A Theory of the Drone, by philosopher Grégoire Chamayou
Publisher The New Press writes: In a unique take on a subject that has grabbed headlines and is consuming billions of taxpayer dollars each year, philosopher Grégoire Chamayou applies the lens of philosophy to our understanding of how drones are changing our world. For the first time in history, a state has claimed the right to wage war across a mobile battlefield that potentially spans the globe. Remote-control flying weapons, he argues, take us well beyond even George W. Bush's justification for the war on terror.
What we are seeing is a fundamental transformation of the laws of war that have defined military conflict as between combatants. As more and more drones are launched into battle, war now has the potential to transform into a realm of secretive, targeted assassinations--beyond the view and control not only of potential enemies but also of citizens of the democracies themselves. Far more than a simple technology, Chamayou shows, drones are profoundly influencing what it means for a democracy to wage war. A Theory of the Drone will be essential reading for all who care about this important question.
When a journalist of Libération asked Chamayou about the motivations behind the book, he replied that "some philosophers in the United States and in Israel work hand in hand with the military to elaborate what I call a 'necro-ethics' that tries to justify targeted assassinations. So it is urgent to respond. When ethics is brought into a war, philosophy becomes a battlefield." (via)
Chamayou is a researcher in philosophy. A title that might sound a bit daunting for some readers. But fear not, A Theory of the Drone is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. The rhythm of the author's reflections are fluid and easy to follow, the chapters are concise and highlight with precision a particular aspect of the weapon under study and Chmayou's references might sometimes be heavy (yet never obscure) on Kant but he also quotes Albert Camus, Harun Farocki, Eyal Weizman and even mentions Adam Harvey's anti-drone clothing.
I haven't read many books about drones. In fact, i think this is the first one i read about the topic but i doubt i could find another publication that explains with so much ease and intelligence the dilemmas posed by unmanned aerial vehicles to the traditional codes of war.
Of course i've always had a visceral feeling that the use of drones by the U.S. and Israeli military is debatable, not to say coward and unethical. Chamayou's book articulates with precision and rigorous references to the history of war philosophy what is wrong with this form of unilateral warfare. Chapter after chapter, his books explores questions such as: What happen to the traditional principles of a military ethos of bravery and sacrifice when only one side of the conflict shoots and deprive the other of the possibility of fighting back? And more generally, how can one justify homicide in a noncombat situation? How does one-way-only armed violence distinguishes between fighting and killing? Within what legal framework do drone strikes take place? What does it mean for a zone of armed conflict to be fragmented into kill boxes the size of a human body? How does post traumatic stress disorder in this context differs from the one experienced by soldiers who fought on the battlefield? How do local populations hack and defy drones? How do you recognize a combatant dressed as a civilian, outside the zone of combat? etc.
The final pages of the book look at how the use of drones, a technology developed in a military context, is already seeping into civil society -mostly for police purposes- and what this will mean in the future for the subjects of a drone-state.
Perhaps part of the answer can be found in this image and these words i found in one of the last chapters of A Theory of the Drone:
In 1924, a popularizing scientific magazine announced a new invention: a radio-commanded policing automaton. The robocop of the twenties was to be equipped with projective eyes, caterpillar tracks, and, to serve as fists, rotating blow-dealing truncheons inspired by the weapons of the Middle Ages.
On its lower belly, a small metal penis allowed it to spray tear gas at unruly parades of human protesters. It had an exhaust outlet for an anus. This ridiculous robot that pissed tear gas and farted black smoke provides a perfect illustration of an ideal of a drone state.
There are three designated "holding" centres for immigrants in Canada but more than one third of detainees are incarcerated in rented beds in provincial prisons, some of them maximum security prisons where visits and support services are limited.
Artist and designer Tings Chak has combined her training in architectural design with her interests in human rights, migrant politics, and spatial justice in a graphic novel called Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (Architecture Observer, 2014. Available on amazon USA and UK)
The 'undocumented' are not so much the human beings who are detained merely for being born somewhere else. The undocumented are the sites where they are detained. All information about these facilities is classified and access to them is extremely limited.
In her publication, Tings investigates the migrant detention centres in Canada -- "the fastest growing incarceration sector in an already booming prison construction industry," from the everyday acts of resistance inside the centers to the role that architectureplays in controlling and regulating migrant bodies.
The purpose of this investigation, she writes, is to make visible the sites and stories of detention, to bring them into conversations about our built environment, and to highlight migrant detention as an architectural problem.
Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention is a brave, shocking and incredibly revealing little book and because its relevance goes way beyond the frontiers of Canada (i'm looking at you Europe and Australia), i asked Tings to tell us more about her work:
Hi Tings! Why did you chose to use drawings and only drawings to investigate the architecture of migrant detention centres in Canada?
In architecture school, we spend a lot of time thinking about visual representation. Often times, architecture is as much about the representation as it is about the built. I am interested in the way using architectural visual language and tools of representation as a political practice - how can drawings reveal and spark a conversation about the invisibilized practices and spaces of detention?
Canada's prisons and detention centres are not privately owned/run, though there have been past attempts to privatize facilities and there are many lobbying efforts, including from U.S. private prison corporations. Many private parties, however, are contracted and paid millions of dollars to manage, operate, and provide services in immigration detention centres. As an example, the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre, the largest of Canada's three designated immigration detention centres, is managed by Corbel Management Corporation and security services are provided by G4S - the world's largest security firm which has been central to maintaining the apartheid state of Israel.
In terms of the life of migrants detained, up to one third of them are locked up in provincial prisons, often times in maximum security prisons. We consistently hear from detainees about the horrendous conditions, even worse than in general population, and the staff shortages that result in lockdowns for days on end. Also, being held in these prisons means that detainees often cannot call family members abroad, are too remote for in-person visits, and don't have access to the legal resources necessary to regularize their immigration status, which all exacerbate the isolation they face in detention.
How much restriction to information did you have to face while investigating spaces for mass detention and deportation? Apart from testimonies from migrants, which kind of evidence is your research based on?
Information about these spaces are highly restricted, access to them is nearly impossible for members of the public. The title of the book is an acknowledgement of how these spaces are purposefully invisibilized and any information about them is classified. Recognizing this, the book is an assemblage of bits and pieces that I gathered from various sources - testimonies from detainees, descriptions from legal counsel who have visited such spaces, research that others have done about specific aspects of detention like solitary confinement, legal recommendations, and design standards for prisons and detention centres.
Here are the links to key resources I based my work on (more can be found here):
These places are surprisingly banal. Unlike the dank, dark dungeons that popular depictions of prisons would have us believe, many of these facilities are familiar in the way that most institutional buildings are. This is something I wanted to highlighted in my drawings.
Another aspect has to do with the highly securitized nature of detention centres, which means that the building is compartmentalized according to discrete functions for processing, monitoring, interrogating, and containing detainees. It is impossible to understand the building as a whole, so as not to be challenged.
What are the architectural mechanisms used to control the experiences of the people detained there?
From the segregation units to the bullet resistant glazing, the sally port to the recessed lighting units, the surveillance systems to the bolted down stainless steel toilet/sink units, every architectural detail of a space is designed to manage and maintain control of incarcerated individuals.
What I was particularly fascinated by were the design guides specific to detention centres (in the U.S. context). These manuals provide a detailed analysis of minimum design standards, including occupancy capacities, material specifications, program adjacencies, etc. Often times, the definitions of the "minimum" or the "habitable" (according to legalistic definitions) are quantified in terms of square footage or cubic volume of air space. The architectural logic of these spaces, along with a lot of other architectures, is governed by the minimum standards, which seek to minimize risk and regulate human bodies.
Could architecture be used to welcome or at least ensure a less traumatic experience for migrants?
I believe that detentions and deportations are inherently violent and traumatizing. Incarcerating people on the basis of being born somewhere else is not something we can humanize through design. I've spoken to architecture students, professors, and practitioners over the course of creating this book, and it's clear that the vast majority of them believe that immigration detention is a "problem" that could be fixed with a better "solution." What is important to note is that often times the ambition of making a space more humane and more optimal distracts and deters us from questioning the prison industrial complex, and the complicity of architects within it.
Israeli architect Eyal Weizman speaks about this problem in his book "The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza" (2012).
The major impetus of this work is to challenge architects to engage in the very difficult ethical question: are there programs for which architects should not design? There are groups such as Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility in the U.S. that have been working for years to get architects to boycott prison design. I believe that architects should be intervening by pushing the discussion towards imagining and designing real alternatives to detention.
You are also an organizer with No One Is Illegal - Toronto. How much impact do your actions and protests have on the immigration system? Could you give some examples?
The work that No One Is Illegal - Toronto has impacts on various levels, which include shifting the public discourse and imagination around migration and borders, building our social movement through mobilization, and developing and sharing an intersectional political analysis, among other things. At the core of it, though, is the belief that the immigration system here (and in the U.S.) is not a "broken" one that we need to reform, but that it is functioning exactly as it is designed to. The system is built on the exploitation of precarious labour, exclusion of poor migrants from the global South, and ongoing displacement of Indigenous people on Turtle Island and across the globe.
That being said, there have been significant victories over the past 10 years. After decades of community organizing, Toronto declared itself a "Sanctuary City" in February, 2013, which means that residents regardless of immigration status can access city services without the threat of detention or deportation. It is still far from being a reality on the ground. Around the End Immigration Detention Campaign that began just over a year ago, there have been some important developments. Specifically, in June 2014, after our submission to the U.N., they released an opinion condemning Canada's practice of detaining migrants for immigration reasons, and for detaining them indefinitely. The work is ongoing, and people are still organizing courageous actions inside to protest their unjust detentions.
This is Giulio Andreotti, a legend in Italian politics:
For almost half a century, Andreotti occupied all the major offices of state. He held the post of prime minister 7 times and for longer than any other postwar Italian politician except Silvio Berlusconi. Andreotti was not as farcical as Berlusconi though but he was every bit as shrewd as a Borgia. He was involved in most political corruption scandals, was tried for mafia association and has also been accused of being involved in a variety of conspiracies related to high profile assassinations, massacres and banking crimes. In his 2008 film, Il Divo: La Straordinaria vita di Giulio Andreotti, director Paolo Sorrentino, highlighted the responsibility of Giulio Andreotti in the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, former prime minister and then president of Christian Democracy (Italy's relative majority party at the time). Sorrentino is not the only one to hold that suspicion. Many believe that Moro was the agnello sacrificale, the sacrificial lamb who had to be executed because of his efforts to include the Communist Party in a coalition government.
On 16 March 1978, Moro's car was assaulted by a group of Red Brigades terrorists in Rome. His corpse was later found in the trunk of a Renault 4 after 55 days of imprisonment.
Andreotti, Moro but also Andy Warhol, Federico Fellini and many others appear in Amore e Piombo: The Photography of extremes in 1970s Italy, one of the exhibitions of the Brighton Photo Biennial. Amore e Piombo means Love and Lead. Lead as in the anni di piombo, the tumultuous years of social conflict and acts of terrorism carried out by right- and left-wing paramilitary groups in the Italy of the 1970s. Now the Amore comes with the glamour of Cinecitta and the stars photographed by paparazzi in the streets of Rome. Two worlds poles apart that characterized Italy in the 70s and were documented by a group of photographers working for the agency Team Editorial Services.
The press photographers constantly shifted between battling film stars at play and the reality of near civil war unfolding on the streets. Politics and celebrity are brought together through the paparazzi style of alto contrasto, collusion and intrusion. Alluded to, although less visible, are the murkier dealings of clandestine groups linked to the Italian Secret Services, The P2 Masonic Lodge the CIA and NATO, operating against the backdrop of the extremes of the Red and Black Brigades. Archive prints are presented alongside television news footage, film sequences and sound recordings. A choice of Italian photo-books of the period, loaned from the Martin Parr collection, add a further layer of reference.
Amore e Piombo is an exhibition as fascinating and enigmatic as the years it portrays. Don't miss it if you're in or around Brighton:
Views of the exhibition space:
The Guardian has more images.
Amore e Piombo: The Photography of extremes in 1970s Italy was co-commissioned by the Archive of Modern Conflict and Photoworks, curated by Roger Hargreaves and Federica Chiocchetti. It is open until 2 November at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
The Deadly Life of Logistics. Mapping Violence in Global Trade, by Deborah Cowen, an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto. Her work focuses on the politics of space and questions of citizenship.
Publisher University of Minnesota Press writes: A genealogy of logistics, tracing the link between markets and militaries, territory and government
Deborah Cowen traces the art and science of logistics over the past sixty years, from the battlefield to the boardroom and back again. Though the object of corporate and governmental logistical efforts is commodity supply, she demonstrates that they are deeply political--and, considered in the context of the long history of logistics, deeply indebted to the practice of war.
The image above encapsulates rather efficiently the intimate connections that link the military and the private businesses which transport 'seamlessly' all kinds of goods around the world. Basra Logistics City used to be called Camp Bucca and it used to be the largest U.S. military detention facility in occupied Iraq. In December 2010, the US handed the base to the government of Iraq, which, on the same day, gave Kufan Group of Iraq a license to turn the place into a 21st-century logistics hub for Iraq's port.
The Deadly Life of Logistics demonstrates how logistics is at the very heart of war and trade. Since WWII, businesses have been learning lessons from the infrastructures, strategies and technologies that armies have put in place to ensure that soldiers are fed and ammunition is available at the front. Logistics plays a key role in war. The greatest volume of material shipped from the UK to France during WW1, i read in the book, was oats and hay for the horses. Over time, private companies have not only learnt from the military, using logistics to reshape the geographies of capitalist production and distribution on global scale, they have also quickly started to support war efforts and are now providing housing and feeding to the soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. The author speaks of a militarization of the economy and a privatization of warfare.
The book offers a fascinating tour of the instruments and tactics of logistics: the palet, the container, the deregulation of the transport industry in the U.S. in the 1980s, the use of 'flags of convenience', etc. All of which provide huge benefits in time, space and capital. DHL delivers your parcel on time, new toys arrive in store before Christmas and everybody is happy. Except the workers who saw their wages, rights and the strength of their unions reduced. Their very safety is at risk as well. Port, transport and logistics are consistently ranked among the most dangerous industries by governments that monitor health and safety on the workplace.
The picture that the book offers is rather bleak. In the world of logistics, China imports its cheap labor model, the port of Dubai where the vast majority of the private workforce have no formal citizenship is heralded as a model for the U.S. port security, Somali pirates are presented as enemies of humanity while foreign companies illegally dump toxic substances in Somali waters and others deplete them of marine resources in total impunity, the flow of capital and commodities is a matter of species survival and human rights are a rather tiresome hindrance.
The Deadly Life of Logistics is a fascinating, informative and politically engaged book. I sometimes found that the constant abbreviations, quotes, references and repetitions got in the way of a fluid reading but otherwise it's a book i'd like to place in the hand of artists and activists. Of artists mostly because no one better than them can translate the impact and dangers of contemporary logistics into an arresting language understood by the broad public.
One of the themes of the BIO 50 design Biennial which opened last week in Ljubljana looked at the simple act of walking in the city. Several designers explored walking under various guises and lenses but i was particularly interested in the street markings, research and performances of Giuditta Vendrame and Paolo Patelli from design and research studio La Jetée.
The designers logged into a Friction Atlas some of the rules and constraints that regulate the circulation of citizens within urban space. For example, any reading or picnic gathering over 20 persons in one of New York city parks requires a special event permit. In Sweden, you need to apply for a permit to dance in public. In Cairo you're allowed to spontaneously discuss public matters only if you are fewer that 10 people.
Giuditta and Paolo drew 1:1 diagrams onto the pavement to illustrate rules that control the use of public spaces in cities such as Genoa, Cairo, Washington, Stockholm, Sydney, etc. They then invited the public to perform staged choreographies while discussing issues of public space, law and legibility.
Friction Atlas addresses the issue of legibility of public space, its programs, and the laws that regulate its uses. Many regulations discretize human behavior, tending to be algorithmic, quantitative and invisible. Sometimes they are rigorous and mathematical, other times loose and under-defined. They are textual, prone to contested interpretations. Friction Atlas aims to make regulations - that are always implicitly present in any public space - explicit and visible, through graphical devices.
I can't resist a project that makes the dynamics of authority not only visually but also physically discernible, so i contacted the designers to discuss their work for the BIO 50 biennial (proper report on the event will be on your desk. One day):
Hi Giuditta and Paolo! Could you explain what you mean when you talk about the algorithmic quality of these regulations that govern the use of public space?
Regulations are nothing but symbols, conventions, but they have the power of persuading human beings to act. When they are put to work, they make things happen. They are sets of instructions that incorporate power, while responding to internal and external conditions. They are a kind of invisible structural force that plays through into everyday life.
In the context of public space, a number of legal prescription can generate differences in the displacement, mobility and assembly of bodies. Citizens perform in their everyday a synchronized routine of elaborate moves on public surfaces. We recognize, in such patterns, a choreography.
Assembling in public space to discuss, demonstrate either support or opposition, publicize a cause, mark or commemorate an event is both an individual and a group activity. Figures and routines involve interplay and sometime synchronization. The use of public space is choreographed not only to the organizer's intentions, but also to abstract regulations. As sets of instructions, algorithms are rules. They are abstract, but always implicitly present in any public space. These prescriptions extend way beyond exceptional events, and pervade our everyday urban experience thoroughly. Regulative rules exist for picnicking in a park in New York City, for group dancing in Sweden, for kids to return home in Iceland. For example, it is not uncommon to see in the media demonstrators keeping their march to one line, standing on the sidewalk, always fewer than fifty, in front of the White House.
The idea of making such instructions legible on public ground, came to us last April, while we were in Cairo. We were greeting a group of Egyptian friends, just outside a bar in Talaat Harb, Downtown. Suddenly, one of them grinned, realizing that - according the recently introduced Egyptian anti-protest law - we were being illegal. Giuditta and I immediately thought of what it means to be a group of ten people. How do you define it? How do you recognize it? Where are the thresholds to be found in our mutual interactions? Of course such relations extend to our online presences.
Indeed, in recent Cultural and Media Studies, as in the writings of Scott Lash and Alexander Galloway, the phrasing "algorithmic rules" has been associated to new forms of power, that reside in the networks, computers, information, and data, rather than being exerted from above by legitimate institutions. Paolo Gerbaudo used the expression "choreography of assembly" while analyzing the online organizational structures and process of the recent urban revolutions in Egypt, USA and Spain.
Our project is more basic. It is on the ground perhaps that a wide range of phenomena can be recognized at their maximum degree of visibility.
How do you (and citizens living in a particular city) find out about these regulations?
We started asking friends who are living in different cities and countries if they were aware of legal prescriptions that regulate the use of public spaces. Sometimes they would tell us anecdotes or they would suggest us to look for specific events on the news. For example Marko Peterlin recalled of a protest in Koper, which couldn't take place because the Slovenian law states that the organizers of any public event must always have with them a written agreement with the owner of the land where they want to assemble. In that case, protesters meant to express their disagreement with a local policy, through a demonstration on public ground. The problem then was that "public" means owned by the Municipality and managed by the local government. This resulted in a weird short-circuit, which we also tried to visualize.
We subsequently met with NGOs, with lawyers, we had meetings with the local police, and with public officials. While collecting anecdotes, listing procedures, and saving titles from the local news, we also started looking into the actual codes. We photocopied and downloaded when possible City Ordinances, Public Order Acts, Police Regulations, Park Regulations, even Children Protection Acts, from different cities and countries. Across these documents, we searched for numbers, quantities, distances, conditions, predicates. We searched for the abstractions that shape our public behaviors, to represent them visually.
Paolo, i read on your online page that you worked with Urban Sensing. That project relies a lot on digital technologies and is generally quite sophisticated. Friction Atlas, on the other hand, is pretty low tech: diagrams on the floor and walks. Why did you make the project so 'tangible', instead of having an app for example?
In code as much as in regulative rules, objects - even people - are abstracted. They cannot be known in themselves or in their being. Things are only known through their predicates, their "quantified" qualities. Citizens, as individuals or groups, are measured for their number, the noise they make, the age they have, the distance they keep, the money they have paid. Against the abstract, the mathematical, it is the real that embodies resistance. The materiality of the street, and of walking, are the natural media for making this tension tangible. They are also the best sites for opening a discussion which needed to be im-mediated. The street, in fact, afforded unexpected interactions of the public with our graphic devices, beyond what we had planned and designed.
We wanted to turn the physical context into an open playing field, or a loose game board, and keep the experience ambiguous. We posed an invitation to play, while valuing the uncertainty of the status of the performance as game. Taking part to a choreographed debate about regulative rules on the use of public space, by enacting such rules in a real public space, raises questions: Is this a game? Are we playing? Which role am I playing?
In the street, the boundary between being in and out of the game is blurred, and so are the social boundaries between who is playing and who is not. Our diagrams represent strollers, as well as protesters and policemen, but the player identity and the normal everyday identity always somehow overlap.
The sort of game we propose, at the same time playful, ironic and highly serious, has no goal - only rules, which without context, interpretation and the active participation of the visitors would exist only as static code, as ready-made, found predicates.
Keeping a 1:1 scalar ratio with the human body is central to affording this interplay and to really make the rules legible on the ground. It also helps maintaining different levels or engagement, from the superficial interaction of kids and cyclists, to the concerned reading of students and people with a bit more time.
Do you see Friction Atlas as a continuation of Urban Sensing, or is that a totally different approach to the urban environment?
We are getting accustomed to seeing the behavior of the citizens - users, customers, consumers - of any given city represented through spectacular real-time maps and data visualizations.
Our attempt this time was to look through our transparent society to try to visualize the other side. Rather than in a bird's view on the city, we were interested in looking to what's above it.
I certainly see Friction Atlas as a reflexive continuation of the work I have done in Urban Sensing, and at MIT's Senseable City Lab. As other projects and prototypes developed in the last couple of years - from my research residency at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, to a number of workshops, including at SALT Institute in Istanbul, and at Strelka Institute in Moscow - it shows a more critical edge. Central to all of them, anyway, is the transformation of data into fully visible (or sometimes audible) agents, in order to provide a possible model for opening up to new forms of civic and aesthetic engagement with hidden or abstract layers of the city. Even when - to say it again with Scott Lash - information is not *in* society or related *to* society, but it *is* society, and vice versa, the focus on space offers a tangible - and therefore debatable - representation and an embodiment of such immaterialities as code or law. The city is a mirror of the current society and culture.
Finally, but very importantly, in the case of Friction Atlas, Giuditta and I have worked together as "La Jetée". She has an encompassing fascination for invisible borders and flows, and has worked in the recent past with legal loopholes and related paradoxes. We believe that design has a lot of space for experimentation in these areas. How can it cope with invisible things? Sometimes ideas can be expressed very simply.
I'm also interested in the term 'friction' in the title? Where do you locate this friction?
The friction we wish to represent in our atlas is to be found in space, on the ground. Within the contemporary city, a plurality of processes and logics converge in the same sites. The sites extend to our own lives, to our desires and perspectives.
Densely weaved dispositions - more or less integrated, more or less coordinated - inhabit the same space we live in. Our everyday experience of the urban cannot be understood but in relation to other processes, other dimensional scales. The encounter between these different logics happens on contended ground, hence the friction. The security paradigm followed by many cities worldwide is inscribed in space, the commodification of our historical heritage is inscribed in space, the media bubble that surround global events is inscribed in space. The visibility of the battlegrounds, of the exceptional event - as argued among others by Andrea Mubi Brighenti - shows and proves the importance of the infra-ordinary in its invisibility. We don't sample from different cities in order to show specific conflicts, but because we are interested in the pervasivity of minor and daily frictions.
Is this an ongoing archive? or will Friction Atlas end with the biennial?
The diagrams represent cases from different cities, including Cairo, Genoa, London, Ljubljana, New York City, Rome, Stockholm, Sydney, Washington. We definitely want to continue with this research, add more cities, involve more people, expand the discourse. Comparisons between cities, countries are particularly enlightening: try with Singapore and Egypt, or with USA and Iceland. You would be very surprised. The installation in Ljubljana, together with an edited collection of comments, short interviews, excerpts from articles and public acts, constitute our notes towards a critical atlas.
We set up a tumblr, to start collecting external contributions: do you have any anecdote, article, or thought that you would like to share?
You can do it on the beta version of the Friction Atlas archive: http://frictionatlas.net/
We would also like to bring our research further by moving beyond prescriptive rules, and including other formal strategies that define "a priori" the possibilities - and the impossibilities - of movement (e.g. public transportation trajectories). Making tangible the invisible text of such implicit rules - which are biopolitical rather then disciplinary - would define - in the words of Andrea Mubi Bringhenti - subjective environments, or horizons, rather than traces and routes.
This is a big challenge, as we really want to keep all the levels of engagement present, especially the most playful.
Thanks Giuditta and Paolo!
Also part of BIO 50: Engine Block. Or how to turn a moped into a boat or a concrete mixer.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has recently opened an exhibition that "examines the powerful role of objects in movements for social change." It is called Disobedient Objects. That's the kind of title that chic and cheerful designers would use to describe how their work is 'subversive' but, thankfully, this is probably the most un-designy show the V&A has ever organised (except for the whole communication and setting which was orchestrated by the studio of Jonathan Barnbrook.) Disobedient Objects is not one of those fashionable activist art exhibitions either. This is a show about activism with a capital A, a show inhabited by artefacts that had never graced the venerable rooms of a museum or art gallery until now.
Many of the items exhibited are often mundane objects that were either given a new purpose or modified in haste in answer to an emergency situation. As modest as they might seem, these artifacts show the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people. They testify of their courage as well. Confronted with the sophisticated (except maybe in London where our good Mayor favours cut-price water cannons that are being phased out in Germany amid concerns about their safety) and potentially harmful equipment used by security forces, these artefacts look almost pitiful. But that doesn't make them less efficient.
Disobedient Objects focuses on the period from the late 1970s to now, a time that has brought new technologies and political challenges. The items displayed range from the very rudimentary to the sophisticated, from a slingshot made from a Palestinian child's shoe to mobile phone-powered drones for filming demonstrations or the police, from textiles sewn by women to communicate the atrocities they have experienced under the Pinochet regime in Chile, in particular the 'disappearance of their children to a robot that spray paint slogans on the pavement.
I entered the show ready to sneer at V&A's grand attempts to glamourize popular protests and turn evidences of genuine and at times violent dissent into food for cool hunters. My fighting mood quickly vanished. Disobedient Objects is a show that invites visitors to get out and raise their heads, to be inspired and fight for their rights. And that's what matters to me.
As the curators wrote: "Peaceful disobedience only works when protesters have cultural visibility and the government acknowledges their right to protest. Without this, struggles for freedom can sometimes take other forms."
Here's a very small overview of the stories you can discover in this ridiculously crammed with visitors but invigorating exhibition:
As usual, I bow (me saco el sombrero?) to Spanish wittiness. No one does protests as eloquently and astutely as they do these days. TAF! and Enmedio worked with Plataforma de Artefactos por la Hipoteca (a platform for mortgage debt victims) against dehumanizing media representations of people affected by Spain's mortgage crisis. The group pasted portraits of evicted homeowners on the facades of banks responsible, showing evicted people, not statistics.
The inflatable cobblestones were rolled across the streets in Berlin and Barcelona to confuse police and generate sympathetic media attention.
When many people run the program FloodNet (1998) together, they can target and overload websites. The Java applet was created in response to the massacre of 45 peaceful supporters of the Zapatistas in Mexico. Ten thousand protestors disturbed the website of the Mexican presidency and the Pentagon. FloodNet has since been adopted by many groups and movements.
The first Bike Bloc was part of the mass civil disobedience organised during the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Moving in swarms, bikes helped protesters breach the summit's security cordon and hold an alternative People's Assembly. The leading bike carried a sound system and pirate radio antennae. It broadcasted via other bikes around it with independent speakers, each on a separate channel. The sound could jump between bikes inside the crowd, and change in tone to respond to different situations.
The banner was made for the 2009 Climate Camp at Blackheath, London. It identified capitalism as the source of climate chaos and as an ongoing crisis of inequality and injustice.
One of the banners hanging over the exhibition space was designed and hand-stitched by Ed Hall (whose name appears in almost every single post i've written about Jeremy Deller's work.) Hall has been making banners used by union groups for over 30 years. This one was used in a protest march in support of the NHS in Manchester in 2013. It features the Thatcher quote 'Still the enemy within', which is surrounded by iconography referencing the miners' strike, poll tax rebellion and welfare cuts.
Andy Dao and Ivan Cash circulated dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics that communicate the widening economic disparity in the U.S.A. The designs were also released on the Internet enabling anyone to participate.
The artists/advertising experts were commissioned by the museum to design stamps about the UK's wealth disparity on the £5 note: in 2011, 1% of the UK population earned £922,433 while 90% earned £12,933. Any visitor can use the stamp to make their money a bit more riotous.
There is a long, long tradition of bank notes used for protest. The show also reminded that in 1990, a Burmese currency designer very subtly painted the face of Aung San Suu Kyi onto a new note after she had been democratically elected then placed under house arrest by the military junta. The designer softened the features of Gen. Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) so that his face resembles the one of his daughter. People could thus hold up their bank notes to the light and see a hidden portrait of the opposition leader.
In 2013, the Turkish government used record amounts of tear gas against people protesting against the redevelopment of the Gezi Park in Istanbul. Protesters devised their own makeshift gas mask using plastic bottle, surgical face mask, foam and rubber bands.
Greek protesters adopted an equally cunning strategy. People resisting government austerity discovered that a solution of antacid and water sprayed onto the face offered relief from the burn of tear gas. However, it left a white residue that market protesters out.
The protest shields painted to look like books were first made in Italy, in November 2010. Students were protesting against the drastic cuts to the public university system. The oversize books were held up at the front of demonstrations so that when the police hit the students with sticks, it looked as if they were attacking literature.
Students in London produced their own book shields after they saw videos of the actions online. The tactic quickly spread to other parts of the world.
A couple of artworks did sneak into the exhibition. I guess that the Graffiti Writer doesn't need any introduction....
The gallery also featured Molleindustria's Phone Story, a free game app that players win by forcing children to mine coltan in the Congo, preventing worker protest-suicide in China, managing rabid consumers in the West and disposing of electronic waste unsafely in Pakistan. The game was banned from Apple's iTunes store four days after its release.
The Guerrilla Girls was formed in 1985 to protest against the ridiculously low number of works by female artists in the most prestigious galleries and museums of New York. Their fight is as relevant as ever today (and not just in NYc obviously.)
More images from the show:
The museum has PDF guides to DIY some of the objects exhibited.
Disobedient Objects was curated by Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood. The show is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, until 1 February 2015.