2018 | Why Exhibit? Iris Sikking in Conversation with Rune Peitersen

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This interview is featured in the book Why Exhibit? Positions on Exhibiting Photographies

Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger, Iris Sikking (eds) — Why exhibit? Positions on Exhibiting Photographies

Iris Sikking in Conversation with Rune Peitersen in Amsterdam on June 16, 2018

For the main program of the 2018 Kraków Photomonth festival, I  invited the Brussels-based Danish artist Rune Peitersen to present his latest work, The Operators and the Targets (2017), at the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art.[1] At the heart of this twelve-minute video is an imaginary relationship between operators in a military facility and their targets in a distant, undefined country. As a consequence of ongoing technological inventions, bodily confrontation on the ground seems to have become optional. Peitersen’s intricately constructed video delves into a gray area, visualizing the remote-controlled systems that provide an immediate and continuous sense of presence—as if distance has become “obsolete.” The video is complemented by photographic prints showing victims of drone attacks moments before they are shot.

—Iris Sikking

Iris Sikking: I would like to talk about two specific aspects of the construction of this project. The video material you use stems from different Internet sources. Could you elaborate on the appropriation of this imagery in terms of ethics and in terms of its sometimes violent nature? And could you describe what led to your decision to write a partly fictional script for the video?

Rune Peitersen: The question of how to appropriate an image, and the people in it, is something I struggled with. How much of a voice can you give to someone you know nothing about? I chose very specifically to use only online footage. There’s plenty of drone-combat footage online, which intrigued me. Who releases it and why? I also used online footage from press briefings during the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq War, and promotional videos from the U.S. Air Force—de facto propaganda materials. It’s fascinating and haunting material. I remember when we first encountered the idea of “smart missiles” in the nineties: we saw these movements on our TV screens of a building coming closer and closer, and then suddenly the image on the screen became snowy or blank, which meant that something “good” had happened. Somehow these images entered the collective visual culture. It’s important to question them.

The question of authorship is interesting as well, but my approach is quite pragmatic: I simply see video on the Internet
as available material. As soon as it’s on YouTube, you’re even legally allowed to use it for commercial purposes. For me, this footage has a certain documentary value, because of its presumed source. Although I trust the things I see, I don’t really know. You might say it takes place within a semi-fictional universe. It was this reasoning that led me to write a script and use a voice-over to tell my own story based on my research on drone warfare.

There are tons of testimonies available online: for example, Zubair, a thirteen-year-old Pakistani boy, and his family testifying before the U.S. Congress, saying that drones have made him fearful of the blue sky. The last part in the video, with the young woman, is more descriptive, and there I take the artistic liberty of adding the storyline about “her” parents. It’s a way to close the story, and also hopefully to let it come back to the viewer.

IS: Many visitors to your exhibition experienced a strong emotional impact because of the story’s narration, which is in fact recorded in your own voice. Could you explain the color gray, which is a recurring concept in the work? The photographs based on stills from online video footage are quite unsettling, as they show what operators see on their screens just before an attack takes place: a blurred image of a person. Why did you choose to add these to the video?

RP: It is a gray area, in many senses. It’s a moral gray area, a juridical gray area. The terms of engagement you have on a battlefield are written with a traditional kind of war in mind: as a soldier you can be killed; on the battlefield your own life is at stake, and that’s what gives you the license to kill. But now the positions on the battlefield have changed dramatically. The French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou argues that we’re now dealing with a predator–prey situation on the battlefield instead.[3]

However, these people also find themselves in a gray area, perhaps even a lost area. It’s not only the operators who suffer from PTSD: the targets do, too, as they suffer from the anxieties that follow from the knowledge of being under surveillance. Within a larger context, it’s a consciously constructed gray area: the two protagonists are caught in a system where they don’t have much to say. In the central part of the video, with the two operators in the tank, a voice from above says, “Do this!” That part is in black and white because gray is not allowed anymore: they have to push the button, basically.

The photographic prints indeed show “targets” just before they’re killed. Those were the first images that came out shortly after an earlier project, Safe Distance (2015), where I took overall screenshots of combat situations. The images of the individual targets struck me as poignant, because of their ghostlike quality. I cut out the figures and expanded the gray behind them. One-third of the image in the center is untouched, but the rest is pure background color. This isolates the target, but also asks: What is an image? How “real” are the people in the images? What are the moral implications of Of preying on a “target” in this manner? It’s the absurdity of it, this surveillance part, the killing from above.

IS: This is exactly what you make visible, and universally accessible, within this particular work. When a decision to kill takes place in a virtual zone, it feels like machines are looking at us and deciding whether we should become targets. I wonder who or what actually sees us within this system of war.

RP: One of the things that came up during the panel discussion[4] the opening weekend of the festival, was that when we talk about machines, algorithms, and so forth, we tend to talk about them—“them”—as this large, more or less known entity, over which we humans have no control anymore. This certainly creates an even larger gray zone, where we give up some of our own potential agency. Maybe the word “watch” is simply wrong in this context. Machines don’t “watch” anything: they are decoding certain information. Technology is being developed to allow the computers to simplify the decision-making process for the drone pilots, so you get computers being programmed in such a way that, if ninety-five percent of the boxes are ticked, a missile can be fired. But to say, “Oh, but then it’s the drone deciding,” I think, is the wrong way of talking about it. Even very complex systems make computational decisions, but I don’t think we should attribute them conscious qualities, because a “decision” would entail that they could also not do it. So we shouldn’t talk about artificial intelligence anymore; we should talk about algorithmic intelligence, as Mark Curran interestingly remarked on the panel. Because an algorithm—however intricate and however complicated—is still a human construction, and the responsibility for its actions is therefore ultimately human.

There is a horrible concept in drone warfare called a “kill box”: the place where you position a theater of war. This concept stuck with me because it has a strong visual connotation as a three-dimensional designated area within which everything can, and probably will, be killed. Retroactively, after the attack, everybody who was there at that point in time is marked as a terrorist and is therefore by definition guilty. Imagine drones on autopilot setting up kill boxes whenever certain parameters are met…

IS: The panel you refer to provided an interesting exchange of thoughts on many tough issues that the participating artists are dealing with in their respective projects. It also emphasized the importance of coming together to discuss art projects and the intentions behind them. This brings me to my final question: Why exhibit?

RP: It’s comforting to me that we still have this space, the “art world,” where we can discuss complex or controversial themes. Just imagine if such a space didn’t exist! It’s very important that it remain and that we feed this space, and that we meet each other within it to simply discuss what we see, think, and feel based on our gathered artistic expertise.

I believe the art world as a platform is very important in developing new concepts and new ways of talking about the issues of our time. Artists have a very important role in this: we need to tell and reflect on things going on, and we need to develop vocabularies, ways of seeing things in different lights, to counter the hegemonic narratives of governments and of capital. To imagine new utopias, new ideas, and show that it’s possible to think differently.

To me, the role of art is to offer a way to look through someone else’s eyes, to experience someone else’s world, to connect with the other, thus making visible and tangible that we are not alone in the world. I think that’s what art is about, and what exhibiting is about as well. However, it can feel futile sometimes, because nothing ever changes as quickly as you’d like. One has to realize that, just like complex public debates, change takes time.

There’s an interesting development going on within the museum world that started a couple of decades ago. I remember seeing Allan Sekula’s Fish Story, at Documenta 11, which was part of a movement within the arts when documentary-oriented art-making appeared. And you got this sort of hybrid movie, raising the question: What is it, exactly? Is it a real documentary, or is it art? The artist took a different position, almost as an activist, and engaged with the world in a different manner: after all, history had “ended,” and there was a need to question where we were going. In my opinion, many museums have now become places to discuss politics and policies on a meta level. Perhaps the next step should be to introduce discussions, on a practical, political level, that extend beyond the art world.

[1] Rune Peitersen, The Operators and the Targets, Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art, Kraków, Poland, April 14–June 24, 2018. For more on the Operators series, see: http://www.runepeitersen.com/2017/04/2017-the-operators-and-the-targets/ [accessed August 13, 2018].

[2] “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.” See, Alexander Abad-Santos, “This 13-Year-Old Is Scared When the Sky Is Blue Because of Our Drones,” The Guardian (October 29, 2013), available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/10/saddest-words-congresss-briefing-drone-strikes/354548/ [accessed August 20, 2018]. See, too, “Drone Survivors Speak at Congressional Briefing Called by Rep. Grayson,” YouTube (October 29, 2013), available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhSe6-mK8wk [accessed August 21, 2018].

[3] Peitersen is referring to Chamayou writing, “A soldier wields violence and is also exposed to it, he is both an executioner and a victim. But what does he become once the very possibility of being exposed to violence is removed?” Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory (London: Penguin Books, 2015), 103.

[4] A panel discussion entitled Data and Power took place, on May 25, 2018, at the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art in Kraków, Poland. Moderated by Alicja Peszkowska, it included the following artists: Eline Benjaminsen, Mark Curran, Esther Hovers, Clément Lambelet, Rune Peitersen, and Salvatore Vitale. Present were Dominik Skokowski, Director of Partnerships at the Kosciuszko Institute, in Warsaw, and Kraków Photomonth 2018 chief curator Iris Sikking. For a full video report, see, “Panel Discussion on Data and Power,” YouTube, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_B-Myf4WEEs [accessed August 13 2018].