There Are No Words
The climate is war; or an atmosphere as dark and sinisterly fraught as to evoke its simulacra. Eugenia Raskopoulos has dropped us into a realm beyond the signs of audible speech in a place of night punctuated by smoke and flares. One finds oneself negotiating the walls of a large glass container – floor to ceiling height and the scale of a Mies van der Rohe Modernist house, a transparent box, or liminal zone, which mediates regimes of looking. The smoke is leaking out, tainting the air, the box unable to entirely contain the spectacle from which we’ve bodily been excluded. We could be watching TV, at the scale of an amplified aquarium were it not for the seepage, and the degree of confusion. But, there’s no comforting voice of a telecaster, no newsreader, only a blistering soundtrack modulating white noise and an irritation of the nostrils.
Further, red LED lights of the external projectors, beaming multiple searchlights into the box, reflect and bounce off the smoke and walls like telecast trails of fighter jet flyovers. The smoke and the visual confounding of inside and outside, begin, by association, to stand in as double metaphors for Rumsfeld’s uncontainable container war, which, more than a year on, is still raging on the glass-fronted boxes of television in our homes. ‘Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld’s own shrug towards the unforeseeable sums up the imagery of smoke and chaos which has been passing as reportage.
Without saying so directly, Raskopoulos exposes the sideshow of Shock and Awe. Or similar media stagings. Explicitly banishing content, and instead reconstructing the more familiar telespectacle as a phenomenologically encounterable large object of smoke and lights, her installation translates the elements of telespectacle into a much more palpable event. In a fashion analogous to Minimalism’s project of bringing sculpture down from its pedestal and into real body contact measured by the scale of bodies, Raskopoulos reconfigures the elements of TV.
Her installation goes to the core of telecritique and political posturing: the stage management of events. There is no such thing as Rumsfeld’s container war, neatly packaged as a television deal, right down to its Hollywood blockbuster name, Shock and Awe, the sequel to Desert Storm. War is messier; the smokescreens real. Raskopoulos’ critique cuts to the chase in respect of an art of displacement in which signifiers are sliding underneath an impression that everything is under control. To break this illusion, Raskopoulos’ installation leaks; the TV screen becomes the unsealed container, implicating the user’s materially discomforted body. Though her spectacle dazzles – and to the point of an admittable enjoyment – it also nags like a minor irritant, physically troubling. More worrying, there’s an absence of didactic commentary, as if one is at a limit state which beggars’ belief.
There’s no explanation – there are no words. It’s a situation, which leaves the tainted odour of a leaky spectacle in which there was nothing much to see, and certainly little to hear in respect of critical commentary. In respect of Shock and Awe the only telegenic dialogue was the crazily optimistic showmanship of the Iraqi minister for information in acutely comic denial. Nevertheless, Raskopoulos never crosses the line explicitly linking her work to Gulf War Two. The point of the work is to remain oblique, to make us question the spectacle before us. Yet nonetheless her installation serves to remind that all TV gave us was flash and flare, the reportage like smoke machines at work. Raskopoulos leaves them very visible, at floor level.
And even if, as a gallery-goer, the Iraqi connection doesn’t initially twig, one’s nose is in something resembling the televised version of it or some other war or warlike event [unmistakable flashes of light], but with the difference of registering the stench of smoke in one’s physical live body. Raskopoulos won’t let us off with a passive reaction to screen culture and the fake transparency of our fishbowl telecommunications systems. Something stinks and gets up our noses, something as obvious as spectacle which tells us nothing: Shock and Awe is a command to be dazzled, in Deleuzian terms, by ‘order-words’. Be dazzled, over-awed, in shock, in stupor. Such a state is its own gratification, signalling an end to meaningful speech. Raskopoulos is offering a translation: the state of shock and awe engenders no words, but rather is intended to take them away.
The second Gulf War with its misinformation, on both sides, reached the scale of the incredulous. On the American side, images of mock mobile biological weapons delivery-systems and WMDs no one could find left an embarrassed Colin Powel reading a speech that couldn’t be believed. Raskopoulos doesn’t have to retell, or rerepresent any of that incredulity. Stuff Happens, the stage play, had enough witty one-liners up its sleeve just from watching TV, and gathering what fell out of the collective mouths of Bush, Blair, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice. It’s enough for Raskopoulos to rather attack the systems of communication and representation themselves: the camera as an inadequate medium when journalism is silenced by putting the reporters in “imbedded” positions, ‘in bed with the army’, compromised on the back of tanks.
In spite of all the live camera feeds, Raskopoulos constantly asks, “well, what do we see?” Alain Resmais had asked a similar question in his film of Margueritte Duras’s Hiroshima Mon Armour, in 1960, in an attempt to come to come to terms with Hiroshima and the aftermath of the atomic blast. That film had memorably opened with two bodies embracing, one European, one Japanese, female and male. She: “I saw everything.” He: “You saw nothing.” As the bodies caress, the camera is also rolling over documentary footage and photos of Hiroshima; the devastation; her insistence that flowers were blooming ten days after the blast. In Resnais’ film not only do words fail but also the image; a failure of photography, a failure of film and the artificial memory implanted by TV.
Now, Raskopoulos is implying we no longer have even that. Though there’s a strong sense of Renais/Duras’ sense of the inexpressible, the trope of a horror which always exceed description – Kurtz’s words at the end of Apocalypse Now,” the horror, the horror” – much is excused on the grounds that description is always too much or not enough, always incommensurable to uncapturable, untranslatable events. The danger here, in accepting this tenet, is that we can excuse too much, not call war into account because it belongs to the register of the unthinkable.
Contemporary war reportage risks to become a sideshow, sensation without a content – and, in the case of Shock and Awe, played out like a video game tally in which winning is taking the lowest possible number of hits. However, unlike the video game scoreboards, there’s never a body count for the other side. Only the wildly caricaturesque metaphors of Iraq’s Minster for Information: “We will crush the back of the American snake.” An unequal combat of poetry and missiles.
Raskopoulos’ soundtrack owes much to the noise movement of contemporary electronic music, its hiss and tick pumped up to the volume of the music that went to war in Apocalypse Now. For the first time movies incorporated psychedelic tracks in the headphones of young soldiers, and the white noise “phut phut” of helicopters was mixed into Wagner’s March of the Valkries to create the sinister soundtrack of the war-machine blasting over Vietnamese villages to “scare the shit out of them.” Of course soldiers had been marching off to war on music for centuries; Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon recalls the fife and drumming of specifically seventeenth century military bands, music intended for war alone. In earlier centuries military music was a well-defined genre designed to rouse the troops with a mixture of ideology and affect. But now that discipline is breaking down, the border, which separated civilian pleasures and military action, is a blur of war, technology and enjoyment. The scale begins to tip towards the obscene, towards undisciplined and perversely private pleasures inside the war machine.
Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange had already set up a protagonist for whom Beethoven’s music was a trigger for violence, even though, in the second part of the film, the musical circuits were turned against him. It now seems that the deployment of a musically induced hysteria or psychosis, as represented in Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now, has become a standard of contemporary warfare. The heavy metal blasting from the tanks of US soldiers stationed in Iraq is machine-gun music, blending firepower with a musically intensified high. Only Michael Moore worries publicly about this in Fahrenheit 911. Analogously, the up close effect of Raskopoulos’ amplified micro sound compounds pleasure and technology, penetrating the psyche with a foreign and disturbing intimacy.
Further, contemporary war seems to be increasingly taking its cues from the tropes of cinema. Who can forget that scene in Apocalypse Now when the entertainment is airlifted in? The lights come on in the jungle with the amplified sound track, in an incongruous stage show in which showgirls are dropped in as if from another planet. Raskopoulos’ installation can likewise be read as the abstracted signs of such entertainment; remove the specific content and what remains is the affect of spectacle.
Again, there are no words. That’s the point of enjoyment as pure affect. The play of smoke and lights in an intensive space is enough to generate certain memory effects, to activate well-worn cultural tracks, even if, on the plane of content, the event is void. The empty spectacle will suffice; given the high level of programming we’ve been subjected to, from Marilyn Manson on MTV to the X-Files. On a sensate level we’re trained and docile population readers of cinematic cues, including violence, with a certain aesthetic satisfaction.
This isn’t to suggest the moral argument that certain films and video games create violent populations and should be stopped, but rather that certain states of aesthetic pleasure are acknowledged and harnessed in the war machine, and even in its media output, as a subliminal satisfaction. At the order of aesthetic programming the spectacle of war – not war itself – is depicted in visual patternings of gratification. This patterning, and the satisfaction which we implicitly derive from it, when distanced from any real-world horror or actual event, is what Raskopoulos reveals.
She’s counting on the complicit enjoyment of the gallery-goer, in tension with the work’s irritation in terms of not disclosing any specific meaning or content. The empty signifier is screening larger than cinema and wide-screen TV: a nothing through which and about which an atmosphere is staged through the tricks of an elaborate mis-en-scene. All of which begs the comparison between war and Hollywood, and large-scale systems of representation. .
Of course, this complicit history has already been charted by Virilio in War and Cinema, if with a different emphasis. Virilio’s interest in the relationship between prostheses of vision and the war machine has developed into a long-term project which connects the camera and the map to the gun and the eye: cinema and television were first developed as military technologies, in aerial surveillance, in world war one. Raskopoulos’ installation investigates another trajectory that is less prosthetic than phenomenological, less Virilio’s subsumption of being and place to displacement and telepresence, than to a renewed political manipulation of the body and its pleasures. To this effect war and cinema meet in the spectacle.
There’s a rumour going around that Rumsfeld used the cinema to manage a crisis in respect of landing on the moon. At the last minute it was realized that in the extreme cold the cameras wouldn’t work. What would be the point of beating the Russians to it, if no one could ever know about it? (A 2006 Herald news article noted that the moon tapes have gone astray, throwing us off the scent once again.) In any case, the rumour is interesting enough in itself, and possibly confirmed by the moon landing sets, which James Bond cynically visits, in Diamonds Are Forever. Numerous analyses have pointed out such incongruities as the flapping of the flag in the absence of lunar wind (no atmosphere), moon walking which looks exactly like slowed-down running, reflections of studio lights in the helmets, and shadows from the sun lighting the wrong side of the bodies. With delicious irony Rumsfeld is credited with hiring Kubrick to do the job, making use of the sets of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and swearing Kubrick to the kind of secrecy that made him a recluse. Apparently, if one looks hard enough, the signature of Kubrick is signed on moon sand.
The implication is that Rumsfeld has been manufacturing world events as cinema from a long time back. Shock and Awe is his latest: a spectacular opening of night battle footage, followed by the daytime convoy rolling across the desert, as if to measure narrative progress with gains in territory. Raskopoulos has, like Rumsfeld, manipulated certain elements for drama, and even a little poetics, to drive the point of those cinematic constructions across. The installation of There Are No Words could be a giant studio set, which underlines how, under Rumsfeld, America’s military image identifies with a certain style of staging.
By contrast, World War 2 took place in an era of pre televisual technologies. Radio and cinema, as a screened event in public theatres, relied on an altogether different aesthetics within the documentary and reportage tradition. Vietnam was the watershed in which the power of photography, uncensored, and multiplied through TV, changed public opinion and lost support for the war (that famous image of the napalmed girl running down the street naked and on fire). Post-Vietnam responsibility for the images of the war now pass to military stage managers like Rumsfeld with an eye on Hollywood and tight control.
The publicity side of the war machine wants to make sure no inadvertent images escape. As telespectacle, Gulf War Two is differently constructed to the images of Gulf War One. Neither was anything like those snapped by the freelance photojournalists of Vietnam, but Gulf War One was judged too impersonal, a PR disaster, even though the war was won. Advances in computer graphics and military targeting had turned the first Gulf War into an abstracted video game experience that prompted Baudrillard to declare hyperbolically that “The Gulf War Didn’t Take Place.” The recorded display of superior French weaponry came across as a humanist scandal: war as simulation at a distance, an event in which no human story was told by persons, and, further, civilian casualties were disguised under the new code of ‘collateral damage’. Gulf War Two, the sequel, had to be conducted with a careful eye on the political ratings; its aesthetics better tailored to political ends.
Therefore, Shock and Awe, in contrast to Desert Storm, was presented in much more conservative terms of the good old-fashioned spectacle of big explosions, smoke and bright lights. The politically dangerous dehumanized vision of Gulf War One was swapped for a phenomenologically based cinema of troops on the ground, in convoy, at human scale, interspersed with the high action spectacle of the bombings. Almost by way of narrative distraction, American television viewers would travel, safely in their lounge rooms, via embedded cameras looking over shoulders and helmets to see what their soldiers were seeing: desert scenes, waving locals. Of course, there was real death and destruction underneath the bombs of Shock and Awe but the world’s television public was presented with an illusion, with a carefully constructed representation. Look again and there is nothing. Replay the footage of Shock and Awe a thousand times and the scene of war has been diverted.
Raskopoulos picks up on this radical shift to the big cinematics, even though ironically, the careful management of Shock and Awe was to come undone through local content and the little media of private digital cameras and email in the Abu Gre scandals. Muslim prisoners and terrorist suspects were humiliated with unclean menstrual blood and photographed naked and hooded in the S&M bondage poses, in gruesome parodies of the freedoms of democracy – like the rights of consenting adults to enjoy pornography. With further irony, these revelations confirm Raskopoulos’ point of an obscene war, which had already crossed the line in mixing battle with perverse personal pleasure. Enjoyment, in Raskopoulos’ installation, is thus fore grounded as a complex and potentially compromising emotion, well documented in the case studies of war and perversion by Zizek 1.
In terms of Raskopoulos’ practice, There Are No Words belongs to an extensive body of works, which articulate the struggle-to-say, when utterance is a difficult rite of passage from body to word. As such, she has underscored the value of speech, and, more importantly, what is signified by its loss in figures of disempowerment. For example, in Without Voice (1998), close-up photographs of her grandmother’s mouth were juxtaposed with images of the fractured marble penises of classical Greece’s male kouroi in a difficult dialogue on gender, power and patriarchy. Woman, the castrated eunuch of Germaine Greer, is equated to loss of power and loss of speech. Further, in Untitled 99/00 a series of handheld torches fitfully traced out letters expressive of the desire-for-speech before overtaken by darkness. Language, as Heidegger demonstrates, is a core affair of being: its expression our means to becoming. Turn on the Tongue (2000) alludes to circumstances complicated by insecurities of culture, sexuality and identity, as a young child begins to trace the letter of a Greek beta, rubs out its tail, and corrects it to a proper English ‘b’.
Being unable to speak, or to have no speech, can therefore be interpreted as a state of dereliction. This could be described as the inverse state to Lacan’s jouissance of the body, a joy of sexuality inexpressible in language, which is nonetheless expressed in the “supplement of the word” 2 (‘the other satisfaction’) as extended to the other.
Attuned as such to this politics of the other (in which Levinas confirmed that the self is formed through the reciprocation of the other), Raskopoulos’ work comprehends the contract of speech, and the ethics inherent in the rituals of language through which one finds not only one’s being but mutual respect. Given this investment in the crisis of speech and belonging, for an artist like Raskopoulos to disavow speech, or worse, to yield to speech’s failure in empty spectacle, is to indicate the breakdown of ethical relations. There Are No Words signals, instead, the succumbing of speech to perverse jouissance. A dumbfounding in respect of what has been taken away. An evacuated content, bereft of the nourishment of speech and the contract with the other, is tantamount to ethical collapse. Raskopoulos’ spectator is in the dark, nose up against the glass, in the compromised enjoyment of that one-way passage of modern telecommunication.
1. Zizek, Slavoj, Tarrying With the Negative (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993). 165-200.
2. Jacques Lacan, Le Seminaire XX: Encore (Paris: Seuil, 1975), 33-49.