This is an excerpt of an email conversation.
Concerning the CONTROL project itself, I wanted to look at how two actors within what can be viewed as a closed system exercise control over each other, even though their power is disproportionate.
Also, I wanted to involve the viewer (i.e. the Western, privileged, ‘critical’ art public), and somehow explore the notion of culpability, so that watching either video should not be an ‘easy’ experience, it should not let the viewer off the hook, on the contrary. One of the rallying cries since the second Gulf war has been ‘Not in my name’ – to me this has always been a dangerous way of looking away, relinquishing responsibility and basically not comprehending the way power works. Almost all the things ‘we’ protest, are usually carried out for us, in the name of democracy, progress, freedom, peace etc., all in our name.
In The Operators… I attempt to describe the relationship between the two actors as part of a bigger system on which they have no influence. The central scene in the bunker, in which the operators are being told what to do by ‘a deep voice’ is about their lack of agency (just following orders), and the final scene in which we hear about the parents of the female operator is about the middleclass tacitly (and understandably!) supporting this kind of warfare, because their kids are kept out of harm’s way. The parents here, represent the educated middleclass (including the art world) who understand what is going on, but enables it by not opposing it.
In The Voters… I use myself as a stand-in, to demonstrate my own complicity with the system, but also to justify it. You need power to bring about change, so if you want to change things from within, then you have to play by the rules – in which case, you automatically become an enabler of the system you’re trying to change. Ranciére seems to come up with some way to describe radical change from within, or just outside, a system, but I was never convinced by that (maybe I misunderstood him) – it’s too much wishful thinking, too much wanting to both have your cake and to eat it.
Therein lies my main point (I think), once you play along, you’re complicit. And this means that in the Western world, we are all complicit. This, of course, is fine if you’re supportive of the system you play along with, but we cannot pick and choose. Modern democracy has brought many blessings (to us, at least), but just as many horrors. There is no moral high ground, and we should not claim it.
In the historical pictures of the demonstrations, I try to show some of the successes of modern democracy and the power of demonstrations, e.g. the suffragette movement, civil rights movement etc.. However, I also criticize this way of ‘playing along’, by showing later demonstrations and movements which basically show that ‘we’re still protesting this shit’… Black Lives Matters, One million women march etc. shouldn’t be necessary if the first movements had been really successful. So, there’s a sense of eternal repetition and going in circles while the ‘system’ doesn’t really change at all. Protesting is, or at the very least has become, a symbolic gesture without any real power or meaning. We play at protesting, but nothing really changes, certainly not the power or control structures.
The next question to me then becomes: how does the system (or control structure), which we are part of and enablers of, then operate? In The Operators… I choose to describe a fairly closed and well defined system. (Yes, I have read Gregoire Chamayou – fantastic book! – and agree with him that drone warfare is part of a number of much broader, deeper and all-encompassing systems of thought, language and history.) I take a lot of artistic liberties with both the narration and the images in order to boil the video down to some sort of core. It is based on facts, but is obviously a piece of fiction. At the same time, I also explain some things almost in a documentary style e.g. the vocabulary of the operators, or the procedures they go through. Also, I show unedited drone footage of strikes, which was something I wanted to bring into an art world context – the culpability question again. So, the workings of the system can be seen as quite straightforward here from the operational side. However, the psychological impact of the killing and surveillance of the targets by the operators, cannot be easily translated into operational structure or terminology, and herein lies the ‘glitch’ in the system. The targets becoming human in the eyes of the operators causes problems for the operators and thus the smoothness of the system, which must respond by dehumanizing the targets even more. The operators control the targets, but are themselves controlled by ‘the deep voice’ (-a man and a woman in an enclosed space, and a voice that tells them what to do…it’s meant as a biblical reference). They can only escape the system by quitting the job, thereby betraying the ‘friendlies’, their country (-and the ‘deep voice’), and causing potential worries for their parents. These are not technological barriers, but psychological or social barriers.
In The Voters… the system in question is much more elusive and harder to describe visually. Instead of trying to explain the workings of modern democracy (or at least, elections and protest movements), I try to hide it in plain sight in the narration. Almost every chapter uses certain keywords to repeat the same story from slightly different angles (this is explained in more detail in the notes). This way the system becomes more internalized, it’s in our language, the way we look at other people, and, specifically, the way we look at and experience politics.
In your mail you state that “Systems are first technological.” I would disagree with that, and I hope my comments gives some clues to why. To me, systems are first and foremost grounded in our thinking and understanding of the world, or reality. Perhaps ‘systems’ isn’t the right term, but ‘mythology’ or ‘beliefs’. They are the parameters which define our world, helps us understand our own and others’ actions (whether right or wrong). Or, stated much more eloquently by the Dark Mountain project:
Deeper than oil, steel or bullets, a civilization is built on stories;
on the myths that shape it and the tales told of its origins and destiny.
To fight or change a system therefore means more than ‘just’ taking down a technological innovation (a la Star Wars), but needs a complete change of paradigm (a la Thomas Kuhn)….which is obviously a lot more difficult to achieve. Art can help to achieve this, but not the (commercial) art world; that world is too entangled with privilege, money and power.