Embedded Art

Olaf Arndt, Moritz von Rappard, Janneke Schoenenbach, Cecilia Wee



On the border of art and politics -

EMBEDDED ART: Art in the Name of Security

24 January — 22 March 2009, Akademie der Künste, Pariser Platz, Berlin

Cecilia Wee

The interdisciplinary exhibition "EMBEDDED ART - Art in the name of security" directly interrogates the issue of how contemporary society has been and continues to change in response to threats of global insecurity.

Appropriating the words of composer Gershon Kingsley's Security Song - "what would you give for security?" the curators of EMBEDDED ART from artist group BBM, have commissioned 52 artists, working on 41 projects, to articulate their visions of current situations, through the unique perspective of being "embedded" themselves. For EMBEDDED ART, an exhibition consisting entirely of new works, the participating artists worked on location at defence research facilities, special forces training sessions and with experts in "future security".

The term "embedded art" provides a working principle for the commissioned works and interventions in public space, while "security" tells of the exhibition's political core.

The Concept:

EMBEDDED ART builds on BBM's research about technologies of political control and Non-Lethal Weapons, conducted during their project TROIA (Temporary Residence of Intelligent Agents). A few months after the London bombings in 2005, I met Berlin Olaf Arndt and Janneke Schonenbach of based art collective BBM, Beobachter der Bediener von Maschinen — which translates as the Observers of Operators of Machines. We met in their TROIA pavilion, a pixel theatre where visitors were invited to wear "armpods", huge, heavy devices that clamped onto your arms and played video and music according to your location in the theatre. Whilst these strange objects had a kitsch, retro quality, they also disguised an altogether more serious communiqué about the potential uses of technologies to control civilians. Inspired by Arndt's self-embedment into security conferences as a journalist and security expert, we started a dialogue about the purposes behind new technologies of the security sector. In July 2006, I presented and produced a series of radio programmes for Resonance FM, London's art radio station, called Art and War, exploring the artistic practices of artists who work with the subject of militarised combat. Whilst I investigated cultural representations of war through my radio series, I continued discussing with BBM the concept for an exhibition on the subject of security. In Dec 2007 dramaturg Moritz von Rappard joined the EMBEDDED ART curatorial team and the project was given the go-ahead with confirmed backing from the exhibition venue Berlin's Akademie der Künste, funds from the Haupstadtkulturfonds secured. With EMBEDDED ART, BBM investigates the ways in which security has become a new ideology, a new mantra for the post 9/11 society.

In the wake of the 9/11, Madrid, Moscow, and London attacks, threats to freedom in public life have become a fundamental aspect of daily experience.

International terrorism now reaches Europe's vital organs, showing itself to be a clear and present threat to the dream of a peaceful, undivided and secure world. In response to these circumstances, state and private organisations across the globe are producing new tactics, strategies and technologies to fight the dangers threatening our democracies and jeopardising our understanding of the term 'civilisation'.

EMBEDDED ART confronts the crossroads between cultural production and security production — a world where private military corporations replace armies and our hunger for the bogeyman's capture suggests global policies that contravene fundamental rights. In this new theatre of operations, everything that can be done in the name of security is desirable, even if that triggers the spread of invisible and ever-restrictive strategies of power.

By probing some of the myths and mysteries of the future security sector, EMBEDDED ART attempts to continue the possibility of critical and reflective cultural discourse within an increasingly self-censoring world. The curators believe that in the midst of the "war on terror", images, sounds and words, produced while working "embedded", can surpass their status of mere aesthetics and become forceful weapons to expose the character of "future warfare".

EMBEDDED ART is structured around three closely-related notions about the universal desire for security in contemporary society: "threats", "response" and "shift". The term "threat" relates to the new threats to society, "response" refers to the type of reactions that can and do arise, and "shift" is suggestive of a new paradigm for global politics.

As political helplessness and insecurity increase in the face of new and unknown dangers, we think that the role of art must change as well. Indeed, the threat of invisible dangers without recognisable front lines calls for witnesses with exceptional perceptive capacities. This need for "embedded" observers is constantly expanding. Artists are called on to communicate their vision and perspective on history, whilst also negotiating art's Janus-like character that gently oscillates between profitable conformity and natural subversion. This liminality of art provided the curators with the impulse to launch a project with "embedded artists", a project that observes what happens when the caves, tunnel systems and "outposts" of current politics are penetrated by Agent Art.

In the research field of the imaginary, the arts have always been the potential forerunners of a new reality. Both historically and today, the military can benefit from artists' fantasies. In fact, in order to anchor its goals in the consciousness of the masses, the state apparatus can be seen to invest in the new arts and media[[i]]1 .

As warfare becomes less traditional, so too the aesthetic techniques for processing events are becoming more unconventional. The tools of these "war-on-terror-artists" are no longer pencil and paper, palette or camera but media arts productions, research-oriented exploration, reconstructions, interviews and social studies[[ii]]2 . However, even when artists use older media, collaboration does not always run smoothly. When Peter Howson[[iii]]3 returned from Bosnia in 1993 with a series of large-scale paintings depicting rapes, the British Ministry of Defence asked for its money back. It did not want to create the impression that the British Army could not guarantee the safety of women in post-war ex-Yugoslavia; or that the "embedded artist" who had witnessed such actions - faced with human rights violations and crime - had calmly unpacked his easel and captured the scene in oils.

Nevertheless, the focus of the traditional role of the arts in warfare - the painting of battles and the recording of everyday army life - has abruptly shifted to an intense interest in security. "War" as a means of political fortification of state power is replaced by measures to provide "security". The economic core of the new threats to global security are shifting from military subjugation to financial control, as private security providers like Blackwater[[iv]]4 , DynCorp and Group 4 increasingly take over and manage the business of government organisations in locations as far and wide as Europe, South Africa, Iraq and the USA.

The Exhibition:

With its key location on Pariser Platz, a stone's throw from the US Embassy, French Embassy, British Embassy and the Brandenburg Gate, the Akademie der Künste is perhaps a perfect site for an exhibition on security. Inspired by Pariser Platz' notable institutions, British graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook — who we commissioned to produce the exhibition's corporate identity — created a number of logos transforming the brandings of buildings around the square - a sly critique of the involvement of institutions such as DZ Bank in supporting military regimes, defence production and the production of fear.

EMBEDDED ART's unusual presentation aims to embed the central issue of security into the visitor's experience, by an innovative deployment of technology and by carefully controlling the use of spaces in the Akademie der Künste. The exhibition takes over the new Akademie der Künste building at Pariser Platz, which has been developed around the ruins of the historic academy, a series of five "white cube" galleries where exhibitions are usually presented. Hidden under this classical gallery alignment is an unique feature of the building - a four floor underground archive completed in 2004 and conceived as a "bunker" for storing the Akademie's 300 year old collection. The Akademie spent a staggering 24 million euros on building these highly secure storage spaces, yet due to condensation problems, the rooms have never been used for their original purpose of storing artwork. At the beginning of EMBEDDED ART's development, we were promised access to all areas of the building, ironically due to security (and legal) reasons, this access has been seriously diminished over the course of the project. However, we are still able to offer public access to some of these spaces for the first time during EMBEDDED ART. The exhibition uses the five historic exhibition rooms, but in an unexpected way. "For security reasons", no original art pieces are shown in the ground floor rooms of the building. Instead, visitors see only projections of the works. The real works are accommodated within the four floor basement of safely protected depots, where there is normally absolutely no access for the public. Each piece is controlled by a surveillance camera, and connected to video-projectors in the exhibition halls, controlled by a camera network built exclusively for EMBEDDED ART, providing the unique opportunity of setting up an intranet, referencing the omnipresence of CCTV surveillance in style and function.

The projections are then mixed into a ten-channel, multi-screen room where all the images from the underground rooms converge. This live stream video edit can be altered on demand, going beyond the limitations of classical methods of exhibition installation. The video projection system can also access any live IP camera presentations anywhere in the world via the Internet. Also on display on the ground floor exhibition halls are a number of interactive art works and an archive of related publications and security research documents totalling over 10,000 pages.

Visitors wishing to view the original artworks have to ask for a tour led by the Busch and Dahn security guards. At the start of the 40 min tours, visitors are instructed not to dwaddle, that there will be no toilet breaks and that they will be entering secure, confined spaces. They are then directed through the depots by their guard, who accompany the visitors whilst they look at the artworks.

Further contributing to the sense of surveillance in EMBEDDED ART, Artist Georg Schmalhofer has specially designed videos, logos and texts for a 20 x 3 metre LED-billboard that looks out onto Pariser Platz, delivering the exhibition's messages to the promenading public by means of a gigantic media façade. The sharp irony of these slogans and captivating narratives fuel a desire to see more than the usual flickering advertisement formats.

The commissions

EMBEDDED ART consists of 41 Commissions by 52 artists from Germany, Austria, USA, Japan, South Africa, Spain, Great Britain, Kosovo, Italy and Slovenia working with photography, media art, painting, performance, installation, sound art, graphic art, moving image, fashion, sculpture and text.

Let us first start by discussing a work that develops an artist's existing oeuvre:

We, the curators, first came across Jacques Coetzer's work for the exhibition Armed Response II in Johannesburg, an exhibition supported by the Goethe Institute, exploring the mass privatisation of police and security in South Africa, where Coetzer comes from. Using everyday objects, Coetzer works passionately with new media, appropriating consumables and reworking them into weapons of witty and sardonic social commentary.

In Armed Response II, Coetzer produced what he called 'smart casual bulletproofs', patterned bulletproof vests - inspired by his middle-class background - that featured in street performances that interrupted the expectations of a public who increasingly depend both financially and socially on the perpetuation of a civil security sector.

For EMBEDDED ART we asked Coetzer to design and create new prototypes for smart casual bulletproof vests, for the duration of the exhibition these vests are worn by all the Busch & Dähn security staff who patrol the Akademie der Künste. Form-fitting, stylish yet protective, using pastel brocade on the women's vests and a 'smart-casual' checked material for the men, these vests are worn like a fashion-item, yet mirror the almost 'everyday' level of security in South African cities — where around 80% of affluent neighbourhoods are under the control of private security firms. We had to employ the Busch and Dahn security staff as part of our contract with the Akademie anyway, so we thought we would capitalise on the opportunity to subvert the conventional hierarchy and instead determine their appearance and behaviour as part of the exhibition. In this way the structures of institutional security, usually seen as part of an exhibition's environmental background become fundamental to the aesthetic experience of EMBEDDED ART.

Unsound Systems is an audio installation by British artists Steve Goodman and Toby Heys. A pioneer of the electronic dance genre dubstep, producing under the name Kode9, Steve Goodman is also a lecturer in Sound Culture with a special interest in Caribbean soundsystem culture and sonic weapons. His book "Sonic Warfare", published by MIT Press and out later this year, discusses the histories and myths of attempts to use sound to attack, irritate and incapacitate opponents. According to theories of sonic weapons, certain frequencies — namely very low frequencies grouped under the name 'infrasound' and very high frequencies called 'ultrasound', have the ability to physically and psychologically effect humans. A type of so-called sonic weapon was deployed in used on civilians, when sonic lasers were used by the National Guard during and directly after Hurricane Katrina. They were also used recently to send messages to pirates on hijacked ships off the coast of Somalia. Whilst this is 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. 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. 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.

Although Goodman has written and presented extensively on the theory of sonic weapons, his work for EMBEDDED ART was the first time he attempted to physically realise his theories on sonic warfare in a contemporary art context. In collaboration with sound artist Toby Heys, their 15 minute audio installation Unsound Systems illustrates the sensations of future sonic weaponry, using a range of sub bass and directional audio speakers to deliver specially written texts on the subject of security, with a tactility that jolts you into another realm. Exploring the fringes of military-scientific research into the use of sound the installation focuses on the fractionally inaudible vibrations of infrasound and ultrasound, what they refer to as the field of unsound.

German photographer Christina Zück's ambitious self-directed project for EMBEDDED ART came about due to what she describes as a "mysterious set of chance meetings". Zuck was in Karachi, Pakistan, when she heard about 9/11 - on TV, like most of us, whilst sitting in the former British Army residential quarter "Defence Housing Authority II", a respectable middle-class neighbourhood in Karachi. She soon heard that Ramzi Bin al-Shib, one of the suspected masterminds of the attacks and No.3 of Mohammed Atta's Hamburg cell, was living just a few hundred metres away. The realisation that she was in the "epicentre of terror" and potentially facing a so-called preventative bombardment by the US armed forces had a profound experience on Zück. Initially incarcerated and tortured in Stare Kiejkuty, Masuria, a "secret prison" run by Polish secret services for the USA[[v]]5 , bin Al-Shibh was later removed to a high security prison in the USA and is still awaiting trial. The name of the neighbourhood "Defence Housing Authority II" subsequently provided a title for Zuck's work in EMBEDDED ART. From September to November 2008, the artist went back to Karachi, to conduct a psycho-geographical exploration of the city. Her challenge was to capture the spirit of a place seen by the rest of the world as the source of all evil and to project a valid image that can withstand questioning, representations subtle enough to negotiate the complexity of discussions on Otherness.

Zuck took about 6,000 photos during her recent stay in Karachi. Whilst she was concentrating on capturing another shot one day a young Pakistani photographer started questioning her about what she was doing and asking about her digital camera. Zuck found out that the photographer was a protégé of the Pakistani photographer and journalist Zahid Hussein who shot the world famous picture of Ramzi bin Al-Shibh's arrest. She was able to meet Hussein, who provided her with 167 pictures of arrests he witnessed in Pakistan, that have never been exhibited. Zück integrates Hussein's photos as self-contained pieces into her photographic installation "Defence Housing Authority II". Her contribution to EMBEDDED ART is an outstanding example of independent, double embedment.

The next commission I would like to look at is a work by Spanish filmmaker Sally Gutierrez. Constantly and consciously working with the borders between artist film and documentary film-making, Gutierrez explores the contradictions and traumas for urban citizens in the Global South. Her award-winning feature film Tapologo, produced with her sister Gabriela, looks at the how women within mining communities- specifically Freedom Park squatter camp in the Northwest Province - service the needs of the male miners as a means of basic survival. The film's name derives from the name of the network of HIV-infected former sex-workers who have learnt to be home-based care-workers and transform degradation into solidarity and squalor into hope.

We were interested in Gutierrez' approach, energy and the bodily aspect of security that is ever-present in her work. Whilst the body politic of the Western World is constantly being made "safer and safer" through strict immigration laws and all kinds of state of the art counter-terrorist technologies, contemporary society also pursues dreams of longevity and immortality of the "natural", biological body, through rejuvenation techniques and transplants. Outside the bountiful realms inhabited by western subjectivities, millions of bodies are treated as expendable. For instance, in the slums of Tondo, a district near Manila harbour in the Philippines - one of the poorest and most densely populated urban areas in Asia - people sell their organs to make a living. A cornea or a kidney can be "donated" for as much (or as little) as US$2,000. Squalor and biotechnology meet in a surreal world where science-fiction dystopias have become reality, and the poor are merely harvested by the rich for their body parts. In 2007, during her second stay in the country, Gutierrez went to Tondo accompanying two researchers from the University of the Philippines, who were studying illegal organ "donation". Gutierrez interviewed three so-called "donors" who had sold their kidneys. These "donors" also received payment for their participation in the university research project (US$10), and Gutierrez's interviews (US$45). For her EMBEDDED ART commission, Gutierrez collected and edited the interviews to make a work dealing with these "internal threats".

"Organ Market" is a video piece with an accompanying poster — a fake advert inviting Tondo residents to donate their kidneys. "Organ Market" is a video/ text piece that documents a frightening vision of the near future that has invaded our present. The viewer is faced with the reality that scenarios seemingly more at home in the fictitious world of cinema are manifesting themselves in the slums of present day Manila.

The last commission I would like to discuss is a short video work by British photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. They became involved with EMBEDDED ART quite late in the exhibition's development, however, their previous experiences of working with the subject of security motivated us to pursue a collaboration. Working as photojournalists and artists within a number of military contexts including a project about Chicago — the mock Arab town constructed by the Israeli Defence Force for training purposes — in June 2008 Broomberg and Chanarin were dispatched to the Helmand Province in Afghanistan by the British Ministry of Defence, only to find out that they would not be permitted to take photos containing any "signs of war", for security reasons. The strict stipulation was almost a photographic prohibition. Realising that a more radical approach to image-making was needed, they decided to instead expose 50 metre rolls of film to the sun for each occasion a press photographer would ordinarily take a photograph. This work, called "the Day Nobody Died" is a striking critique of conflict photography, resulting from an unconventional methodology, something that we felt we needed to tackle the issue of the ADS, the Active Denial System microwave pain weapon. The ADS system is able to heat the top 1/64th inch of skin's surface to 50 Celsius from the distance of up to a few hundred metres. Stimulating all the body's nocioceptors so that one has the sensation that they are falling into fire, the weapon is promoted as a safe, precise and markless way of targeting individuals within a crowd.

Two years of colourful bureaucracy, conflicting emails and revealing correspondence with the Pentagon unfortunately led to an impasse. Plans to dispatch an artist to Texas, site of the ADS trials[[vi]]6 , failed time and time, despite the fact that prominent champions of the system in the USA supported the idea of giving artists access and offered help in contacting Raytheon, one of the manufacturing companies. Contact was also made with Wavestream, manufacturers of a hand-held version of the weapon, through Sid Heal, former commander of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and an enthusiastic supporter of Non-Lethal Weapons. Interested in the effect of the ADS system on the surface of the emulsion or the acetate that carries it, we had hoped that Broomberg and Chanarin would be able to expose sheets of their photographic film to the pain weapon, however, this last attempt to embed artists into this particular branch of military research also led to a dead end. During our conversations, Broomberg and Chanarin noted how the real-time moving image footage of the weapon's tests seem almost comical, in fact the subjects laugh after the ADS has been administered, suggesting that the weapons are effective but harmless, even fun. But the same footage and soundtrack slowed down exaggerates the split second of pain when the face contorts in agony. Although denied exclusive access to the ADS, Broomberg and Chanarin produced for EMBEDDED ART a short video work called "The Lesser Evil", whose groaning soundtrack is now the haunting background for visitors to the exhibition's underground cellars. In addition to providing a sonic aspect to the basement spaces, "The Lesser Evil" is an example of the EMBEDDED ART curatorial team working with artists to determine a mutually agreeable subject.

In conclusion

Situated somewhere between "threats", "response" and "shift", the projects that make up EMBEDDED ART propose a relationship to contemporary society that challenge complacent assumptions and ideologies based on fear. All too aware that new technological developments are often relied upon to purge conflicts - instead of attempting to forge solutions through social or political dialogue — the artists creatively use the knowledge gained through their engagement with military and future war research settings to enable open and transparent discussions about future security. Rethinking technology as a means to explore pertinent issues, rather than as a means to a pre-determined end, "embedded art" at the beginning of 21st Century has found itself inextricably and symbiotically linked to social and political discourse.

Although the exhibition has proved hugely popular, with over 5,000 visitors in the first week — a number exceeding expected visitor numbers over the entire duration of exhibitions by the Akademie der Künste, there remains a palpable tension between the contexts of art exhibited within institutions and the contemporary art economy. Whilst work by the practitioners involved in the project is otherwise represented by commercial galleries, the curatorially robust remit of EMBEDDED ART is often interpreted as falling between art and documentary. Is it plainly the case that such political art can only be tolerated within the walls of ageing and established institutions, perhaps in an effort to prove their engagement with contemporary issues or maybe they aim to contain and appropriate the subversive elements of culture? Unashamedly political in nature, yet also highly sophisticated in its artistic content, EMBEDDED ART interrogates the illusory dichotomy between art and politics, beyond the aesthetic theory of socially engaged art.


[[i]]7 This was done for more than 60 years with "Project Forecast". The programme brings together artists and authors and military to compound their various ideologies and fantasies in such a way as to produce strategies and technologies for more effective future warfare. So far this has taken place on three occasions, first in the 1940s whilst still under the influence of the Fascist threat, then again shortly before the social "revolution" during the late 1960s; and for a third time just before the breakdown of socialism in 1987. A considerable fixed budget of more than US$100 million was available for the implementation of the workshop results; see CH. Gray, "Cyborg Soldier - The Military and the Postmodern Fighter", [http://www.uni-muenster.de/PeaCon/wuf/wf-90/9021001m.htm]8 and [http://www.rand.org/pubs/reports/R3564/]9 Furthermore, since 2005, the US Department of Defence has run a sponsorship programme, supporting science fiction authors and media artists to produce Hollywood film plots. Similarly, websites such as www.readykids.gov, as well as Gameboy and mobile phone game adaptations practically bring the war on terror into the hands of children and young people.

[[ii]]10 See for example, Langlands and Bell's 2003 project, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, reconstructing Osama bin Laden's "palace", [http://www.langlandsandbell.com/obl01.html]11 or the exploration of the urban warfare test site "Chicago" in Palestine by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, see [www.choppedliver.info]12

[[iii]]13 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Howson]14

[[iv]]15 J. Scahill, "Blackwater, The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army". New York, 2007. The bestselling book has been updated and is to be made into a film.

[[v]]16 Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, Secret detentions and illegal transfers of detainees involving Council of Europe member states: second report, Explanatory memorandum, Dick Marty, Switzerland, ALDE 7th June 2007, [http://assembly.coe.int/CommitteeDocs/2007/EMarty_20070608_NoEmbargo.pdf]17

[[vi]]18 See Pircher and Arndt's text about "Pain Machines" in the EMBEDDED ART exhibition catalogue.

8 : http://www.uni-muenster.de/PeaCon/wuf/wf-90/9021001m.htm 9 : http://www.rand.org/pubs/reports/R3564/

11 : http://www.langlandsandbell.com/obl01.html 12 : http://www.choppedliver.info

14 : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Howson

17 : http://assembly.coe.int/CommitteeDocs/2007/EMarty20070608NoEmbargo.pdf