Post-Truth Documentary: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation

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Still from the trailer for Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation (2016)

It’s increasingly popular to speak of our world as ‘post-truth’ an idea lent credence by politicians from Vladimir Putin to Boris Johnson who seem able to be able to spin fantastic lies and almost entirely get away with it. History tells us that leaders have always told lies, indeed that it is an almost inseparable part of the job, but there seems to be a sense that this occurs to an unprecedented extent today, and that no one is immune from it, with even the apparently unimpeachable Jeremy Corbyn standing accused of it during the fracas dubbed ‘Traingate’. The accessibility of information today makes it easier than ever to call liars out for what they are, and it is a staggering thing to watch a political candidate like Donald Trump deny doing something that you can simultaneously watch happening in an adjacent browser window. This is not entirely positive however, for two reasons. Firstly because the ease of identifying lies ironically contributes to the malaise of apathy towards politicians, because it is now so easy to know the extent to which they spin, manipulate, and mislead, that it creates a sense that they are all irredeemably corrupt. Secondly, because politicians seem to respond more and more to this public capacity for fact checking not with greater truthfulness, but with barrages of information which seem intended to confound verification or render its conclusions moot. By making constant swerves in ideology, policy and rhetoric, politicians evade the consequences of being caught out. What I told you yesterday might have been a lie, but what does it matter, because today I am saying something quite different, and by the time you realise this too is a lie I will be somewhere else entirely.

This background is pertinent to Adam Curtis’s new film HyperNormalisation which assembles a complexly woven conspiratorial narrative from the cultural and political wreckage of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Using esoteric stock footage sewn together with his own narration and a dub soundtrack Curtis leads us from Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik, via Syria and Iran, the growing power of the financial sector, suicide bombing, the demise of ideology, the rise of computer networks, the Arab Spring, and the rise of right wing populism in Europe and America (if some of the things on that list seems a little contradictory, well yes, they are). From this Curtis draws the conclusion that we live in a world which we all seem to know is deeply problem fraught and artificial but which we are hardly able to penetrate the unreal surface of, much less do anything to change. Seen through Curtis’s eyes reality and truth have become empty terms, readily twisted and manipulated by politicians and other powerful figures to support ever shifting agendas which have more to do with holding power than with any definable ideology. Buried in here are some interesting, deeply important ideas, not least about the role that networks and algorithms increasingly play in creating our own personal ideological echo chambers. The trouble with HyperNormalisation is that in its frantic rush to cover huge amounts of ground it simplifies and generalises to the point that it nearly becomes post-truth in it’s own right.

First it’s worth noting how the form and length of Curtis’s films have changed over the years, from the three single hour episodes of The Politics of Fear, to the two hours of Bitter Lake, and now the near 3 unbroken hours of HyperNormalisation. The shift to continuous films rather than episodes and this increasingly length hasn’t led as you might expect to deeper analysis, instead his more recent films seem to expand even further the grand narratives that he has always sought to create (even as he often seems to be trying to dismiss grand narratives in general) causing them to balloon even further, incorporating more and more widely flung causes, actors and consequences. For my money the older series format served Curtis’s work far better and allowed a closer focus on particular topic areas while still constructing a large overarching argument. Considering the enormous length of HyperNormalisation it’s interesting what doesn’t figure in the narrative, the refugee crisis is virtually absent from his brief discussion of the rise of populism, despite being a significant contributor to the rise of the right, and being the consequence of many of the events in the Middle East which he also discusses. Although one of his core arguments seems to be the loss of faith in alternatives and our inability to respond to the challenges of a late capitalist world Curtis gives only a fleeting analysis of movements like Occupy which intended to do exactly this, and never really reflects on the fact that groups like ISIS are hardly the nihilists we often try to paint them as, but in their own twisted way have an alternative vision of the world that they might imagine to be every bit as utopian as that of Occupy.

It’s been said that watching a Curtis documentary feels a bit like listening to a man in the middle of a Wikipedia binge, although I’d counter it’s more like someone getting their information from Uncyclopedia, the anarchic and irreverent spoof of Wikipedia. HyperNormalisation repeats some dubious claims, and frequently explains complicated ideas in staggering brevity. I don’t want to turn this piece into an extensive fact checking of this film, but a couple of things that stood out for me because I’ve looked into them before include the claim that the Iranian regime used zealous children to clear minefields with their own bodies as part of ‘human wave’ attacks during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The evidence for this is at best unclear, with very few primary sources to support it and some evidence that this idea was originally propagated as anti-Iranian war propaganda. Curtis trots it out however as if it were undisputed fact. Even as he often appears to criticise other thinkers and figures for promoting simplistic grand narratives which serve their own ends, it’s notable how little space there is in his own narrative for shades of grey, ambiguity, or self-reflection. Normally one would hardly expect footnotes in a documentary film, but in HyperNormalisation and the director’s other films they start to feel rather vital, and the lack of them problematic. Given that Curtis maintains a blog on the BBC site he has the perfect platform to expand on these omissions and provide sources for his claims, if he so wished.

One last example of this comes even in the film’s title, adapted from writing by a ‘soviet writer’ (apparently Alexei Yurchak, for some reason unnamed by Curtis in the film, perhaps because that description of him seems again rather disingenuous). Yurchak emigrated to the United States in 1990 as a graduate student and later wrote that the late Soviet experience was one of an uncanny or hyper normal reality, where everything was clearly going wrong, but where this was hidden under the guise of a functioning state. Yurchak’s argument is again a little more complicated than this, and still by no means the definitive account of life in the late Soviet Union. By coincidence I’m currently mid-way through reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time, an epic oral history of the period from a Russian perspective, which makes it clear how generalised Curtis’s claims about the views and feelings of Soviet Union’s people often are. Generalisation feels like the order of the day however, and HyperNormalisation frequently declares that entire groups of people felt the same way, invariably confused, disillusioned, frightened, etc. This jars most noticeably when you realise the groups he’s referring to include you, the viewer, and you know that you felt nothing of what he is describing. These examples might seem like small things, but when a near three hour film is built so heavily on these sorts of claims, it starts to make you wonder how far the entire edifice of HyperNormalisation is built on misconstrued information. Much like contemporary politics however the narrative moves on so quickly, bombarding you with new imagery, names, and ideas before you have time to think that what you’ve just seen is perhaps less straightforward and interconnected than the film wants to suggest.

Curtis’s raiding of the BBC archives for intriguing footage is one of the things that makes his films distinctive, a strategy resulting in visually compelling collage documentary style which juxtaposes the fascinating, strange and disturbing. It’s can be a source of frustration though for anyone trying to pay close attention, as this footage often has little to do with what’s being discussed and can feel more intended to paper over the numerous argumentative leaps in HyperNormalisation (for an interesting experiment just listen to the film’s narrative while ignoring the images and see how compelling you find it). Sometimes the juxtapositions are funny, occasionally clever, but often just a bit crass. A blending of grainy video recordings of the execution of the Ceausescus with clips from a Jane Fonda workout video in order to illustrate the death of collective faith in ideology and the rise of a superficial individualism is a little of all of these things. I also can’t help but think Curtis’s inability to resist a good bit of footage also somewhat accounts for the film’s flabby length. Chris Applegate’s Adam Curtis Bingo gives you a good of what to expect, all the familiar tropes are here, from moody aerial footage of massive cities, to footage of people dancing, to more pointless raiding of Andrei Tarkovsky’s back catalogue. In terms of the latter Curtis does the same thing he did in his previous film Bitter Lake, exploiting a clip of a key plot twist towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker for the benefit of his own film, in the process basically gutting Stalker of one of its most powerful moments, ruining it anyone who hasn’t seen it. He also pushes a reading of the film which fits the HyperNormalisation narrative to a tee, but which anyone who knows Tarkovsky’s films and writing will probably find jarringly mechanistic.

Curtis’s films are often hit and miss when it comes to endings, which partly accounts for his (frankly unforgivable) use of the climax of Tarkovsky’s Solaris to end Bitter Lake. Unlike a traditional documentary, which you might expect to mount towards some sort of concluding argument, HyperNormalisation just seems to end, much like one of Curtis’s jarring mid-sequence cuts. The film peters out with a mixture of typically weird footage, including the prom sequence from Carrie and a clip of three young girls dancing badly in a backyard. It feels a bit like Curtis has run out steam and browser tabs, realised that it’s 3am and that he has to be up early for work in the morning. Like his other films HyperNormalisation is a strange, even contradictory beast, on the one hand speaking the language of a sort of concerned left wing radicalism at the same time that its tone and conclusions are oddly nihilistic. On the one hand employing some very traditional aspects of documentary, while at the same time being a sort of oddly anti-documentary documentary. In these ways and more they are fitting works for a post-truth era, because in a way they are themselves prone to the same tendencies of simplification, obfuscation or in some cases I suspect outright inaccuracy. Curtis’s desire to connect together the complex networks that define our world is a valid and extremely interesting ambition, but it feels as if he’s all too ready to water down these ideas in order to build what can start to feel like the left wing equivalent of Loose Change, a massive, compelling pseudo-conspiracy which on closer inspection is not so tightly argued or evidenced as it first seems. Curtis’s defenders will argue that his valid points justify his sometimes invalid means, but that argument is itself so post-truth I find it incredible to hear intelligent people suggest it. Can’t one precisely imagine someone like Trump or Putin saying something similar? I know my cause is just, so what does it matter what means I employ to achieve it? As HyperNormalisation reveals, the means matter entirely as much as the end, because ultimately the choice of any particular means can entirely shift the nature of the end.

Bringing the Drone War Home

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A camera mounted on a drone which belongs to ISIS, shot down by Iraqi security forces outside Fallujah AP (source)

In a globalised world nothing exists in isolation, and it has often been observed that whenever a country engages in an overseas conflict, something of the nature of that conflict often returns with the men and women who have fought there. In his book on the Soviet-Afghan war, the journalist Artyom Borovik described how Russian soldiers returned to the Soviet Union not only laden with contraband and psychological disorders, but he argued they also carried something far more insidious. Pondering the consequences of the war, Borovik wrote that ‘it’s difficult to determine exactly what we managed to teach Afghanistan. It is relatively easy however to assess Afghanistan’s effect on the Soviet people who worked and fought there. With a mere wave of [Soviet premier] Brezhnev’s elderly hand, they were thrown into a country where bribery, corruption, profiteering, and drugs were no less common than the long lines in Soviet stores.’ When the Afghan war began the Soviet Union was already a dying project, a body politic in the image of it’s ailing and elderly leadership. However the influence of Afghanistan, Borovik argued, was like a secondary infection in an already terminal patient.

The idea that the war returns in unexpected ways with the people who fight it is probably no less true of today’s conflicts, even if in some respects these wars are very different. As I wrote last week, the military hardware and tactics which are being brought to bear on the streets of US cities in response to protests like Black Lives Matter will all call to mind images of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq for which many of these technologies were originally developed and manufactured. Under the Excess Property or 1033 Program, the US government routinely dispenses surplus military equipment around the country for use by police forces, with materiel worth $449 million reallocated under this program in 2013 alone. There is much to suggest that the availability of something makes its use appealing in order to justify the fact that it has been made available in the first place, the explosion in the deployment of SWAT teams since the 1980’s would seem like an apt example. It is harder of course to argue the case that these conflicts have influenced a mind-set which produces police brutality, but there is certainly an observed tendency towards former soldiers entering law enforcement. Convincingly evidenced (much less empirical) estimates are hard to find, I’ve read anecdotal claims which suggest between a quarter and a half of US police officers have a recent military background. Whether those experiences contribute towards a higher propensity towards violence is also hard to say, one piece I read claimed that 75% of former soldiers applying to police forces are rejected in part because of issues with attitude.

Aside from the high powered sniper rifles and mine resistant vehicles deployed in US cities (both of which would likely have been familiar to Borovik during his time in Afghanistan) many of today’s conflicts are typified by a new type of weapon, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones. The United States wasn’t by any means the originator of this technology but it has been one of its most enthusiastic proponents, successive governments recognising in drones an opportunity to avoid politically toxic military casualties. What I’ve often thought is interesting about the US drone program is less its, for now, rather exceptional scale and scope but rather the likelihood that it will serve (indeed already is serving) as a model on which other countries and armed groups develop their own drone programs. The fact that groups like ISIS are deploying crude homemade drones like the one pictured above for purposes like reconnaissance and artillery spotting in locations like Iraq is not coincidence. This extends beyond pure technology and into the legal and moral consequences of drone use. With the United State’s drone programs making such extensive use of legal loopholes, and so devoid of accountability, this sets a precedent for other countries and organisations who might follow suite.

Finally, beyond the influence of US drones on overseas battlefields, what interests me is the possibility with this technology that there exists something of the same capacity to ‘bring the war back home’ that one might expect in a conventional conflict. Last week Micah Xavier Johnson, who was suspected of having shot and killed five Dallas police officers, was himself killed by an explosive device attached to the manipulator arm of a police bomb disposal robot. Citing the danger of tackling the suspect conventionally, the police instead employed a robot conventionally used for disarming explosives, in other words intend to save and preserve life, in order to kill someone. There are precedents for this in Iraq, with soldiers anecdotally using a multipurpose remote controlled robot known as a MARCbot mounted with an anti-personnel mine to investigate suspected ambush locations and sometimes even to kill. The leap from employing this tactic in an active conflict to a law enforcement situation is huge, and while the domestic arming of a bomb disposal robot is for now an isolated, improvised incident, so too have been many such precedents which later become the norm, including of course the military drone program itself. When more and more of the US fleet of armed and unarmed drones start to reach retirement or battlefield obsolescence, it will be interesting to see in what new roles they might start to find back on the home front.

History in the Making: Palmyra’s World Tour

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The reconstruction of the arch nears completion in Trafalgar Square.
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A replica of Palymra’s Arch of Triumph has just been unveiled in London. The original was constructed by the Roman Empire and was believed to be over two millennia old by the time it was dynamited by Islamic State in late 2015. The group were later driven out of the site by Syrian government forces. The replica arch which now stands in London’s Trafalgar Square was engineered by the Institute of Digital Archaeology who created a digital model from photographs of the original, before having a replica made in Italy, where it was machine tooled from Egyptian marble by a robotic cutting arm. This new arch will soon go on to tour to other cities including Dubai and New York. “Antiquities like this belong to all mankind and it is imperative that we all strive to safeguard our common heritage,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson as he unveiled the recreation, apparently oblivious to the distinction between a genuine relic and its copy.

Photography is evidently mixed up in this recreation in very practical ways, as the means by which the arch has been so meticulously reconstructed. But photography also offers a model for the way we think about the relationship between original things and their copies. A photograph is not a window on another world, as some people like to think, nor increasingly even is it a trace of the thing it depicts. Photography is a pattern of tones and colours, and whether it be an analog print or a digital upload to Instagram the image lives far less in the medium itself than in our minds. The same one might say is true of history and it’s traces. In Phillip K Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, the plot revolves in part around an inflated market for icons of Americana, driven by the rapacious collecting of the Japanese soldiers who have occupied the country. In response an industry of fakes has arisen, with artisans producing items like wild west style pistols, carefully aged, but completely inauthentic. Everyone knows that these items are fake, including the collectors who pay huge sums for them, but no one has the will to speak this truth out loud. I feel something similar here.

The reconstruction of the arch has been questioned by some as a rather hollow act, a Disneyland attempt at history, and certainly for me the recreation of the arch calls to mind the underwhelming Stonehenge used as a stageset by the fictional rockband Spinal Tap. Others have criticised it as downright unethical. Martin Makinson from the Association for the Protection of Syria Archaeology rightly highlights the politically contested nature of these sites and points to the way that the reoccupation of sites like Palmyra has become a way for the Assad government to reclaim a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of some in the west, even as it continues to torture and kill its own citizens. Any attempt to willfully recreate history says as much as an attempt to willfully destroy it and so the recreation is undeniably political, and attempt to pretend otherwise is disindigenous. The understated photograph above by Stefan Rousseau hints at this in the way it uses a section of the arch to frame Nelson’s Column, a victory monument in it’s own right, and in the distance the looming clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. One might say the same of attempts to occupy or colonise certain sections of the past, whether that occupation is undertaken by the descendants of the people who built what is being colonised, or it is done by foreigners acting in the name of humanity at large.

In this sense one might say that we are doing something not entirely dissimilar to what the Assad regime has done in making the rescue of Palmyra from Islamic State a military objective. In erecting and celebrating this arch in London, we are asserting our cultural credentials in an attempt to show that we are doing something tangible in response to this terrible and protracted war. The destruction of cultural artifacts is something most in the west can comfortably express outrage over, even if doing so just rather awkwardly reveals the gulf between our horror at the destruction of these irreplaceable ancient monuments, and an enduring indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people, every one of those people is just as irreplaceable. A particularly memorable chapter in Vassily Grossman’s Second World War epic Life and Fate consists of Grossman describing at length the absolute impossibility of constructing a computer which could think and feel as even the most average human being is able to. He then imagines the excitement that such a machine would engender among the techno-fetishistic German armies then ploughing their way across the Soviet Union. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the unbearable irony these people who would hail as miraculous a machine which could muster even a poor imitation of a human mind were actively exterminating millions of people.

Raising this arch of triumph also reflects a certain inability to remember recent history of our own, for example when our tanks rolled over ancient archaeological sites during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the American military set up a base on the site of what had been the ancient city of Bablylon damaging it enormously in the process. For me this amnesia rather poses the question of whether either of the two are worse; people who willfully destroy ancient monuments and culture because of an overdeveloped sense of what those objects represent, or those who destroy them because of the opposite, out of a sheer ignorance of their importance. There is needless to say also a certain irony in erecting this arch in London, one of the prime marketplaces for looted antiquities smuggled out of conflict zones like Syria, and a city with so many museums containing artifacts that are much more directly the spoils of state aggression and imperialism. Touring the arch to the art superpowers of Dubai and New York would seem to only underline this.

In contrast to the rhetoric of ‘great men’, true history isn’t something which can be made. History is something which accretes, congeals, weathers, falls apart and gets blown up, and which almost always has on it the traces of those who lived it, a deficit all the more apparent in the case of this copy because it has not been even been sculpted by contemporary human hands but by a machine. History is also a finite and naturally accruing resource, not something which can be synthesized or manufactured, and imagining that one can simply replace the past when it can no longer be put back together represents a terrible misunderstanding of what history is and how it relates to the present. It’s a misunderstanding not so unrelated to the conception of the present that imagines that things like drone bombing campaigns can recorrect our past foreign police mistakes, and which refuses to consider that these new innovations are in Marx’s famous words an example of history repeating itself (as tragedy in the case of the drone campaigns, perhaps as farce in the case of London’s paltry Arch of Triumph).

One wonders what future arcs of triumph will mark the War on Terror and the wider misadventures of the past two decades. In pondering this, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of the Roman historian Tacitus. In writing his epic Agricola around the same time that Palmyra’s original arch was constructed Tacitus referenced the Scottish chieftain Calgacus and attributed to him one of the most remarkable speeches against Rome or any empire, one made all the astonishing because these bitter words were in fact almost certainly not those of the soon to be defeated Celt, but rather those of Tacitus himself, a Roman citizen. ‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they create a desolation and call it peace.’

Artists Shrug: Other Realities Are Available

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‘Hercules takes the burden from Atlas and bears the cosmos’
Stich von Heinrich Aldegrever, 1550

Only reading books which agree with your world view has always seemed to me to show a basic lack of confidence in your beliefs. Far better to intentionally encounter books which rub you up the wrong way, whether politically, intellectually or stylistically. If you emerge from that encounter with your original convictions still intact, then either they are pretty well reasoned or you are just robustly delusional. At the very least you might emerge with a different perspective on something, a fresh set of ideas, or a better understanding of the people who take the opposite stance from you. To this end, when I was about seventeen and interested in testing some of my nascent left wing views I read Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, a book which runs counter to my politics, not to mention my taste in literature, in almost every way. Atlas Shrugged imagines an alternative United States which has started to grind to a halt, as its innovators and producers – in the novel mostly represented by industrialists and entrepreneurs, rather than artists – are being sucked dry of their energy and genius by the majority of the population who Rand portrays as parasites unable to produce or innovate themselves. In response to this a growing number of the innovators start to disappear to join a secret organisation, leaving their industries to collapse in the hands of those who have appropriated them. As the rather obvious titular metaphor implies, when Atlas the Greek Titan who bore the globe decides to shrug, the world will feel it.

While I could write a post on why I think Atlas Shrugged isn’t a great novel and why I find it’s politics broadly objectionable, this blogs remit does not include literary and political criticism. What I really want to talk about instead is the core idea of the book, that of dictating the terms on which the products of one’s labour circulate, or perhaps of withdrawing those products all together. In this climate of scarce opportunities and numerous creators often arrayed against each other in unnecessary competition, the work which we invest so much into is also often seen as a deeply disposable commodity, which requires little emotional or creative investment from viewers, or from the people who publish it, a tendency tied also to the idea that art is self-indulgent and without importance. All too often creative work is treated like filler to take up space between the really important content of adverts. My heartache of yesterday is today’s click bait, tomorrow’s broken link. It hurts to see the way so much hard work by talented people investigating important issues enters the meat grinder of the internet, is churned through click bait sites that offer no insight or thought of their own to the work but just want to use it to generate some page viewers, before being spat out the other end into the dustbin of ‘unexclusive’ or ‘overexposed’ content. The problem here for me is that while I don’t believe art deserves the rarefied (and largely financial) status generally afforded to it by contemporary art galleries and auction houses, I do believe that art has a range of very important functions in society, and processes and activities which deflate and erode art’s societal status need to be treated with as much concern as those which unrealistically overinflate it.

It’s a funny thing that Rand who was an émigré from Soviet Russia and was vehemently anti-communist, was talking about something in Atlas Shrugged not that dissimilar from Karl Marx’s concept of alienation, the process by which Marx believed capitalism divorces workers from, amongst other things, the products of their labour. I’m no Marxist, indeed as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know my attitude to theory is not ideologicaly dogmatic. Rather I try to view theory as a set of spanners, which you try out and discard until your find one which works for the job at hand. Marx’s idea is one I’ve been thinking a bit about recently in relation to art, and particularly forms of exploitative working relationships like artistic internships. As I indirectly suggested in War Primer 3, interns might be seen as part of the proletariat of the art world (to be sure a hetereogenous group which crosses many borders, social and economic groups, from well heeled interns to the construction workers of the newly emerging art super powers). I’ve also been wondering about the extent of the alienation that contemporary forms of display and circulation create between artists and their works. Whether the ‘clickbaitification’ of creative work is as damaging our relationship to our own practices and work as is it’s rareification. If the answer to either of these is yes, then it becomes an enticing project to think about ways to wrest back control over work by taking efforts to very consciously define and control the dissemination of it? In the coming weeks I will be writing more thoughts on how this might be done in ways which are both overt and confrontational, and others which work much more within the systems of exchange and influence that typify the art world. The assumption that the current status quo is acceptable, normal, or inevitable is a mistake. and in art as in the domains we often try to influence through our work, we need to believe that other realities are possible.

Terrordrome: Islamic State and the Savage New Times

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Videodrome

In the cult 1983 film Videodrome, Max Renn, a sleazy cable TV executive, stumbles across a mysterious signal apparently transmitting from the Far East. The station it carries consists of a video stream from a single room, where a series of people in orange smocks are tortured and murdered by black garbed executioners. As the film continues it starts to appear that Videodrome is something rather more than depraved snuff TV, it is the public representation of a mysterious group’s frightening ideology. Unperturbed, Renn sets out to track the makers of Videodrome down so he can broadcast it on his station, ironically named Civic TV. As he remarks to another executive, ‘better on TV than on the streets’. Rewatching the film recently I couldn’t help but wonder if someone on the media team for Islamic State might have been influenced by it. A flippant thought but not impossible given the film’s age and the international composition of the group. It may have just been that I was at the tail end of a long day but for a moment the parallels between the world portrayed in the film and the propaganda disseminated by Islamic State seemed irresistibly intriguing. As often happens one thought soon dissolved into another and I began to think that perhaps Videodrome is an interesting touchstone through which to think about the contemporary intersection between media technology and the extreme levels of violence employed on both sides in what the new (or perhaps really not so new) conflict between western states and so-called ‘so-called’ Islamic State.

At one point in the film a character pointedly asks Renn ‘Why would anyone watch a scum show like Videodrome?’ Why indeed. Videodrome is a chamber of horrors, a place where revulsion becomes compulsion, and compulsion becomes a deviant pleasure. Such a description will probably sound familiar to anyone who has been exposed to the ultraviolent political media of today, whether the visceral brutality of a beheading video or the flight of a guided missile as it curves gently on to a distant house or car. These things are nauseating and repel us, but they also often paradoxically draw us in and compel us to repeated viewings, as if repeated exposure to them will resolve their incomprehensibility into some meaning. This mixed inclination to watch or turn away, to view or to turn off, is in itself is nothing new. Sights of horror have always been tinged with a certain desperate fascination, the only change perhaps being in how technology allows us to view, and review these events, perhaps in the process coming closer to reaching some understanding or meaning, but I often think not.

In the pre-internet media landscape of Videodrome, the scene of violence is a discreet place, a geographically specific red walled room of torture and murder, and perhaps most tellingly it is also a cable TV studio with all the rigidity that space and technology implies. You go to the Videodrome to die, not the other way around. By contrast the Videodrome of today has started to feel rather as if it is all around us. As Europe experiences periodic attacks and conspiracies on its street, it has begun to seem as if any space might at a moment’s notice transform itself into a set piece of violence in the service of ideology. Consequently the possibility of finding oneself suddenly caught in this chamber of horrors seems in some ways more real than ever, even if for the great majority of us the likelihood of death by terrorism or war pales in significance next to so many other threats to which we pay little thought. Today’s Videodrome, or at least the sense of it’s wing-beats at your back, seems potentially ever present.

Part of the psychic preponderance of terror attacks in comparison to other threats  stems from their unpredictability and inexplicability, but also from the way these attacks are constructed in ways which lend themselves to being recorded and by passersby, who then distribute them on behalf of the perpetrators. This also is not exactly anything new, terrorism with it’s inherent asymmetry has often been about inflicting visual or psychic, not material or strategic damage. The change again perhaps lies in a change of technology, which allows even a relatively minor attack to achieve major airtime, and leads to such a state of terror that actual terrorist acts need not even occur to further perpetuate it. This is perhaps most clearly seen when new reports on even clearly unrelated crimes and disorders are often sub headed with the reassuring note that ‘the police are not treating this incident as terrorism related’ as if this diminishes the terror of someone being shot, blown up or stabbed. This pervasive sense of the potential for violence runs both ways, and in the aerial campaigns that western nations increasingly wage overseas a similar uncertainty reigns, that at any moment, any place could become a scene of a sudden destruction which is almost divine in it’s inexplicable and unanswerable quality. The aural similarity between drome, meaning a course or place for running, and drone, an informal term for the unmanned aerial vehicles known for their endurance and omnipotence, seems more than a little apt. The significant distinction is that while terror seeks visibility to magnify its effects, our violence does the opposite, more often eluding visibility.

Returning to the Videodrome, and without wanting to spoil the plot, what later emerges in the film is that the signal is is not originating from abroad at all. It is transmitting from the United States where the station has been created by a right-wing government cabal intent on hardening America for future conflict, presumably with the Soviet Union, by cleansing it of people that they believe are moral degenerates. Anyone who watches Videodrome develops a fatal brain tumour which distorts their perception of reality before eventually killing them. In this distorted reality it becomes impossible to determine what is real and what is not, the banality or absurdity of an event no longer offering any guarantee of its truth or integrity. By the end of the film Renn believes he has begun to physically transform, a VCR port has opened in his chest and his hand has fused to a gun which he uses to first kill his fellow TV executives and then the government conspirators. As Islamic State’s destabilising influence transmits ever more violently beyond the Middle East and into Europe, I would say we are being changed also, hardened by exposure to their violence and also to our own, whether we see it mediated on the screen or in Renn’s word’s ‘out on the street’. In spite of the political rhetoric, I think it’s hard to argue that terrorism isn’t changing us, or perhaps more accurately that we aren’t changing ourselves in response to it. As we become hardened, habituated to our own Videodrome signal, it seems that we collectively find it harder and harder to perceive what of this is real, and what is hallucination.

The New Continent: The Refugee Nightmare and the European Dream

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Portrait of Erich Honecker, president of DDR/GDR, inside an interrogation room at the former Iron Curtain crossing Marienborn memorial site.
From The New Continent, Phil le Gal

The dream of a united Europe and the free travel it allowed was in no small part born of the continent’s long history of intolerance and division. It came from the destruction and division of the Second World War, six years when human rights in Europe were trampled underfoot, and the continent was made anew as Fortress Europe, a continent ringed by the concrete and barbed wire of the Atlantic wall. It came also from the division between communist East and capitalist West that followed the end of the war, again was symbolised most pertinently by a physical border of concrete and steel. Not a wall built to keep people out of the East, but one uniquely designed to keep people trapped within it. Schengen was signed in 1985 even as the Berlin wall still stood, but it was a gesture of hope, a foreshadowing of the wall’s destruction four years later, and the treaty’s implementation in 1995 at last saw the creation at last of a single space within the borders of a long disunited continent. Flash forward, past the collapse of the Soviet system and through the fires of German reunification, and division is returning to Europe. This time though what Europeans fear are not massing foreign armies or an aggressive ideology, but ordinary people, forced into exodus by extraordinary circumstances like wars, and revolutions – some of them indeed catalysed by ill considered European interventions in distant lands – or sometimes just by the hope of a better life.

The way each country responds to outsiders is different, a product of its unique culture and history. Slovakia for example announced it would only take in Christians wishing to settle in the country. Meanwhile in Germany one group has attempted to recall the broadly positive perception of those who fled East Germany, with campaigns calling on Germans to pick up refugees at the roadside and help them cross the border. It says much about Germany’s history that many of it’s people and politicians can are able to understand migration as a humanitarian or political act, not simply an economic one. By contrast, and in spite of the reputation of the British as a nation that offers safe haven, and of the British as a people who believe in fairness and playing by the rules, we have consistently refused to be fair with the people seeking to travel here. Rather than allowing them to reach the United Kingdom and seek asylum through the proper processes, our response to those who seek safety here is an ever more complex panoply of fences, barriers and security, intended to keep them languishing indefinitely on the outskirts of Calais. The United Kingdom, once a country regarded for its openness to foreigners, has systematically remade itself as Fortress Britain. In defence of these arrangements the Prime Minister David Cameron has argued that we must at all costs stop these ‘swarms’ of people intent on illegally breaking into the United Kingdom. Given the security arrangements in place, those people desperately wanting to settle in the United Kingdom have little other choice.

Those few who make it across the channel face two grim realities: Either a lifetime of living in the shadows of the United Kingdom’s black economy, vulnerable to human slavery, trafficking and exploitation. Or else a future of indefinite detention without trial in one of the country’s network of detention facilities, prisons in all but name. Places like the deceptively named Yarl’s Wood, operated for profit by the private security company Serco, and recently condemned by the chief inspector of prisons. What we need is not to seal refugees and migrants away behind barriers and fences, to ignore them and hope they give up and go away. Faced with few alternatives, not many will, and in the meantime many more will come. What we need is a more mature discourse about migration and the people forced to undertake it. We need to hear the stories and experiences of these people themselves, stories which are notably absent in the press. Those traveling from Africa, the Middle East and beyond need to be humanised and visualised as a matter of urgency, their stories and experiences used to combat uninformed prejudices and ignorance. The recent appearance of an Instagram account which appeared to belong to a young Senegalese man making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, and the surge of public interest paid to it before it was unmasked as fake, shows that people are genuinely interested in hearing these stories.

To tell these stories is part of the purpose of Phil le Gal’s The New Continent, a project featuring people caught on either side of Europe’s borders and offering a platform for them to describe their experiences, hopes and fears. People like Sadik from Sudan, a medical student who fleeing conflict was interned for months in Libya before making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. Or Ahmed and Ikbal, two teenagers who became friends during their journey from Afghanistan and now look out for each other in The Jungle, the sprawling informal settlement on the outskirts of Calais. These are not ‘swarms’ or ‘marauders’, not abstract embodiments of a political or economic problem. They are human beings, people, in the position they are now because of the lottery of birth and the game of geopolitics. Fortifying our country and our continent only exacerbates their plight, by pushing a burden that we are in a rare position to shoulder on to other states in Europe less able to do so, and who lie closer to the key entry points into the continent. These states perhaps understandably follow our pathetic example, avoiding the burden of supporting those fleeing war and turmoil by trying to prevent them from crossing borders at all, or else funneling them as rapidly as possible into neighboring countries. The result is that Europe is witnessing an arms race of fence building and a militarisation of borders as states across the continent respond to the crisis not by increasing provision for displaced people, but by spending vast amounts to ensure that they cannot access provision at all.

These fences and barriers are spreading across Europe, from one country to another like a regressive ripple, a new iron curtain of steel chainlink and razor wire. France has reinstated its border controls with Italy in an attempt to curb migration, and Hungary has recently completed the construction of a new $35 million fence along its border with Serbia. Reflecting the strange nature of these solutions, this fence is reported to end suddenly in the middle of a field, at the tri-point where the Hungarian, Serbian and Romanian borders meet. Other countries seem likely to follow the example, Macedonian police have struggled to prevent large numbers of Syrian refugees from crossing into the country from Greece, employing batons and stun grenades, while Bulgaria has mobilised military units near the Macedonian border and is extending its border fence with Turkey. In counterpoint to the dream, Europe is degenerating into something which increasingly resembles the darkest days of it’s history. It is becoming a contradictory land of fences and gates, armed guards and checkpoints, a union in name but a patchwork in practice. A place where by a twist of birth some are left free to travel without care, while others languish for months in the hinterlands of port cities and border zones, waiting for a chance to slip through.

Better Welfare for the Cash Cow of Photography

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev strokes a cow. 1959
U.S. Department of Agriculture
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Last week I published my free grants and competitions list and to launch it I wrote what was basically a rant masquerading as a legitimate post on the issue of fee charging and money making in the photography industry. I criticised the way charging for things like portfolio reviews and competitions has become the norm, and the lack of transparency about where this money goes. The online response to this post was pretty incredible, which shows that I’m not the only one concerned by this issue.

That said, while it’s all very easy for me to sit here and criticise fee charging, it doesn’t do much to address the problem which often underlies it. As long as funding remains as difficult as it presently is there will always be pressure on organisations to charge photographers for competitions, portfolio reviews and other activities. Because of that I’ve been thinking about a middle ground and here I’ve put together a few suggestions for ways to make fee charging activities more transparent or, if you like, ethical. It’s important for all of us to know how the financial food chain works, because where money comes from and what it gets spent on has a direct and powerful bearing on the landscape of the arts. I hope these ideas will be a way for photography organisations to ask for money to support their activities without losing credibility in the eyes of those who fund them.

Be Transparent. If you’re asking for money be transparent about how it is being used. Speaking of ‘administration’ and other generalities as so many fee chargers do is just not good enough, particularly when the fee being requested is often so far above what administering a prize could be expected to reasonably cost. If, as I suspect is often the case, proceeds from fees go towards running other areas of your organisation’s activities then you need to be open about it and explain why. If the reason is good enough I doubt many photographers will grudge it. If you already publish submission figures then you’re already halfway there, since even someone with basic arithmetic can then figure out what you’re making from an open call. Go all the way, be accountable, clear and open about what you raise from fees and how you use it.

Fee Waivers. Probably the single thing that makes me angriest about fees is when they are excused with inane justifications like that they help to keep the submitted work to a high standard. There is no correlation between a photographer’s ability to pay and the quality of their work. All that fees help to do is to entrench inequalities that this field could badly do without, inequalities which stifle great work and great voices. If you must charge a fee to support your activities then offer a parallel waiver system for those who say they are unable to afford it. Subsidise this with some of the proceeds from the fees of those who can afford to pay.

Give Something Back. If you’re charging fees then consider donating a percentage of the proceeds to a charitable cause. Whether you direct them to an external charity carrying out work in a relevant field, or you pool them into an internal activity like a fee waiver or a scholarship system, give people a reason to think their fees aren’t just going on a swanky prosecco laden private view for the competition’s winner and it’s organisers.

Don’t Bullshit Us. Be honest about what you are offering photographers and what you want in return. Don’t dress things up as something they are not. For a photographer having their work seen by industry supremoes is not an amazing opportunity, it is part of the job that those people have decided to do. Equally don’t hide away information about fees at the bottom of your application process, be clear and open about the exchange which is taking place. (And please don’t extend your open call because you haven’t raised enough money yet, it’s painfully obvious what you’re doing).

Lastly, one for the Photographers. Something I should have said in the last piece is that as much as you might resent those who charge fees for competitions and portfolio reviews, you should be just as cautious about those organisations offering fabulous prizes or activities at no cost. Always ask yourself what they are getting in return, and what is written in the fine print and between the lines. So-called opportunities can just as easily turn out to be rights grabs or cultural white washing exercises, things you probably want to avoid just as vigorously as the organisations who just want to stick their hand in your wallet.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #3: Dark Tourism and The Heavens

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Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award and the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People. In this post I’m looking at two bodies of work I found very interesting, but which didn’t seem to quite do what they suggested they might. They are Ambroise Tézenas’s I was There: Dark Tourism and Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report.

Ambroise Tézenas’s Dark Tourism was on display in the Grand Halle at the sprawling Parc du Atelier on the edge of Arles, along with a half a dozen or so other shows and the Discovery Award. For me its promise to investigate the macabre tourist practice of visiting sites of disaster and destruction made it instantly stand out from the other shows. One of my strongest memories of visiting the Auschwitz-Birkeanu concentration camp several years ago was seeing people smiling, giving thumbs ups and taking selfies in front of prison blocks and gas chambers, and to this day I’ve still wondered why people would react to a site like this in that way. Was it ghoulishness, or embarrassment? I hoped Dark Tourism was shine a light on this and other rather more crass examples of the way the past is commoditised and experienced as a site of tourism..

While Dark Tourism did do this a little, I was mostly disappointed. About a quarter of the photographs on display do focus directly on aspects of dark tourism, featuring for example a former Soviet era military prison in Latvia where guests can stay the night as prisoners. Mostly though Tézenas seemed to turn his lens on the sites themselves, producing beautiful if generic images of blood stained sites in Rwanda, China, Ukraine and other countries. This seemed to turn a potentially very interesting investigation into more or less an extension of the very thing it set out at the start to critique. Also I couldn’t help but feel the subtext of Dark Tourism was rather unsubtle, and failed to acknowledge the myriad reasons beyond simple macabre fascination that might lead people to these sites. These issues aside it was still an interesting exhibition and a recommended one amongst those in the Grand Halle.

Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report  sets out to investigate the pertinent topic of the global tax havens where billions in untaxed money are sequestered away by large companies. The introductory blurb to the exhibition promises to shatter the traditional image of tax havens as tropical island paradises, a promise which is somewhat fulfilled. It opens very effectively with a darkened room, the walls ringed with photographs of familiar products and brands, all of which made use of a single Swiss banking scheme to reduce their tax liability. This is a very real demonstration of how tax dodging permeates into all our lives, simply in the products we surround ourselves with. Following this the other rooms contain more conventional documentary photographs of locations and people who play a significant part in the international network. From massive company mailbox centres in the Cayman Islands, to secure vaults built in a legal no-mans land underneath Singapore’s airport. Woods and Galimberti seek to show how tax evasion engenders other problems, for example often generating inequality in the parts of the world where these activities take place. One of the more powerful photographs shows a man in his tiny ‘cage home’ a type of micro-dwelling in Hong Kong, the product of an overheated housing market and growing inequality between rich and poor.

The photographs and their range is pretty great, the only major weakness was the difficult of concretely demonstrating the relationships between the disparate things that these images show. Global tax evasion is defined by its networked state, its complexity, and the essential invisibility of it’s relationships, and to bring to light this murky world would seem to require a rather different strategy to the conventional photographic one employed here (the Hans Haacke work featured in this post is, I think, a nice example of an alternative). This exhibition felt like a constellation of dots on a scatter graph, where someone was yet to draw the line that connects them all. I also slightly amused to  see the exhibition sponsored by Olympus, given their questionable finance arrangements, outed by the company’s own CEO back in 2011. Perhaps by throwing weight behind this exhibition Olympus is looking to join the relatively small band of companies who are taking a stand against these sorts of shady financial dealings. In short, The Heavens, Annual Report is another very well photographed and well-constructed exhibition, a timely argument against tax havens, even if I rather felt it suffered in the end from the difficulties photographs find in showing the sometimes quite abstract relationship between one thing and another.

Review – The Deutsche Börse Prize 2015 at The Photographers Gallery

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Nikolai Bakharev
Untitled #70, from the series Relation, 1991-1993

While in the past I might have slightly criticised some competitions for being too rigidly certain about the type of photographs they want to shortlist, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is a competition with something of an identity crisis, an uncertainty about what it is really about. According to the sponsor’s own site it is a prize intended to reward a photographer ‘who has made the most significant contribution … to the medium of photography in Europe in the previous year’ but walking through the galleries and looking at this year’s short-list there seemed to be little that really met (my interpretation of) this vague remit. This isn’t to say the work on show was bad, far from it, but I challenge anyone who has seen this exhibition to say they found their sense of the landscape of photography particularly altered by it.

The first piece of work I encountered was probably the most hyped. Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s mammoth six year investigation of Ponte City, Johannesburg. Built as a luxury tower block during the era of white South Africa rule Ponte City later became the continent’s tallest slum. Subotzky and Waterhouse have systematically documented the building and the gallery display includes three dramatic floor to ceiling light boxes showing hundreds of photographs of doors, windows and television sets in the building. To offset the rather distant, typological nature of the light boxes there are also a series of found documents and photographs rescued from the tower block on display on the walls. These certainly humanised the inhabitants but also made for uncomfortable viewing, and perhaps not for the reasons intended. Here are intimate moments and personal information, left or lost for who knows what reason, scooped up and re-purposed for a gallery wall in an affluent city half a world away. Amongst the documents is an application for asylum in Canada, the author describing the murder of his father, the raping of his mother and sister. It’s one of the few moments in this display that a voice other than that of the two artists seems to emerge, and that muteness stands in stark contrast to voices of the subjects in some similarly exhaustive documentary works, like that of The Sochi Project.

Viviane Sassen’s Umbra was next, billed as a journey into a Jungian inner world. Continuing the artist’s interest in obscure astronomical titles (see my review of Analemma here) I found this work rather more interesting than her previous fashion focused outing at the gallery. Some of the photographs submerge you in this inner world more effectively than others, and particularly (if predictably) potent were the apparently everyday images which somehow manage to impart an unspeakable feeling, like an image of a yawning black hole dug in vivid red soil. At times though it felt as if Sassen was distracted by the opportunity to display photographs were just rather beautiful. An entire wall of nearly abstract photographs are an example of this, they look stunning but seemed out of place, and also somehow overly familiar. Sassen’s display is also accompanied by two video pieces. One is an inverted video of two arms signing the words to a poem composed by Maria Baramas which didn’t hold my attention for long. The other shows a rolling stream of Sassen’s photographs on a monitor which has been forced into the corner of a room. On the perpendicular wall is a mirror which reflects the stream of photographs, causing them to mirror and morph as they change like some sort of dynamic klecksograph or ink blot, a method of probing the unconscious mind which was inspired by (if not entirely embraced) by Jung. It demonstrates Sassen’s strong sense of how to use an exhibition space, which was also probably the highlight of Analemma.

Next was Nikolai Bakharev’s aptly named Relation series. Working as mechanic in the Soviet Union, Bakharev began to supplement his income by taking commissioned portraits and on display are a small selection of images taken between 1988 and 1993 at public beaches near Novokuznetsk, as the Soviet Union was unravelling. Bakharev’s deceptively simple photographs show families, children, friends and lovers, skilfully posed against backdrops of flourishing nature. They have a poignantly romantic air about them much more akin to the photographs of Piotr Vedenisov and other pre-revolution Russian photographers than any figure of the Soviet era, though in some ways these make a compelling mirror image to the much darker work of Boris Mikhailov, particularly his work made during this same post-Soviet transitional period. Again these photographs are not formally or conceptually ground breaking and probably won’t change how you think about photography, but in light of their social significance and their indirect relationship to what is currently going on in Russia perhaps they deserve some recognition for that alone. As I noted of Chris Killip in 2012, sometimes the gesture of selecting the most outwardly traditional photographer would in itself send ripples in an art world that often favours pointless innovations for their own sake.

Finally I got to the work of Zanele Muholi, a visual activist who has been documenting the LGBTI community in South Africa for many years. Despite the country’s self-declared status as the ‘rainbow nation’ and the fact that it has some of the most permissive laws on sexuality in the entire continent, LGBTI South African’s still face discrimination, harassment and violence. Muholi’s display consists of an entire wall of portraits, simple but beautiful, direct frontal shots of an assortment of men and women with only the most minimal of contextual information provided. The lack of information works pretty effectively, at first you rather inevitably try to guess the orientation of the people you’re looking at, but pretty quickly you have to give this up. In the end the work very effectively reminds you that they’re just people. To the left of this portrait grid is a massive white sheet on to which an assortment of messages and accounts have been handwritten. Some are gruelling descriptions of attacks and murders, others are simpler statements, ‘we all [heart] womyn’ is the one that lingers in my head. More accounts and narratives are readable in the four copies of Muholi’s book Faces and Phases which are on display in the gallery. Beyond the topicality of the subject matter (remember a photograph of a gay Russian couple won the World Press this year) the significance of Muholi’s work for me is that voices of her subjects are so present, almost to the extent of being more visible than the photography itself. This enormously important for reasons I don’t have space to fully explore here, and stands in stark contrast to the general absence I found in Subotzky and Waterhouse’s work.

Perhaps the identity crisis in The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize’s choice of shortlisted work stems at least partly from the fact this is, like any big sponsored prize, is an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It was a funny coincidence that the morning I was due to go and have a look at the exhibition I was listening to a series of very interesting talks at the Royal Institute of Anthropology on culture of the finance sector, which included some very innovative and timely photographic work focused on the global financial crisis (the sort of work which will never appear in this sort of prize). I think it’s useful to see any competition not so much as an objective judgement on what is good photography, but rather a series of filters through which submitted work passes, and in the case of corporate prizes one of these filters is of course the sponsors own interests. As photographers or people who want to look at photography we obviously benefit from this relationship, but as I’ve often suggested before there might have to come a point where we ask if what we lose through it is really worth the few pieces of silver we gain.

After Empire II: The American Ruin

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The White House in Ruins
From Whiskey Foxtrot in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Last week I wrote about our fixation on the ruins of the Soviet Empire, and our continuing search for meaning in the ashes of an empire which seemed to extinguish itself without confrontation. I was curious about the gulf of unfulfilled expectation this might have created for us, a sense of unfufillment which now finds some placation in the photographs of abandoned Soviet infrastructure and military bases that are produced in great quantity by amateur and professional photographers alike. This week I want to explore a somewhat similar trope which is forward, rather than backward looking. That is the ubiquitous trope of the American ruin in popular culture.

Empires invariably cast themselves in relation to others which have preceded them. Whether as spiritual inheritors of their antecedents or opponents of their values, new empires almost always take on something of that which has come before, in the western world most often tracing a lineage back to ancient Greece or Rome. The German Holy Roman Empire, Napoleonic France, Fascist Italy, all demonstrated such tendencies. Controversial though it might still be to speak of an ‘American empire’ the United States is no exception to this weakness for imperial over-shoulder glancing.

The iconography and architecture of state is rich with appropriations from the old empires of Europe, themselves invariably loaned in turn from the far history of ancient Rome and Greece. Lincoln’s memorial statue rests its hands on two bundles of sticks or fasces, a roman symbol of state power backed by the will of the people, and later a symbol of the new Italian fascist empire of Mussolini. It is a strange, although not entirely unfitting contradiction, that American notions of democracy and self-determination are bound up in a lineage of empire building which has involved the depriving countless people of these things.

The United States’ short existence as a unified country seems to exacerbate this imperial awareness of empire’s past and present. Something which has often fascinated me is the subject of ruination in American art, which seems not entirely disconnected. Thomas Cole’s series of paintings ‘The Course of Empire’ is as easily readable as a cautionary tale for the young America as it is a generic, idealised account of an ancient civilisations rise and fall. Flitting to a more recent media, video games such as the Call of Duty franchise, and blockbuster movies such as White House Down (2013) are laden with images of America under attack, its iconic government buildings in ruin.

Like all great human constructions, empires at their most massive and apparently indomitable almost always presage or anticipate their eventual, inevitable decline. Whether they do this simply in the minds of those who gaze on them, or whether they do it more intentionally, can vary. Albert Speer’s theory of ruin value, which I’ve written about before here, intended that the grand ruins of the buildings of a German National Socialist Reich would one day impress and inspire those explorers who discovered them, decayed and destroyed. In many cases his theories were put to the test far sooner than he perhaps anticipated.

It is clear to note from history that as the pace of technology and all other things is subject to increasing velocity, so too are empires subjected to ever shorter spans of existence. Egypt, if we may stretch the definition of an empire, lasted millennia. Rome lasted five centuries, the British Empire perhaps two hundred years. The United States could already be in decline after a period of global dominance lasting not much more than half a century. As wars today are increasingly fought and won in a matter of days (even if their reverberations last decades) it is tempting to wonder if we will one day see an empire rise and fall like a mayfly, growing exponentially to span the globe, only to die out in the course of just a few years, months, or days.