This interview was conducted by Mark Curran and first published in Membrana Magazine, https://www.membrana.org/
For the online version, please click here: https://www.membrana.si/intervju/ujeti-v-sistem-intervju-z-runejem-peitersenom/
Rune, we first met when we participated together as part of the Krakow Photomonth in 2018, which was titled, ‘Spaces of Flows’, and curated by Iris Sikking. It was there, where I encountered the installation of your powerful project, The Operators and The Targets (2017). I was wondering if we could begin by you discussing a little, the impetus for this project?
RP: This project actually arose from another project I did, Safe Distance. Here I used screenshots of different live-streams and other sorts of found footage to visualize the distance between the viewer and the many media and digital images we consume. At a certain point, I started looking at videos of military drones and using these for the second series of the project. Here the safe distance was double; not only was I at a safe distance to the events, but the original viewer, the drone operators, were at a very large distance from the events on their screens.
After I finished Safe Distance, I kept coming back to the drone footage. The cruelty of drone warfare and the esthetics of surveillance imagery fascinated me. The non-distinct images of pixelated persons in shades of grey that somehow were images of real people raised questions of how much it takes for an image to be imbued with character. When does a constellation of visual information become an entity that potentially solicits empathy?
This led me to look at the weird and torturous relationship the operators found themselves in with their targets. The physical distance meant they were out of harm’s way, which in a certain sense, distances them from the judicial meaning of warfare, but nonetheless, they were affected by their actions. Their constant surveillance of these people in faraway countries in a way familiarizes them with each other. The operators as the constant observer sometimes develop a feeling of familiarity with their targets – not unlike watching reality TV shows, I imagine – and the ‘targets’, living with the constant anxiety of the knowledge of being observed by someone. So, a relationship develops between these people on either side of the globe. In a strange way the drone connects them. It acts as the physical middleman, which neither of them actually see.
To me this relationship shows them being caught up in a system that is much larger than either of them, an opaque system, which dehumanizes both parties, and this is what I wanted to explore as a metaphorical image for how we are all caught up in systems much larger than ourselves.
MC: So, from this and as one senses from the installation, you obviously immersed yourself in terms of your research around this subject and drawing from your previous project strategies and how you incorporate appropriated images. Could you discuss that strategy a little, in terms of the rationale, and then how you constructed the installation? The layout? As besides the images, there is this large structure the visitor sits in and watches and so maybe also a little, how you came to creating what one watches or views and indeed what one hears?
RP: Well, based on the footage and further research into how drone warfare is conducted and how it impacts both the drone operators and the people under surveillance or attack, a story formed in my head about how it might be for the people caught in these two extreme positions. Specifically, I wanted to highlight the feeling of grinding despair due to their lack of agency, the structures that lead to dehumanizing a fellow being, and at the same time try to look critically at the imagery that arises from the technologies involved. So, I used footage from the video systems on the drones, and from recruitment – propaganda – videos from the British and US air forces.
In the installation there were three elements: a row of prints of ‘targets’, enlarged screenshots of people the moment before they are hit by a missile; a large print of an almost unrecognizable drone high up in the sky; and the container with the video. The container was made to the measurements of a small container, so that when watching the video, one could feel a bit of the same crammed claustrophobia that I imagine drone operators must sometimes experience. All works were in greyscale based on the infrared images recorded by the drones, so they made up a little grey world within the exhibition.
The video tells the fictional story about the daily lives of the operators and the targets, based on my research, switching back and forth between the two perspectives. Someone used the term faux-documentary about it, which I think is fitting. I don’t pretend to know what it feels like to be in either of my protagonists shoes, but in a sense I think this is what art is capable of: enabling empathy by opening up our imaginations to the experiences of others. The video format allows one to immerse oneself in an experience and the recognizable documentary style conjures up questions about the veracity of the whole, which can lead to reflection on one’s own position in relation to these questions.
MC: From what I witnessed in Krakow, I have to state that it is a very powerful and affective installation. A couple of thoughts come to mind, your use of the word, ‘imagination’, which was actually a strategy, Lewis Hine, discussed in a public talk he gave in 1909 in terms of building empathy with an audience, through ‘summoning imagination’ on the part of the viewer. You also mention ‘agency’ and as this is one of the concerns of this issue of Membrana, do you think projects and images can have agency or be instilled with agency? And can that extend to the viewer? And related to this and the subject matter you address in your projects, are ideas of counter-narrative or as the visual cultural theorist, Nicholas Mirzoeff defines, ‘counter-visuality’, relevant to your work? And if yes, in what way?
RP: As an artist, I would love to believe my works, or anyone’s works or projects, could have agency, and that this could be transferred to or carried on by the viewer. In all honesty, though, I don’t think this happens often. I think art can be a part of a process that enables or develops agency in a viewer, and sometimes a particular work or project can capture or define the zeitgeist in a way that gives it a life and a power dimension of its own. But being part of something is also not a bad thing to strive for. And I do think art and artists are very important in understanding the visual culture through an understanding of image generation and (de)construction, and a knowledge of image genealogy and the potential power of images.
In that sense, I see my project as an attempt to understand how we translate data into images, or how we are taught to read visual information. If you think of the images of ‘the targets’, visually, it’s almost a regression. It may be high tech, but it’s essentially stick figures. But to the operators they have all sorts of meaning, both imagined and taught. In the video, there are some unedited segments of drone killings; the small white figures are walking in a grey landscape and all of a sudden a white light fills the screen. We read this as an observation of people from a great distance and an explosion caused by a missile, yet visually, it’s not that far removed from the pixelated games of the early computer era. So the context has changed, or we have been taught to look at these images differently. We have been taught that an enemy can be a stack of moving pixels on a screen – and so the other has become diffuse, has been reduced to the lowest common denominator: a blur on a screen. In the Milgram experiment, at least the test subjects could hear actors screaming when administering pain. A drone operator only sees pixels, less chance of him not obeying orders.
You often hear talk of the fear that we relinquish control to algorithms. But it seems to me the real issue is that we become ‘algorithmic’ ourselves. Whenever someone speaks about ‘training algorithms’, I can’t help thinking about how we are the ones being trained by algorithms. Whenever we use social media, encounter commercials, play games or almost any other activity connected to the digital, we are being trained to act in certain ways, see the world through a certain prism. It’s so Pavlovian, almost simplistic, but it works, we come back for more, we constantly try to please the algorithm, and by doing so become increasingly well-trained and willing to accept and do our masters biddings ourselves.
If we as artists can be a small part in offering a critical voice, an alternative reading, or even a simple look behind the construction of the images, then I would like to think that that could lead to a greater understanding of the manipulative power of images and technology, which might help to develop more agency in the viewer.
MC: That is fascinating. In my own work, I propose that Financial Capital seeks everything to be recreated in its image. As a globalised system, it has been a central innovator of the algorithmic infrastructures that we witness and experience in our everyday, so your observations around how we become ‘algorithmic’, I find intriguing and of course, dystopian. I remember when we first met in 2018, we discussed how Al should not be defined as ‘Artificial Intelligence’ but ‘Algorithmic Intelligence’ and so I wonder in light of what you have just said, are these themes continuing to inform the projects you are currently working on or perhaps those planned for the future?
RP: Yeah, I just want to mention that that specific discussion and your definition of AI as ‘algorithmic’ rather than ‘artificial’, was really eye-opening to me. It’s so much more precise to think of AI in those terms, and gets rid of a lot of quasi-mythological connotations. It reiterates that – as you say – AI is part of a system, a human-made system.
So, this brings us back to the notion of systems of control. I’m afraid my works don’t develop very linearly, so in recent works, I’ve been dealing more with environmental issues. Specifically, the interplay between human interest and interference with nature, and the consequences thereof. If you look at our approach to resource extraction and feelings of ownership over nature, you can see that as a system of control as well – or rather, as we’re learning now, a system out of control.
An example of this is a video installation, Mining Town (2021), I made together with Serbian photographer Mikica Andreijic, in which we look at the impact of a large recently reopened mine in the town of Bor in the south east of Serbia and its impact on the local population and landscapes. This was made for an exhibition in Heerlen, a former mining town in the south east of The Netherlands,. In Heerlen the mines were closed by the government in the late 1970s. This was devastating to the social and economic fabric of the town, and still echoes in the frustration felt by many in the town today. Interestingly, this frustration translates into a nostalgic sentiment about the ‘good old days’ when the mines were still running. (The same type of nostalgia ones sees in the politics of resentment or populism, I believe, but that’s another story – which I tried to address in another work, The Shepherd (2020)). So, Mining Town was a somewhat straightforward attempt to show the people of Heerlen what an active mine does to a city and its surroundings – and that it might not be something to mourn the loss of.
At present, I’m finishing a new film, RAABJERG (in production, due 2022), which takes its outset in an area of Denmark that was buried under sand during the 17th and 18th centuries. Large drifting sand dunes developed and starting moving over the country, covering fields, farms and even villages on their way. This was partly due to human over extraction of vegetation that bound the sandy underground, and partly due to the climate change that took place during the Little Ice Age. What fascinates me about this, is the partial human influence on the landscape, the timeframe – the story starts 6000 years ago -, and the slow-motion disaster that took place – the peasants could see the sand dunes coming years in advance, but had no way of stopping them. The latter, obviously reminds me of how we deal with climate change today, and tellingly, the peasants then would talk of the sand drift as something “…out of human control, in the hands of God.”
Less algorithmic, I guess, but all part of a the larger (out of) control systems and thinking that make up our world today.
Further information http://www.runepeitersen.com
Mark Curran, September 11th, 2021