For artists, the accelerated rate of technological change presents an interesting conundrum. It has always been difficult to make statements about technology that will maintain their relevance for more than a few years, but the Cambrian explosion of contemporary digital technology has amplified this problem. As an artist, what can you say about the internet, about social media, about videogames, that remains essential in five years, ten years, 50 years time?
For Military Vision, an exhibition curated by Baden Pailthorpe at Melbourne’s Screen Space gallery, one answer is to embrace this accelerated change. Military Vision presents three works that explore ‘the militarisation of sight’: John Crandall’s Heatseeking (2000), Denis Beaubois’ There is no aftermath (2004), and Matthieu Cherubini’s Afghan War Diary (2010). The short temporal space between each work amplifies the pace of technological and political change, as each work is concerned with issues that have been displaced quickly, yet not erased.
The oldest of these is Crandall’s Heatseeking – a six channel installation shot on the United States’ border with Mexico. Crandall plays with the aesthetic of border surveillance, placing viewers in a typical position of the all-seeing eye, only to turn the gaze inward, eroticising surveillance with naked, writhing, and combative bodies. Crandall’s work now allows us to recall the pre-9/11 concerns of technology and the military: as an invasive, monitoring force that looks where governments should not be looking.
Next is Beaubois’ There is no aftermath, where the artist throws his camera towards the Prime Minister’s office in Sydney at night. The camera is destroyed on impact, creating a short and violent recording of its own demise. Beaubois intentionally recalls the military vision of bomb-mounted cameras from the first Gulf War, while highlighting their absence from public discourse in the second. For Beaubois, the camera itself is a violent weapon in the military’s arsenal.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, is Cherubini’s Afghan War Diary, which directly combines consumer technology with a digital, military gaze. Cherubini begins with the virtual, real-time deaths of first-person shooter players on Counter-Strike servers: each videogame death triggers the location of an actual death as recorded in the Wikileaks Afghan War archive. The location is then projected on a three-channel screen in Google Earth, closing a link between real military action, videogames, and consumer technology.
Each work, when placed against each other, creates a kind of micro-scale retrospective of technologies of vision and the military. As each work progresses, we migrate from concerns of invasion and surveillance, to vision-as-violence, to the sterility of virtual reality. This is what it is like to look at recent political anxieties over the military and technology in fast-forward.
Yet it would not be difficult to imagine what kind of anxieties a future exhibition could take in from 2013 and beyond. It seems that the frequently promised and frequently imagined technologies of virtual reality and invisible interfaces are once again being re-articulated in the public eye, as they were when personal computers first became viable in the late 1980s. Google Glass provokes a new level of anxiety about the invasiveness of contemporary technology (who knows when or where you’ll be recorded, we are asked). It also gives us pause to reflect on the links between point-of-view technology and the military gaze, as typified in YouTube channels documenting helmet cam footage of real combatants. Similarly, technologies like the Oculus Rift reinforce ongoing dialogues about the virtual control of military technologies and the links between consumer hardware and the armed forces.
Yet an exhibition like Military Vision gives us the space to reevaluate the relationship between art and technology. While we might sometimes think of a work like Heatseeking, created in the year 2000, as dated, when placed in context, Military Vision reveals that such concerns are never completely written over. Instead, they are merely pushed to the back of the queue as the pace of technological change marches ever onwards.
Dan Golding is a Killings columnist, freelance writer and academic interested in videogames, film, music, and most other cultural forms. Find him on Twitter.