The aesthetic dissonance of boy’s toys: Mosse and Banner

richard-mosse 2
Copyright Richard Mosse- still from  three screen film installation Incoming (2017) courtesy of the artist

In the early seventies, when Cold War rhetoric cast its all-pervasive gloom over our teenage angst, we all reacted in different ways to the existential nuclear threat.  I remember a rather intense fellow student, middle-aged before his time, who had stockpiled a forensic knowledge of the missile technology acquired by the opposing sides. After regaling me with arcane differences in missile range, payload and propulsion mode, he got me thinking.  What did he find so absorbing about the technical  details of these murderous weapons?  Was it glorification of war or a fear of it? Did focussing on the machines rather than the potential victims provide a means of controlling the terror we all felt? Are the “boy’s toys” collected by adult males such as weaponry, games consoles, cameras and cars a defense reaction to the uncontrollability of their destinies?

I wondered the same during Richard Mosse’s current spectacular three screen video installation at the Barbican Curve, Incoming (2017), the title itself hinting at the parallel between missiles and human traffic. He has not ignored the victims of war but much of its unsettling visual impact derives from the dramatic and poetic “boy’s toys” imagery: missiles being loaded, fighterjets launching from aircraft carriers, ships ploughing through the ocean, trucks rumbling through the desert, firefighters hosing blazing refugee encampments. They have been captured using the latest hi-tech supergadget for the video artist, a thermal imaging camera sensitive to objects 20 miles away usually deployed for military surveillance. Mosse is clear about the irony of using a camera that in borderforce hands might be deployed to locate and eliminate incoming migrants. However we cannot ignore the strategic motivation that underlies an artist’s desire to create work that will stand out from the welter of art films vying for our attention. The shock value of novel technology to represent the  visual world is a great help. But when refugees are the focus there is a danger that such an approach converts them into lost souls wandering in a netherworld constructed by the artist.

Rich mossee1
Copyright Richard Mosse – still from  film installation Incoming (2017)

To be fair to Mosse his edit ensures that this is far from an arms dealers promo. A truck carrying refugees is comically overloaded but we fear it might topple. The movement of a man bowing in prayer mirrors a later shot of a man stooping to load a missile. A blur in the sky that might be a plane turns out to be a bird. In this way Mosse firmly locates the technology in a human context. He  carefully rejects sentimentality or sensationalism in representing the refugee crisis. Life goes on as usual even in a refugee centre with a cheerful exchange between women about the size of their respective broods using hand gestures  while the children are transfixed by their handheld screens. Two refugee boys are seen wrestling in a desperate tussle that seems to express a  frustrated need for resolution. Among its many breathtaking images is a sunset where the clouds and sun appeared to be tacked to the sky like fabric cutouts. Some of the more brutal footage was excluded from the final version, but it is still a harrowing experience. It runs until 23 April.

Another artist who has contributed to the beauty of weaponry debate in her deliciously understated work is Fiona Banner. The Harrier jet fighter suspended from the roof of the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain in 2010 with its nose cone inches from the floor will not be quickly forgotten by those lucky enough to have seen it. This absurd installation reduces the war machine to a helpless puppet or trussed bird that we can toy with at will. Like Mosse, Banner does not shy away from the unsettling, functional beauty of these killing machines.

2010-London-Tate-Britain-Fiona-Banner-Harrier-038-018 (1)
Installation view of Fiona Banner’s Harrier and Jaguar (2010). Photo credit:

Her exhibition Buoys Boys, at the Bexhill De la Warr last December explored this unreality of warfare through the story of the Red Baron, the infamous WWI  German fighter pilot who kept a meticulous tally of the pilots he downed in his dogfights.  He entered popular culture as the sworn enemy of the much-loved cartoon beagle Snoopy. In her film black balloons in the form of five large inflatable full stops, each in a different font, float ominously on the skyline like a parody of a fighter plane formation with the sea below and only the seagulls as absurd spectators. On the soundtrack a schoolboy’s choir sweetly sing the 1960s hit  Snoopy vs the Red Baron  with the ridiculously chirpy chorus:

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more, the Bloody Red Baron was rollin’ up the score.

Eighty men died tryin’ to end that spree of the Bloody Red Baron of Germany.

Art can convey the absurdity of war far better than any other creative form and for me Banner has nailed it in the most original way. Mosse  has focused on the tragedy of war but ironically its impact is more aesthetic than thought-provoking.

Image copyright SabellaMai 2012-17

Can art do philosophy?


download (1)

Helen Knowles’ The Trial of Superdebthunterbot is a video and performance art project that directly poses a philosophical question: can an artificial intelligence algorithm be held legally and morally responsible for the consequences of its actions? She has actualised this idea in an imaginary algorithm that has “learnt” that student loan debt recovery is optimised by offering defaulters high risk job opportunities. This has led to the deaths of two of them in an unregulated medical trial. Some sceptics might ask: is this an artwork or an educational  discussion trigger or can it be both?  Whatever the answer, it is a welcome counter to the decline in public engagement with philosophical debate. Philosophy’s media profile has become more muted and we lack the present day equivalents of Bertrand Russel or Jean Paul Sartre to inspire us.

In the current climate an understanding of what philosophy can contribute is confused or nonexistent but there is still a hunger to get some clarity on the big, intractable problems we face. A teenage applicant for A level Philosophy I interviewed once told me he thought it could answer the big mysteries of life. “Like what?” I asked. Unsure he suggested “Why dinosaurs became extinct?” Rather than plough through some Nietzsche or Debord, maybe exposure to this kind of art project would have clarified his understanding of philosophical debate.

Like many of this year’s Goldsmith MFA graduates I have lauded in earlier blogposts, Knowles takes it for granted that art can be defined without preconceived boundaries and is determined to focus on her political concerns . This was not so obvious a route for earlier generations of budding artists, even those born long after the innovations of the Dadaists and Situationists. Jeremy Deller remarks on his epiphany in New York meeting Andy Warhol amid the happenings in The Factory in 1986 when he realised that the artist is permitted to do anything and call it art.  All artists must have a narcissistic streak, after all they are given permission and money to hone and pursue a single-minded, personal vision and realise this in whatever fashion they desire.  What is so life affirming about Deller is that he uses this artistic freedom to relinquish control to the disempowered. Among his many democratically inspired art projects I was particularly struck by his decision to delegate to a group of Spanish teenagers the filming of his organised street processions for minority groups in Santander which he then exhibited at his Turner Prize winning show.

Knowles has carried off a similar trick by stepping aside and involving a wide range of people in the questions she is pursuing through her art. A mixture of actors and law experts took roles in the mock trial held in Southwark Crown court to promote its authenticity.  Many groups including law students have seen either the performance or the 45 minute video record of the trial and been stimulated to discuss the issues it raises. A fellow student Daniel Dressel constructed a computer which is wheeled into the witness-box giving the performance a 1960’s Situationist-style absurdity. At an event at the Zabludovicz Collection last month a “jury” that included legal and AI experts as well as laypeople deliberated on the case for 90 minutes. They were surrounded by an invited audience who also contributed to the debate. This commitment to involving others is a perfect fit with the wider educational aims of the project. I learnt from one expert that we might build in a process whereby the algorithm learns from its fatal mistakes and corrects its “immoral” behaviour.

This scenario is so far removed from current legal practice that I would guess that academic law researchers would have failed to attract funding for such a project. So if only artists like Knowles can achieve this, by default we are dependent on them to advance the crucial public debate. In this sense, art not only can do, it must do, philosophy. Debord would say we must see the world without boundaries as a totality otherwise we will get suckered by the illusion of the Spectacle.