Sunday, January 07, 2007

Military exclusion zones and search art

De afbeelding “” kan niet worden weergegeven, omdat hij fouten bevat.

The Internet platform »Zone*Interdite« by the artists Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud

Villö Huszai

»Sensational discovery: Swiss Internet artists reveal US army secret«: that’s how the programme »Kulturplatz« on Swiss television announced the art project »Zone*Interdite« by Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud on 29th March this year. Since early 2000 the two Swiss citizens have been collecting data on military exclusion zones and presenting a compilation of the data on the website The platform is linked up with a Google search function, meaning that information available via Google can be called up for the now circa 2.000 entries with just one mouse-click – a function that is as low-key as it is stunning, for it offers visitors to the site effortless direct access to a plethora of information and images about the individual zones, although the military obligation to kept restricted data confidential dictates that the general public should be kept in the dark as much as possible and certainly should not be told the truth via images.
The report in a cultural programme on Swiss television was triggered by an initial small solo exhibition presenting the project in the Basel media art institution plug_in1. In the run-up to the exhibition, Wachter and Jud had succeeded in making the aforementioned »sensational discovery«: they found out the location of the prison at the American airbase, Bagram, near the Afghan capital, Kabul.2 That same week the »New York Times« and the »Spiegel« had carried reports about the prison and about alleged abuses there. The two media frontrunners in investigative journalism however also indicated that no photos were available so far and that the exact location of the camp was not known. Wachter and Jud’s discovery had so much news value that the political current affairs magazine »10vor10« on Swiss television followed up with a second report about the project the very next evening. »Until yesterday«, explained the »10vor10« programme on 30th March, »the public had not seen any photographs, but now Swiss artists have provided photographic evidence! «
Wachter and Jud achieved their scoop by combining two sources of visual material from former soldiers at the base. A veteran had recorded a 360-degree camera view from the roof of the Bagram headquarters and put it on the net. On the video the prison building in question, a repair workshop for planes from the period of the Soviet occupation, can be clearly seen and hence localised – if one knows that the prison is housed in this former workshop. Wachter and Jud found this out by combining this information with a second photo, a view showing just that building, uploaded to the net with tip-top resolution by another soldier with the revealing comment: »The prison at Bagram, Afghanistan that you hear about on the news. « Veterans have a different relationship to military exclusion zones, to cite Jud: »These zones are part of their daily life, something that they want to tell their loved ones about. « Nostalgic veteran sites had already allowed Wachter and Jud to identify the notorious »Camp Iguana« on Guantánamo, a separate camp that hit the headlines because children were detained there.
How could the two artists, who do all their research exclusively on the Internet via data freely available there, be faster than the press on such burning issues not in one but indeed in two cases? Jud hazards a guess that it’s because »We take a somewhat different approach, we reconstruct images«. For the piece that takes pride of place on »Zone*Interdite« is a striking 3D reconstruction of Guantánamo, which anyone can download, provided they have plenty of time and a powerful PC. Currently Wachter and Jud are putting the finishing touches to a 3D simulation of Bagram. The data they have gleaned in their research are transformed into three-dimensional worlds that aim to attain the visual perfection of a computer game: »You need to understand how this kind of base is constructed, you have to feel yourself into it, live it. « Yet it’s only part of the answer to say the artists have the edge in research thanks to the painstaking detail of constructing a digital world. The other part of the answer leads you straight to the conceptual core of the art project. In that context the scoop is more of a welcome side-effect. I come to that conclusion because Wachter and Jud launched their project around 2000 with, of all things, American bases around Berlin; in other words, with exclusion zones that had certainly been highly sensitive during the Cold War, but which by 1989, if not indeed before that date, constituted merely relics from the past. That didn’t bother Wachter and Jud, for these desolate stretches of land still comprise enough of the very specific material they aim to track down with »Zone*Interdite«: the complex phenomena of perception triggered by prohibiting such perception.
This interest in connection with the »power apparatus«, to cite the project’s Foucaultian reference, can also be observed in earlier works by Wachter, who studied painting, in which he addressed the perception of such taboo-riddled topics as sexuality and death. By their procurement of information, Wachter and Jud would like to contribute to a new »sovereignty of perception«, yet their approach is definitely not naïve despite this didactic goal. They certainly also reflect at the same time on their own behaviour in respect of military exclusion zones: »In the first instance we are examining ourselves«, explains Jud. They could not have predicted that the military and classified information would become extremely sensitive topics after 11th September 2001. They developed their fundamental questions long before that. It seems that it is precisely the timeless nature of the questions they ask that have meant Wachter and Jud are sometimes faster off the mark as investigators.
The scoops made »Zone*Interdite« famous in the media and blogger world. Wachter and Jud’s press clippings folder already contains 480 examples of reports they have come across. Wachter has already been turned into »Watcher« on occasion and many texts are written in such exotic alphabets that they sometimes don’t know which country a particular report is from. The logic of the news industry, and that of the art world, would dictate that Wachter and Jud ought to set off pronto for new shores. However in conversation they over and over again express their conviction that »We are still right at the very beginning with ›Zone*Interdite‹. « Currently Wachter and Jud are constructing the new 3D simulation of Bagram, whilst also extending the Guantánamo simulation, for they stress that new research results keep on coming in. The two are acting in an unusually autonomous manner, not just in terms of the news industry but also in relation to the art business and its rules, as Jud’s answer to the last question on how things currently stand also demonstrates: »We don’t have any official statements about funding for the time being.«

Translation: Helen Ferguson


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