From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen @ the Barbican

Listen up! Listen up! American artist, geographer, and author Trevor Paglen has big news for everyone! He is here to tell us that artificial intelligence may not be a totally wonderful, life-enhancing, fair and just invention after all! Here he is to explain.

AI networks

Trev takes as his starting point the way Artificial Intelligence networks are taught how to ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘perceive’ the world by engineers who feed them vast ‘training sets’.

Standard ‘training sets’ consist of images, video and sound libraries that depict objects, faces, facial expressions, gestures, actions, speech commands, eye movements and more. The point is that the way these objects are categorised, labelled and interpreted are not value-free; in other words, the human categorisers have to bring in all kinds of subjective and value judgements – and that this subjective element can lead to all kinds of wonky outcomes.

Thus Trev wants to point out that the ongoing development of artificial intelligence is rife with hidden prejudices, biases, stereotypes and just wrong assumptions. And that this process starts (in some iterations) with the scanning of vast reservoirs of images. Such as the one he’s created here.

Machine-seeing-for-machines is a ubiquitous phenomenon, encompassing everything from facial-recognition systems conducting automated biometric surveillance at airports to department stores intercepting customers’ mobile phone pings to create intricate maps of movements through the aisles. But all this seeing, all of these images, are essentially invisible to human eyes. These images aren’t meant for us; they’re meant to do things in the world; human eyes aren’t in the loop.

From apple to anomaly

So where’s the work of art?

Well, the Curve is the long tall curving exhibition space at the Barbican which is so uniquely shaped that the curators commission works of art specifically for its shape and structure.

For his Curve work Trev has had the bright idea of plastering the long curving wall with 35,000 (!) individually printed photographs pinned in a complex mosaic of images along the immense length of the curve. It has an awesome impact. That’s a lot of photos.

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

As the core of his research & preparation, Trev spent some time at ImageNet. This is one of the most widely shared, publicly available collection of images out there – and it is also used to train artificial intelligence networks. It’s available online, so you can have a go searching its huge image bank:

Apparently, ImageNet contains more than fourteen-million images organised into more than 21,000 categories or ‘classes’.

In most cases, the connotations of image categories and names are uncontroversial i.e. a ‘strawberry’ or ‘orange’ but many others are ambiguous and/or a question of judgement  – such as ‘debtors’, ‘alcoholics’ and ‘bad people’.

As the old computer programming cliché has it: ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ If artificial intelligence programs are being taught to teach themselves based on highly questionable and subjective premises, we shouldn’t be surprised if they start developing all kinds of errors, extrapolating and exaggerating all kinds of initial biases into wild stereotypes and misjudgements.

So the purpose of From Apple to Anomaly is to ‘questions the content of the images which are chosen for machine learning’. These are just some of the kinds of images which researchers are currently using to teach machines about ‘the world’.

Conceptually, it seemed to me that the work doesn’t really go much further than that.

It has a structure of sorts which is that, when you enter, the first images are of the uncontroversial ‘factual’ type – specifically, the first images you come to are of the simple concept ‘apple’.

Nothing can go wrong with images of an apple, right? Then as you walk along it, the mosaic of images widens like a funnel with a steady increase of other categories of all sorts, until the entire wall is covered and you are being bombarded by images arranged according to (what looks like) a fairly random collection of themes. (The themes are identified by black cards with clear white text, as in ‘apple’ below, which are placed at the centre of each cluster of images.)

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

Having read the blurb about the way words, and AI interpretation of words, becomes increasingly problematic as the words become increasingly abstract, I expected that the concepts would start simple and become increasingly vague. But the work is not, in fact like that – it’s much more random, so that quite specific categories – like paleontologist’ – can be found at the end while quite vague ones crop up very early on.

There was a big cluster of images around the word pizza. These looked revolting, but it was getting close to lunchtime and I found myself mysteriously attracted to the 40 or 50 images which showed fifty or so depictions of ‘ham and eggs’. Mmmm. Ham and eggs, yummy.

Conclusions

Most people are aware that Facebook harvests their data, just like Google and all the other big computer giants, twitter, Instagram blah blah. The disappointing reality for deep thinkers like Trev is that most people, quite obviously, don’t care. As long as they can instant message their mates or post photos of their cats for the world to see, most people don’t appear to give a monkeys what these huge American corporations do with the incalculably vast tracts of date they harvest and hold about us.

I think the same is true of artificial intelligence. Most people don’t care because they don’t think it affects them now or is likely to affect them in the future. Personally, I’m inclined to agree. When I read articles about artificial intelligence, particularly articles about the possible stereotyping of women and blacks i.e. the usual victims

1. American bias The books are written by Americans and feature examples from America. And when you dig deep you tend to find that AI, insofar as it is applied in the real world, tends to exacerbate inequalities and prejudices which already exist. In America. The examples about America’s treatment of its black citizens, or the poor, or the potentially dreadful implications of computerised programmes on healthcare, specifically for the poor – all these examples tend to be taken from America, which is a deeply and distinctively screwed-up country. My point is a lot of the scarifying about AI turns out, on investigation, really to reflect the scary nature of American society, its gross injustices and inequalities.

2. Britain is not America Britain is a different country, with different values, run in different ways. I take the London Underground or sometimes the overground train service every day. Every day I see the chaos and confusion as large-scale systems fail at any number of pressure points. The idea that learning machines are going to make any difference to the basic mismanagement and bad running of most of our organisations seems to me laughable. From time to time I see headlines about self-driving or driverless cars, sometimes taken as an example of artificial intelligence. OK. At what date in the future would you say that the majority of London’s traffic will be driverless cars, lorries, taxis, buses and Deliveroo scooters? In ten years? Twenty years?

3. The triviality of much AI There’s also a problem with the triviality of much AI research. After visiting the exhibition I read a few articles about AI and quickly got bored of reading how supercomputers can now beat grand chessmasters or world champions at the complex game of Go. I can hardly think of anything more irrelevant to the real world. Last year the Barbican itself hosted an exhibition about AI – AI: More Than Human – but the net result of the scores of exhibits and interactive doo-dahs was how trivial and pointless most of them were.

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

4. No machine will ever ‘think’ And this brings us to the core of the case against AI, which is that it’s impossible. Creating any kind of computer programme which ‘thinks’ like a human is, quite obviously impossible. This is because people don’t actually ‘think’ in any narrowly definable sense of the word. People reach decisions, or just do things, based on thousands of cumulated impulses and experiences, unique to each individual, and so complicated and, in general, so irrational, that no programs or models can ever capture it. The long detailed Wikipedia article about artificial intelligence includes this:

Moravec’s paradox generalizes that low-level sensorimotor skills that humans take for granted are, counterintuitively, difficult to program into a robot; the paradox is named after Hans Moravec, who stated in 1988 that ‘it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility’.

Intelligence tests, chess, Go – tasks with finite rules of the kinds computer programmers understand – relatively easy to programme. The infinitely complex billions of interactions which characterise human behaviour – impossible.

5. People are irrational I’ve been studying art and literature and history for 40 years or so and if there’s one thing that comes over it is how irrational, perverse, weird and unpredictable people can be, as individuals and in crowds (because the behaviour of people is the subject matter of novels, plays, poems and countless art works; the really profound, bottomless irrationality of human beings is – arguably – the subject matter of the arts).

People smoke and drink and get addicted to drugs (and computer games and smart phones), people follow charismatic leaders like Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic or Donald Trump. People, in other words, are semi-rational animals first and only a long long way afterwards, rational, thinking beings and even then, only rational in limited ways, around specific goals set by their life experiences or jobs or current situations.

Hardly any of this can be factored into any computer program. I am currently working in the IT department of a large American corporation, and what I see every day, repeatedly, throughout the day, is what I’ve seen in all my other jobs in IT and websites and data, which is that the ‘users’, damn their eyes, keep coming up with queer and unpredicted ways of using the system which none of the program managers and project managers and designers and programmers had anticipated.

People keep outwitting and outflanking the computer systems because that’s what people do, not because any individual person is particularly clever but because, taken as a whole, people here, there and across the range, stumble across flaws, errors, glitches, bugs, unexpected combinations, don’t do what ultra-rational computer scientists and data analysts expect them to, Dammit!

6. It doesn’t work The most obvious thing about tech, is that it’s always breaking. I am currently working in the IT department of a large American corporation. This means being on the receiving end of a never-ending tide of complaints and queries about why this, that or the other functionality has broken. Same was true of all the other website jobs I’ve had. The biggest eye-opener for me working in this sector was to learn that things are always broken; there are always bugs and glitches and sometimes quite large structural problems, all of which have to be ranked and prioritised and then we get round to fixing them when we have a) developer time b) budget.

As a tiny confirmation, I have been trying to access Imagenet, the online image bank at the core of this work of art, and guess what? For two days in a row it hasn’t been working, I’ve got the message: ImageNet is under maintenance. Only ILSVRC synsets are included in the search results. Exactly. QED.

7. Big government, dumb data I worked for UK government departments and big government agencies for eight years and my tkeaway from the experience is that it isn’t artificial intelligence we should be frightened of – it is human stupidity.

Working inside the civil service was a terrifying insight into how naturally people in groups fall into a kind of bureaucratic mindset, setting up meetings and committees with minutes and notes and spreadsheets and presentations and how, slowly but steadily, the ability to change anything or get anything is strangled to death. No amount of prejudicing or stereotyping in, to take the anti-AI campaigners’ biggest worries, image recognition, will ever compete with the straightforward bad, dumb, badly thought out, terribly implemented and often cack-handedly horrible decisions which governments and their bureaucracies take.

Take Theresa May’s campaign of sending vans round the UK telling unwanted migrants to go home. Or the vast IT catastrophe which is Universal Credit. For me, any remote and highly speculative threat about the possibility that some AI programs may or may not be compromised by partial judgements and bias is dwarfed by the bad judgements and stereotyping which characterise our society and, in particular our governments, in the present, in the here-and-now.

8. Destroying the world Following this line of thought to its conclusion, it isn’t artificial intelligence which is opening a new coal-fired power stations every two weeks, and building a 100 new airports and manufacturing 75 million new cars and burning down tracts of the rainforest the size of Belgium every year. The meaningful application of artificial intelligence is decades away, whereas good-old-fashioned human stupidity is destroying the world here and now in front of our eyes, and nobody cares very much.

Summary

So. I liked this piece not because of the supposed warning it makes about artificial intelligence – and the obvious criticism or comment about From apple to anomaly is that, apart from a few paragraphs on one wall label, it doesn’t really give you very much background information to get your teeth into or ponder — no, I liked it because:

  1. it is huge and awesome and an impressive thing to walk along – so American! so big!
  2. and because its stomach-churning glut of imagery is testimony to the vast, unstoppable, planet-wasting machine which is humanity

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

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Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 @ Imperial War Museum London

This is the UK’s first major exhibition to bring together a broad range of artists’ responses to the age of war and conflict which we’ve lived in since 9/11. It features some 50 works of art by over 40 artists, and so – quite apart from the fascinating subject matter – represents an interesting overview of the contemporary art world, from international superstars like Ai Weiwei and British national treasure Grayson Perry, to a raft of Middle Eastern artists who are exhibiting in Britain for the first time.

The exhibition also showcases an impressive diversity of artistic media including painting, film, sculpture, installations, photography, tapestry and ceramics.

A very brief history

The exhibition is based on the premise that the world changed on the morning of 11 September 2001, when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes, flew two of them into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, and also attacked the Pentagon building.

The exhibition kicks off with the events themselves being depicted in a 57-minute-long video by Tony Oursler. Oursler was in his apartment just blocks from the World Trade Centre when the first plane struck. He grabbed his camera to shoot footage of the burning building and continued to record as the second tower was hit. He went out onto the street to capture the responses of New Yorkers  on that morning and over the following days.

Image result for 9/11 newspaper

A few days later President George W. Bush declared an all-out ‘War on Terror’.

A month later, on October 7, 2001, America invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government which had refused to hand over the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, who had claimed responsibility for the attacks, and ran training camps in the country for his terrorist network. The Taliban government was swiftly overthrown by Western forces, but bin Laden wasn’t captured. (He wasn’t tracked down and killed until 2 May 2011 when United States Navy SEALs stormed his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.)

Eighteen months later, after a prolonged standoff over the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction, in March 2003 the United States invaded Iraq to overthrow long-standing enemy President Saddam Hussein. the invasion swiftly led to looting and widespread chaos. Within a few months reports began to emerge of American guards carrying out human rights abuses on Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. The U.S. Army instituted its own investigation which ended up detailing the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, and was accompanied by photos of naked and tortured Iraqis which were reproduced around the world and became a rallying point for anti-Western anger.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq turned into a disaster which led to a prolonged civil war in which new Islamist groups emerged, not least the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS). ISIS took advantage of the final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 to expand into a swathe of territory across northern Iraq and into Syria, itself the victim of a prolonged civil war.

Saddam is Here by Jamal Penjweny (2009–10) Courtesy The Artist and Ruya Foundation

Saddam is Here by Jamal Penjweny (2009–10) Courtesy The Artist and Ruya Foundation

In the years since 2001 there have been numerous further Islamist terrorist attacks in America itself and across Europe (there was one in the South of France on the day I wrote this post). They have become a fact of life in the modern world.

Set down briefly like this, these facts make a devastating and depressing narrative. But do they mean that we now live in an ‘Age of Terror’? And to what extent can works of art answer that question or explain the situation?

Themes

The exhibition is divided into themes including:

  • 9/11
  • Surveillance
  • Prisoner abuse
  • State control
  • Weapons
  • Home

To be honest, although the treatment was sometimes interesting, I found the choice and explanation of some of these themes a bit obvious.

‘9/11’

As well as Tony Oursler’s video, the 9/11 attacks are marked by a number of works. A long room/corridor contains no fewer than 150 front pages of newspapers from around the world which reported the attacks, gathered together in a ‘work’ by Hans-Peter Feldman titled Front Page. Like a lot of conceptual art, this is really a one-trick pony. You could, if you want to, examine every single front page to see how the selection and cropping of pictures and the use of headline text varies from country to country. In the event what this big display shows is how remarkably little variation there was between countries. The 9/11 attack was front page news and so… it made a lot of front pages. It would have been a bit more teasing and unexpected to make a collection of newspapers which didn’t lead with the attacks as their main story (if any).

A whole room was devoted to an installation, The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro, a spooky work which uses mirrors and lights to give the sense of a limitless hole extending infinitely down into the floor. As it happens, I myself visited Ground Zero in New York a few years ago and saw the enormous square fountains created around the base of each fallen building as a memorial. (In fact I visited the Twin Towers themselves back in the 1980s and took the superfast elevator to the viewing platform.) Navarro’s work is interesting but I found it clinical and clever rather than moving.

The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

Gerhard Richter is a German painter well known for creating large canvases of smeared paint. He was on a plane heading towards New York on that fateful morning which was diverted. He later created a characteristic smear painting which he later – according to the wall label – had second thoughts about whether to display or not. But he did. Here it is.

There’s a video of a piece of performance art, where an actor wore a dust-covered suit, as if he was a survivor of the attacks, and walked or stood at locations around the city a year or so later. The suit is hanging up next to it.

Video artist Kerry Tribe placed an advert in a Hollywood actors magazine for a role she described as ‘potential terrorist’. She then shot silent minute-long profiles of the men who replied, splicing them together into a 30-minute video, Potential Terrorist. Well, they all look a little sinister, given that the context, title and purpose of the film have put you in that paranoid frame of mind.

Grayson Perry was working on a large vase about the power station at Dungeness when he heard about the attacks. He modified the design to include crashing planes and terrified civilians.

Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 by Grayson Perry (2001) © Grayson Perry / Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Stephen Brayne

Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 by Grayson Perry (2001) © Grayson Perry / Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Stephen Brayne

‘Surveillance’

The room on ‘Surveillance’ explains the way we citizens of the West World are now more intensively surveilled and monitored than ever before. It contains arguably the two best works in the show – Jitish Kallat’s comical series of Action Man-sized models of people being searched and frisked at airport security; and Ai Weiwei’s brilliant marble statue of a CCTV camera on a plinth.

Surveillance Camera with Plinth by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Ai Weiwei Studio; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Surveillance Camera with Plinth by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Ai Weiwei Studio; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

‘Iraq’

Peter Kennard has been making fiercely political photomontages made from press photographs since the 1980s. (The IWM hosted an impressive retrospective of his work in 2015.) His contribution here is an enormous collage made in collaboration with Cat Phillipps, and using newspapers and black ink.

The basic image is a blown-up photo of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who decided to support George Bush in the American invasion of Iraq, against the wishes of a huge number of British citizens.

Head of State by Kennardphillipps (2007)

Head of State by Kennardphillipps (2007)

Since about 2010 American artist Jenny Holzer has been working on a series titled Redaction paintings. She uses official documents about the attacks and the two invasions, which have been released to the public but with sections blacked out or ‘redacted’, to indicate the scale of what is still kept back from the public, from us, the people who pay the wages of politicians and civil servants and armies.

In a corridor between rooms hang ribbons of black bunting, a work titled Black Bunting by Fiona Banner.

‘Prisoner abuse’

Rachel Howard has done a painted version of the iconic photograph of the Iraqi prisoner being tortured which went viral after its release in 2004. His name is Ali Shallal al-Qaisi.

DHC 6765, Study by Rachel Howard (2005) © The Artist / Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

DHC 6765, Study by Rachel Howard (2005) © The Artist. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates

Nearby is a room in which a 59-minute-long video titled Operation Atropos 2006 by Cuban-American director Coco Fusco is screened. Fusco worked with retired U.S. Army interrogators who, at her request, subjected a group of volunteer women students to simulations of POW experiences in order to show them what hostile interrogations can be like and how members of the U.S. military are taught to resist them. The documentary includes interviews with the interrogators that shed light on how they read personalities, evaluate an interrogatee’s reliability, and use the imposition of physical and mental stress strategically. It’s violent and distressing stuff but then… what did you expect an interrogation to be like?

Operation Atropos directed by Coco Fusco (2006) Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Operation Atropos directed by Coco Fusco (2006) Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Nearby is a painting, Bound by John Keane, depicting a figure in an orange jump suit against a stark black background and with no head, representing the civilians and prisoners which various Islamist groups have executed on camera and posted online over the past 17 years.

‘Home’

This part of the exhibition consists of four rooms containing works mostly by Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian artists. The idea is to reflect how the disastrous conflicts in their countries have shattered traditional ideas of a safe, secure ‘home’.

They include a work which is like an enormous tapestry made of cardboard egg cartons spliced together and which tumbles down the wall and onto the floor, Floodland by Walid Siti. Dominating one wall is My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah, made up of layers of burnt canvas arranged to create a tattered and scorched map of the Middle East, with only a few vivid highlights of colour.

My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah (2008) © Courtesy The Park Gallery & Roger Fawcett-Tang

My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah (2008) © Courtesy The Park Gallery & Roger Fawcett-Tang

There are a lot of videos in this section including one by the Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian which shows a scale model he made of the apartment block in Damascus where his family lived till he fled the city. The video then shows the artist smashing the model to pieces with a big hammer – Homesick, 11 minutes long.

Elsewhere White House is a video by Afghan artist Lida Abdul which shows a woman painting whitewash with a big housepainting brush onto the ruins of a palace in post-Saddam Iraq.

‘Weapons’

There are several pieces meditating on the rise of drone warfare. The first ever drone strike was launched from an unmanned and weaponised Predator aircraft on 7 October 2001. One of the most striking pieces in the show is a site-specific installation made by James Bridle. He was allowed to paint the full-scale outline of a predator drone onto the floor of the main atrium of the War Museum in a piece titled Drone shadow. Watching people walk across it, mostly unaware of its significance, is spooky.

Drone shadow by James Bridle

Drone shadow by James Bridle

There’s a dark room devoted to a 30-minute-long video of an interview with a now-retired ‘pilot’ of one of these drones, Omer Fast’s 5,000 feet is best. I was very disappointed when I discovered that the nervy unshaven dude in the film is in fact an actor. (The devastating power of these weapons, as well as the difficulties of using them without causing collateral damage, is the subject of the 2015 movie Eye in the Sky.)

There’s another video showing Afghan soldiers and civilians stripping, cleaning and rebuilding automatic weapons. The sound of the metallic clicks becomes steadily more oppressive the longer you watch, and follows you as you walk into other rooms – click, click, click…

Media

As well as by subject matter, the exhibits can also be divided by media:

  • painting
  • sculpture
  • photography
  • photomontage
  • video
  • rugs and tapestries
  • ceramics

The most unusual artefact is probably Grayson Perry’s big vase. A vase commemorating 9/11. OK.

I was also surprised at the half a dozen so rugs and tapestries made by different artists, some using tradition Afghan methods and motifs, others more overtly depicting automatic rifles or the 9/11 attacks themselves.

Some of the paintings are powerful, for example of the tortured Abu Ghraib man and the Gerhard Richter smear.

But two things struck me about the exhibition as a whole:

How many videos there were and how long they were. Tony Oursler’s eye witness account is nearly an hour long, the drone pilot is half an hour, the students being shouted at in the Atropos film is an hour long – that’s two and a half hours you’d have to spend in the exhibition just to see these three pieces. But in addition there’s also the stripping guns film, the man smashing a model of his house film, the woman painting a palace film: three hours minimum.

The best pieces were sculptures: the Ai Weiwei camera, a scary model by Jake & Dinos Chapman of small bodies accumulated into two great mounds of corpses (one for each tower) and Jitish Kallat’s toy people being searched.

Circadian Rhyme 1 by Jitish Kallat (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

Circadian Rhyme 1 by Jitish Kallat (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

And also a brilliant piece in the ‘Weapons’ section, a cabinet full of model hand grenades made in the kind of coloured glass that Christmas tree decorations are made from, by Mona Hatoum.

Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) by Mona Hatoum (2012) © Mona Hatoum / Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) by Mona Hatoum (2012) © Mona Hatoum / Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Thoughts

1. The new normal

I found a lot of the show a little boring. None of it moved me. 9/11 is pretty old news now. I was very moved by visiting the actual Ground Zero in New York, but not by seeing a wall of old newspapers about it, or even the clever piece by Iván Navarro. Similarly, a big photomontage of Tony Blair as hate figure is pretty old news now, as is the image of the man from Abu Ghraib. 14 years old.

2. Has modern warfare really changed all that much?

Similarly, when the exhibition claims that the nature of modern warfare has changed decisively, I don’t think that’s really true. What was striking about the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and latterly in Syria is how very conventional they have been – after the ‘shock and awe’ bombing, it still boils down to our guys going in and shooting their guys and their guys trying to blow up our guys. The misery of house to house fighting through densely packed towns and cities which was a feature of fighting in the Second World War (if not before) was also a feature of the fighting in Falluja and is still taking place in eastern Ghouta and other urban centres in Syria.

Atom bombs, neutron bombs, smart bombs – all the science fiction weapons of my boyhood turn out to be completely irrelevant in modern warfare. It involves air strikes like World War Two, and sometimes artillery bombardments like World War One, but always ends up with bloody street fighting – witness the numerous accounts of British soldiers patrolling Helmand or Baghdad and getting sniped at and blown up by improvised explosive devices, witness movies like American Sniper or The Hurt Locker.

The only real innovation seems to be unarmed drones, which are guided by controllers thousands of miles away in the States. This is new for the people doing it, but the result is pretty familiar – bombs fall out of the sky, sometimes on valid military targets, often on civilian bystanders, as they have since the First World War (as vividly described in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Mary Postgate).

3. Art in the internet age

What is nowhere mentioned is that the Age of Terror has coincided, more or less, with the Digital Age, the Age of the Internet.

This means lots of things (al-Qaeda posted their videos on YouTube, ISIS has an effective social media presence, terrorists embedded in the West can contact each other digitally without even meeting). But in the realm of aesthetics it means that we are even more totally saturated with imagery and news than ever before.

In my opinion, this has had a seismic and catastrophic impact on art. After all, why care very much about ‘art’ images, displayed in ‘art galleries’, when there is such a bombardment of interesting, funny, shocking, comic, tragic, diverting and exciting imagery to be found all the time, everywhere else?

Most of the artworks in this exhibition are very slow. Very old school. Oil painting? Like Rembrandt and Turner did? Why on earth make oil paintings about the surveillance society or the war in Iraq? What on earth has painting to do with a world of suicide bombers and drone attacks?

A lot of the artworks here are conceptual in the sense that they are based on an idea which you either ‘get’ or don’t ‘get’ in much the same way that you ‘get’ a joke.

  • 150 newspaper front pages about 9/11.
  • Painting redacted documents.
  • Interview with a drone operator.
  • Jamal Penjweny’s idea to get normal citizens of Iraq to hold a photo of Saddam in front of their faces, photograph them and create a portfolio titled Saddam is here.
  • Painted versions of the photographs of prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib.

One-idea gags. They are a kind of intellectual embellishment of the perplexingly complicated historical, political and military events out there in the real world. None of them adds a lot to your understanding of the causes and effects of 9/11 and Iraq. They are another – admittedly sometimes rather demanding – form of entertainment in a world drowning in visual entertainment.

I think this helps explain the impact of the sculptures, the way they emerge as (I think) the strongest pieces. The most impactful three – the Chapman brothers’ piles of bodies, Ai Weiwei’s CCTV camera, Jitish Kallat’s searched action figures – all of them have an instant and powerful visual and conceptual hit.

The Chapmans came to fame in the 1997 Sensation exhibition of works collected by famous advertising tycoon, Charles Saatchi. Just about every critic of the time made the connection between Saatchi’s day job selecting instantaneously powerful images which pack a punch (the pregnant man poster, the Labour isn’t working poster) and his taste for the ‘shocking’ and immediate works of Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin or the Chapmans or Marcus Harvey or Marc Quinn.

I think Ai Weiwei’s work is smack bang in this tradition. He has mastered the skill of applying the ‘instant recognition’ techniques of advertising, to works of ‘art’. It is no surprise that the sculpture of the security camera on a plinth was chosen for the posters and adverts for the exhibition. Like Charles Saatchi Ai has a perfect eye for the iconic image. He is the leading examplar of the way the events of the last 17 years or so can be pillaged for images and icons which can be turned into ‘art’ and form the basis of a lucrative career.

But giving you a better understanding of the world we live in?

4. Understanding issues

No one in their right mind should go to a work of art to ‘understand an issue’. You should read a book, articles, journalism, cuttings and speak to experts in order to ‘understand an issue’. You should research and analyse an ‘issue’.

The commentary asks, ‘Does art have a place in helping to understand terror?’ to which the simple answer is, ‘No, not in the slightest’. What does Ai Weiwei’s stone camera or Mona Hatoum’s glass hand grenades add to your understanding of the causes and consequences of Islamic terrorism? Nothing. They decorate it.

Art is a luxury product, designed to enhance the lives of the rich, or be added to well-funded public collections – it is not history or sociology or anthropology. It is not the study of geopolitics or international affairs or military strategy or state security.

Turn the question round: which work of art has helped you understand the Syrian Civil War best? (Not to understand that war is horrible and violent and people get killed in it – any child knows that, though gruesome photos of victims being dragged from bombed buildings always ram it home. But they don’t help anyone to understand anythingmore than that people suffer and die in war.)

Which work of art has helped you understand why the people of Syria rose up against Bashar-al-Assad in 2011, helped you understand why Syria split up into different geographic units, helped you understand the mosaic of religious and ethnic groups which make up the Syrian population, helped you understand why the West was reluctant to send in troops or commit militarily to the war, helped you understand why Vladimir Putin stepped in and made Russia the main external player in Syria, helped you understand why – lacking Western support – the anti-government forces were soon outstripped by better-funded militant and Islamist groups, helped you understand why U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011 creating a vacuum into which ISIS quickly spread? Helped you understand why, after seven years of agony for the people of Syria, the chances are Bashar-al-Assad will probably stay in power?

Not only does no work of art do this, but no work of art could do this. Only a carefully researched factual account, in fact numerous such accounts, in-depth information about the country’s history and culture and religious and ethnic composition, a good grasp of the geopolitical interests of the local powers (Iran and Saudi Arabia) and the international powers (Russia, America), and a knowledge of the political and military strategy of the United States in neighbouring Iraq could even begin to help you understand the situation.

A painting won’t do that. A sculpture is no replacement for that. Even a video can’t convey that depth and clarity of information required for such a complicated subject. A woman painting a ruined palace is a good gag, a memorable riff, a nifty concept which can be worked up into a ‘piece of art’ which can be sold on to a willing gallery. But it is no replacement for sober, thorough and intelligent analysis.

If the community of galleries, curators, art schools and artists decide that art can be made from subjects, ideas and images in the news, that’s one thing. But pretending that art helps us to ‘understand’ social and political issues is a fond and futile delusion of the art-making and art-consuming classes.

Featured artists

Lida Abdul, Khaled Abdul Wahed, Francis Alÿs, Cory Arcangel, Fiona Banner, James Bridle, Christoph Büchel, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Mahwish Chishty, Nathan Coley, David Cotterrell, Dexter Dalwood, Omer Fast, Coco Fusco, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Mona Hatoum, Jenny Holzer, Rachel Howard, Shona Illingworth, Alfredo Jaar, Jitish Kallat, John Keane, kennardphillips, Fabian Knecht, Hanaa Malallah, Julie Mehretu, Sabine Mortiz, Iván Navarro, Tony Oursler, Trevor Paglen, Mai-Thu Perret, Grayson Perry, Jamal Penjweny, Gerhard Richter, Martha Rosler, Jim Ricks, Hrair Sarkissian, Indrė Šerpytytė, Santiago Sierra, Taryn Simon, Walid Siti, John Smith, Kerry Tribe, Ai Weiwei.

There’s quite a lot of art to enjoy and admire here, and I found this a very thought-provoking exhibition – but not necessarily in the way the curators intended.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

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