August 18, 2013 2 Comments
Marieke de Goede
Currently, the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum is showing Communitas, an overview of work by Dutch artist Aernout Mik. The exhibition speaks to a wide variety of themes, including citizenship, media politics and the complexities of global capitalism. But perhaps the most interesting element of this exhibition is its thought-provoking visualization and problematisation of our contemporary security culture. Set variously in the airport, police-environment or the catastrophe exercise, a number of Mik’s videos show seemingly familiar scenes of securing that are rendered strange and disconcerting. Their social choreographies of uniformed personnel and objects of control fascinate while they alienate. I argue that these films defamiliarize and render questionable security rituals in novel ways – their subtle humour and inconclusiveness help bring thinking space into the tight logic of contemporary security.
I. Art, Culture and 9/11
According to Mik, 9/11 can be considered a turning point for the public and political relevance – and popularity – of his video installations. Mik’s films – mostly fictional scenes of complex human interaction that play out along loose scripts and improvisation – are set in imprecise but familiar spaces, for example a court-house, an airport, a school yard or a stock exchange. As Jeroen Boomgaard has put it, an enduring theme in these films is the depiction of persons and groups who are participating in unclear and sometimes absurd social situations on which they do not seem to much grip . Post-9/11 societal feelings of ‘physical vulnerability,’ as well as the very visible increase in mundane security practices – at airports, at mega-events, in the street – increased Mik’s broad societal resonance .
Mik’s work can be contextualized within a larger relationship between 9/11 and art and popular culture. That relationship is at least threefold. First, the images of spectacle and catastrophe produced by 9/11 had a broad resonance in popular culture. However unimaginable the attack was, many Hollywood films and disaster fantasies seemed to have foreshadowed its occurrence . Secondly, art and culture played a key role in giving meaning to the unfathomable. The incomprehensibility of 9/11 as event was quickly replaced by a cultural script of good and evil, us and them, that rendered the war on terror possible . At the same time, post-9/11 cultural objects, including important novels like Saturday, The Good Life and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, offered slower practices of meaning-making and gestured to a much more complex (in)comprehensibility of the event . Third, art and culture have played – and still do – a crucially important role in rethinking, repoliticising, reproblematising the dominant discourses of 9/11 and their appropriation within the war on terror . The fixed boundaries of good and evil are challenged and rethought within artistic practices in ways that in the years after 9/11 were often lacking in mainstream political discourse. The space of the gallery, sometimes quite literally – as in the case of Jonas Staal’s New World Summit – has enabled a transgression of the boundaries of established political discourse and has been able to foster alternative political imaginations.
How does Mik’s work speak to the contemporary security culture – defined broadly to include policy, practice and political imagination? Some of these films seem to capture so well the post-9/11 turn to preemption that has received substantial scholarly attention . In the face of a terrorist threat that is understood to be simultaneously more catastrophic and less predictable than before, policy and politics have displayed a keen interest in and enthusiasm for preemptive intervention and preparedness. Preemption here is understood not just in terms of war doctrine and military attack, but more so in terms of the mundane, for example, the deployment of transactions data-analysis to identify potential future perpetrators, the scripting of disaster rehearsal scenarios, and the development of counter-radicalisation programmes that merge objectives of social inclusion with security logics of identifying individuals and groups potentially vulnerable to radical ideas. Elsewhere, I have termed this mundane orientation to multiple but potentially catastrophic futures speculative security . In many ways, speculative security practices tend to become their own bureaucratic objectives: the production of protocols, scripts and compliance documents come to replace or at least reorient the initial objectives of successfully preempting terrorism .
II. Border Theater
In many ways, Mik’s work speaks to the contemporary security culture, its obsessions with preemption and preparedness, and its bureaucratic dynamics. Take for example Touch, Rise and Fall which shows a complex choreography of airport security that is familiar to all viewers, yet rendered strange as the film continues . We see the familiar rituals of passenger scanning, travelers opening bags, taking off shoes, unfastening belts. We see long close-ups of the technologies of control, the scanners, the moving belt, the X-ray machines, the uniforms. There is an obsessive attention for the material things of passengers and security guards – plastic bottles are collected, bags are opened, clothes and other stuff is taken out, examined in detail to the extent that some items, including a stuffed bunny, are taken apart or cut up to control their insides.
In Mik’s film, the ritual of security becomes unhinged – it spins out of control as passengers despair, items become destructed and the dividing line between guard and passenger becomes blurred. At first, the guards seem firmly in control – they direct passenger streams, shout instructions and look authoritative in their uniforms. As the video loop goes on, the social choreography becomes more complex and confused. Guards look puzzled and start having disputes; the security control proceeds chaotically; guards start to look bored and distracted, they begin to wander the airport. The two groups of guards and passengers become blurred. The visualisation of the complex whole is rendered senseless and a touch comical.
Louise Amoore and Alexandra Hall have conceptualised airport security and border control as a theatre . They analyse the repetitive movements and detailed scripts of security control, and argue that these are closely linked to the regulation of visibility and invisibility. What stands out as abnormal, who is normal, what looks suspicious, what incurs attentiveness and what – simultaneously – goes unnoticed? The conceptualisation of a theater, clearly, does not mean to suggest that these practices are somehow fake or false or even useless. The security theater is in many ways productive – enabling professional careers, producing protocols and directing (massive) financial investment. Passengers are sorted, questioned, routed and detained – in other words, the consequences of the security theater can be very real and impact people’s lives. At the same time, understanding security practice through the lens of the theater draws attention to the mundane rituals and repetitive actions that make up the impossible drive to security. It raises the questions of the regulation of visibility in security practice.
Touch, Rise and Fall magnifies the mundane rituals of the border theatre. It mesmerizes the viewer through a ritual that becomes undone. It renders a scene that is at first glance familiar into an incomprehensible, confusing and sometimes funny choreography. The next time they take a plane, many viewers might look at the border rituals through a different lens.
III. Scripting Disaster
Preparing for catastrophe, expecting the worst, and scripting disasters are important elements of the speculative security culture. In the wake of the 9/11 Commission’s finding that US security services had insufficiently deployed imagination to anticipate the attacks, expecting the unexpectable has become incorporated into security protocol. The report calls on security bureaucracies to operate more speculatively and to anticipate disaster .
A number of Mik’s works deals with disaster exercises and orchestrated catastrophes. Refraction shows a bus accident on a distant rural road: victims walk around dazed, emergency personnel look busy but largely ineffective, car drivers look resigned in the growing traffic jam and start to wander around. A herd of goats decides to cross the road in the middle of the scene, moving in between the victims, cars and ambulances. Neither animal nor human seem disturbed by this absurd co-presence. If at first glance there is a business and seeming effectiveness to the disaster scene, a longer viewing renders the scene into a slow-moving meandering and alienating non-spectacle.
Similarly, Training Ground shows a fictive disaster training whereby police officers arrest and expel migrants. Setting and context of the exercise are unclear. What starts as a security exercise with clearly divided groups – police and migrant – slowly becomes a confusing and at times threatening social choreography. As in Touch, Rise and Fall, the scene gets out of hand. Tussles take place between the groups, a few of the migrants – but far less than one would expect – try to escape, some of the migrants become violent and take over the police role, some of the police become violent, others become despairing, some start to shudder and withdraw. At the margins of the scene, a few of the migrants start cooking over an improvised fire.
The complex, repetitive, alienating, but also very funny scenes of Refraction and Training Ground can be interpreted to offer two points in relation to contemporary speculative security cultures. First, they relate the exceptional nature of contemporary security measures back to the mundane bureaucratic repetitiveness of policing and securing. Security practices such as detention and expulsion are often – and productively – conceptualised as exceptional practices, whereby normal juridical protections are circumvented or reinterpreted. At the same time however, in a security culture obsessed with the unexpected, spectacle becomes routine. Disaster scenarios and catastrophe protocols have a paradoxical relation to the unpredictable. While imagining the worst, they deploy rational scripts where participants are expected to play the right role. The exercise becomes daily routine. In Mik’s work, this curious interplay between exception and routine, between unpredictability and the mundane, becomes animated in a mesmerizing way. In these films, moreover, the rational narrative of the disaster script is challenged and subverted.
Secondly, these works may be seen to raise the question of what would happen if the exceptional really intrudes. The exceptional, not in the form of the pre-scripted catastrophe or the bureaucratically imagined worst-case, but in terms of an overturning of hierarchies and a blurring of groupings. How do participants react when the script fails? Who takes charge; who gets a nervous breakdown; who abuses power, who escapes, who attempts to maintain an ethical relation to the other? And who, in the end, decides to cook some dinner?
IV. Raw Footage
A final – but very different – work to be discussed in the context of Mik’s relation to contemporary security is Raw Footage. This film – the only one with sound – is a compilation of news footage shot during the Yugoslav wars but never broadcast. This material – gripping, disturbing but apparently insufficiently newsworthy – is looped into a long film that, in the set up of the Amsterdam Stedelijk, is positioned slightly apart from the rest of the exhibition. The film shows war behind the headlines. In Mik’s own words, it departs from the ‘way we normally consume images of war,’ and attempts to create a different viewing practice.
It is certainly problematic to see Raw Footage in the context of the larger exhibition at the Stedelijk. By the time the visitor gets to this work, s/he has seen so many fictional and orchestrated scenes, where security rituals go wrong and where group interactions morph in unexpected and often comical ways, that it takes a few moments to realize that this film is of a different nature. Certainly, the found footage of this war is at times as mundane and confusing as the security choreographies in the other works. The scenes are unclear and repetitive. The viewer literally does not know what is going on: groups of people are moving, men in uniform are hanging around, they seem bored, they smoke a cigarette, they wander the woods. Still, the chances that the roles will turn unexpectedly or comically is largely absent.
War behind the headlines is confusing, it is boring, it is unclear and mundane. There is, literally, a fog of war. We see smoke and hear shooting, but do not know who aims at whom and why. Instead of spectacular battles and clear narratives of good and bad, or winners and losers, we see a war that is boring, confusing, disgusting, unclear. There are no heroes here. Raw Footage has remarkable parallels to Karl Marlantes excellent recent novel Matterhorn, about the Vietnam war, where mundane discomfort, complex social interactions, and the pointless repetitiveness of war dominate at least the first three-quarters of the book.
Raw Footage includes scenes of violent confrontation and capture. It shows the sorting of women and men that, as we now know, preceded genocide. It is without doubt the most powerful and disturbing film of this exhibition – even as it sits uncomfortably alongside the other works. Perhaps the most shocking message of Raw Footage, indeed, is what our newsculture considers to be not newsworthy.
 Jeroen Boomgaard, remarks at the VNK symposium, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, June 7 2013.
 Interview, De Volkskrant.
 For example, Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso, 2002.
 David Campbell, ‘Time is Broken: the Return of the Past in the Response to September 11,’ Theory and Event 5 (4), 2002, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_and_event/v005/5.4campbell.html
 Louise Amoore, “There is No Great Refusal’: The Ambivalent Politics of Resistance,’ in Marieke de Goede (ed) International Political Economy and Post-structural Politics. London: Palgrave, 2003.
 Including Jenifer Chao, Sensible Interventions: Post-9/11 Cultural Politics and Resistance, PhD manuscript, University of Amsterdam, 2013; David Campbell and Michael J. Shapiro, Special Issue on Securitization, Militarization and
Visual Culture in the Worlds of Post-9/11, Security Dialogue 38, 2007; Alex Danchev and Debbie Lisle, Special Issue on Art, Politics, Purpose, Review of International Studies, 35 (4), 2009.
 Claudia Aradau and Rens van Munster, The Politics of Catastrophe. London: Routledge, 2011; Anderson, Ben (2010) Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies. Progress in Human Geography 34(6): 777–98; Amoore, Louise (2013) The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability. Durham: Duke University Press.; Lakoff, Andy and Collier, Stephen (2010) ‘Infrastructure and event: the political technology of preparedness’, in Bruce Braun and Sarah Whatmore (eds) Political Matter: Technoscience, democracy and public life, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
 Marieke de Goede, Speculative Security: The Politics of Pursuing Terrorist Monies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
 Cf. Lee Clarke, Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
 Louise Amoore and Alexandra Hall, ‘Border Theatre: On the Arts of Security and Resistance,’ Cultural Geographies 17 (3): 299-319, 2010; cf. Mark B. Salter (ed.) Politics at the Airport. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
 Kean, Thomas H. and Lee H. Hamilton et al. (2004) The 9/11 Commission Report. Washington, July 22.
 Erna Rijsdijk, ‘The politics of hard knowledge: uncertainty, intelligence failures, and the ‘last minute genocide’ of Srebrenica,’ Review of International Studies, 37 (5): 2221-2235, 2011.