Essay commissioned for the publication accompanying 'Ulrike and Eamon Compliant', a BLAST THEORY project at the 53rd Venice Biennale, commissioned by the De La Warr Pavilion. The work was first performed on the streets of Venice around Palazzo Zenobio from 4-7 June 2009.
The dislocations, fractures and refractions start as soon as you start to walk the canals, squares and bridges of Venice with the mobile phone pressed against your ear.
You stand looking out over the green grey water by the Palazzo Zenobio hearing the voice say: “Take a deep breath. Look around. Take in your surroundings…. Don’t move for a minute or two. …..I’m glad you’re here. I’m sick and tired of sitting on this sofa talking to myself".
Alternatively, had you chosen another role, picked up another phone you might hear… ‘Don’t move for a minute or two. I’ll let you know when its time to move on….Ulrike you were on TV again last night….’
.It’s curiously intimate. You. The buildings. The water. The voice. It guides you, through the physical spaces around you (…can you see church towers?…go down an alley and wait by the water) and through the spaces of this new unfolding you. It gives you facts, tells you stories, details events, outlines the meditations that have shaped your narrative of opposition and personal suffering and struggle as either Ulrike Meinhof, co-founder of the Red Army Faction, or as Eamon Collins, the IRA fighter and member of the ‘nutting squad’, a man who also worked for British Intelligence and was one day found beaten to death by a hammer.
You are given choices. You can respond one way or another and what unfolds next hinges on what choice you have made. A dialogue is entered into. It soon becomes clear that the voice not only knows your past but has knowledge of your present. Should you miss a cue or stray off the path it reacts – even though as far as you can see you are alone and unobserved - and issues new instructions so that you are successfully guided back to where you started from. You are the subject of surveillance.
In the romantic myths and constructions of the twentieth and twenty first centuries the figure of the ‘terrorist’ has a special fascination and resonance, one which has fluxed and reformed in response to tectonic movements in ideology and power over the period. It has a cultural and symbolic weight beyond the action of attempting to overthrow state or governmental structures through non-state structured acts of direct force or violence. It has become an important and often irresistible model of ways that relationships between the creative individual and the structures of power in the culture might be wistfully imagined. The Clash posed in combat fatigues and named records after South American revolutionaries. ‘Guerilla’ actions against hegemony are dreamily hypothesised in the halls of radical academia.
The figure that we are becoming as either Ulrike or Eamon is always in flux, flickering between different states, depending from where they (we) are viewed. Few bought up with posters of Ché on the bedroom wall would blankly use the word ‘Terrorist’, that is the description used by the ‘authorities’, the forces of oppression. Rather, they would employ the taxonomy of Rebel, Freedom Fighter, Revolutionary. Identities continue to multiply beyond this simple gestalt shift. This figure walking the pavements of Venice is the modern exemplar of the politically engaged autonomous Self. An anti-Hamlet. One who has decisively rejected the untrustworthy unengaged processes of bourgeois intellectual thought, in favor of direct action against the forces of repression. At the same time we are the reverse of this: a selfless Self, one who has subsumed their being, their identity, history and relationships to be an agent for greater abstract forces, of History, of Blood, of Nation, of Liberty, of the inevitable triumph of the Oppressed classes, of Eschatology and Teleology. And both these figures are us, or us and the voice.
At the same time we are murderers, and one a betrayer, who have given up the bonds and responsibilities of common humanity in pursuit of our agendas, and both fail. One is murdered, the other dies in prison, hanged in torn sheets, maybe by their own hand, maybe not.
Ulrike and Eamon represent ‘old school’ models. Although their situations were different: one emerging from the Nazi history of Germany and its aftermath, the other from British Colonialism and Nationalism and religious tribal groupings: they are linked through the narratives and modellings of an ideology – Marxism and its derivatives - that developed from Western Enlightenment and Rationalist narratives. In the world we are walking through, in the aftermath of 9/11 such political foundations have been largely superseded by supernatural and theological beliefs based on revealed truths, a shift that has been reflected in re-branding by the hegemons: what used to be seen as the war against Communism has mutated into the rather more general, Global, ‘War on Terror’.
John Le Carré has described the world of undercover operations and espionage as one of ‘controlled schizophrenia’. Espionage, covert activity, resistance, all involve the generation and erasure of multiple narratives, realities and selves. Narratives are crucial in other ways. If the act of planting a bomb becomes disassociated from transformative tales of liberation (be they ideological or theological) the action becomes merely brutal, pathological. Conversely the ‘sleeper’ or mole buried deep undercover requires exchange and contact with their ‘control’ for their divided being to make any sense at all. In ‘Ulrike and Eamon Compliant’ our every action and very identity is dependant on what the voice tells us.
Even before the electronic world fully emerged these arenas required hidden technologies: invisible inks, ghostly networks, disguised radios, photos taken in secret, dead letter drops, fakes and fictions. In the digital Universe these have expanded to construct the world we walk through.
The historical cellular structures of many underground and resistance movements almost prefigured the capabilities of electronic networks to come. Although normally described as ‘anti-modern’, Al Quaida has sophisticated and complex relationships with technology. Sometimes it is not used so that many of its activities remain invisible to others. Other times simple technological means are deployed in a way that more complex systems can’t cope with –use of passenger planes, improvised explosive devices. The organization (such as it is) operates and is shaped by the possibilities of horizontal rhizomatic networks of communication technologies: as a franchise, or a series of echoes and rumours, of themes and stories whispered and passed on, rather than a classic pyramid of information.
Guerilla strategies can be seen as a dialectic of asymmetric technologies, with guerilla action, improvised and contingent, pitched against the massive technological resources of the State or Nation. (These approaches found echo in the attitudes and thinking of the early hacker and new media art communities). It is precisely because they are of a different syntax that they undermine or counteract the larger operations, which seem only able to react by becoming vaster, more monolithic, more powerful, more oppressive. It is exactly this oppressiveness that Guerilla movements have sought to exploit.
In ‘A Scanner Darkly’, Phillip K. Dick explored the effects of chemistry and technology on the operations of Le Carré's Schizophrenic world. ‘Bob Arctor’ lives in an alternative drug house taking ‘Substance D’ that causes a separation of the sense of self. The house is under surveillance by the authorities, all its activities are bugged, viewed and recorded. ‘Arctor’ is the undercover identity of ‘Drugs Agent Fred’ who, as part of a complex series of events ends up following himself as ‘Arctor’, trying to make sense of the narratives of his own actions.
Increasingly the ‘Authorities’ depend on electronic surveillance and use the capabilities of the new technologies to achieve this. Ideas of the development of self used to depend on increasing privacy and autonomy, the construction of an inviolable space in which an individual might decide how to behave unseen by other humans, in discourse perhaps with a conscience or a God or their own thoughts or a Super-ego. This was where complex ideas of motivation and belief were tested, decisions made. Invasions of this space were seen as a terrible violence, echoed in the dramatic trope of adolescence (and 'Simpsons' episodes: ‘The Dad Who Knew Too Little’) of a parent, teacher of family member reading a child’s diary. The new electronic spaces of writing and expression allow the total access to the worlds that were once held as those of the self. Letters in the form of e-mails are made available, are stored for years. Networks of friendship, romance, interest and association are inscribed and are traceable on the spaces of Facebook and the private diary is expressed on YouTube. Technologies and spaces that seemingly encourage the expressions and constructions of the individual self erase the boundary of the interior and exterior so that all is made visible, motivations and thoughts revealed. This is amplified in the ways that our journeys are monitored, our purchases tracked by strangers and those who we have never met can now know what only intimates and doctors once knew.
On our journey, if you make a certain response to a certain cue, the voice guides you indoors. ..’It’s time to go to the room where the questions get asked…” We leave Venice behind us and enter a small room with a mirror on the wall. The telephone has been handed over. In the room we sit down on a chair and a person sits on a chair opposite us. They ask us personal questions about whether we would kill for our beliefs, about motivations, the relationships between beliefs and actions. The person asking us the questions is unknown to us, and we don’t know what they will do with our responses to these probing personal questions. They could be building a database on us for all we know. Didn’t we sign our names at the beginning of the walk? We have told them things about ourselves, revealed parts of our private and personals selves in a way that we would never ever have contemplated before we were taken into the narrative spaces of ‘Ulrike and Eamon compliant’. On the way out of the room we are taken down a corridor. We stand there at a window and we realise that this is the mirror that was on the wall, and we watch another ‘Ulrike’ or ‘Eamon’ (or maybe ‘Arctor’ or ‘Fred’) being debriefed as someone else had been watching us when we were talking.
In a world where the shapes and outlines of the real are increasingly delineated by the electronic pulse, the digital, the virtual; where information technologies are not only a means of recording and description but of generation and determination, Blast Theory’s practice has a unique place. It constitutes a compelling and evolving investigation into the complex multi-player universes and realities our technologies are creating and how these shape our relationships to power and its narratives. Without this awareness it is impossible to suggest actions and strategies that might enable us to respond to these forces, to have a chance at changing the balance of power, if only for a moment. After all, as the voice would ask us, had we had decided not to go into the room where the questions are posed.’what are our actions if we can’t explain them? And once the actions are over – once no more action is possible, what, then, are we left with, Ulrike?….’
Richard Grayson 2009