Visibility Machines: Harun Farocki and Trevor Paglen

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Trevor Paglen, LACROSSE/ONYX V, near Cepheus (Synthetic Aperture Radar Reconnaissance Satellite, USA 182), 2008. Courtesy Galley 400

One of the first live-camera broadcasts from a missile was deployed (in tests only) by the Germans in 1942. Thus began the era of remote-control warfare, and the proliferation of a TV-based society. This factoid comes via Harun Farocki’s 2003 film War at a Distance, which re-packages several decades’ worth of bombing didactics in a video documentary about the evolution of imaging technology as a byproduct of the military industry. Three of Farocki’s critical films are paired with the drone surveillance photographs of Trevor Paglen in Visibility Machines at Gallery 400 (through March 14), a touring exhibition curated by Niels Van Tomme.

An air of espionage permeates the dimly lit exhibition, as if the whole thing were plucked from a government file. Closer to the truth is that both Farocki and Paglen relied on insiders and veterans to help them obtain their sources, such as the paths of orbiting drones (Paglen) or therapeutic video-games for post-traumatic soldiers (Farocki). Farocki and Paglen’s reverse-surveillance art seems a natural fit, although the artists did not meet until this exhibition was first convened in 2013 (before Farocki died, leaving behind a prolific film oeuvre).

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Harun Farocki, Serious Games 4, A sun with no shadow, 2010. Courtesy Gallery 400

Paglen’s long-exposure The Other Night Sky series (2008–2013), of drone lights smeared across the night sky, can easily be mistaken for astral photography. His other images include sun-drenched pixels and highly zoomed views of military landscapes by moonlight—they are either bases or targets; the images are not very clear, but several are formally beautiful, perhaps incidentally. 

If robots can kill, can they be artists, too? Not under the rubric that art be self-aware and critical. Instead, a well-designed, even creative, bombsite video plotted by computerized robots—what Farocki calls “operational images”—presented out of context (in an art gallery) compels a different sort of utility than that used by the military, for tactical images can be powerful in the hands of artists who flip them into grassroots propaganda, or art-activism.

The greatest service such images can perform for viewers is exposure to the virtual interface of combat. Although drones always seem to lurk in the background, an occasional encounter with the military sublime—that camouflaged wall of power—can drive civilian outrage and action.