Interview – Lisa Barnard: A State of War
New York, Las Vegas Strip, from the series Not Learning From Anything
It might seem fatalistic to suggest that both civilisation and warfare share the same origins; certainly one does appear to presuppose the other. Any organized grouping of people will seek to maintain or to extend that organization by force if necessary and sometimes even when it is not, because this necessity can also be, as it generally is in our own time, ideological rather than strictly tactical. If civilisation as such is understood as the bond of group integration that rests on a shared social experience (and the history that goes along with it), then warfare is not just an inevitability, as might be understood by the notion of its shared origins with human society, but the “logical” consequence of the power structures that underlie all civilisation. This is of significance precisely because it means that war is the result of a particular social organization at a given historical moment and is characterized by the structures from which those societies are formed. Warfare is not an a-historical tendency; it is, on the contrary, a reflection of those values that are fundamental to how the world we inhabit is organized. Lisa Barnard has probed the increasingly distanced experience of war in the early 21st Century and the results say as much about the disaffections of our contemporary social landscape as they do about warfare itself.
In book-form, Barnard’s work makes use of often strikingly different visual and conceptual strategies, many of which are quite distinct from what might be expected from a “documentary” approach – and from a subject that has largely been treated in a photo-journalistic fashion. This includes a mix of straight-forward documentation, still-life, appropriation and even collage. The scope of this seemingly unwieldy mix is justified by the sprawling nature of modern warfare; Barnard recognizes that this experience with its tangled mesh of interconnections between vastly different areas can no longer be visualized by using the traditional vocabulary of documentary photography. Her own mix of styles speaks to the way in which the notion (and indeed, the practical business) of warfare has become endemic in contemporary life. This shift is connected in a fundamental way to the forms of production that underlie global capital. As these have become increasingly intangible so too has warfare shifted from a specific engagement at a specific point to being a nebulous and all-pervasive mentality in which the enemy is always present; warfare becomes a kind of ideological movement. The so-called War on Terror, with is trans-national scope and undercurrent of intense paranoia, is emblematic of this change, being by implication perpetual, a mentality rather than a tactical end. Barnard responds to the question of how to represent this by fusing together a range of different practices in a way that is responsive to the language of the times.
Just as the underlying social structures have changed so too have the sites of conflict. These have now become dispersed in a way that is not merely geographical; their attenuation reflects a basic alteration in the relationship between combatants and civilian populations, a change in scale embodied by the proliferation of drone warfare, for example. As documented by Barnard in Too Thin Too Blue from the larger series Whiplash Transition, these encounters collapse familiar definitions of space, where soldiers/ operators manoeuvre aircraft remotely to attack targets thousands of kilometres away. The targets have been deemed a threat on the basis of intelligence alone, but if warfare is all-pervasive and the enemy everywhere then the need to justify these actions in any sense becomes redundant. Barnard points to the perceptual dislocation of the operators and its implications for their status as combatants. It is not simply that the change in scale dilutes moral responsibility, but rather that those assumptions have already been undermined and so the methodologies of conflict just come to reflect this. The role of imagining technology is also significant here. As a means of representation, photography and power have always been closely related. The seemingly infinite gaze of the drone places everything within the mastery of the observer. In turn, these aerial views project a kind of sublime abstraction, but the control over life and death is not symbolic; it is both literal and terrifying arbitrary.
The violent intersection of war and technology has, by now, a long history. Barnard’s war (and, of course, ours as well) is arguably the most “advanced” yet, although we should perhaps hesitate to call them advancements. As a result, she is obliged to examine the ways in which the virtual has complicated the actual and she does this by focusing her attention away from combat zones, exposing the machinery that sustains warfare as a near-permanent condition, a state of mind increasing difficult to separate from the machinery of state itself. This is a digital war fought and experienced at a remove – and yet, its causalities are all too real. The most telling example here is Virtual Iraq, Barnard’s study of the Institute for Creative Technology, an innocuous sounding research centre that channels the interests of the military, cutting-edge science and even the video game industry into the development of new ways to train soldiers using virtual environments. Somewhat perversely, variations of these same techniques are also used for the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans. Characteristically, Barnard employs a number of different approaches to examine the issues at stake. Key to the series is the documentation of the “sets” that made up the training platform. Here Barnard emphasizes the uncanny verisimilitude that its creators were striving for, but also pulls back to include the edges of the frame, breaking any lingering illusion that might remain.
The point is not, of course, that anyone would ever actually mistake these places for their real-life counterparts. Instead, they suggest (and partake in) the sort of spatial dislocations that have come to define contemporary warfare, along with the extent to which so much of civilian life is now caught up in producing for markets that have been created by war. In this case the virtual has not simply overtaken the “real,” but does appear to have complicated it in the most fundamental ways. Barnard is alert to this contamination, matching everyday scenes that might serve to “trigger” veterans with their equivalents from the virtual space; the war is everywhere, both for the PSTD sufferer and also potentially for us, in the most general, chilling sense. It is worth noting as well that the production of these training programs, such as the one used to prepare helicopter pilots for arriving at the scene of an IED blast, incorporates photographs that the soldiers themselves have made. Here the relationship between representation and reality is more fraught than ever. This is a war that has been waged in a manner consistent with the times. As such, it manifests a significant contradiction – increasingly disembodied in its means and yet its aims are still brutally enacted on (most often non-white) bodies. This is a contradiction that has come to define the social structures of contemporary life as well.
From the series Too Thin Too Blue
Your use of photography seems to be less about “documenting” particular situations as it is using the medium to explore very specific themes, often using a mix of different visual strategies. Is this because you’re dealing with subjects that are, by their nature, difficult to visualise using the established vocabulary of documentary photography – or does it stem, at least in part, from a feeling that this vocabulary is now largely played out?
I’m not sure they are difficult to visualise, I think it’s more that the type of photography that this subject perhaps brings to mind is, as you suggest ‘largely played out,’ being uninteresting, both visually and conceptually. I am much more interested in photography as a conduit for ideas, reflecting on both itself as a medium and as a document of reality. Of course, there is room for traditional documentary or photojournalism, but in my experience it doesn’t engage in the complexity of the political, historical and social situations and it certainly doesn’t reflect on the medium of photography itself. As Martha Rosler says, “Documentary as we know it, carries information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful” That said, I am a huge fan of photography that visually tells me something that I don’t know about the world in a beautiful way, but for me, as an artist, it is not enough. I consider my practice to reflect a ‘contemporary documentary’ stance, one that engages in complex ideas visually, using a variety of different forms and strategies, including text, appropriated imagery, underpinned with theoretical influences. These representations in my opinion have to connect to the ideas that you feel compelled to discuss. Too often photographers produce work that feels to me like the visual aesthetic is an additional after-thought, to make the work appear contemporary, this doesn’t work for me. My practice starts with reading and listening, the research is the most important aspect. For instance, the images with the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) patterns are as such because when a UAV ‘Maps the Territory’ it creates one big visual picture, made up of smaller images, much like the maps that were made using photographs from aircraft during WW1. These maps created a more elaborate and extensive picture of the battlefield. My images in this series present this idea, the images denoting something of the complexity of the battlefield from a particular standpoint. The strategy I used is integral to the concept, it is not added on. The images incorporate ambiguous landscape photographs from both Pakistan and USA in addition to appropriated photos from the first Jane’s Pocket Book of Unmanned Vehicle Systems. What’s important in the work is the idea that who owns the skies owns the territory; there is no Homeland for those on the ground, a vertical perspective being what Paul Saint-Amour calls “the axis of order”. Perhaps we could see the UAV as Michel Foucault describes the Panoptican, an “instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance, capable of making all visible, as long as it could itself remain invisible.” I refer to this as ‘the all seeing eye of imperialism’. Perhaps I digressed here, but the complexity of ideas is what really excites me and anything that I can easily read is a bit of a turn off unless it’s visually superb.
How, then, do you approach a project of this scope – is there an overall plan or does it develop as you work?
I didn’t really set out to take 6 years to make this work. When I first started researching PTSD in relation to the military it was in 2008 and this was really on the back of discovering that my grandfather committed suicide, partly because of the trauma of war. I started looking at UAV’s and the relationship that the operators had to the screen at the end of 2010 and the Virtual Iraq project that I completed in 2008 was the segue into that arena, both being about PTSD and the screen. ‘Whiplash Transition’ should have been finished by the end of 2012, but with one thing and another and being invited by Reprieve to go to Pakistan, I felt it was worth extending the work. So in that sense there is no real plan, I just like to work on ideas and they tend to always develop and be connected. This work is continuing as does technology and its relation to the battlefield. After all, technology is at the centre of visual development and as an image-maker I continue to be fascinated by our relationship to the screen. The chrono-photographic rifle developed by Etienne-Jules Marey in the 19th century allowed its user to aim and photograph a moving object. It’s such a short time-frame from that to the new cameras on UAV’s such as the ARGUS IS which consists of 368 cell phone cameras and can track anything moving in a 36 square mile radius. How can you not be totally amazed away by that? I’m working on another development that could just have just as easily gone into the book, but I was asked by David Chandler to submit a dummy book for the Albert Renger Patzsch Prize in 2012 and was fortunate enough to win, so that was that, and a book was made. It forced my hand, if you like, to make a conclusion to the work. But I don’t really work in ‘projects’ that have a beginning, middle and end. I make the work that I want to and I don’t try to squeeze my ideas to fit a very conservative market-place. The photography world likes series and tangible conclusions, that doesn’t sit well with me.
Split, from the series Mapping the Territory
Bow-tie, from the series Mapping the Territory
Without wanting this issue to overshadow the work itself, as I know it sometimes can, but getting access to these sites and materials can’t always have been straight-forward, so I wonder if you could elaborate a little on what that process was like?
Mostly easy, you just have to be tenacious and not give in, it’s part of the challenge of the work and I find the process fascinating. There were aspects that fell on my lap, such as being invited to Pakistan by Reprieve, but being allowed to work in the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) at Washington was a bit more complicated and I did at one point lock myself in the toilet after closing time, so I could photograph it when it was empty. I wouldn’t recommend this as a strategy, but I was a bit desperate for ideas – they are very predictable visual environments. The military access always takes a little time and I had a lot of false starts. Mostly people try and persuade you that there is nothing of interest to photograph, but I can be quite persuasive and this strategy has worked ok for me thus far.
Technology is shown here to be incredibly destructive, but it can also be used to help in the recovery of those affected by the experience of war, so it seems to have a somewhat ambivalent role. Does this reflect your own experiences while making the project?
Technology is always at the heart of innovation for the military and it always revolves around them trying to be more efficient in the job of war. In that sense I’m not sure it has an ambivalent role, the objectives are always the same, to help Americans win battles, effectively and efficiently. It’s about a few in power making money out of the suffering of others who don’t have the resources or influence to defend themselves, whether that be mentally or physically. UAV pilots or combat soldiers with PTSD are victims of this ‘machine’ as are the innocent on the ground in Pakistan, that’s my experience, they are all victims and who I am I to say that one man’s suffering is greater than any other. What I do know is that the soldiers or pilots of the military have a choice to do the job that they do. A child living under the constant threat of death, listening day and night to the endless humming of a machine operated by a man sitting at a desk on the other side of the world must be incredibly stressful, a sort of living nightmare and I think unimaginable for most of us.
Despite sometimes giving this impression, it’s clearly too simplistic to assume that war is now being conducted at a distance, like a sort of video game. Would it be fair to say, then, what you are suggesting is that reality has not been overtaken by the virtual so much as it has been complicated by these new possibilities in a very profound way?
Yes, I think that is an appropriate deduction. There are many interesting and complex theories floating around about our relation to virtual reality and the pilots and soldiers undergoing treatment tap into many of them. As Baudrillard says “the world, in its entirety has been reduced to a fantasy of the screen….we too are screens” Reality has been complicated and ‘real’ places, let’s say on the ground in Pakistan or Afghanistan have possibly become a simulacra or what Baudrillard terms a ‘hyper-real copy’ of a real location – become almost too real, more real than the event or thing itself. This is really the essence of PTSD, in that the memory of an event becomes blown out of all proportion and every time the memory is retrieved it becomes more and more inflated, ‘too real’ so to speak, until the response in the patient is disproportionate to the original event. The psychologists I spoke to who are working directly with soldiers and UAV pilots said that on witnessing a traumatic event on the ground, they sometimes imagine a far worse scenario than actually occurred. The strange thing is they can recall that memory – they have an image of it – in precise detail, when it just doesn’t exist and then they replay them over and over again, extraordinary really. Quite often the psychologists play back the event (everything is recorded from a drone and video cameras are now ubiquitous on the front line of the battlefield) thus placing the event in reality rather than it remaining a ‘hyper-real’ event. It’s complicated and the inevitable hyper-vigilance in the patient – and the victim on the ground in the real location – is of course only one aspect of fascinating research that I have undertaken around trauma and the screen. I could go on…
Is this work that you can see yourself expanding upon in the future, then, as the nature and experience of warfare continues to change?
This area of the real, the imaginary or the virtual is one that continues to fascinate me, however it is like trying to herd cats and in that sense, developing work around the next metaphorical battlefield is challenging. I have so much research and have written a vast amount on the subject that it feels that it is just starting to go somewhere really exciting, The fact that more US soldiers committed suicide last year than were killed in the theatre of war weirdly signifies a success for the American administration. Yes, of course they want to reduce the instances of PTSD, but the mind is probably the one thing that they won’t ever be able to control, right? There is a continuing debate within the US, whether man should remain “in the loop” in the theatre of war. It is my opinion that in the not too distant future war will be entirely automated, and then no American soldier will die on the battlefield. This scenario is much nearer than we think.
Head Gear, from the series Whiplash Transition
Primitive Pieces #2, from the series Primitive Pieces
Faux UAV operating station, from the series Whiplash Transition
General Atomics, from the series Crates and Boxes
ICT at Marina Del Rey, Los Angeles, from the series Virtual Iraq
Interrogation Set, from the series Virtual Iraq
Two men, residential area, Las Vegas, from the series Not Learning From Anything
You can purchase Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden via GOST
Interview by Darren Campion / Published 5 January 2015