Staging Disorder

The ferocity and bleakness of war, is something that has drawn the attention of photographers almost since the invention of photography. One aspect that has remained largely unseen by the general public, however, is the practice arena for these wars. 

Such an example of these spaces is the lengthy, and particularly graphic, first act in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Soldiers, fresh-in and undergoing their conversion from civilians to killing machines, are forced to embrace and prepare themselves for jungle warfare at a military base in South Carolina. While this preparation is dominated by the hardened and aggressive Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the space in which these new recruits is particularly significant; creating a space in which to rehearse for their forthcoming roles in the Vietnam War. The themes of this opening act are presented and explored in the recent publication by Esther Teichmann and Christopher Stewart, along with its coinciding show at London College of Communication, Staging Disorder. The book brings together ‘anticipatory spaces of conflict’ as depicted by artists that include consecutive Deutsche Börse Photography Prize winners in Broomberh & Chanarin (2013) and Richard Mosse (2014), along with artists such as An My Lê and Sarah Pickering. The spaces are empty and devoid of life, yet the expectancy of conflict can be felt brewing within each artist’s work. James Brown caught up with the editors to speak more about the project, and the significance of these unique and ominous stages.

James Brown: How was the project initially conceived? 

Christopher Stewart: I was aware that a number of artists in different parts of the world had made work that depicted the anticipatory spaces of conflict and whilst most of these bodies of work had been shown and published in their discreet contexts, they hadn’t been brought together before. All of the works in Staging Disorder were made or first published in the first decade of the new millennium and it felt like the right time to look more broadly at this phenomenon. I think this is particularly relevant now because we have seen much photographic work and commentary in the last decade on the idea of aftermath of conflict and the work here represents the antithesis of this in that these are spaces where war and conflict were imagined and planned for as some future destination rather than war or conflict as having happened already and this holds an interesting set of ideas in relationship to who has constructed what and also to issues of the truth and real as they pertain to photographic documentation at this point in time.

JB: What was the reasoning behind choosing the works of these photographers that are included? 

CS & Esther Teichmann: All of the artists have shown a long-term interest in the depiction of subject matter connected either to powerful institutions or particular areas such as conflict but who are also aware of the subtle difficulties of the documentary form in relation to ideas of truth and the real. These works are the result of the artists recognising the phenomenon of anticipatory spaces of conflict and who have been tenacious enough and successful in opening the often closed doors of such worlds. All of the artists have been extremely supportive of the exhibition and book and it is always gratifying to have the participation of such high-profile practitioners who have shown all over the world, in places such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum supporting a university gallery exhibition such as this is. We initially printed two thousand free guides to accompany the exhibition and within a week and a half they were all gone and the main audience for the show, apart from the visiting public, is the students of the London College of Communication, many of whom would have been very young at the time of the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, for example, and so we did think at the very least that this is an interesting group of works to bring together for that audience. We are both educators as well as artists and writers.

JB: There appears to be a narrative connection between the projects that extends beyond their similarities in subject matter. The spaces presented conjure up the experience of playing video games; an empty war zone to move through, searching out the enemy.  How did you settle on the final sequencing of the projects in the book?

CS: The sequencing of the book was more or less organic in that it does not follow any temporal or geographic hierarchy – the spaces were photographed all over the world including Germany, the USA and Israel and they are representative of a number of conflicts including those in Afghanistan and Iraq but also Israel/Palestine and civil unrest in the streets of Britain. For example, the earliest work in the exhibition and book is by Claudio Hils who photographed British military built training sites in Germany that were used to train British troops for the conflict in Northern Ireland amongst other places. In this way, the works are representative of a wider global phenomenon. The sites do have a resonance of course in that they were all constructed for a similar purpose and depict architectural structures that whilst connected to conflict are also wholly separated from it geographically and in this way they may represent the aesthetic of a video game. These are not real zones of conflict or real domestic rooms, streets, planes and towns but approximations of them. Perhaps this is accentuated because of how the photographers have photographed the spaces – in predominantly a formal observational or fairly deadpan manner.

JB: How did you seek to connect the book with the show?

CS & ET: The book contains images from all seven photographic series in the exhibition but also has seven commissioned essays that reflect more widely on the themes of anticipatory conflict and architectural simulation and so as a publication it does work on its own and is intended to contribute to wider debates on photography and its relationship to architecture and war. The main difference between the book and the exhibition is that the show also contains three sound works especially commissioned from artists from the University of the Arts Creative Research into Sound Arts Practice (CRiSAP) research centre and we wanted the book to focus specifically on the core photographic aspect.

JB: One of the most striking things about the projects included is the absence of people in the photographs. I know that this is something that you touch upon in your essay, Esther; do you think that, as much as these photographers have documented the preparation for war, their images are as much a projection of the death and emptiness to come?

ET: Yes, possibly – the absence of bodies can sometimes say more than if a space is occupied. However, whilst the themes in Staging Disorder are not directly related to my own work I was interested in this absence enough to symbolically fill the void by writing the essay The Skin of the Soldier – Beau Travail and the Choreography of War, where I look at Claire Denis’ beautiful film that depicts Legionnaires training in the desert for an imagined futural violence and the possibility of death.

JB: Christopher, your images in the book are perhaps the most sinister and overtly fear-inducing. What drew you to make that work? 

CS: This work is connected to another series I was making about the private security sector at the time and I wanted to photograph a US based Private Military Company (PMC) training base because these had become such an important part of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – both were conflicts that incorporated the narrative of the War on Terror alongside a free-market ideology of the outsourcing of subcontracted security. Both were, and are, topical issues. However, I am always looking for metaphors in my work and from the moment I saw this ‘house’ - oversized, made of poured concrete, isolated and with gloomy interiors, I knew that it was an uncanny space and one that could be seen as quite familiar yet also terrifying because of its intended resemblance to an ordinary domestic house. This is no ones house yet potentially it is all of our houses.

Images : 1. Broomberh & Chanarin 2. Christopher Stewart 3. Sarah Pickering 4. Richard Mosse

Staging Disorder (Black Dog Publishing, 2015) is out now, and available here.

The show runs until 12 March 2015 at London College of Communication.

— James Brown