350px-PicassoGuernica Dynamic Featured Image

CONFLICT | INVESTIGATION | REPRESENTATION

 

A town in the province of Biscay in the Basque Country in Spain, Guernica was seen as the northern bastion of the Republican resistance movement during the Spanish Civil War, and as one of the most vital centers of Basque culture in the country. On Monday morning, 26 April 1937 warplanes of the German Condor Legion descended upon and engaged in a brutal two-hour bombing of the Basque town, as a bid to test out new weapons and strategies through capitalizing on the ongoing war. This type of intense aerial bombing would in fact later become one of the key components to the Blitzkrieg tactic used by then Hitler-led Germany. At the time of the bombing, Pablo Picasso was working on a mural commission by the Spanish Republican government, to be shown at the Paris Exhibition scheduled to take place later that summer. On hearing of this incident, Picasso would immediately abandon his original idea for the mural and create what is now known as perhaps one of his most famous works, and certainly one of his most powerful political stands, painted as a protest against the devastating bombing of the Spanish town during the Civil War.

 

While interpretations of Guernica (1937) vary, what is unquestionable is the position of the painting as one of the most powerful symbols of protest and records of war in 20th century art. Picasso of course was not singular in the tradition of artists addressing, reacting to, documenting, and producing works based on war, violence and conflict worldwide – art history is rife with such examples. From Ancient Greek sculptures to early Renaissance works depicting victories over peoples and lands, to Rubens’ allegorical activist painting Consequences of War (1638–39), Goya’s Third of May (1808-14) echoing the tragic horrors depicted in the etchings from his Disasters of War series (later reinterpreted by the contemporary artist duo Jake and Dinos Chapman in 1993), to the propaganda paintings and prints of the 20th century (echoing, in sentiment, earlier works such as the Napoleonic propaganda paintings by Ernest Meissonier, including the Siege of Paris, 1870-71, 1884), and then conversely those that depicted the horrors and atrocities of war and attempted to highlight the suffering of its uncountable victims (examples include Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, Salvador Dali, Roy Lichtenstein amongst a host of others).

 

Today then, in an increasingly unstable, post 9/11 world, the connection between war/conflict and art/culture is undeniably established, with the subject not only at the heart of artistic practices globally, but also of scholarship produced around the evolution of artistic modes of expression in response to, as well as from within zones of conflict, whether in speaking of the overt or covert, singular or sustained. It could perhaps be said that the greatest difference between approaches to war and conflict in contemporary times versus those of the past is the abandonment of the sense of awe and glorification visible in artistic attitudes even as recent as the early 20th century. This is particularly significant when considered with the view of art as a powerful instrument able not only to document, but also to influence the ways in which such conflicts are remembered and perceived. In effect artists are able to ascribe complex layers of meaning and memory onto such histories, not least because of art’s cultural and socio-political value and currency. In his 2003 book Art and Fear, Paul Virilio refers to the idea of responsibility, ethics and empathy in this regard, and recalls the artistic avant-garde movements of the 20th century, particularly in the context of their fascination with and romanticizing of ideas of science, technology and progress and their disquieting relationship with and perception of pain, war and violence as a consequence. Speaking in particular of Dada and Italian Futurism, he points to the slogan of the First Futurist Manifesto of 1909: ‘War is the world’s only hygiene’ and then again to Richard Hülsenbeck (one of Dada ‘s founding fathers) who declared at a 1918 conference in Berlin: “We were for the war. Dada today is still for war. Life should hurt. There is not enough cruelty![1]

 

Further in the same essay, Virilio refers to the impact of contemporary media proliferation, where “today with excess heaped on excess, desensitization to the shock of images and the meaninglessness of words has shattered the world stage.”[2] Besieged by innumerable images arising out of devastated geographies such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, and the greater MENA region, out of civil and global conflicts, and their ravaging impacts, on both the human and non-human, the contemporary malaise seems indeed to be that of a desensitized human condition, owing largely to overexposure to images arising out of the extreme media coverage of the tragedies of sustained and global conflict today. How can (and do) artistic practices then begin to address these issues, whether in the form of production, investigation, dialogue, commentary, or engagement? How can such practitioners attempt to think and speak about processes of reimagining, reconfiguration and reconciliation (physical, psychological, socio-political, cultural) in post-conflict societies, and how does this differ from processes of engagement in societies where conflict is ongoing and/or sustained? And perhaps most importantly, how do such practices investigate, reflect upon, navigate and construct the position of the artist within this complex and layered space?

 

Questions of ethics, responsibility, and positioning can be investigated through a consideration of the practice of the interdisciplinary activist group known as Forensic Architecture, a (currently) 15-member collective based out of Goldsmiths College London, who made the shortlist for the Turner Prize earlier this year. Forensic Architecture describe themselves as “an independent research agency” comprised of “architects, scholars, artists, filmmakers, software developers, investigative journalists, archaeologists, lawyers, and scientists.”[3]

 

And while ‘interdisciplinarity’ may have become the tendance à la mode of the contemporary art world – and yet much of the art world as well as the team at Forensic Architecture itself are surprised at the nomination (their Director, Eyal Weizman, says they do not even consider themselves artists[4]) – their work is powerfully relevant in its investigative approach to rendering ‘public truths’ visible. Using technology (with a visual repertoire spanning from satellite imagery, oral testimonies and memory, to surveillance footage and iphone camera footage) to create “animations, interactive maps, and navigable 3D models of conflict zones to uncover crimes and human rights abuses around the world”[5], the collective only recently exhibited in the show ‘Counter Investigations’, the first survey of their work, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and will of course be part of the Turner Prize exhibition in the fall.

 

The motives for the interest in and significance of Forensic Architecture’s practice within the contemporary art world are manifold and fairly easy to pinpoint: through the development of pioneering spatial investigative methods that are able to provide evidentiary materials towards state and corporate violations across the globe, they compel us to consider notions of the spatial and of its presentation, representation and documentation anew. Responding to a data dense and rapidly evolving media environment their work also highlights contemporary modes of surveillance and recording, in essence creating new forms of (publicly accessible) archives that are mined as a result of access to sophisticated digital recording equipment, satellite imaging and data sharing platforms, to name only a very few. This access then becomes key to ideas of public truths and of justice, and therefore necessarily of knowledge and power. In this, Forensic Architecture then begins to reflect Foucault’s expansion of the idea of parrhesia, with the truth-teller being central within the premise of this understanding of ‘free speech’ (or more accurately one who speaks ‘truly, freely and fearlessly’).

 

“[…] Parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty.[6]

 

This notion becomes particularly significant when viewed in the context of the impact of Forensic Architecture’s work, which is often presented as evidentiary proof in courts around the world, and in front of United Nations panels. Along with the UN, their collaborators include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and B’tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), as well as international prosecutors, international offices such as the UN Special Rapporteur for Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, and reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (amongst others)[7]. A major project undertaken by the collective has been the investigation of armed drone strikes, with a particular focus towards, Afghanistan, Gaza, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan’s northern frontier regions. Of this last, projects have included drone strikes in Miranshah, Datta Khel and Mir Ali, with the aim of exploring potential connections between the spatial patterns of drone warfare, and numbers of (particularly) civilian casualties.[8] Closer to home (Karachi), their investigations have also included an architectural analysis (requested by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR)) of the fire that destroyed the Ali Enterprises textile factory in Baldia Town on 11 September 2012, in which 260 workers lost their lives.

 

This last emphasizes a focus on the urban, a concern shared by a multitude of artists both locally and globally, as cities and urban centers increasingly become sites of contemporary conflict, whether in the context of war and security, or other socio-political, economic, or environmental affects and effects. In the unfolding of this narrative, artists must then necessarily take on interdisciplinary roles, at once researcher, investigator, observer, archivist, narrator and above all, citizen. In a world where the drive towards democracy and equal civil liberties reigns more supreme than perhaps at any other time, issues of conflict come to stand at the fore, spanning the macro and the micro, the human and non-human. Even just in the city of Karachi, these concerns remain progressively at the heart of artistic practices in the city.

 

It is believed that the hallmark of a democratic society lies in the ability of its citizens to gather and move about freely, in order for which to occur, citizens must be secure not only in their physical environment, but also of their rights in and to the space that they occupy. It is within considerations of this space that Seema Nusrat’s practice locates itself, with a continued investigation into the changing face of the city through measures of policing, securitization and urban regulation manifested in the barricades and barriers that have come to form a kind of ‘soft architecture’ of Karachi. These concerns are echoed again in the large minimalist paintings by Seher Naveed that mark an exploration of the visual metaphor of the gate as symbolic gesture marking on the impact of issues of security on the residents of the city, and its associated visual language. Issues of urban geographies and rights to and of the land also manifest in the work of artist duo Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajani, whose research based practice has led to significant projects such as the extensive investigation of the mega real estate project of Bahria Town in the city’s Gadap township, exploring issues of development, displacement and environmental impact/climate change in Karachi.

 

In the city of Karachi, the sea often becomes the symbolic apparatus through which power relations come to be discussed, whether environmental, geographical, historical, or socio-political. In this regard, Sohail Zuberi acts the part of a surveyor in his practice, ‘unearthing’ modern-day ‘archaeological relics’ through acts of chance and encounter, exploration and excavation, conducting a kind of field research that brings to the fore ideas of ecology and economy, contradiction and coexistence, in which found objects become like evidence washed up by the sea – a testament to man’s relationship with his natural and urban environments.[9] Meanwhile Fazal Rizvi’s project The Fleet (2018) looks at the sea as both physical and imagined border, fluid and yet marked, again referring to the complex and often political relationship of man to the ocean, and of the land to the sea. However, perhaps the most extensive project in this regard is Naiza Khan’s vast Manora Archive (2007 – present), resulting from an intensive engagement with the city of Karachi, its surrounding waters and the small island of Manora, just off the coast of the urban megalopolis. Continued for over a decade, this engagement has resulted in the production of an extensive, research-based/documentary body of work comprised of photo, video, object, print, drawing and painting works. The Manora Archive thus creates a viewing point for the juxtaposition between an investigation of this tiny island of 3000 residents and under the heavy control of the navy, that exists as a microcosm of memory, loss, history, capitalism and culture, migration and immigration, and that of the swarming urban metropolis that is the city of Karachi, within whose port it sits.[10]

 

While the place and representation of conflict is firmly entrenched within the annals of art history, what is the role of artists who address this vast and complex subject today? Considerations of a post-industrial, capitalist condition in which digital and technological evolution are key to issues of connectivity, investigation, information and exchange, cannot be disregarded. If “artists’ images of war contribute to broader public narratives”[11] how do such considerations shift the position of the artist, particularly in the context of ethics, duty and responsibility? Where art is universally viewed as a key instrument towards peace efforts, the real questions regarding artistic practices then seem to revolve around issues of positioning and responsibility, interaction and exchange, communities, rights and justice, and perhaps above all knowledge and truth.

 

 

NOTES:

[1] Paul Virilio, ‘A Pitiless Art’, Art and Fear, trans. Julie Rose, London: Continuum, 2003, p. 29

[2] Ibid. p. 36

[3] Website, Forensic Architecture, https://www.forensic-architecture.org/

[4] Javier Pes, ‘We Don’t Consider Ourselves to Be Artists’, Exhibitions, ArtNet News online, 26 April 2018, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/turner-prize-nomination-forensic-architecture-1273889

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michel Foucault, Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia, lecture series delivered at University of California at Berkeley, Oct-Nov 1983

[7] Website, ‘About: Project’, Forensic Architecture, https://www.forensic-architecture.org/project/

[8] Website, ‘Cases: Drone Strikes’, Forensic Architecture, https://www.forensic-architecture.org/case/drone-strikes/

[9] Zarmeene Shah, Archaeologies of Tomorrow: on the work of Sohail Zuberi, curatorial essay accompanying the exhibition ‘Archaeologies of Tomorrow: a solo project by Sohail Zuberi’, May 2017

[10] Zarmeene Shah, ‘Naiza Khan: Karachi Elegies’, Herald (Pakistan), print, July 2013

[11] Margaret Hutchison & Emily Robertson, ‘Introduction: Art, War, and Truth: Images of Conflict’, Journal of War & Culture Studies, Volume 8, Issue 2, 2015, p. 103-108, published online: 29 Apr 2015

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