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Edwin Coomasaru: A Short Film About War (2009) is filled with a myriad of voices, which are at times chaotic and confusing. On occasions images rush past at great speed, leaping from one warzone or geographical area to another. There can be a lack of depth to the treatment of these places and conflicts; the viewer has little time for sustained reflection on each. Why did you choose to portray online representations of war in such a way?

Jon Thomson: I think one of the reasons it's called A Short Film About War is because it's not a film, and although it is about war, it's perhaps not the prime subject of the piece. The main subject of the work is the mediation of information online. War seemed like an urgent topic: it's one of the fundamental media objects. In some ways mediation arises out of things like war, from very early broadcast journalism. So it was an obviously pressing and ever-present global phenomenon. It allowed us to jump and bounce about the place and actually start to create a space where you could reflect upon the kind of foam or surf that constitutes the global database.

Alison Craighead: Also, you can't make a short film about war.

JT: No, exactly – it is such a preposterous title. We hope people will recognise that and engage with it in that way. So while we don't go into any detail in any place, what we try and do is reflect the experience of what it's like to look at distributing global electronic communications through the web – how everything is informed by fragments that can be readily broken apart, because the provenance and the trace of pretty much everything is present in the network. Sometimes you have to look really deeply to find these things, but many are also on the surface. The URL is a very simple track for a piece of information that relates to a global network of information.

EC: I think in some ways there's something really important about the lack of depth. Watching the film, I get a sense of the glut of information that exists: it's almost like a flood. This is particularly common with topics like war. The film seems like a very apt way of examining and portraying that.

AC: Yes, and especially when you have things like Google Earth and 24-hour news stats. You think you have a huge amount of access to information, but actually you don't. You get this feeling that you're flying above and you can zoom in and see things, but actually what you can see is very controlled.

JT: We're really interested in the treachery of the Google Earth metaphor, because you feel like you're in control and actually you would probably see more if you just walked out your front door. But then again of course, you do have access to things from all around the world, so it's a different mode of attention that delivers different kinds of experiences.

 

Still from Thomson & Craighead, A Short Film About War, 2009, two-channel video, 9 minutes and 37 seconds.

EC: Why did you choose to use Google Earth to jump between the different voices or episodes?

Jo Chard: Because there's a panoptic sensibility of moving around, was the purpose also to explore aspects of surveillance?

AC: Yes. I think the images of downward descent are coming from the perspective of a bomb.

JT: Satellite imagery is itself a product of military research. Google Earth has come from that place, so it seemed like a very natural visual metaphor. It's also a way of adding a slight sense of seamlessness to an extraordinarily stitched-together bunch of fragments. But it is very much the provenance of the imagery.

AC: Traditionally maps have always been about: if you map it, you own it.

EC: And that's connected to notions of empire. I think that is an interesting way of thinking about Google – even the Google Search, which is a way of indexing the web and having power over what we see and don't see and how we navigate space.

AC: Google are very naughty about what they put their mark on, about ownership and non-ownership and copyright.

EC: And they're powerful.

AC: Really powerful, I mean if you think about Google and you think about Google Maps, it's totally dominating the network.

JT: It's an interesting corporate culture because if you look at things like YouTube licenses – which is the usual license for a lot of the social media – they say that they can do anything with your uploads, at anytime, forever – but you still own it.

JC: Same with Instagram.

JT: So if there's trouble it's your fault, but otherwise they can do what they like. It's a complete 'cake and eat it' situation; the whole of the online sphere is governed by that kind of policy, and it hasn't been properly tested yet. It's pernicious. Who knows what will happen in the end.

JC: Talking of YouTube, I wanted to ask something about moving images. The choice of predominantly photographic material from Flickr produces a fragmented and somewhat jarring visual effect as the viewer attempts to coherently interpret these images through narration. Why did you choose to focus on static images as opposed to video, which you have used in other works such as Belief (2012) and October (2012)?

AC: I think we're really interested in the power of cinema, the language of cinema and just the fact if you string images together, it starts to become more like a film.

JT: It's a very simple way of being able to make something with a screen resolution that's quite high quality, because most video online is highly compressed. However, the predominant driving force was an idea of dramatisation: because the left hand screen is kind of fictionalising in some shape or form, so having the still images strung together makes that visible. So the soundtrack is quite tele-visual, cinematic. The imagery is sort of on the borders of beginning to animate in some way, but it remains fragmented – an assemblage of still images.

EC: The technique you use allows you to jump in an interesting way between images and create connections.

JT: It is in some ways quite chaotic, but we try and move through the still images in ways that perhaps have a relationship with editing moving image. But it's difficult because they're not our images, so we were limited in what we found. It becomes almost a perverse exercise of scrutinising and dating.

EC: That leads us on to my next question: like all web users, you have navigated the ocean of online information by collecting – or even 'hunting' – data. With what agenda did you choose what to include, edit and exclude?

AC: I think we were very keen to try and keep this balanced, because you're looking at photographs of war and it's very personal stuff. When you start looking at brutality and violence then it becomes kind of pornographic. So we were trying to show as many war zones in the world as possible and trying to divide this line between showing too much violence and making an account. It's actually quite difficult to balance that. So we would have a lot of conversations about how many bodies to include, what kind of dead bodies. For example, one body is someone in make-up.

JT: That one was being used in a military exercise. There is a bit in Afghanistan where there's a question asked, 'did you see any dead bodies?'. One is an image of a dead person, one is someone in make-up, and another one is in a coffin at a ramp ceremony.

AC: We were also very aware of all the wars there are in Africa, but the network not really being there.

 

Still from Thomson & Craighead, A Short Film About War, 2009, two-channel video, 9 minutes and 37 seconds.

JT: It's really dark there you can't see so much stuff: virtually nothing from child soldiers. Africa is governed by mobile phones: so much is done using them, like banking through micro transactions. The Internet infrastructure is less established. So, in the film, when we go to Sudan, it's an aid-worker who's blogging, she's our window. In a way the work is trying to reflect the limitations of that view. It is a relatively wealthy view, a relatively western view, offered to you by broadband Internet.

AC: We looked very hard, because we really wanted to try and represent child soldiers, but it's an impossible act really: they're not there taking photos with their cameras or iPads.

EC: I suppose that's important isn't it: it's worth acknowledging that many people in the world do not have access to the Internet.

AC: Certainly. When the US arrived, one of the first things they did was to put down an infrastructure so their soldiers could communicate back home, because the ability to communicate is really quite an important point of warfare. Once you get past what I call the 'richer' wars about oil, to Africa and Sri Lanka, it's really difficult for us to find out what's going on. I guess, like we said earlier, the film is not really about war; it's about infrastructure and who can tell their story.

JT: It's as much about war as anything, but we think of it as about mediation. War was an appropriate topic because it is a media object. But, as is evident with the person who is pretending to be dead, throughout the whole film on the left hand screen there are inconsistencies and contradictions. If someone chooses to investigate, they can start to see how it breaks apart into this quite complex lifting of information into fiction or mediation or dramatisation. The right-hand screen is supposed to slap that back down.

JC: The URL links, geographical, temporal and authorial data indicate the diversity of sources that such a documentary relies on. The film seems to a have kind of criticality surrounding this mediation, particularly a western-centric view. This questions notions of objective truth telling typically aligned with documentary practices. Is it ever possible to engage in a filmic practice without this process of mediation?

AC: No. I think and I've always had this idea that documentary makers somehow always told the truth and everything was true, but actually the more you start to study it the more you realise a documentary is a style of showing information.

JT: We're trying to shine a light on that. So when we describe the work as a documentary artwork, I suppose we're not trying to say this is a documentary film. We're trying to say this is an artwork that is using the idea of documentary as part of its means. So that you are perhaps apprehending the whole idea of a documentary as you watch it. We wanted to open up spaces that allow for critical reflection.

AC: And I think it's impossible not to be biased. It's just something that you've got to try and acknowledge. In some ways the piece is more about the act of war rather than particular conflicts. Like the cyclical structure: when the opening speaker's voice repeats at the end, he is just angry and he's been sent back out again. In that sense it seems like this never-ending mud.

JT: If anything, I suppose we're trying to make a connection between the personal and the wider context – to use the lens of an individual as a way of looking at the topic.

AC: For me, just spending time reading about soldiers made me a lot more compassionate and have a lot more empathy for them.

JT: Alison [Craighead] once met a soldier on a plane, and this guy kind of went into confessional mode and he spoke about why he became a soldier. It was a very laudable, idealistic desire to make the world a better place. After he was deployed he very rapidly became disillusioned and damaged by being out there, and came back traumatised.

EC: There is something moving about the section on posttraumatic stress, towards the end of the film. Particularly the sharp contrast between the emotions he's going through and the images of Disney Land with the mock medieval castle and the costumes: a totally surreal manifestation or fantasy of conflict. More widely though, I think the film demonstrates that almost all of our experiences are mediated through something.

JC: At the 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial symposium, you mentioned that the hyperlinks are displayed to allow viewers to check up on your sources.1 Is this intended to foster an attitude of criticality towards online content? If so, is it a problem that it involves a lot of effort to type out each web address (rather than being able to click or copy and paste) – or is the difficulty important to this?

JT: It's a tricky one, because from the moment we made it, it was going to be in a state of decay as the hyperlinks break. So in the end, what you're going to have is something that is just an idea of what the Internet was. In the future, the URLs will gain a nostalgic value and they will have a look and feel that will probably root the work in a specific moment.

AC: Even the look and feel of that text dump is nostalgic.

JT: It is reminiscent of the command line of a computer. The film is genuinely a record. I suppose in an ideal world, it would be great if you could cut, copy and paste the links. But it's sort of a moot point in a way, whether it's hard or easy to type the URL, because the fact is you can. That's what's most important. Over time the work will transform: as the URLs decay you will no longer be able to see the images when you type the addresses in. So it becomes a record of the Internet at that time.

EC: An archive.

JT: That's something that runs through a number of our works: we're trying to perhaps fix some sense of an experience that will disappear.

AC: It is a kind of archaeological approach. But it is also really important that we're not just inventing information: this blog and this man exist and we have credited them, or the person who took the photograph.

EC: Whether or not you've intended there to be a difficulty, perhaps it is notable that it might not necessarily be easy. If we're being asked to foster a criticality towards online material, it may take time to follow sources. How we treat data traces is also important for another, quite different, reason. The film visualises the way information is attached to each digital image or text: author, date, and location. We live in a world where our digital footprints are being commercialised into data commodities. Wittingly or not, we give our consent to corporate companies like Google to capture, archive, share and monetise vast amounts of information about us.2 You acknowledge this – perhaps with criticality or ambivalence – through your use of '#selfsurveillance' on Twitter. How does A Short Film About War reflect on this issue, particularly in the context of war or civil unrest?

 

Still from Thomson & Craighead, A Short Film About War, 2009, two-channel video, 9 minutes and 37 seconds.

JT: I wouldn't directly associate the #selfsurveillance with A Short Film About War, but I suppose it's present in the traceability of activity online. A lot of marketing companies cross reference data in that way. We've made a piece of work, London Wall (2010), with lots of fly posters that visualises Twitter traffic within very specific geographical areas. The piece used processes similar to market research in order to geographically zone that traffic. That's what they're doing all the time.

JC: It makes me want to delete myself from everything.

AC: You can be very specific: you can search terms within Twitter such as age, postcode or job. So you can say 'Plumber, 25' and a postcode and everyone who falls into that category will come up. It's incredible.

JT: One of the reasons for using #selfsurveillance was not so much ambivalence or criticality, but visibility: it's a reminder. If you imagine the GDR still existed and the Stasi were still deploying endless officers to watch the minutiae of people's daily lives in Eastern Germany, then the emergence of Facebook would simplify their jobs, because everyone is self surveying now. The intimate information, that was met with such horror by individuals as they looked at their Stasi files, is now being willingly given. Even phones are tracking you all the time.

AC: But I think, actually, what we enjoyed about A Short Film About War is that we treated it a bit like a problem: can we just use stuff that is creative commons and that is copyright free? We only included material that people wanted others to use and share. That was really hard, because sometimes you would find an amazing image but it wasn't under that licensing, so you just had to walk away.

EC: Your point about the commons is interesting: I suppose it's the flip side of all of this, particularly in contrast to the monetisation. On the Internet there is also a space where people can give things and share things freely.

JT: That's true.

AC: I think that's the spirit of the Internet that I love: when people are really generous. It still exists but is obviously changing.

JC: It's being closed in upon slowly by capitalism.

JT: It's been changing a lot in the last few years. Twitter less so, but Facebook definitely is trying to create a kind of meta-network. So it's saying 'don't worry you don't have to leave Facebook you can do everything here', and then suddenly the walls will come down and we'll be locked in. The Internet will be shrunk and corporatised.

EC: This idea of sharing and the commons reminds me of movements such as Occupy.

AC: That's what really cheered us up about the Occupy movement – the network was being used for what we believed to be a really good thing, to be more political and to bring people together. It was really exciting. It was a kind of taking back ownership.

 

Edwin Coomasaru and Jo Chard are History of Art MA students at University College London, specialising in contemporary art.

 

Notes

1 Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead, 'Panel Discussion: Photography Beyond the Gallery', Brighton Photo Biennial Symposium, University of Brighton, 6/10/2012.

2 See Geert Lovink and Miriam Rasch eds., Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2013).