The Intimacy of Weapons


Three Anecdotes for Artistically Minded War Consumers

Cecilia Wee

The intimacy of security alerts

At a party sometime last year, I met a journalist who had written about the exponential US government spending on DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In response I started rambling about my interest in the military-industrial (and sometimes entertainment) complex - how strange it was that contemporary society's progress continues to be articulated and measured primarily through the evolution of destructive technologies, whilst political rhetoric centres on ameliorating quality of life. It appears that contrary to the supposedly enlightened values of liberal culture, the propagation and economy of technologies built to cripple the earth's population is driven by a 'machinic phylum', a force untameable by specific decisions and ideologies. The journalist looked at me blankly, as if my words had been spoken in some archaic language. Not quite sympathising with his confusion, I made my excuses to ponder the thoughts I had aired aloud. I imagined that the journalist took issue with my reference to the term 'machinic phylum' as it implied locating technological innovation within a trans-human history where social responsibility is secondary to and determined by the 'self-organising processes that exist in the universe.'1 If so, maybe he meant to criticise the tendency to remove human accountability from the defense technological debate through (means such as) the presentation of awe-inducing gadgetry. In a climate where war architects are obsessed with the technical perfection of a weapon, the human effects of war are too often forgotten by our desensitised eyes. The paradigmatic antagonism between a drone's technological search for perfection and its purpose sit as uneasily as innocently swallowing the Italian Futurist call to war. Although eternally immortalised in expensive digitally manipulated film, a soldier or civilian's death is always lo-tech, a mournful grunt more than dramatised scream. This possibility of lo-tech failure made me think of Richard Dedomenici, a British live artist whose practice explores tropes on the 'war on terror', by using gestures of cunning naivety to interpret and re-mean our conceptions of national security:

By substituting an explosive device with himself, Dedomenici's Unattended Baggage subverts our prejudices and anxieties about participatory practices within a surveillance dominated culture, pushing against the cosmopolitan understanding of the socially acceptable. Moreover, intentionally or otherwise, Unattended Baggage is a painful reminder that, perhaps like the machinic phylum, terrorist and extremist acts are driven by some violent momentum striving on the border of Interior and Exterior, providing a parallel yet undeniable history to freedom-loving liberalist enlightenment.

Intimacy of the crossbow

This social aspect is an element easily overlooked in histories of defense technology development, especially given the huge impact of computerisation on the military's activities in recent generations. During my trawls through pages of websites such as Defense Tech, I have consciously succumbed to fetishising the ever streamlined, 'beautiful' weapons of modern warfare. With Dedomenici's work and von Clausewitz' proclamation that "the mass of combatants in an army endlessly forms fresh elements, which themselves are parts of a greater structure"2 in my mind, I realised that complex modelling and the evolution of new scientific models are not necessarily what is impressive about warfare. Rather, I became fascinated with how soldiers or combatants are mobilised in formations of varying sizes to work with weapons towards co-ordinated tactical and strategic purposes. Within the social context of historical warfare, I was surprised to learn that sanctions were often imposed on weapons, especially those involving arrows - as McLuhan says, "flight of arrows...apart from those whom they killed or wounded, demoralised the rest as they watched them hurtling through the air"3 . Clearly, the physical impact and technical complexity of the bow and arrow have been overcome thousand-fold in the modern history of weapons development. Indeed, the Pope's ban on the crossbow in the Eleventh Century, claiming that it was inappropriate for inter-Christian battle4 , rests rather on the notion that this weapon psychologically violates and interrupts a soldier's attempt to objectify the enemy. Requiring skill and exactitude, the bow and arrow suggests an intimate relationship between one human and another, the generation of a private tension. The arrow intrudes. If Troia's dictionary of non-lethal weapons research Technologien Politischer Kontrolle5 is anything to go by, it would seem that current trends for 'non-lethal weapons' are comparably intimate. Presenting themselves as genuine defense technology theorists with more than a hint of apocalyptic forecasting, Troia, a project by German art collective BBM, gathers grey matter, promotional literature of the defense industry and self-initiated prototypes of widgets from the future. By engaging in the discourse of the defense industry and security and surveillance paranoiacs, Troia contests fashionable complacency with an interrogation of possible models of futurology.

The adoption of an enemy's identity within an imaginary narrative is a manoeuvre frequently utilised in games theory and by contemporary gamers. For instance, the hugely popular US Army sponsored computer game, America's Army, provides opportunity for artists such as Joseph de Lappe to enact subversive performances. Games theorist and artist Axel Stockburger explains:

Despite the game's comparable lack of customisation - in an era obsessed with user-generated content - Joseph de Lappe's performance in America's Army subverts a respected power structure, highlighting playful possibilities for alternative subjectivities in virtual realms and reconfigures the game's structure for a creatively political means.

The intimacy of sonic lasers

The non-lethal weapons collected in Troia's Technologien Politischer Kontrolle vary from glue cannon and other 'kinetic impact' weapons to boxes for sonic torture. Often functioning as more than theoretical propositions, many of these non-lethal weapons are commercially available to security forces and governments to assist in the immobilisation and capture of persons who 'may jeopardise' national security. Admittedly, most governments do not aim such kinetic impact weapons directly on persons, instead using them as a means to seal doors to obstruct a suspect's escape route. This seems relatively reasonable, however, the rapid growth and development of non-lethal weapons and the security control sector could result in these technologies being under-researched and knowledge of their effects publicly inaccessible. For instance, in perhaps the most recent and public use of this technology, sonic lasers were employed by the National Guard during and directly after Hurricane Katrina. Whilst a relatively safe alternative method of delivering public announcements over long distances, sonic lasers can cause listeners to become unconscious when in close (i.e. 100m) proximity. What Kant (in his Critique of Pure Judgment) described as sound's similarity to perfume and its dissimilarity to painting can be otherwise expressed as its viral quality. As its waves assault our ears, oblivious to whether or not we're attuned to them, sound has been useful to the military's psychological control of its armies and enemies and its ever-changing construction of command and control networks - such as the C4I2 model (Control, Command, Communications, Computers, Intelligence and Interoperability). Works such as British artist Rod Dickinson's re-enactment of music played by the FBI to the Branch Davidians during the 1993 Waco siege are powerful reminders that the transmission of imposed, repeatedly unpleasant sounds can have quasi-Pavlovian psychological effects. Even if you think Plato was being hideously reductive when he said the army would be bolstered by the Dorian mode, the sonic function of the drill and the accompaniment of the drum to the march - particularly in the pre-Napoleonic eras - is testimony to the significance of sound's ability to mobilise soldiers into action. Strategic changes in formation creating longer and thinner fronts during the French Revolution meant limited information distribution in military command and control systems until the advent of radio. Despite the fact that soldiers are rather more likely to move around in tanks today than on horseback following a marching band, the inclusion of CD and MP3 playing devices within a tank's communications systems reminds us of sound's motivating capacities. However, the notion of sound's use in warfare is not, contrary to a post-Futurist consciousness, exclusively composed of brutal, angular sounds. Such a position is taken by Steve Goodman in his writing on sonic warfare, a phenomenon that he understands as infiltrating contemporary life through various insidious guises that subtly effect a population's perspective, opinions and approaches to thinking. Without necessarily resorting to using 'noise', sonic warfare may be manifested in the transmission of 'terrorist' voices in recorded form through publicly accessible media. Two notable cases of such communication are the dubbing of IRA leaders up to the mid 1990s and the more recent authenticity analyses of tapes attributed to Osama bin Laden. Regarding the reception of these two cases, Steve Goodman says the following:

The idea that sound is able to generate an 'echology of fear' taps into the notion of sound as a virus, what Deleuze and Guattari would call smooth, not striated, thus is perhaps particularly relevant in times when we see a resurgence of guerrilla warfare tactics. To the extent that sonic warfare can be viral, it associates itself with the smooth, rather than the striated, presenting a manifestation of the 'machinic phylum', a speed of light intensity that is historically rooted, a constantly moving thunderbolt zooming through every nook and cranny of society modulating our thoughts, perspectives, motivations and objectifications as it travels. As Deleuze and Guattari would imply, the machinic phylum is nothing but an intangible force that only becomes apparent through its metamorphoses6 .


*All audio clips in this piece originate from my 5 part series of programmes called 'Art and War' for Resonance FM, London's art radio station, broadcast in July and August 2006.


Richard Dedomenici:

Steve Goodman:

Axel Stockburger:

Cecilia Wee co-curates inter-art series Rational Rec, has been making programmes for Resonance FM since 2002 (including 'Art and War' and 'Salon or Seminar') and is writing her DPhil on performance art documentation at Sussex University. For more information see: or


  1. Manuel DeLanda. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. (Zone Books, New York, 1991) p.6

  2. Carl von Clausewitz. On War (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1976) p.95

  3. Marshall McLuhan. War and Peace in a Global Village (Hardwired, San Francisco, 1968) p.42

  4. Manuel DeLanda. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. (Zone Books, New York, 1991) p.47

  5. Olaf Arndt. Troia - Technologien Politischer Kontrolle (Belleville Verlag Michael Farin, Munich, 2005)

  6. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Thousand Plateaus - Capitalism and Schizophrenia (tr. B. Massumi) (Athlone Press, London, 1988) p.360