Armed Vision

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Today we witness the rise of an entirely new kind of image. It is the type of image that is streamed through a missile-mounted camera as it hurls toward its target: a speeding image propelled through space, at the window of a remotely-piloted vehicle, harnessed to a weapons system, its sights locked onto the object that it aims to obliterate. As in a videogame, we experience a rush of adrenaline, a strange combination of glee and dread as it explodes. We move from the machinic-camera point of view to the perspective that destroys all perspectives. Our line of vision fuses with the projectile. The militarized image hovers eerily in between.

Such an image may seem to have a short life span, but its apparatus endures. It is increasingly fueling changes in the visual field. We do not need to look to smartbomb-riding image streams to see these changes, for these new kinds of militarized formats appear everywhere today. They are components of powerful warfare complexes. They have joysticks attached to them. They are embedded in struggles among combative actors, bound up in escalating drives for the maintenance and manufacture of strategic advantage. They are part of new fitness regimes, new formats of adequacy and muscularity. They aim to both violate and shield. They are at work not only in government but increasingly in corporate sectors. In every case, they mark a renewed, compulsive militarization — joined to the relentless pace of technological innovation and the erotic charge of combat — that is everywhere a powerful force driving global societies.

In order to set the stage for this investigation, I want to consider another trajectory of representational development — a trajectory that runs alongside, and intertwines with, our familiar civilian narratives. These civilian narratives emphasize groundlevel orientations — the advance or retreat of sightlines and perspectives along the terrestrial expanse of the earth; the arraying of montages or sequences along a horizontal axis or along the y-axis of spatial depth according to a civilian temporality (clocktime). In contrast, the orientation that I will consider could be regarded as that of the vertical or aerial: of looking downward rather than sideways.

This vertical orientation is but a figure to mark another vector leading into the image, another perspective into the constitution of its assemblage. This « extra » orientation could mark a war machine in contrast to a work machine, or what, after Deleuze and Guattari, could be described as a speed-fluctuation-mobile system in contrast to a gravity-displacement, weight-height system. It indicates an apparatus of tracking movement, rather than simply representing movement. It is an orientation that is somehow ultimately not « for us. » It is the perspective of a militarized, machinic surround, in which we are seen from a viewpoint not recognizably our own. And just as images are increasingly eliminated in the context of vast flows of data that can be routed, sorted, and read by machines, human viewers or operators are not always necessary in emerging systems that advance ever more rapidly toward realtime activity. Sometimes the margin for strategic advantage is lost in the blink of an eyelid. And militarized perspectives require the maintenance of that strategic edge at all costs. This is why they exist, and why they cause distances to warp in their aftermath. But it is not really a matter of humans being eliminated so much as their functions being integrated into the circuits — as, concurrently, these circuits are incorporated into retooled bodies. Just as we know, to a certain extent, that humans are already cyborgs, we should also know that images are already machine-images. Images, as we have known them, are virtually ceasing to exist, as are the industrialized bodies that were necessary to see them.

Down There

We think of the development of photography as occurring along a horizontal axis: the camera positioned atop a tripod, lens perpendicular to the ground, gazing out over the expanse of the earth in order to capture a setting from an anthropocentric position — a stand-in for an absent, idealized viewer. But photography developed concurrently along another axis, with the recording apparatus transported vertically up into the air, its lens turned downward. Both orientations drove toward the representation of movement, but for very different purposes. In aerial photography, sequences of still images, taken from balloons and planes, were mechanically generated and successively compared, in order to detect and analyse the kinds of ground movements that they suggested — ground movements that single images alone could not evoke. This proto-filmic apparatus — where a series of still frames were layed side by side in order to understand movement through interpolation, filling in the gaps that technology was subsequently driven to bridge –can be regarded as a virtual machine driving the representation of movement in order to track it. Mapping changes and discovering patterns, the objective was to understand what moves (troops? construction materials?), how it moves, and how that movement can be intercepted or exploited. From the very beginning, this « tracking » was a strategic, « smart seeing, » harnessed to technologies of sorting and storing (e.g. files), and linked to apparatus of protection and violation: a very different kind of vision than produced through the familiar formats of the moving image — that is, cinema. In contrast to filmic concerns such as transition, montage, and characterization, this militarized language was one of positioning, tracking, identifying, predicting, targeting, and intercepting/containing.

As Serge Daney reminds us, the movements of the cinematic image could only be perceived because people were once put into theaters, locked into place before the screen and held in a situation of « blocked vision. » Immobilized, held in seat arrest and slowly trained how to behave and see, people became sensitive to the mobility of the world through the mediation of the screen. They became sensitive to the technologically-fabricated illusion of movement as well as the movement produced through the language of film. Technological and representational conditions joined bodily enactments in a circuit that defined movement as such: a movement defined in relation to the earth’s horizon, but transmitted and intertwined with the staccato of the cinematic « speech. »

Aerial — militarized — representations arose out of a need to penetrate deep within the image to divulge what may lay hidden, latent, or concealed within it evermore swiftly and accurately. The purpose of this excavation is to conquer, protect, and help define individual, group, and territorial bodies. The incorporating and integrating dimensions — linked to processes of subjectivity — are circulated within a calculus of power. These assemblages have a violating and shielding function. They occur within mechanisms of attack, preventivity, and protection, with subjects that play out along singular and collective, local, national, and international boundaries. Where the terrestrial image has an object, the aerial image has a target. This target is not necessarily an object to be destroyed, but simply an object upon which a militarized seeing-apparatus has directed its gaze, locked onto in its viewfinder. The targeted individual or ground location is often simply an arena of analysis that may or may not involve any kind of explicit combative action. It can involve a battle of another sort: a process of proactive policing, spotlighting or dividing targeted regions and social groups in the name of prevention or safety. The artillery of this armed seeing may involve the redlining of a region or social formation for the purpose of protecting an exteriority from it — sheathing one formation in a protective coating against another. This proactive policing can nonetheless be a form of violence committed on both sides: not only on the side which is redlined, which is embroiled in a kind of war the terms of which are not usually known, but also upon the side that is protected, sheathed in a kind of obfuscatory prophylactic as a mechanism of control in relation to a exterior danger produced for that purpose. Therefore, we can say that where the civilian image calls forth a directed gaze, the militarized image calls forth a projectile/shield — an armed seeing with the ability to both deflect and damage. The apparatus is one of analyse/violate/protect. Indelibly linked to processes of subjectivity, the projectile-gaze captures its object, freezes it, holds it in a tracking mode, intercourses it, obliterates it, couches it in a mechanism of protection as part of the very defining of contours — corporeal, informational — between the one and the other.

Data Bodies

In order delve deeply within the image-target and encase it within a (potentially armed) apparatus of reliable interpretation, three elements were required: an analyst well-skilled in the detection of patterns; a database of searchable past and present information (originally in its analogue sense, e.g. files), able to be accessed and deployed rapidly especially during times of war; and a network of navigation, communication, and coordination. As with civilian images, we can speak of various forms of alignment and coordination between moving elements — as when exposure speeds, technological adjustments, and physical movements must be synchronized in order to capture the image in photography. Under militarization we can speak of a logistics of mobility: a coordination system that, again, involves modes of positioning, tracking, identifying, predicting, targeting, and intercepting/containing.

Early warfare systems were manually controlled: safely ensconced in a distant and secure location, a database in the form of tables and charts was consulted well in advance of a conflict, producing information that was subsequently used in engaged combat. In order to overcome the long distances and delays in communication between weapon, operator-analyst, and database, systems were developed that enabled the database to be installed onsite. Databases grew considerably from their analogue origins as computers gained the capacity to gather and handle larger amounts of information. As computer components miniaturized, becoming more transportable, they could then be used to help direct the weapon much more quickly and precisely, moving along with the weapon or directly networked to it. The soldier became evermore closely integrated with the machine. With the TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) system introduced in the early 1970s, the operator had only to keep his eye on the target, and the projectile would follow his line of sight. With newer laser-guided systems, the operator does not need to keep his eye on the target, because the projectile itself will lock onto it and pursue it. The soldier would seem to have taken a subordinate position within the projectile-gaze. This important liaison between database and weapon could seem to be gradually eliminated as data systems are evermore closely able to directly control the weapon. However the operator-analyst is then faced with an important role: to serve as important check upon the reliability of the information, and to act as a direct human interface to a machine that cannot yet fully interface with all of the ambiguities of a material world.

There is never a seamless interface with machines but only a pliable space that should be carefully navigated. The fighter’s hands and eyes somewhat freed, however, he is free to juggle targets and engage in other activities that will increase his edge on the battlefield. There is therefore the stacking or windowing of interfaces along another axis of activity, deepening the field of attention in the worker-enhancing mode that we know as multitasking. With wars becoming increasingly fast and intense, the soldier’s own integration into the battlefield is highly mediated: he is there yet not there, displacing his own corporeality into a protective shell that can be transferred offsite. His visionary faculty is extended through the network as his own eyes are outfitted with wearable scrims that move ever closer to the biological substrate.

What this marks is, on the one hand, the integration of database, technological platform, and weapon directly into the faculties of the human soldier (or worker-warrior), and on the other hand, a networked weapon that carries its own guidance system (image-database-weapon), seeming to able to store searchable information (memory) within itself and to « see » for its viewer through control-formats that constitute an entirely new kind of perspective. (Although one must consider that perspective in civilian image history is also a control format, constituted within a different war assemblage.) It therefore allows some human capacity to be transferred to it while, concurrently, it helps to format a cognition that is more conducive to the demands of its algorithms. One cannot underestimate the extent to which representation, cognition, and vision are embedded within this circuit. The drive is bound up in an erotic imaginary of technology-body-artillery fusion, fueled under the conditions of war.

Developing under networked computerization and its demands for automation, miniaturization, and acceleration, we can therefore witness the integration of analyst, operator, database, and weapons network into a smart image that is unlike anything we understand in civilian perspectives and which is not accounted for in groundlevel narratives of representational development. This development has occurred in the context of a general cultural shift in relationships to the image, where the image begins to stand in for, and in many senses replace, that which it represents. The human subject and object of the militarized image are evacuated and the image hovers strangely between reality and illusion, the extent of its interface with the material world is rarely felt in a physical sense except of course by those whom it targets, those upon whom its sights are locked.

Locking On

Militarized perspectives involve a particular strategy of aligning databases with moving formations in a procedure that increasingly counts, accounts for, and « produces » subjects. Their accuracy could be considered in terms of the number of coordination points established between system and subject. Deleuze and Guattari describe a similar difference: the difference between the moving body occupying smooth space and the relative characteristics of a moved body going from one point to another in striated space. This is a powerful space for artistic intervention: the very slippage between database, image, body, and subject becoming a pliable, tactical space. Increasingly, however, the goal is to coordinate by penetrating directly through the arbitrary scrim of information and making a direct link to the body substrate. Not only does the scrim of the database stretch over the whole of reality, helping to format it the way that textuality recently was recently thought to do, but, in locating coordination points between database and body, it penetrates deep into the cellular level to precisely lock on to a biological entity, reducing the margin for error to zero. For example, the accuracy rate for identifying an individual through retinal scanning is nearly perfect. Identity cards, once widely used, are now disappearing under the promise of safety and convenience as the signifying function of such cards is merged into the biological level. We cannot therefore rely upon traditional conceptions of signification. A semiotics should take into account the coordination modes of positioning, tracking, identifying, predicting, and targeting, as they occur within mechanisms of the interception and containment of individual, group, and territorial bodies and cutting ever more precisely through the signifying play of postmodernism.

Tracking is integral to these modes. It is the kind of signification process in which machinic seeing engages, linked to the new processes of identification that that this seeing employs. It is also increasingly a part of the identificatory processes of subjects, individuals, and groups. It is a mode of identification that is very different from the processes of reflection by which we have come to know ourselves through images. These formats of tracking and identification have developed rapidly through explosive growth in computing technology and digital networks, contoured under the pressures of miniaturization and fueled by the imposition of new dangers to individual, group, and territorial bodies.

Consider what happens in the process of tracking. A viewing-agency moves over its object or target, scanning its line of action, extracting data. This data is processed, stored, and made searchable and analysable for ever-narrowing strategic margins. For example, the trajectory of a targeted plane is tracked in order to calculate its future position for interception. While it scans for data in the past or present, the tracking mode is always oriented toward the future. It is therefore integrally connected to formats of prediction. This tracking/predicting complex, which results in a peculiar warpage of time, arose out of a need for proactivity — a need to superimpose a scrim of future inclinations upon the now, generating a mesh of potentialities. Less concerned with the reactivity of crime than with a proactive policing that might involve the tracking (and targeting) of certain segments of society in red-lined areas before any crime is committed, tracking-representations call for an image ahead of itself, a strange kind of post-image in which past activity, present actuality, and future inclination are interwoven. Unlike the images in long-exposure photography, which for Walter Benjamin contained evocative traces of the past, these images — integrated with databases — also contain traces of the future. They have grown directly in proportion with the increased capacity of databases to handle massive amounts of low-grade intelligence and the proliferating arrays of devices that enable this collection, and with the ideologies of preventivity that have been quickly gathering steam in the public mind (where, for example, the value of a product can lay in its ability to intercept disease before it occurs).

While militarized perspectives were originally positioned here in terms of top-down (or aerial), perhaps it is better to say that they exist in terms of « back-through, » where they counter the horizontal image, as if seeing back through it from the other side. It is as if the vanishing point behind the image suddenly achieved an agency of vision. These perspectives reverse the direction of sight, undermining the privileges we assume. It is as if the image were seeing back at us — but in this case it may no longer function as, or resemble, anything like its predecessor. Granted, it is a port that compels identifications, but in this case it identifies us before we identify it (and more efficiently and reliably). It does not show its face to us. Which brings us to the point that while civilian images are embedded in processes of identification based in reflection, militarized perspectives collapse identificatory processes into « ID-ing »: a oneway channel of authentication in which a conduit, a database, and a body are aligned and calibrated. In each case, a knot of presence occurs, contouring a subject — a subject imaged or, increasingly, constituted in a complex of managable calculations. Representation, embodiment, and identification are determined in terms based less in reflection than in integration.

Panic Spheres

Just as the database complex marks an « improved » image, the tracking/identifying complex marks an improved form of vision: a database-harnessed, societally-endorsed form of safe seeing that updates prior ocular regimes. Haunted by pending obsolescence, driven by technological imperatives, it is a visionary capacity that cannot fall behind lest it become simply unreliable, incapable of participating fully in database-driven societies. Armed vision is a vision upgraded and made safe against against an unprocessed exteriority, a dangerous and unrealiable outside. Database society is driven by the threat of danger, a danger that militarized perspectives both counter and help to create. It relies on a sporadic state of emergency, a virtual panic sphere, around which the public rallies. Protective measures are installed in order to insure the public’s safety — safety from bodily harm and from the possibility of its transmissions being assaulted (doctored, stolen, lost, rerouted). Under the possibility of danger, database and corporeality blend in a hybrid body — a statistical person — requiring new protections. Virtual prophylactics couch bodily, social, or territorial formations in a protective casing. This technology/image/movement cluster — a protective « vehicle » — helps to define an interior versus and exterior, and thus is embedded in a subjectivizing process. It helps to contour the physical parameter of the users that in/habit its confines. It is thus part of a process of incorporation. It helps to immerse its users into emerging systems and realities. It is thus part of a process of integration. It helps to protect against dangers while simultaneously helping to produce those dangers. It is thus part of an economy of security.

Computerization has brought massive changes in the development and coordination of databases, the speed and quality of communication with intelligence and tactical agencies, operations and combat teams. New technologies of tracking, identification, and networking have increased this infrastructure into a massive machinery of proactive supervision and tactical knowledge. Originally conceived for the defense and intelligence industries, these technologies have, after the cold war, rapidly spread into the law enforcement and private sectors. What would Benjamin have done with such apparatus as night vision technology, developed as result of the Vietnam war, which allows downlinked airborne cameras to track human signatures in total darkness? Militarized images no longer even need light. The axis of exposure has vanished. The form of seeing that these images call forth, conjoined with data-flows and -bases, conspire to render them unnecessary. This new regime is not about presentation but about processing. The moving image has moved on. In the twenty-first century, we will no longer sit still.

Jordan Crandall, 1999

Crandall Jordan

Artiste et théoricien des médias, Professeur-adjoint d'arts visuels à l'Université de Californie, San Diego. A exposé dans de nombreux musées à travers le monde. Son installation Suspension (1997) a été produite par la Documenta X à Kassel ; Drive (1998-99) par la Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum à Graz et le Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) à Karlshrue ; Heatseeking (2000) par in SITE à San Diego et Tijuana ; son ouvre la plus récente est Trigger (2002). Auteur du recueil Drive : Technology, Mobility and Desire, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2002.