Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#2/3 Wolfgang Ernst 1 Jan 1995

Diller, Scofidio

Visite aux armées / Back to the front


Visite aux armées -

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about this book is its title: in its fixation on the phenomenon of the tourism of war it does indeed play down the much more cogent insight heralded by its contributions - that of the invasion of (military) realism into the symbolism of history. At the same time the plan brought up by Italian travel agent Massimo Beyerle of leading his clients up to the very edge of today's battlefields is nothing more than the consistent realisation of the classical historian's phantasm and of the museum's hit of constructing a 'living history': '''As close as possible' implies a certain immediacy (...)''(p.137).

Object violation: it is not until classical memories (e.g. historical towns) come into sight that the new media keep watch. No wonder that the protagonists of the volume, Diller + Scofidio, are architects and that the work is marketed by the Princeton Architectural Press. Behind this however is an understanding of architecture as the recorded or pre-recorded(p.14), therefore as a noting-down system, as archi(ve)text: the book project expressly follows the legacy of Paul Virilio's Bunker Archéologie and of Guerre et cinéma: Logistique de la perception.

Film and television are not only historical waste products of war technology, but in the age of hyper-mediatizing they become the agents of military strategy. What it was possible to show upon the overthrow of the television image of Ceaucescu in December 1989, followed shortly afterwards by the Gulf War, is, in Thomas Keenan's contribution 'Live from ...', driven as far as the indifference between war of the images (power of representation) and war pictures. It is a fact that news policy and other techniques of dis/simulation were not only the shadow but the condition for d-day as a military operation. There remains as the difference to the electronic streaming of all strategic real-time analysis merely the real blood not mentioned in the book, the realm beyond rom and ram.

A book like a video clip; beside the classical footnote there is generally the photo as proof. The angle of the camera as the instrument of historical enlightenment as well as of its agents - the military - focusing the object in the crosshair. June 1944 and the present are the names given to the levels which are repeatedly - literally in book-like fashion - folded on top of one another. To put it more elegantly (i.e. with Vilém Flusser): leafing through this picture book as a method of discourse analysis.

Sifting through the logistics of d-day does indeed require a different form of reading matter; reading matter which counts on discontinuities as D-Day was experienced in reality, instead of it being later transformed into the reassuring continuity of narrative instalments. This also means renouncing line-shaped linearity effects in favour of a non-discursive perception. Finest precision and fastest variation touch each other at this point. Therefore the dichotomy between historic (discursive) and formal (calculating) thinking can be considered to be past, thoughts still lagging behind classical world war remembrances.

This book, written consistently in the language of the victors i.e. English and French throughout, is the product of a calendrical coincidence, of the travelling exhibition, SuitCase Studies: The Production of a National Past, conceived first of all in and for America, and of the 50-year-anniversary of the allied d-day on the coast of Normandy. The producer is then also the agency where art and battlefield run together: the Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain de Basse-Normandie. Publication circles around the SuitCase Studies of Diller + Scofidio: 50 Samsonite suitcases with documents each on two central tourist attractions of the American Federal states, heroes' beds and battlefields, two sites of conflict (p.46). Minus bed, this machine to national history production makes sense in Normandy too, and most certainly within the context of a flourishing cultural history of nostalgia, of miniature, of memory semiotics. And yet the uneasiness remains that here, with the insight into the power of representation, with the removal of the difference of simulacrum-reality, there is an even more criminal distraction from the information of realism.

Protection from this temptation is provided by such contributions as those of Frédéric Migayrou ('The extended body: Chronicle of a day with no history'). d-day or h-hour were not historic events as it is no longer possible to narrate that which began as pure series - unless as a return to the chronicle: At h + 1 minute, the first infantry assault wave will touch land (...). Here reference is no longer to body or even to human being, but merely to time itself, wartime. Enter Michel Foucault: archéologie, or even anarchaeology (p.189), enter too Jacques Derrida (p.188). Accordingly, it was the greatest strategic mistake of Hitler and Rommel not to have replaced the front, the coast, the bunker, the monumental inscription by thoughts of the script as constant dislocation, as différance.

The fortunate thing about the book is the reference to the infrastructure and the cybernetics of thought; the archives of memory are no longer so very monumental, Les lieux de mémoire (Pierre Nora), but non-places in the sense of Marc Augés. It is however the real archives which set limits to the cultural-semiotic arbitrariness, the delirious free play of space-time (p.52). It is at this point that the lack of a hard core historian among the authors makes itself noticeable, one who would have been able to put a stop to the rambles at the level of collective symbolism. What kind of authorities are those, the practices of 'authentication' (p.39), which provide stability to the sign-surfing of history as a shifting construct (p.52)?

National memory too has its agencies, an entire industry. 'The Production of a National Past' betrays itself - much more so than at the level of symbolic commemoration - at the level of that corporate identity of Normandy depicted in the logos on the jacket of the book, from the Caisse des Dépôts to the Conseil Regional.

This book does not only stand on the archaeological foundations of World War II, but above all on those of the Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain de Basse-Normandie. The combination of the publication with the data of an exhibition on the production of quasi-sacral national time-spaces tells all: the relationship of art to a military moment can only ever be touristic, metaphorical, posthumous. At the same time as the 50th anniversary of d-day, the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) in Berlin is showing an exhibition on World War I as a disaster of classical aesthetics and birth of artistic avantgarde, a document of the helplessness of art towards the reality of technically determined mass wars. As long as the imaginary was still being argued in the form of allegories, art had its unique place as a medium. Since realism no longer dissimulates, this function has died out. When war forces open even the museum of perception, aesthetic thought becomes redundant.

In the last few years the production of a national memory has found its way in inflationary fashion into the historian's field of vision. The agent of this reconnaissance is the logic of the calendar, triggering the symbolic re-experiencing of National Socialism and World War II in a 50-year cycle, thereby raising for moments that which otherwise is perceived archaeologically to the level of historical awareness, as if it were already the ruins of the Roman Empire; the string commemorative markers and monuments (Diller + Scofidio) along the Norman coast consists primarily of the works of the Atlantic Wall itself, those fossils of a catechontic attempt at yet again containing space along the inner/outer axis as a friend/foe relationship. Georges van den Abbeeles' contribution names the price of this protection: Armor can only protect the site by denying its sight, by blinding it to what may destroy it (p.252).

Monument landscapes reproduce this anachronism. The 20th century, however, no longer requires an allegorical representation; the agents of realism themselves are becoming monumentable. Realism is however evading any portrayal: the sea, the wounds of d-day, the trauma of its memory, denies itself historic statement. A photo under the title Plage du débarquement shows this: the centre of events as an empty patch on the beach, aesthetics of absence, past, per definitionem. The town of Ste. Mére-Eglise marked its location, Kilometer oO and Utah Beach marked its, Kilometer ooO (Diller + Scofidio, p.278). Vision blindée is the name given to this non-viewing from the viewpoint of the bunker. Since World War II, the dialectics of Blindness and Insight of all reading matter (Paul de Man) no longer means simply deconstruction and comparative literature but also radar.

The horizon, (...) as Foucault observed, is not solely a pictorial notion, but also a strategic one (p.292). The image aesthetics of military reconnaissance is drastically registered for the book under discussion; in the form of a folding Special Project, a map composed of military reports, tourist guides, video (war) games, films and literature breaks into the sphere of classical typography as mapping, as a medium of both real (war) and symbolic (monuments)surveying.

The book breaks down at this point and becomes script; the final sentence already announces the abandoning of historical insight to another medium: the cinema. History as subject as well as object has, since two world wars in the 20th century, no longer been negotiated as an alphabetical script but in the image, in the intention of war itself. Friedrich Kittler once described it thus, using Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as an example: world history is known to have lived in the medium of the book; technical media, on the other hand, allow (beyond the diversionary tactic of their entertainment effect) the variation of just the parameters which only they record. This is corresponded to by an optical layout which, in the language of the electric technician of realism, bears the name Time Axis Manipulation.

Monuments are diversion from the real. The fact that mémoire has for a long time no longer been negotiated in letters but in images is also shown by another medium in the vicinity of Caen, the closest Norman town to the Allied landing. For it was here in 1988 on the Esplanade Eisenhower that there was an official opening under the name Mémorial, which would formerly once have meant museum if it weren't for the absolute supremacy of photography and film in the depiction of the 20th century as the history of two world wars. Jean-Louis Déotte's contribution 'A world with no horizon', based more on the archives of occidental art history and philosophy than on those of war logistics, deciphers the edifice built on former German bunker command headquarters - now pacified to the Galerie des prix Nobel de la paix - the entrance of which depicts a rupture, with Walter Benjamin's Ästhetik des Schocks (Aesthetics of Shock). The recently opened Historial in Péronne which documents the Somme battlefields in World War I musealiter, is also interspersed with a wood of video monitors narrating the war in concrete film documents. Techniques which strategically determined the wars are now also at the fore of their historical representation.The past doesn't exist as a file in a computer, easy to call up, manage and engage (p.214). Soon perhaps.

There is no zero point of hermeneutics, not even in the archaeology of d-day. At the moment of its happening it was already a repeatthe re-conquest of a territory (p.8) in the shadow of a ghost, the Norman Conquest of 1066 in the reverse direction. Symbolic coding has always been involved as has radio announcement heralding this moment clothed in a verse by Verlaine. Maybe art does indeed occasionally have functions beyond the metaphors, and be they code names. Juno, Omaha, Sword, Gold and Utah are the names of the sections of beach of Operation Overlord; posthumously searching for her remains and graves (p.208/9), it is Madame Realism in Lynne Tillmann's literary contribution 'Lust for Loss'. Footnote 2 makes it clear: Madame Realism does not exist, although some readers think they recognize her.

An astonishing publication; barely still a history book and just short of a breakthrough to the aisthesis immaterialis. The final authors' biography states the sources from which the new insight feeds - Thomas Keenan, who is just working on a book on war and publicity with a view to CNN and Somalia 1992/3, watches a lot of television.

translation ann thursfield