Consumer space, fear and the technology of warfare

 

Since the Gulf wars in the 1990s and 2000s, warfare activity in the West has increasingly become understood as a clean or hidden affair: Western 'Shock and Awe' operations appear to be remote-controlled by computer game-like technologies, such as drones and pre-programmed precision missiles. At the same time – although they have caused chaotic ruptures in (perceptions of) the everyday in consumer culture – the tactics of terrorist attacks have mainly evolved around inconspicuously installing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in unnoticed places. Thus, in the West, an apparent division has been established between 'our' world of organized consumer space (albeit under threat of occasional chaotic violent disturbance) and 'their' world of 'dirty' ground warfare, which takes place in underdeveloped territories far away from Europe and North-America.

 

However, with the 2014 and -15 terror attacks in Belgium and France, a shift has taken place. The iconic image of the battlefield soldier has re-emerged in perceptions of the everyday in the West: terrorists and security forces in military attire and armed with automatic weapons appear to increasingly populate experiences and imaginations of public space (Laville and Burke, 2015). This shift can be theorized in several ways:

1. Feldman (2005) suggests that Western media representations of military and terrorist violence operate in two ways: Firstly, Western military operations are sanitized through a focus on state-of-the-art, screen-based warfare technology. Secondly, the – not only material, but also moral and ethical – chaos and doubt caused by (often IED-based) terrorist attacks is structured into coherent events of evil through a process of repetition, framing, and editing. The recent emergence of the battlefield soldier/terrorist – and the armed troops patrolling public space in response to this – partially disrupts this dual logic: due to its pre-established connotations with organized warfare, the battlefield soldier/terrorist with military weapons can less easily be framed in aforementioned binary structure.

2. IEDs are usually not associated with official structures of warfare due to their DIY nature. This is quite different in the case of the weapons used in the recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels. These suggest a continuity with European culture, both in terms of its (perceived) geographical periphery and recent histories of warfare: the Kalashnikov assault rifles used in these operations originate from the Cold War and the Balkan wars and were smuggled in by traders from former Yugoslavia (Laville and Burke 2015). This further challenges commonplace binary opposition mentioned above).

 

Arguably, the opposition between (good) clean consumer space in the West and (bad) 'dirty' war zones elsewhere in the world, which is established through simplified selection and framing of media contents, is also to a considerable extent facilitated by the representation of the technologies of mediation themselves as 'clean', and positioned clearly outside the realm of crude materiality where acts of traditional ground warfare and terrorist violence are situated. Drawing from McLuhan's (1964) suggestion that the “medium is the message” I suggest that not only the contents of news media, but also the positioning of digital media devices themselves outside the realm of the physical are complicit in the construction of simplified binary perspectives on (armed) political conflicts.

 

The project will explore strategies to engage the materiality of consumer technology devices in relation to physical violence, particularly in the context of media representations of armed terrorism and counter-terrorism and its impact on perceptions of public (consumer) space in Western Europe. Furthermore, it will build on examinations of military weapon trade, law and conduct in Europe from 1945 to the present. Thus, the project will consider the physicality of new media technologies in relation to socio-political tensions and conflict and thus facilitate a richer and more multifaceted approach to media analysis. In this sense, the project will build (albeit from a new angle) on my previous research into the materiality of electronic waste (see e.g. Ploeger 2016).

 

ASSAULT – a thematic exploration

My digital artwork ASSAULT constitutes an initial exploration of the thematic area of the research project. In February 2016, I travelled to Poland where I fired a Kalashnikov assault rifle at a functioning iPad. A high frame-rate video recording of the bullet hitting the screen was made. The installation consists of the shot iPad, a brand new iPad, and an AK47 cartridge and bullet. The new iPad plays the video and sound recording of the destruction of the screen of the shot iPad, after which the recording is played backwards in slow-motion. Thus, it shows a representation of an endless process of destruction and apparent regeneration. An additional version of the work in the form of an iPad app will be released in June 2016.

References

Allen Feldman, 2005. ON THE ACTUARIAL GAZE: From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. Cultural Studies, 19(2).

 

Sandra Laville and Jason Burke, 2015. Why has the AK-47 become the jihadi terrorist weapon of choice? The Guardian, 29 December 2015. Accessed online: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/29/why-jihadi-terrorists-swapped-suicide-belts-kalashnikov-ak-47s [16/2/2016].

 

Marshall McLuhan, 1964. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. London: Taylor & Francis.

 

Daniël Ploeger, 2016. Abject Digital Performance: Engaging the politics of electronic waste. Leonardo.