Unreliable Evidence

Francis Frascina on countering histories

Omer Fast, <em>The Casting</em>, 2007

Omer Fast, The Casting, 2007

Before the Parliamentary vote on 26 September to approve UK military action against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, there were vivid reminders of contemporary artists’ and writers’ fascination with contested evidence, historical causality and the play of representation. A week later, ‘Unreliable Evidence: The Execution of Maximilian and Other Histories’ opened at the Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, in which recent artworks on these themes were placed in a striking 19th-century context.

The BBC World Service replayed a 2010 Witness programme with Mat Collishaw discussing the 1988 ‘Freeze’ show, which is as emblematic of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s as her pursuit of the 1982 Falklands War. Collishaw recalled exhibiting Bullet Hole, 1988, a large cibachrome close-up of a wound in a human head mounted on 15 lightboxes: although ‘seductive and compelling to look at’, he said, the subject matter ‘wasn’t really the kind of thing you were used to engaging with in an art gallery. It was quite aggressive and immediate.’ Productive discussion of this ‘seductive and compelling’ photograph of a brutal, probably fatal, wound would involve the ethics of representation, image-pleasure in the society of the spectacle and the limits of documentary in media-saturated managed visual regimes; all issues familiar to debates since the late 1980s and applicable to many artworks, including, for instance, Thomas Hirschhorn’s video Touching Reality, 2012, which records a hand and fingers on a tablet screen scrolling, selecting and enlarging internet images of the gruesome corpses of war – all with unverifiable or unreliable provenance. Borrowing words from the 2012 video Abstract, by Hito Steyerl (Interview AM375), to which I will return, the shot of war horror on the screen has a counter shot of a hand pawing over that shot: ‘one opens the door to the other’ in a dialogic exchange.

There is, though, a twist. Collishaw’s image is unreliable evidence of a bullet hole for it is an enlarged reproduction of a photograph of a laceration produced by a blow to the head with a bottle from G Austin Gresham’s A Colour Atlas of Forensic Pathology, 1975. Unreliability is compounded by a prevalent myth in accounts of Bullet Hole that the wound was caused by an ice pick – a mis-identification with its own imaginary connotations. The disparity between image-source and Collishaw’s title could be an artistic conceit in the appropriation of documentary photography. However, there is another possibility. As a pathologist, Gresham observed, with metaphorical implications, that ‘wounds may be missed in the dense hair of the scalp unless the hair is carefully combed aside to reveal them’. Similarly, relationships between images of violence and official titles can be misleading, can dissemble. Whatever the reasons for its title, Bullet Hole invites viewers to consider relationships between the play of imagination – theirs and the artist’s – and the constraints of objective reality. Viewers might, consequently, be better prepared to distinguish in everyday life between evidence and ideological or unreliable responses.

In the same week as the vote on Iraq, Conservative politicians expressed outrage at Hilary Mantel’s short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983. Mantel, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning historical novel Bring Up the Bodies, published a piece of fiction: a ‘what if’ representation, a prompt to the reader’s imagination and to debates about evidence. It was as though the outraged – for example Lord Timothy Bell, co-founder with Maurice and Charles of Saatchi & Saatchi, who said that the police should investigate – were responding to the discovery of the author of an entry in an al-Qaeda manual on how to assassinate an already dead politician. Mantel was conjuring up powerful dialogues for the present on perceptions and contingencies of history by focusing on a specific moment when Thatcher emerged from a Windsor hospital wearing dark glasses after an eye operation. How would events have changed if she had been in the direct line of a bullet from an IRA sniper sent, perhaps, to seek revenge for the deaths, in 1981, of ten republican prisoners in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison? What if that door of history had opened? Altered visions and altered states are both literal and metaphorical in Mantel’s work of fiction.

Parliamentary debates leading to the vote on possible military action focused on IS as the resurgent threat in the Middle East. Expressions of horror and fear were aimed at a ‘Hydra’ fed by western disaster capitalism – including rampant arms industries – that had risen again from the literal and policy debris of the last Iraq War. Described by opponents as a misconceived western crusade, that war was given Parliamentary approval in 2003 on the basis of so-called evidence of weapons of mass destruction that was later revealed to be false. For Yale professor David Bromwich, this 2014 US-led war in the Middle East is an ‘entanglement’ judged by many to be a ‘product of American mistakes’ with ‘causes in arrogance and ideology’ going back a long way. Recent ‘culprits’, Bromwich argues, include ‘Ronald Reagan, and the triumvirate of Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Tony Blair (an honorary American in this context)’. Evidence – much of it visual – presented at various times to support these leaders’ insistence on military action has often been revealed as unreliable at best; at worst, compromised by their own country’s foreign policies and, as US author Chalmers Johnson argued in 2000, by ‘blowback’ – a 1950s CIA term for the unintended consequences of US covert actions kept secret from its own citizens. In September 2014, reports and images of horrific IS human rights abuses presented as reasons for western military action competed for attention with reports and images of IS fighters parading through Raqqa, Syria, holding US-made M16 assault rifles, driving US Humvees and armoured troop carriers and possessing M79 anti-tank rockets supplied by Saudi Arabia to Syrian rebels. Critical engagements with both sets of images and reports simultaneously are necessary to avoid processes of concrete thinking dominated by dictates and regressive certainties about evidence and causality.

Collishaw’s and Mantel’s respective works are examples of artists as cultural producers, commentators and transgressors concerned with the roles of representation in assessing claims for truth. The Mead Gallery exhibition ‘Unreliable Evidence’ posits that these roles are as central to contemporary culture as they were for Édouard Manet in the late 1860s. He grappled with ways to represent French – specifically Napoleon III’s – colonial arrogance and militarised intervention in Mexico through four paintings and a lithograph of The Execution of Maximilian, c1867-68. Here, displayed alongside works by seven living artists, is the National Gallery’s version, distinctive for having been cut into fragments, with four of them retrieved and reassembled on a single canvas by Edgar Degas. Manet worked fast, trying, like a journalist, to digest conflicting reports of events from various sources, culminating in his depiction of the firing squad in ‘French-type’ uniforms rather than the Mexican sombreros of his first painting. Thus, it is often argued, he was not only seeking reliable evidence but also a form of history painting that would, for Parisian audiences, causally connect Napoleon III’s government to the execution of the emperor, imposed by the French in an unwarranted colonialist intervention in Mexican politics, which they eventually abandoned. Dissenters in France asked why French soldiers were dying in defence of vested interests in Mexico and why domestic taxes were being used to fund France’s intervention in a faraway nation-state. These are similar questions to those asked by opponents of western military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of US covert actions – including the use of drones, missiles, extraordinary renditions and assassinations – in a continuation of Bush’s ‘War on Terror’.

Today’s artists, paralleling Manet’s research processes, access a wide range of internet sources, from official or embedded reports to social media. Now, they have to negotiate IS’s appropriation of western media tools and techniques in multiple formats in its own image of war – particularly with the US – within, as dissident group Retort described it in 2005, ‘the symbolic economy called “spectacle”’. As the Mead Gallery exhibition confirms, to produce critical art on recent and current horrors – not only in the Middle East – artists have to grapple with particularly problematic politics of representation exacerbated by digital surveillance. Here are three examples.

Visitors to ‘Unreliable Evidence’ immediately encounter two of Santiago Sierra’s ‘Veterans’ series: a Veteran of the War of Colombia and a Veteran of the Wars of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. Six in all, including veterans of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, these life-size digital lambda prints have a double function. They document performances in international museums and galleries between 2011 and 2012 where Sierra asked local war veterans to stand facing a corner with their backs to the audience. They are also discrete images with titles detailing the relevant war(s) for each anonymous veteran and the location/date of the performances. All are male, sometimes in camouflaged or plain uniforms, sometimes in civilian dress. Sierra paid the veterans for their art-labour as military organisations had paid them for their war-labour. Unimaginable consequences of the latter are represented by the performative requirements of the former – facing a corner as denial of the realities of war, a sign of shame/guilt, an expression of military enforced non-communication, a record of punishment, a dissenting veteran’s silent protest and so on.

Sierra’s full series contributes to artists’ critiques of recent wars overseen by Bromwich’s ‘triumvirate’ of Clinton, Bush and Blair, such as Alfredo Jaar’s 2010 video installation We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know, implicating Clinton in western inaction in the face of massacres in Rwanda in 1994. Or Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country, sheets of facsimile stamps with photographic portraits of British service men and women – mostly in their 20s and recruited from working-class families – who died in Iraq up to 2007, when the work was produced. In McQueen’s work there is a discord between the hubris of political power – Blair’s push to join Bush’s war – and the realities of capital where wage labourers are imprisoned in an iron cage of militarised patriotism. Further, one of Sierra’s veterans returns me to Mantel’s short story: Veteran of the War of Northern Ireland Facing the Corner (11 Rooms Exhibition, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester July 2011). Could this anonymous man, dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers with his right hand on a walking stick, be the IRA sniper in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher? Or, maybe, he is the medical orderly with the letters UDA (a unionist paramilitary group) tattooed on three fingers in McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger which focuses on events leading up to the death of Bobby Sands in the Maze Prison in 1981? As with Manet’s Execution, Mantel and McQueen stimulate the play of imagination to enable further discriminations between evidence, representation and fiction.

Omer Fast’s The Casting, 2007, (Interview AM330) is concerned with personal memories and official narratives, with the dilemmas of experiences passing into fragmented memory and that memory being mediated in reconstructions or re-enactments of accounts. Fast forces viewers to be active in a 14-minute four-channel video installation. His interviews with an apparently young US veteran of the Iraq War are projected onto one pair of screens suspended in the middle of the gallery space. On the back of the same screens, images and footage of the production crew and studio setting for the filmed interviews interweave with documentary-like reconstructions of narratives from the interviews. As the video loops, there is heightened ambiguity: is the soldier an actor auditioning for the part or an actual veteran? Just before Fast asks the actor/soldier how he would feel ‘about improvising’, presumably for an audition, Fast says, ‘I like your story’ – a narrative from one of his actual interviews with US soldiers recently returned from Iraq – but complains that at 30 minutes it is too long for viewers’ attention spans.

The ‘soldier’ recounts two personal stories, one about being stationed in Germany, dating a girl and being invited to her family home but being shocked to discover the girl’s obsessions with self-harming and driving at reckless speeds. His other interwoven narrative is about the boredom of Humvee patrols on desert roads, surviving a bomb blast and the tense aftermath when he fires at the middle of an approaching car’s windshield. Aiming to shoot safely between driver and passenger, he inadvertently kills a young member of the ‘Iraqi’ family seated in the back. In a panic of remorse he contemplates being imprisoned for the killing, not knowing that ‘that kind of thing would be ignored later on’ by the US military, which regards civilian deaths as collateral damage. Fast plays with high-definition production values and documentary conventions to create a sense of authenticity – convincing narratives and re-enactments – at the same time as baring the devices of his method. What appears as war horror in Iraq was filmed in the Mojave Desert with American actors, prompting questions about the reliability of evidence, the propaganda roles of convincing fictions, and metaphors of self-harm both personal and those of the nation-state.

Steyerl’s videos November, 2004, Lovely Andrea, 2007, and Abstract, 2012, function individually and serially though differing in format and address. All are self-reflexive explorations of the ‘grammar of cinema’, which in Abstract also follows ‘the grammar of battle’, on tensions between documents of conflict, what might constitute evidence and the ‘labyrinth of travelling images’ that turn such documents into fictions. They are connected by Steyerl’s concern with evidence for, and official fictions about, the death of Andrea Wolf, her filmmaking collaborator and best friend when 17. Wolf left Berlin to volunteer for ‘revolutionary resistance’ fighting for the PKK, which demanded from Turkey an independent Kurdistan or, at least, greater political rights for Kurds. She never returned, killed as a ‘terrorist’ in 1998 in north-west Kurdistan. What came back to Berlin – home to 160,000 Turks, a third Kurds – were posters of Wolf’s heroic image, as ‘Şehît Ronahî (Andrea Wolf)’, discovered by Steyerl in a cinema next to posters for sex-films, producing visual relations and disjunctions of particular terms in the discourse on women in contemporary Germany.

The title November signifies that leftist hopes for another October revolutionary moment – enshrined in Eisenstein’s films – were transformed by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. One negative effect was reunified Germany’s transfer of extensive ex-GDR (former East Germany) army stocks to Turkey where they were used to suppress the Kurdish minority. In Steyerl’s densely rich montage of images and narratives, the PKK/Turkish conflict becomes entwined with Berlin demonstrations against the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a PKK fighter admits, quoting Aeschylus, that ‘in every war the first thing to be sacrificed is truth’. November’s emphases prompt me to recall Operation Cyclone, the CIA’s code name for its extensive financing of the Mujahideen during the 1980s Soviet War in Afghanistan – a truth that was sacrificed in official accounts of the US’s subsequent conflicts with the Mujahideen’s various manifestations, including al-Qaeda and, now, IS. Here, there is a 2014 life for November: Kurds are defending their towns and villages in north-eastern Iraq against IS forces as many Kurds had against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s when they were also being suppressed – Abstract reveals – by US-supplied arms to Turkey.

Abstract is a high-definition two-screen video dialogue of images and texts based on the cinematic technique of shot and counter shot. On one screen, Steyerl faces us with her back to the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, holding an iPhone taking a shot of an image we do not see. On the other, a counter shot of the specific location where Wolf was killed by government forces. Steyerl moves across screens to appear at this site where her guide identifies evidence of the 20mm bullets and Hellfire Missiles launched by Cobra helicopters attacking Kurdish fighters. Bell Helicopter, Fort Worth, Texas, manufactures Cobras; Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Maryland, makes Hellfires. However, Lockheed Martin Global OS, Inc, is housed in a building opposite the Brandenburg Gate that we eventually see over Steyerl’s shoulder as she takes the iPhone shot of the image we do not see at the start of Abstract.

We are back to Manet’s dissenting concern with causes and responsibility for militarised killing in the face of unreliable evidence. Like their precursor, Fast, Sierra and Steyerl navigate a politics of representation now bedevilled by evermore intense media fictions and covert surveillance to propose imagining other or counter histories.

‘Unreliable Evidence: The Execution of Maximilian and Other Histories’ was at the Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, 4 October to 6 December 2014.

Francis Frascina is the author of ‘Frames of Atrocity: Resistance and Left Melancholy’, Public 49, 2014.

First published in Art Monthly 382: Dec-Jan 14-15.

Sponsored Links