Like to Draw?
No matter how hot to trot a government gets for privatisation there’s one aspect of the state that they always balk at parcelling up and flogging off – war. Now, a challenge to this professed monopoly on mass violence and its attendant technologies is coming from an unexpected quarter – artists. In Europe and in the States, they’re putting down their paint brushes and picking up weapons. But instead of locking the sights of their tasty new kit onto the head of a suitable politician they’re putting them back down again, in galleries.
Gregory Green is an artist who produces terrorist artefacts and puts them on public display. Whilst professing passivist political beliefs Green’s exhibitions have included time bombs, flasks of napalm, book bombs, curiously booby-trapped decanters and print-outs of the code for computer viruses. Responses to his work have ranged from aggressive police seizures (with no following legal action) to considerable purchases by important private collectors.
He fills galleries, like the Cabinet in Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, with the workings and debris of nutsoid misanthrope inventors; and quaint granny’s suitcases with gadgets that are intended to open your mind, literally.
Whilst one can imagine culture couples gasping to each other mid-explosion, “Don’t be sad darling, we’re getting massacred by a genuine Green”, it’s not just the idea of artists having effects outside of their usual coteries that makes this work suprising and potent. Walking into a room with in one corner, large bottles purported to contain 10 000 hits of LSD and jutting out from another, a ground to air missile, gives you such a jolt of sheer possibility that is impossible not to enjoy it. Because the gallery is itself such an odd social space it can in fact be useful as a device for focusing attention in unusual ways. The faint trace of irrelevance that lingers around art is what perhaps actually allows it to deal with this questioning of the legitimacy of the ownership of violence, on death, in a more nuanced and complex manner
Like dodgy coders, radical operators within the sphere of art lace their work with trapdoors. Conceptual trapdoors: ideas that blow up in your face if you take them, or yourself, too seriously. Over time these devices have been built up into quite an effective toolbox. Green uses this same toolbox to develop contradictions in the governance of violence.
Crucially, he doesn’t stop at producing replicas of the contents of terrorists’ handbags but also exhibits weapons and devices that are supposedly the monopoly of the state: napalm, sophisticated missiles, mechanically complete nuclear weapons (minus plutonium and explosives). It’s timely. There is approximately two tonnes of plutonium currently unaccounted for in the USA. And tellingly, Green gets his technical information, not from the internet, but from those most uplifting of institutions, public libraries.
As military strategists increasingly focus on the communications and intelligence aspects of warfare and state function, it is natural that his work follows suite. For three days last November he installed a replica of the Sputnik satellite on top of a building in Newcastle. Inside the satellite was a radio transmitter broadcasting audio anecdotes put together by residents of the Meadow Well Estate on the edge of the city. This work of art is scheduled to be put into orbit at the beginning of the next millennium, from where it will transmit a ‘stereotypical laugh track’ to the citizens of the globe.
Picking up on the communications link, a Slovene artists group named Project ATOL is currently collaborating with a US documentary film maker, Brian Springer. Springer previously made SPIN – a fabulously revealing documentary portrait of television news under construction during the 1992 presidential elections constructed from hijacked satellite feeds.
A satellite feed is a TV link used by a network to transmit images of a televised event before it has been edited or contextualised with narration, music or graphics. Using a satellite dish able to receive these transmissions – equipment readily available on the US market – Springer recorded hours of footage in which journalists and politicians reveal themselves in ways usually left well out of the frame. Edited down to one hour, SPIN is a raw classic of anti-TV.
Project ATOL’s work includes a gallery installation where projections of aeroplane navigation charts were mixed with real time scans of radio conversations between pilots and flight controllers as they negotiated the dangerous no fly zones of former Yugoslavia. Another project involved several volunteers strolling round the streets of Ljubljana carrying back-packs equipped with a specially hacked-together unit composed of a Global Positioning System (GPS) transceiver, an audio beacon and a wireless modem.
The US Department of Defence developed GPS as a way of making sure that, whilst they have God on their side, they have a fully omniscient electronic back-up just in case. Projekt ATOL used it as a tool for finding revelations in the streets. The audio and visual data they picked up was automatically posted to their Web site creating a mash-up of networks of differing scale and substance – the streets and the nets.
Springer is working alongside Projekt ATOL as part of their long-term series of events, LADOMIR – the fourth stage of which is a performance and architectural shindig foregrounding more hooky satellite feeds. This time many of the feeds are transmissions from Tuzla and Sarajevo to the US, pulled out of the sky during the recent deployment of NATO troops to the former Yugoslavia.
Manufacturing the rumours of war has always been essential to waging them. Now, as the convergence of surveillence, communications and weaponry occurs within the military, the strict processing of information for the outside gets plugged into the production line too. These rejects and mis-shapes from the image factory promise to be excruciatingly telling.
That these artists are taking the weapons and infrastructure of mass destruction into the realm of everyday possibility – down to the level of a cottage industry – turns things upside-down. All the routines that are used to normalise violence and its application by trustworthy ‘experts’ begin to falter. The hijacking of these devices tells us not the necessity of submitting to historical catastrophe, but the fragility of the social order that tells us this catastrophe is necessary.
For more information on Project ATOL
Gregory Green’s ‘Manual II’ which features photographic and text documentation of most of his work to date is published by the Cabinet Gallery and Locus+ . For details contact: locus+ AT newart.demon.co.uk
For more information on the Gregnik satellite
© Matthew Fuller 1997