Sabine Maria Schmidt
The power of an army is determined by its ability to deceive. (Sun Tze)
‚Invisibility is a form of power. It has to become visible in order to assure itself of its existence. Only by revealing its secret can invisibility affirm its authority. It can only unfold its authority over those who know about its secret‘.1 The fact that this secret still remains encrypted is part of invisibility’s paradoxical existence.
„Dream of a magic hat for invisibility – soon a reality?“, was the headline of an Austrian press release in August 2006.2 Again the hope is alive that scientists might have found a way to compete with the mythical ancestors of that dream. Siegfried succeeded over Alberich, the guardian of the hoard of the Nibelungen, by stealing his magic hood. Much earlier, the Cyclops made a perfectly fitting magic helmet for the god Hades that rendered him invisible and allowed him to stand by Zeus in the fight against the Titans. Another magic hood is mentioned with regard to Perseus who received it from the Nymphs on his way to the Gorgon Meduse. Or, to put it more precisely: Perseus stole the information necessary for this theft by means of an aggressive spying technique from the Graias who he had cheated on.
There is no fight without self-aggrandisement, no weapon, however highly sophisticated, without psychological mystification. Weapons are not only tools of destruction, but also tools of perception. The video of a small Tamil Tiger guerilla unit, placed on the internet, continues this mythological story. They also decide to make their secret visible in order to affirm the power of their invisibility.
The project of Knowbotic Research and Peter Sandbichler begins with the discovery of a piece of information in the grey zone of the internet, difficult to verify: a short propaganda video by the Tamil liberation army, recorded with simple filmic means and stored with poor image resolution, which shows the glorification of a speedboat that was supposedly financed by North Korea. The boat is deliberately likened to the American F 117 stealth bomber, a myth of invisibility and invincibility.
Is the stealth boat a dummy? In order to test the truthfulness of the vehicle’s claim which, in this case, has clearly been staged in a scenic jungle river environment for the purpose of the demonstration, the artists decide on a complete reconstruction of the boat, as well as a re-enactment of the scene. An extensive online diary documents the preparatory dialogues, requests, research and collection of materials concerning stealth technology. Knowbotic Research and Sandbichler translate the Tamil version back into a ’stealth boat‘ for local shipping that is barely visible on the sports boat radar. The boat is tied up in the marina of the Duisburg inner-harbour during an exhibition project, and with its simple electric motor it is driven around from time to time for the passers-by to see. At the same time, the boat has been put up for sale on the appropriate internet sites (Boatshop24.com; Boot-24.com; Best-boats24.net).
The reconstruction works perfectly. Moreover, the perceptual paradox becomes evident: the boat which can easily be seen with the naked eye, remains invisible for the radar system installed on the nearby Ludwigsturm. Here the work becomes highly political in that the artistically engendered act of perception forces us to remember the hideous claims that have been made on the basis of technological images in order to justify recent political and military interventions (like the start of the current Iraq war).
„be prepared! tiger!“ represents the ruses and tactics used to escape from the global positioning and surveillance technologies of the 21st century, yet it also stands for the problem of symbolic representations which become more easily available and less controllable in the course of increased local and global interchanges.
Part of the particular artistic quality of the projects by Knowbotic Research is that they reveal chains of effects, interweave them with multi-layered systems of communication, and analyse them in all their facets. Knowbotic Research guide the motorised stealth boat through their own maneuvers, moving it on water, on land, on the internet, and as a projected image. We again see two men standing upright in the boat, driving through the quiet waters of a flooded marsh landscape (near Vienna!). Here the boat can barely be decoded as a weapon, it looks more like an invention by Buckminster Fuller. It is neither threatening nor camouflaged, but offers itself for sale and exhibits its appropriated originality and sculptural character. It is inscribed into contexts of economic utility and suggests different civilian usages. The artists demonstrate the demystification of the legendary stealth technology and its putative invincibility which has to expose its secret in order to become effective.3 The moment a stealth bomber kills, it becomes visible.
We can further extend the context in which to read the action, environment and gestures. The true value of an image was once determined by its mimetic function. At the same time, an image was truthful when it was genuine. That is why in the era of representation, the original always ruled over copies, imitations, reproductions and forgeries. The deep historical rupture of new reproduction techniques started a new era of artistic practice in which the attention has gradually shifted from the mimetic reproduction of the object of representation, to the reproduction of that which has been represented. Images no longer copy reality, they copy images. Thus contemporary art has established the strategy of the ‚fake‘, which claims to be a ‚forgery‘ from the start and is thus liberated from claims of deception which might be judicially persecuted.4 The work of Knowbotic Research continues this tradition by presenting an artistic appropriation of the military stealth technology, which immediately also exposes itself as fake guerilla tactics. The truthful and the untruthful have become invisible, and thus indistinguishable, in the public sphere of the media.5 And in this specific case we can even suspect that the re-enacted video image used by Knowbotic Research itself shows a fake of a stealth boat which the artists have transformed back into a functioning original.
While the earlier, network-based projects by Knowbotic Research had concentrated on structures important to the networks, the more recent works emphasise the aspect of transcoding in public spaces. By ‚transcoding‘, Knowbotic Research mean „the translation of abstract social facts and conditions which are removed from the classical public sphere, into situations that can temporarily be observed and negotiated.“6 The vehicles thus become instruments that can be deployed in manifold ways. They embody a material, almost sculptural translation, both experimenting with and disrupting their conceptual contexts. They help Knowbotic Research achieve an oscillation between ‚documentation art‘ and ‚mediation art‘ (‚Dokumentationskunst‘, ‚Vermittlungskunst‘) in that the instruments also work as autonomous aesthetic objects in a gallery exhibition. An element of this is – like in the fake video – the filmic manifestations, the video clips which have been produced with a professional camera man. They are an active part of the specific translation processes of the project, and not just their mere documentation. The setting of „be prepared! tiger!“ in Duisburg included not only the public space, the marina, the tower with the radar system, video and sound projection, and a large printed banner on a wall; it also included a slightly removed second station in the Lehmbruck Museum with a video projection of the re-enacted boat ride and the continuously running computer chat with materials from the research archive. Knowbotic Research thus achieved multi-layered and syntactical relationships between the different elements and sites of the action.
The fact that the stealth boat has actually been constructed is crucial for its demystification. By virtue of its construction, it loses its secret and its belligerent power. And it comes as an encouragement to the audience to imagine further applications and manoeuvers for the boat. The work dissolves its initially mimetic character and becomes exemplary. The magic cloak is no longer there to camouflage, but rather to enchant.
Knowbotic Research and Sandbichler’s construction turns out to be an aesthetically elaborate object, a sculpture committed to the proportions of the human body. It remains functional and can be used for simple trips on water and also as a marketable good. However, the fact that the entire complex structure is very obvious, makes the boat rather suspicious. Which is perhaps why there have only been very few offers to buy the boat, either from yachtsmen or from guerillas.
The situation of the self-made-boat can thus be located in and beyond the context of art. As a further step that might also be read as the unexpected completion of a circle, an American website announces the unusual find of a stranded ’stealth boat‘ in a parking lot which, as another internet user remarks, seems to have been built years ago by a knowledgeable amateur, and which found use as a movie prop.7
1 Cf. VERWOERT, Jan (2005): Da ist es. Siehst du es nicht? Da ist es doch. Über die Hellsichtigkeit der Paranoia. In: KORPYS/LÖFFLER (2005) Organisation 1990 – 2005 Frankfurt am Main, Revolver Verlag, p.156-189.
3 Two fundamental problems of the technology: in order to remain camouflaged, the stealth bombers have to carry their weapons internally, which reduces the maximum weapon load. As soon as the stealth bomber opens the hatch to fire its weapons, it creates an increased radar echo and can more easily be traced.
4 RÖMER, Stefan (2001): Künstlerische Strategien des Fake. Kritik von Original und Fälschung. Köln.
5 Cf. SCHMIDT, Sabine Maria (2006): Designing Truth – Streifzüge durch ein unwegsames Gebiet. In: Cat. „Designing Truth.“ Stiftung Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, p. 8-15, and on the project by Knowbotic Research, p. 46-51.
6 Cf. KNOWBOTIC RESEARCH: Room for Manoeuvre, in this volume.