Europe is precisely what is being called into question by the resurgent right across Europe.  But there is much to think about here, and I urge you to read the whole, brilliant essay.

Selling War

When there were endless real bookshops for me to haunt, I lost count of the number of times I’d take a book from the shelf, seduced by its lead title, only to put it back once I saw what came after the colon.   But that isn’t always a fail-safe strategy, and I’ve received news of a new book by Alex Fattawhere that really wouldn’t be smart.  Guerrilla Marketing has a relevance far beyond Colombia (interesting and important though that is in its own right):

Brand warfare is real. Guerrilla Marketing details the Colombian government’s efforts to transform Marxist guerrilla fighters in the FARC into consumer citizens. Alexander L. Fattal shows how the market has become one of the principal grounds on which counterinsurgency warfare is waged and postconflict futures are imagined in Colombia. This layered case study illuminates a larger phenomenon: the convergence of marketing and militarism in the twenty-first century. Taking a global view of information warfare, Guerrilla Marketing combines archival research and extensive fieldwork not just with the Colombian Ministry of Defense and former rebel communities, but also with political exiles in Sweden and peace negotiators in Havana. Throughout, Fattal deftly intertwines insights into the modern surveillance state, peace and conflict studies, and humanitarian interventions, on one hand, with critical engagements with marketing, consumer culture, and late capitalism on the other. The result is a powerful analysis of the intersection of conflict and consumerism in a world where governance is increasingly structured by brand ideology and wars sold as humanitarian interventions.

Full of rich, unforgettable ethnographic stories, Guerrilla Marketing is a stunning and troubling analysis of the mediation of global conflict.

The resonance of Guerilla Marketing clearly transcends its subtitle, as this tantalising extract makes clear:

Total mobilization is no longer a matter of a fluid transition from peace to war, but a matter of the continual co-presence of the two in a hot peace in which everywhere is always a potential scene of violence.  As commentators frequently note, the Global War on Terror is unbounded in scope and duration, an unending concatenation of episodes that render the world a battlefield from Waziristan, which has borne the brunt of drone warfare, to suburban Watertown, Massachusetts, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bomb attacks of 2013. What connects sites as disparate as Waziristan and Watertown is not only the War on Terror but marketing as a system of global provisioning that is productive of affective attachments. I borrow the idea of affect as a form of infrastructure from anthropologist Joseph Masco, who deftly teases out continuities between the Cold War and the War on Terror. For Masco, this affective infrastructure is built by the national security state, expansive in the wake of the “ongoing injury” of the September 11 attacks.  “Affect,” Masco writes, “becomes a kind of infrastructure for the security state, creating the collective intensities of feeling necessary to produce individual commitments, remake ethical standards, and energize modes of personal, and collective, sacrifice.”

The layering of national security affect, primarily paranoia and fear, I argue, cannot be separated from the aspirational affect of consumer culture, for the two have coevolved. At the height of the Cold War, for instance, advertisements pitched “Luxury Fall- Out Shelters” to people who would prefer to wait out a nuclear apocalypse in comfort. Such advertisements normalized the very idea of nuclear warfare and the paranoia it generated. Similarly, George W. Bush’s call on Americans to go shopping one week after September 11, 2001, mobilized consumption as a means of coping with the Global War on Terror. I take as given the idea, demonstrated by historical accounts of the coevolution of marketing and warfare in the twentieth century, that marketization and militarization are deeply interpenetrated. I am fascinated by how their convergence shapes an affective mode of governance in the early twenty-first century, a moment when simmering fears of an everywhere war and the rising aspirations of the global middle classes expand in tandem. It is more than a little curious that in the 2000s, just as war diffused further into everyday life, everything—nations, militaries, cities, universities, individual selves— became brands.

The language of the convergence of marketing and militarism is revealing. Targeting, for example, serves as a switch that connects the marketing nation and the security state. As marketers study, segment, and create new publics to target, the military compiles lists of targets to monitor and, at the right moment, destroy. A drive toward ever- greater precision unites both practices of targeting. Each year marketers improve their ability to micro- target tightly defined demographic groups by tracking users across the internet with algorithmic intelligence.  Similarly the military, through the use of special forces and drone warfare, creates micro-kill zones. In the words of Grégoire Chamayou, a French theorist of drone warfare, “The zone of armed conflict, having been fragmented into miniaturizable kill boxes, tends ideally to be reduced to the single body of the enemy-prey”— modern warfare as hunting. Whether it’s data capitalism’s drive to psychologically profile individual consumers or the whack- a-mole logic of twenty-first-century counterinsurgency, this scaling down to the individual approaches a vanishing point: advertising as nonadvertising, war as nonwar. Neither negation is neutral, nor is their entanglement haphazard. To the contrary, I would like to suggest that in this double negation there lies a key to understanding the state of the relationship between war and capitalism in the early twenty- first century.

Enter the double meaning of this book’s title, guerrilla marketing, which in business parlance is code for a bundle of tactics, most of which seek to invisibilize the sales pitch. Tom Himpe, an advertising intellectual, describes this tendency as “advertising that blends in seamlessly with real entertainment, real events or real life to the extent that it is not possible to tell what is advertising and what is not.”  Drawing upon the legacy of guerrilla warfare as articulated by Che Guevara and Mao Zedong, guerrilla marketing draws its strength from camouflage. But marketing’s camouflage aspires not merely to blend into the background but to act upon it. Branding, I argue, operates as an activist form of camouflage that seeks to subtly transform the environment. As an instrument of total mobilization, brands have proved to be modular weapons of productive persuasion, from the black flag of ISIS and its calls to mobilize individuals alienated from the West to a real estate mogul’s use of brand strategies to bluster his way to the White House. As an emergent phenomenon of extraordinary political consequence, brand warfare is ripe for critical analysis.

Since Guerilla Marketing comes from a US publisher (Chicago UP) the paperback is not pitched at a silly-extortionate price; there’s an e-book too.  More here.

Drones and Shadow Wars

I ended my lecture at the Drone Imaginaries conference in Odense this week by arguing that the image of the drone’s all-seeing ‘eye in the sky’ had eclipsed multiple other modalities of later modern war:

Simply put, drones are about more than targeted killing (that’s important, of course, but remember that in Afghanistan and elsewhere ‘night raids’ by US Special Forces on the ground have been immensely important in executing supposedly ‘kill or capture’ missions); and at crucial moments in the war in Afghanistan 90 per cent of air strikes have been carried out by conventional aircraft (though intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from remote platforms often mediated those strikes).

To sharpen the point I showed this image from a drone over Afghanistan on 15 April 2017:

This showed the detonation of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB or ‘Mother Of All Bombs’):

This is a far cry from the individuation of later modern war, the US Air Force’s boast that it could put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and that often repeated line from Grégoire Chamayou about ‘the body becoming the battlefield’.

And, as I’ve been trying to show in my series of posts on siege warfare in Syria, there are still other, shockingly violent and intrinsically collective modalities of later modern war.  Drones have been used there too, but in the case of the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces targeting has more often than not avoided precision weapons in favour of saturation bombing and artillery strikes (see here).

All this means that I was pleased to receive a note from the brilliant Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the widening of its work on drones (which will continue, to be sure):

Under President Donald Trump the US counterterrorism campaign is shifting into another phase, and the Bureau is today launching a new project to investigate it – Shadow Wars.  The new phase is in some ways a continuation and evolution of trends seen under Obama. The same reluctance to deploy American troops applies, as does the impetus to respond militarily to radical groups around the world. But as extremist groups spread and metastasise, the US’s military engagements are becoming ever more widespread, and complicated. Peter Singer, a senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, who is a leading expert on security, says: “Shadow wars have been going on for a long time, but what’s clearly happened is that they’ve been accelerated, and the mechanisms for oversight and public notification have been peeled back. The trend lines were there before, but the Trump team are just putting them on steroids.”

A new US drone base has been built in Niger, but its ultimate purpose is unclear. In Afghanistan, the US is trying to prevail over the Taliban, without committing to a substantial increase in troop numbers, by waging an increasingly secretive air war. In Yemen, the US is leaning on the United Arab Emirates as its on the ground counterterrorism partner, a country with a troubled human rights record. Meanwhile, proxy confrontations with Iran are threading themselves into the mix.

Our Shadow Wars project will widen the focus of the Bureau’s drone warfare work. Over the next year, we will bring new and important aspects of US military strategy to light, of which drones are just one troubling aspect.

We aim to explore issues such as America’s increasing reliance on regional allies, the globalisation of the private military industry, the blurring of lines between combat and support missions and the way corruption fuels a state of permanent conflict. As with our work on drones, our primary concern in this new project is to publicise the effects these evolving practices of war have on the civilians on the ground.

Re-launch and Rescue

The much-missed Radical Philosophy has just re-launched as an open access journal with downloadable pdfs here.  The site also includes access to the journal’s wonderful archive.

Among the riches on offer, I’ve been particularly engaged by Martina Tazzioli‘s Crimes of solidarity. which picks up on one of the central themes in the last of the ‘old’ RP series.  It addresses what she calls ‘migration and containment through rescue’, the creeping criminalisation of the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean.  In a perceptive section on ‘Geographies of Ungrievability’ Martina writes:

The criminalisation of alliances and initiatives in support of migrants’ transit should not lead us to imagine a stark opposition between ‘good humanitarians’, on the one side, and bad military actors or national authorities, on the other. On the contrary, it is important to keep in mind the many entanglements between military and humanitarian measures, as well as the role played by military actors, such as the Navy, in performing tasks like rescuing migrants at sea that could fall under the category of what Cuttitta terms ‘military-humanitarianism’. Moreover, the Code of Conduct enforced by the Italian government actually strengthens the divide between ‘good’ NGOs and ‘treacherous’ humanitarian actors. Thus, far from building a cohesive front, the obligation to sign the Code of Conduct produced a split among those NGOs involved in search and rescue operations.

In the meantime, the figure of the refugee at sea has arguably faded away: sea rescue operations are in fact currently deployed with the twofold task of not letting migrants drown and of fighting smugglers, which de facto entails undermining the only effective channels of sea passage for migrants across the Mediterranean. From a military-humanitarian approach that, under Mare Nostrum, considered refugees at sea as shipwrecked lives, the unconditionality of rescue is now subjected to the aim of dismantling the migrants’ logistics of crossing. At the same time, the migrant drowning at sea is ultimately not seen any longer as a refugee, i.e. as a subject of rights who is seeking protection, but as a life to be rescued in the technical sense of being fished out of the sea. In other words, the migrant at sea is the subject who eventually needs to be rescued, but not thereby placed into safety by granting them protection and refuge in Europe. What happens ‘after landing’ is something not considered within the framework of a biopolitics of rescuing and of letting drown. Indeed, the latter is not only about saving (or not saving) migrants at sea, but also, in a more proactive way, about aiming at human targets. In manhunting, Gregoire Chamayou explains, ‘the combat zone tends to be reduced to the body of the enemy’. Yet who is the human target of migrant hunts in the Mediterranean? It is not only the migrant in distress at sea, who in fact is rescued and captured at the same time; rather, migrants and smugglers are both considered the ‘prey’ of contemporary military-humanitarianism.

As I’ve explained in a different context, I’m no longer persuaded by Grégoire’s argument about the reduction of the conflict zone (‘battlefield’) to the body, but the reduction of the migrant to a body adds a different dimension to that discussion.

In the case of the eastern Mediterranean, Martina describes an extraordinary (though also all too ordinary) ‘spatial rerouting of military-humanitarianism, in which migrants [fleeing Libya] are paradoxically rescued to Libya’:

Rather than vanishing from the Mediterranean scene, the politics of rescue, conceived in terms of not letting people die, has been reshaped as a technique of capture. At the same time, the geographic orientation of humanitarianism has been inverted: migrants are ‘saved’ and dropped in Libya. Despite the fact that various journalistic investigations and UN reports have shown that after being intercepted, rescued and taken back to Libya, migrants are kept in detention in abysmal conditions and are blackmailed by smugglers, the public discussion remains substantially polarised around the questions of deaths at sea. Should migrants be saved unconditionally? Or, should rescue be secondary to measures against smugglers and balanced against the risk of ‘migrant invasion’? A hierarchy of the spaces of death and confinement is in part determined by the criterion of geographical proximity, which contributes to the sidelining of mechanisms of exploitation and of a politics of letting die that takes place beyond the geopolitical borders of Europe. The biopolitical hold over migrants becomes apparent at sea: practices of solidarity are transformed into a relationship between rescuers and drowned.

There’s much more in this clear, compelling and incisive read.  A good companion is Forensic Architecture‘s stunning analysis of ‘Death by Rescue’ in The Left-to-Die Boat here and here (from which I’ve taken the image that heads this post).

Aerial violence and the death of the battlefield

UBC’s term started last week, but I was in Nijmegen so I’ve started this week.  I’ve posted the revised outlines and bibliographies for my two courses this term under the TEACHING tab.

I was primarily in Nijmegen to give a ‘Radboud Reflects’/Humboldt Lecture.  As usual, I had a wonderful time; I’ve pasted the abstract below – though this was written before I had put the presentation together, so it doesn’t incorporate the closing section at all (“Geographies of the Remote”).  It draws, in part, on my Tanner Lectures, “Reach from the sky“, but it also incorporates new material [see, for example, my reflections on the Blackout here].

You can download the slides as a pdf here: GREGORY War at a distance Aerial violence and the death of the battlefield [this version includes several slides that I subsequently cut to bring the thing within bounds], and the video version will be available online shortly.

War at a distance: aerial violence and the death of the battlefield

Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk” is remarkable for many reasons, but prominent among them is the fact that, as the director himself notes, ‘we don’t see the Germans in the film… it’s approached from the mechanics of survival rather than the politics of the event.’ This raises a series of important questions, but central to any understanding of aerial violence is precisely what can be seen and what cannot be seen: what can those crouching under the bombs see of the perpetrators, and what can those carrying out the strikes see of their targets? You might think this becomes even more important when war is conducted at a distance, but the history of military violence shows that ‘distance’ is a complicated thing…

The first large-scale use of aircraft for offensive purposes (rather than surveillance) was on the Western Front during the First World War, when aircraft were used to ‘spot’ targets for artillery and eventually to conduct bombing operations on the battlefield. But more consequential was the use of aircraft and airships to conduct bombing raids far beyond the battlefield, on cities like London and Paris, because this brought civilians directly into the line of fire and in doing so started to dissolve the idea of the battlefield [what Frédéric Mégret calls ‘the deconstruction of the battlefield‘] and to assault the very concept of a civilian. The bombing offensives of the Second World War, especially in Europe and Japan, accelerated this dismal process, but they also reveal a deadly dialectic between intimacy and domesticity (the effects on everyday life on the ‘home’ front) and abstraction (the way in which targets were produced and made visible to bomber crews).e

That same dialectic reappears in today’s drone operations over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. But these new technologies of ‘war at a distance’ have their own history that overlaps and intersects with the story of manned flight. Indeed, the dream of ‘unmanned’ flight soared in lockstep with the dream of those extraordinary flying machines. This too goes back to the First World War, when inventors proposed ingenious aerial vehicles whose ‘bomb-dropping’ would be controlled by radio. These proved impractical until after the Second World War, when drones were used by the US to photograph and collect samples from atomic clouds in the Marshall Islands and Nevada [see here and here]. The over-arching principle was to protect American lives by keeping operators at a safe distance from their targets, and this is one of the logics animating contemporary drone strikes (‘projecting power without vulnerability’). But for this to work new technologies of target recognition as well as mission control were required; these were first developed during the Vietnam War, when the US Air Force tried to ‘wire’ the Ho Chi Minh Trail and connect its sensor systems to computers that would direct aircraft onto their targets (or, rather, target boxes).

The Pentagon looked forward to the installation of an ‘automated battlefield’ on a global scale [see my ‘Lines of Descent’, DOWNLOADS tab]. Although its plans were premature, the subsequent development of targeted killing using Predators and Reapers has since completed the dissolution of a distinctive battlefield: the United States Air Force boasts that it can put ‘warheads on foreheads’ and the US has claimed the right to pursue its targets wherever they go, so that (in Grégoire Chamayou’s words) ‘the body becomes the battlefield.’ These targeted bodies are at once abstract – reduced to digital traces, the products of a global system of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – and yet at the same time, by virtue of the high-resolution full-motion video feeds used to track them, peculiarly intimate to those that kill them. Drone pilots operate their aircraft from thousands of miles away, yet they are much ‘closer’ to their targets than pilots of conventional strike aircraft: previously, the only aerial vehicles to approach this level of intimacy, and then but fleetingly, were the Zeppelins of the First World War. But this intimacy is conditional and even illusory, and case studies [see here, here and here] show that as the battlefield transforms into the multi-dimensional battlespace the very idea of the civilian [see here and here] is put at increased risk.

All of this will appear, in extended and elaborated form, in my new book, also called “Reach from the sky”.

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‘.

Dancing with drones 1

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!).

Killboxes and drone shadows

After the AAG Conference in San Francisco next month I’m heading across to UC Davis for a conference on ‘Eyes in the skies: Drones and the politics of distance warfare‘, organised by Caren Kaplan (5 April if you’re in the area).  The event is sponsored by the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Surveillance Democracies and the Mellon Research Initiative in Digital Cultures.

The program includes a presentation from Joseph DeLappe and a panel on his work.  His own presentation is on Killbox, a game on/about drone warfare.

Killbox is an online game and interactive installation that critically explores the nature of drone warfare, its complexities and consequences. It is an experience which explores the use of technology to transform and extend political and military power, and the abstraction of killing through virtualisation.

Killbox involves audiences in a fictionalized interactive experience in virtual environments based on documented drones strikes in Northern Pakistan.

The work is an international collaboration between U.S. based artist/activist, Joseph DeLappe and Scotland-based artists and game developers, Malath Abbas, Tom Demajo and Albert Elwin.

If you want to know more about kill-boxes, incidentally, I provided a detailed discussion in one of my commentaries on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone – you can find it here: scroll down –  and there’s a recent essay by Scott Beauchamp for the Atlantic on ‘the moral cost of the kill-box’ here:

Kill boxes might have been one strategic reason why the Gulf War only lasted 100 hours.

In particular, kill boxes proved an efficient way for the Air Force to dismantle opposing militaries. This worked in 1991, and again during the first years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these early stages, using a kill box required positive identification of an enemy target, a process called PID, before engaging. “We have to visually identify the target and we have to determine whether it’s a hostile [military] target. We determine that it’s not friendly by using visual recognition features and through ground elements of the nearest friendly positions,” Air Force Major Greg Defore told National Defense Magazine in 2003. In other words: Servicemen look at who or what they’re going to shoot with their own eyes before shooting to make sure the person or object is actually the part of the enemy’s military forces. “You may be 100 percent sure that a vehicle is not a friendly and still not engage. It could, for instance, be a humanitarian food truck or a farm vehicle,” Defore said.

This strategy worked well during the initial invasion of Iraq, but only because the opposing team was wearing a jersey, so to speak. It was possible to look at a truck and know whether or not it was hostile. But as a conventional war degenerated into a complex quagmire of militants engaged in guerilla warfare, that sort of certainty wasn’t possible any longer. As Major James MacGregor explains in his paper, “Bringing the Box into Doctrine: Joint Doctrine and the Kill Box,” an officer from 1918 would have, with a little help, been able to understand the maps of the Gulf War: Enemy forces are here, friendly forces over here, that sort of thing. But today, the enemy could be anyone, anywhere. This type of warfare doesn’t naturally lend itself well to kill boxes. As the American military started using kill boxes in conjunction with drones in targeted killings, it effectively grafted a strategy from the past onto the present, a la Frankenstein. The military began using kill boxes in the so-called war on terror as a technique to exert force in “ungoverned spaces,” territories that are not controlled by a state and are populated by people who might not share American cultural values. Kill boxes are only used in places that are very different from the United States; military forces would never initiate a kill box Manchester or Ann Arbor, for example, even if a suspected terrorist lived there. Too many innocent people would be killed. The innocent people living in Afghanistan or Yemen, however, are apparently judged by a different standard. And this is the moral cost of the kill box: When used widely and indiscriminately, the tactic devalues human life.

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Joseph has several other projects that address drone warfare, the most interesting of which (to me, anyway) is his ongoing visualization of drone strikes around Mir Ali in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (see above):

A collaborative project to create a large-scale installation to map, via sculptural and electronic components, the history of ongoing US drone strikes in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. The work shown here includes 25 3-D printed paper reproductions of MQ9 Predator Drones, arranged in a pattern of documented drone strikes around the town of Mir Ali. This is a prototype for a much larger installation that, when completed, will feature over 405 paper drones – one each representing every documented drone strike in Pakistan. The drones will be arranged to create a map of drone strikes – each drone is individually lit by an addressable LED light which will go off in a staccato pattern – in the final installation the staccato pattern will be interrupted over time by individual drones strikes being highlighted in red and the incorporation of an LED panel on the wall that will note the location, date and number of people killed.

There’s a preview of the prototype, ‘Drone Shadow’, on YouTube: