First published on 29-04-2019 by The Danish Cultural Institute. Written by Adam Kalkrup.

Stories of systems and the people caught in them – interview with Rune Peitersen

On May 25th, photo and video artist Rune Peitersen presents his new work The Voters and the Politicians at Belgian ERforS. DCI is a partner in the event, which includes talks and a workshop, and ties in to the election for the European Parliament, taking place the following day.

We spoke to Rune about the evolution of his art in recent years.

Peitersen’s daily work takes place in Brussels, where the presentation of his newest piece will happen as well. He describes the city as providing a good framework for free artistic expression:

There are many exciting things going on in Brussels these days, in the field of culture as well. It is a wonderfully chaotic city on almost every level, which leaves a lot of space for doing different things.

In recent months, Peitersen has used this space to put the finishing touches on The Voters and the Politicians, a video installation that examines the democratic process of decision-making, in which we all play our role, be it more or less consciously.

I am interested in this subject at the moment and it is relevant for current politics. What relationship do politicians and voters have and in what direction are our political systems headed? The project is a way for me to try to understand what is going on in the world and try to attach certain words and images to it.

Still from The Voters and the Politicians – copyright Rune Peitersen

I started out writing a script, which has been changed half a million times since the beginning, and I have found images online that supports my vision, which I have manipulated in different ways, making the end result become what I envisioned.

The work is the second part of the series CONTROL, the first being The Operators and the Targets, which was exhibited at last year’s Krakow Photomonth, with support from DCI. In 2018, the photo festival had the title ”Space of Flows: Framing an Unseen Reality”, and the exhibitions highlighted the different flows we are part of: flows of information, migration etc.

Rune Peitersen describes the festival as very well curated, thought through and professional in dealing with serious and relevant topics. He found it to provide a good image of the current movements in photography, defined broadly, and the effects these movements can have. He was also delighted to get the chance to meet many colleagues, which he had previously only known through their work.

Art and society

Peitersen’s artistic contribution to the festival was a relevant story of an aspect of warfare in our time, told in a subdued disturbing tone. The objects of the exhibition are the military personnel operating armed drones and the people marked as targets for destruction. Through images and video found online, edited and inserted in a narrative frame by Peitersen, light is thrown on the human connection between the participants in the “depersonalized” acts of war.

The Operators and the Targets does not come across as preachy, but there is no doubt that it is to be seen as a statement on hyper-relevant questions about the ethics of drone warfare. In the years preceding this exhibition, Rune Peitersen artistic output treated his own role, and that of the public, as spectator of different types of crises, in a series of four exhibitions jointly titled Safe Distance. But political subject matter has not always been represented in his art, though. About 8 years ago, a change in cultural politics in the Netherlands, where Peitersen lived, made him engage himself wholeheartedly in public debate, which also came to influence his art.

Around the same time as I was finishing a larger project about seeing and how our eyes experience the world, a great debate took place in the Netherlands, concerning budget-cuts in the fields of art and culture. This led to the establishment, by me and four other people, of an organization (Platform Beeldende Kunst/Platform for Visual Arts, ed.) that tried to make the case for art. We also tried to examine how the art world functioned in relation to the system we were operating in. This swallowed up a lot of my working hours at the time. We started out being five people involved, now the organization has more than five hundred members, and I was the leader of daily operations for the first five years.

Still from The Voters and the Politicians – copyright Rune Peitersen
It was unavoidable that this work would also influence my perspective on art and the role of art in society. So, when I had the time to do return to my own production, Safe Distance was the first series I produced. It was a reaction to some of the things I was seeing online. Images from demonstrations around the world. And also based on my need to make my work more political, or comment more directly on the things I observe. At the same time I was trying to find out: What is my own relationship with these images?

Beyond Safe Distance

As described, Peitersen’s new attitude towards his own position led to the creation of the Safe Distance series, treating the subjects of protest movements, US army drone strikes, piracy at the Horn of Africa and the destructive aftermath of acts of war. But what made Peitersen leave Safe Distance and start creating The Operators and the Targets?

I had watched a great amount of videos for the second series of Safe Distance. That’s based on the same kind of imagery as The Operators and the Targets but in Safe Distance I only used stills. I felt there was more potential in the material. It is a huge subject, with many different levels. This becomes even more clear, when you dig deeper into the literature on the subject and realizes the legal and psychological ramifications. Based on my research, I wanted to see if I could shape a story which zoomed in on the two types of actors directly involved in drone warfare. Through this portrayal, I wanted to show a bigger system, the language that has been developed for these operations and how we as a society perceive them.

The initial draft was very different than the final result. It was a process, God knows how many times I changed the script. It was a question of continually making it sharper, trying to see how few words are needed to paint an adequate picture? Which are the right words? Some themes pervade the whole piece, if you look at it closely.

Still from The Operators and the Targets – copyright Rune Peitersen

Rune gives an account of some new aspects the production of The Operators and the Targets brought out in his work:

It was the first time I made a script and the first time I made a film with sound. That presented some challenges I had to work through, which I am glad I embraced. Those were new aspects of a formal character.

But the project also had a broader scope on a thematical level, than had been the case before:

Safe Distance was rather tightly connected to the art world and in a way it was a critique of the art world itself. Its subject matter was my own relationship with the images I observe, but it was also concerned with what happens when the images I create are put on display at a gallery or in a museum. In there, all of us become observers with the same “safe distance”. I was trying to criticize that relation or at least make it clear.

This kind of critique is still at play in The Operators and the Targets, but I feel like I have moved a bit further. It’s a good feeling, giving me a greater sense of artistic freedom. On the other hand, The Operators and the Targets may be a little bit more anecdotal in nature than earlier exhibitions.

So to sum up: I was working with new kinds of material and new ways of using this material, trying to find the story in a new way. And I was expanding my topic, beyond the world of art and self-criticism. This can be kind of a dangerous thing to do, because in a sense I am speaking for people I do not know and about experiences I have not had myself. There is something problematic about this, though I think that if artists cannot do this… It was a question of balancing artistic liberty and respectful handling of certain subjects and certain imagery.

Hero or executioner?

As touched upon, Rune Peitersen has uncovered some of the judicial, psychological and human questions raised by the emergence of drone warfare. One of the interesting aspects is how the drone operators are presented by different groups.

Many operators are recruited at gaming conventions or similar events. So these young people go straight from playing games to this other form of “game”. One of the interesting debates I came across, was about the high numbers of operators suffering from PTSD. The US Airforce has used this issue to create a narrative underlining the idea that the operators are true soldiers, suffering as much from violence as troops on the frontline, though it is of a mental rather than physical kind.

This seems to be one of the preferred ways to depict them. Saying that it is not as easy as gaming, or rather, that because it is similar to gaming, the mental pressure is quite hard, when it hits the operators what they really do. I think this has been used to legitimize these acts of violence.

Still from The Operators and the Targets – copyright Rune Peitersen

The laws of armed conflict are based on the idea that the reason a soldier has the right to kill is that he or she can be killed themselves. It is self-evident that there is no chance these combatants, sitting 10.000 km away from the people they are fighting against, can get killed by their enemies. So in that way the legal argument for using violence falls apart, and it becomes quite unclear how to categorize this type of armed incursions. Calling it war is problematic, so discussions are had about how to define it. Is it long-range executions, assassinations? In any case it, is an uneven battleground.

For the people carrying out acts of war and their families, the absence of danger is a good thing. Disregarding the question of legality, or whether you support a war or not, nobody wants to see their children risk their lives in war. So for nations that are capable of conducting wars in this manner, I can understand the motivation behind it. By doing so they can avoid sending people home in body bags. The way I see it, this does not justify this form of violence, I do not condone it in any way, but it is not hard to understand the reasoning behind it.

The language of imagery

What is essential for Rune Peitersen, is that we keep on developing our ability to understand and decode the images we see, in a time when we are forced to process previously unheard-of amounts of information.

We are bombarded with images and we create so many pictures ourselves, this goes on non-stop. I think this makes it extremely important that you try to think about what kinds of images we see and what is at the core of them. I do not particularly like the idea of shock value, because I am not certain that higher resolution necessarily improves a picture or makes it more poignant. The way I perceive it, sometimes those effects can distract from the message instead of making it clearer.

In accordance with this line of thinking, Rune manipulates images, to suggest what is at the core of them.

Still from The Operators and the Targets – copyright Rune Peitersen

This means removing color, pixelate the image, blur it, and so on. In part to analyze the images I work with, but also to provide an alternative to war porn and disaster porn, made with an emphasis on higher and higher resolution, sharper and sharper images, adding color and making more vibrant. That approach has its own merit, it gives an idea about what the technology is capable of, of course. But I believe it is important that artists and other professionals join in observing and interpreting all these images, if we are not to become visually illiterate.

One result of the exhibition in Krakow was that the curator of the exhibition, Iris Sikking, started editing a book titled “Why Exhibit?”. In that book she has included an interview with me, and one of the things making me think it is still important to exhibit is that it can provide means for teaching us a kind of visual literacy.

It is important to exhibit because we can exhibit. If you take a look at the political situation around the world, including in Europe, you start to notice that the places were you can exhibit freely are becoming more scarce. The way I use ”exhibiting” here is in a broad sense, including making art in an environment where you can say what you want and exert criticism of the people in power. The flow of images engulfing us all, makes it very important that people reflect on these images, so we can learn to decode them and understand what is really coming upon us.

Thumbnail and banner images are taken from The Voters and the Politicians/The Operators and the Targets -copyright Rune Peitersen

Rune Peitersen