the art of shock & awe

In May 2010 I had the privilege of meeting the Australian artist Michael Callaghan, who invited me to his studio in the ANU’s School of Art to talk to him about his recent war work. I looked over massive screenprints of some of the Iraq and torture pieces, saw the layers in Photoshop he was building them with, and shared anecdotes of travels to Israel and the USA, and some of the soldiers and national security officials I had met. Edward Luttwak in Israel, telling me in his Hungarian rasp my paper on humanitarian war was “deeply problemaddic” (his take on the Bosnian war, recall, was “Give war a chance”), Lt-Gen. (Dr.) Shimon Naveh, the “operational architect” and “Foucault-on-steroids” who voraciously read Virilio, Deleuze and Bateson to find more creative ways of killing Palestinian militants, or devotee of the Revolution in Military Affairs Colonel Douglas Macgregor, who was later sent by Donald Rumsfeld to CENTCOM to try and sell Tommy Franks on a drastically slimmed down ‘shock and awe’ war plan for Iraq in 2003.

Later Michael asked me to open his exhibition, and there I got to see the searing challenge of the work in its full effect, amid a longer retrospective of his political art over 25 years.

A link to his Sydney exhibition at the Damien Minton Gallery can be found here:

My comments at the opening are here:

ANU School of Art, 7 May 2010.
Michael Callaghan The Torture Memo: Recent Works.

It is an honour to be asked to open this exhibition.

I recall as a young human rights activist in Sydney seeing some of Michael’s posters – especially the very striking one he did for Amnesty International’s 25th anniversary – and so its fascinating to see the longer survey of his work, especially how it is book-ended by the early anti-militarist concrete poems, and the recent work on Iraq. As someone who has travelled a strange route, from being a human rights activist to teaching at a military academy – where I have a strange role as a kind of embedded critical theorist – seeing Michael’s new work on Iraq and the war on terror is moving.

I thought of it this week when I bought a copy of the March 2010 Foreign Policy magazine – which is a kind of American version of TIME for international policy wonks. To illustrate a major section on the future of war, its cover had an iPhone in camouflage print, with a series of icons onscreen named: ‘surge’, ‘shock and awe’, ‘dronewar’, ‘hearts and minds’, ‘blackops’, ‘sitroom’ and more. Beneath it ran the title, “Killer Apps”.

I could see how the designer was striving for the irony and humour of pop or conceptual art, but the result was flippant and shallow. The effect was not helped by some of the content, which was narrowly concerned with the effectiveness of US power and included a piece by the strategist Edward Luttwak, who argued that while the US military’s new counterinsurgency focus on the protection of populations, good governance, minimum use of force, etc. was all very nice, we need to rediscover the virtues of strategic bombing. While Michael’s work is part of a global movement of dissent that has had an appreciable impact on the US military – not the least because some influential officers had the same concerns we did – Luttwak’s intervention suggests that even if the US Army and Marine Corps have moved on from ‘Shock and Awe’ in admirable ways, there are still enough dangerous and influential thinkers about to make this kind of artwork a very important form of public critique and memory.

Like the “Killer Apps” cover, Michael’s work is clearly working the space between advertising aesthetics and conceptual art, but in a far more profound and critical way. There is a depth there that provokes thought and moral reflection, that can’t be reduced to a simple set of meanings.

Depth is evoked in the way that the work is constructed – using layers in Photoshop and Illustrator – and in the way the pieces layer widely separated historical experiences into a common reality, whether its medieval poems evoking contemporary Arab revolt and anger, the resurgence of medieval torture techniques in the Bush administration’s practices of rendition and water boarding, and the ghostly reappearance of a medieval image of the all powerful sovereign who can make war and dispose of the lives of his subjects at whim. This was the darker edge to Bush’s ‘forward strategy of freedom’ in the Middle-East, which was never able to shake off the sense that it was a kind of medieval crusade in another form.

In other ways the work plays with surface and depth, combining the rich historical associations of Arabic script with game icons, weapons schematics and flags. Yet even here the icons are subtly subverted (the flags indicate distress) and the cartoonish quality of the work evokes the cartoonish contrasts of too much international policy (where Bush and Saddam are latter day versions of the Roadrunner and the Wile E. Coyote ) yet at the same time the work shows us the layers of history, suffering, and violence that would quickly disturb the policymakers’ grand plans and produce such tragedy.

The new work also reminds me of the claims of Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson in the 1980s that contemporary culture would become all surface and simulacrum, and cultural productions would be little more than a depthless form of pastiche. In its play of surface and depth, Michael’s work reflects these claims, but stands a gentle and serious form of rebuke to both the Bush neocons and the prophets of postmodernism.

The Bush Neocons did in part play this out such a simulacral future, with their confidence that they could conduct ‘perception management’ and ‘create a new reality’; however, as Michael’s great “Shock and Awe” work suggests, they would quickly find that in today’s post-modern conflicts, the real lives and real suffering of real people will always complicate and resist our grand and violent abstractions. Consider the first lines of text on one of the remarkable new Iraq pieces: ‘Regime change. Meeting friends.’

We can all congratulate Michael on a great career achievement and some brilliant new works. I hope they meet with the attention and success they deserve.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: