An essay from the Looking for the Clouds. Contemporary Photography in Times of Conflict project and publication collectivelly curated by European Month of Photography. The group show was showcased in Bratislava and Berlin, and it is still on display at MUSA, Vienna (until 2 April 2017) in frames of Eyes-On festival. Upcoming are the exhibitions in Athens and Luxembourg.
“The Looking for the Clouds. Contemporary Photography in Times of Conflict project focuses on the period of the past 15 years in the Western hemisphere; from the events that shook New York on 11 September 2001 up until the year 2015, which is generally remembered as the climax of an unprecedented wave of forced migration.”
“The world will never be the same again!” That was the ongoing slogan that people of different backgrounds and sphere of interests, from analysts, politicians, journalists, to ordinary concerned citizens, kept repeating in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. It seemed that the whole of Western society unanimously and uniformly started to spread the mantra, even before the scale of the event was established and disclosed. From the first moment the news broke, the attack had enormous potential to become a spectacle. And indeed, it became a spectacle of unimagined proportions, a gruesome overture into the 21st century.
Real time TV footage of the tragedy was broadcast globally. The day after, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, an entire issue of a major national daily newspaper was dedicated to 9/11 exclusively. The society of the spectacle and its driving force, mass media, seemed to be embracing the event with great horror and excitement. The shockwave was so powerful that virtually nobody (in the Western world) disagreed that countermeasures were inevitable and righteous. The US and its allies were granted the moral right to attack and invade whoever, whenever, wherever. Soon after, the term “war on terror” was coined.
It is true, therefore, that the world has changed since then and that nobody was completely immune to that as huge socio-political turn was played out in the West, and even more so, in the societies that became its prey: first Afghanistan; then Iraq; then Libya; then later, indirectly, Syria and Yemen. Even though the majority of terrorists who conducted the attack were citizens of Saudi Arabia, this country was not subjected to any measures. Instead, the Western world sought out the prime source of evil in the areas that did not comply with the new world order and the rules of global monetary system. And if one looks at it more profoundly, all the states that became victims of aggressions used to be part of the emancipatory Non-Aligned Movement, a union of former colonies in the so called second and third world. In a way, the “war on terror” could be seen as a retaliation of former colonisers against former servants, a revenge of the oppressors against the oppressed.
But every war needs a justification and – no matter how strong the power that wants to wage war may be – there is always an incident (genuine or staged) that triggers it. World War I supposedly started because of the assassination of Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and the pretext for the start of the World War II was the supposed Polish attack on a German radio station. There is always a reason. And the response is always the same: inadequate use of force. The number of casualties of the “war on terror” is thus much higher than the number of dead of “9/11”.
The spectacle of collapsing skyscrapers that represented free trade was therefore a perfect justification for the war overseas and for the severe control of the civil sphere at home. The spectacle was just perfect: too perfect to doubt it. However, it was not completely convincing. There are several ambiguities in the official explanation of the attack. Probably the most striking instance is the third building in Manhattan that collapsed to rubble without being hit by an aircraft. But all the facts that should have led one to raise one’s eyebrow with suspicion and disbelief were ignored and suppressed because the images of the catastrophe were visually so apocalyptic and disturbing. In the public discourse, the fall of the towers became a symbol of terror against the values of the Western world. Therefore it was inevitable that these values were soon to be exported across the globe, with full force and with no mercy.
The world after 2001 faced the constant process of militarisation, increased surveillance of citizens and uncontrolled downfall of public liberties. Furthermore, increased military costs and loosened corporate control drained budgets of states and caused a collapse of public services that used to be granted. People were suddenly prepared to wage war and ready to give up a good proportion of their privacy for the sake of safety.
On the other hand the newly elected neoconservative US president George W. Bush strengthened his political position and the position of his colleagues in the cabinet, the gray eminences of the regime stepped in as representatives of corporate power. The wars that followed were extremely costly for the taxpayers but profitable for subcontracting corporations such as Halliburton, which is deeply interconnected with the most vocal advocate of the war on terror: US vice president Dick Cheney. The war on terror was only a pretext for transferring public resources under private control. As it has happened so many times in history, war became an extremely lucrative business and not only for the arms industry, but also for the current economic system which is based on constant growth in production and consumption.
However, economic growth cannot continue indefinitely. Inevitably, economic grown will come to a stalemate at some point, especially in areas where population is no longer growing. The ongoing economic depression that hit the globe in 2008 is therefore only an indicator of the economic impotence of the current system. Every Western intervention in marginal and disobedient countries is just a desperate attempt to prolong the status quo. However, these are short-sighted, short-term solutions, staying the eventual economic breakdown that is inevitable in a system based on ruthless exploitation of human and natural resources for the benefit of the few.
The downfall of people from the Twin Towers and the downfall of the buildings could as well be a well-timed metaphor for the decay of Western civilisation that has ruled the world for barely three hundred years. It shows that what comes around goes around, that every action has a reaction. It shows the weakness of the new rulers of the world. Of course, one cannot read, see, or hear about that in the mainstream media since the same governments and corporations that conduct these policies control mainstream media. There are few people who are in a position to express doubts and ambiguities regarding 9/11, uncensored, and without being ridiculed for being conspiracy theorists. But art still has the strength to do so. Unlike whistleblowers and media activists who have been widely demonised and prosecuted, artists are often free to expose these issues in a very ambiguous and critical manner, and perhaps only because their reach, lately, is being limited.
Press photographer Richard Drew concentrated on the apocalyptic scenes of the 9/11 attack, taking pictures of people falling from the burning towers. In 2001, a composer of concrete music William Basinski created a score, entitled The Disintegration Loops, which coincided with the fall of the Twin Towers. New media artist Maurice Benayoun created, in his project Emotional Spotting, a real-time map of world’s emotions corresponding with certain traumatic events including 9/11. Hans-Peter Feldmann gathered 100 newspaper covers from 12 September 2001 to show the uniformity of media reporting on that matter. In an illegal action that took place in the year 2000, art group Gelitin built an improvised balcony on the top floors of the World Trade Centre. Swen Renault reacted to the 9/11 events by photographing airplanes in the sky using an optical illusion that made them look as though they might crash into high-rise buildings.
However, the issue of 9/11 is still relatively fresh and therefore still a taboo. Apparently, not enough time has passed for journalists and artists to address that topic more daringly. But things are changing. The economic crisis, the environmental catastrophes and the recent wave of refugees fleeing the war-stricken or ecologically devastated lands in the wake of 9/11 are part of the same ongoing story. The wars did not prevent financial markets from crumbling, the severe security measures did not stop corporations accumulating money in tax havens, and the imposed western type democracy in the occupied lands (Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) did not improve the lives of the people involved but has rather made them flee their homes. The so called “refugee crisis” which is stirring fear and hatred across Europe is a direct consequence of wars that most of the European countries took part in. In a way, the seemingly swift victory of the West became its own defeat. Its downfall, which was announced with 9/11, is complete. In the past fifteen years, Western societies have been slowly but persistently losing everything that they have built in the decades after World War II.
© Miha Colner, April 2016