Since the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris in 2014 and 2015, an increased militarization of public space has taken place in Western Europe, both in terms of the prominence of smuggled military weapons in acts of terrorist violence, and the deployment of armed soldiers dressed in combat uniforms on the streets. The artistic research project GUN ROUTE, by Dutch media artist Dani Ploeger and Canadian journalist Catherine Chapman, examines the broader cultural implications of this development in the context of advanced networked society.
In March 2017, Ploeger and Chapman will make a journey across Europe that follows the pathway of illegal trade in military assault weapons from its origins in current and recent armed conflicts in Eastern Europe (former Yugoslavia, Ukraine) to some of the places where these weapons have ended up in the hands of terrorists and criminals: Brussels, Paris and London. Throughout the journey they will generate documentation material and collect objects related to the broad variation in attitudes towards the representation and handling of firearms in different places in Europe, especially in relation to the co-existence in contemporary Western European public space of advanced smart technologies and low-tech firearms for conventional warfare.
Ploeger’s Virtual Reality installation, FRONTLINE, which juxtaposes elements from places at the geographical beginning and end points of this journey, forms a central component of the project. The work thematizes the dread of boredom and impending danger in the everyday reality of warfare in Eastern Ukraine – an aspect which is virtually absent from news media representations of this and other armed wars – and relates this to the creation of spectacular media images of warfare, as well as the problematic popular imaginations of immersive VR video as facilitators of experiences of unmediated reality.
Innovation in documentary storytelling and VR
Documentary and fictional representations of warfare are usually constructed as linear narratives composed of sequences of condensed, intense battle activity. As a consequence, perceptions and imaginations of warfare by media consumers outside conflict zones tend to evolve around a sense of the spectacular. At the same time, documentary practices using VR technologies are often accompanied by (implicit or explicit) promises to give access to a truthful experience of the reality of a certain geographical location.
FRONTLINE combines an alternative approach to war documentary narrative and a multilayered way of connecting video and sound in VR technology in order to provoke viewers to explore and critique the issues above in two ways:
Instead of the common narrative approach that is focused on the framing and editing of eventful or exciting events, the videoscape of Headset 1 features durational, immersive representations of various frontline positions where hardly any activity takes place. Instead of establishing a linear narrative of the spectacular, this series of seemingly static situations are related to each other on the basis of parallels in their formal and social structure, instead of causality or narrative development.
This approach of “static narrative” has been explored in relation to the representation of war by other artists (e.g. Aernout Mik’s Raw Footage, 2006). However, the particular combination of multi-speaker sound dissemination and visual VR technology in FRONTLINE develops this approach further than this existing work. The connection of a single soundscape with two different immersive video environments facilitates a multilayered insight into the process of construction of fiction/reality.