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The Limits of Seeing

At a local film festival in the UK, a video essay on drone warfare counters the county's unchecked celebration of aviation heritage.

This year’s Frequency Festival, held in the city of Lincoln in the United Kingdom, featured a screening of the first audio-visual work by The Society for Ontofabulatory Research. Airminded is an 18-minute essay film which counters the unchecked celebration of aviation heritage that is a defining part of the county of Lincolnshire, where the biennial digital arts festival took place over nine days. This part of rural England boasts links to the Dambusters raid and was home to many historic aircraft during the Second World War, giving rise to its nickname ‘Bomber County.’ The war efforts of the past, however, have been followed by the more recent, publicised and protested use of Lincolnshire as a base for the deployment of drones. Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles based in Afghanistan are currently operated from RAF Waddington, where a protest was staged earlier this year by campaigners opposed to the use of drones. Invisible to those eager to reinforce the heroic view of local history, the new hidden military activities are aligned uncomfortably with the familiar icons of air power in Airminded.

The elusive and destructive power of today’s remote-controlled military technology, and the vastly expanded scope of often invisible airpower is referred to in Airminded through a simulation of starlings flocking and dispersing, a murmuration of uncontainable black clouds whose force ultimately sweeps across the screen, ending the film. Aviation, avian and .avi are here compressed into a portentous image of the migratory potential of unpiloted military vessels organised by digital applications to administer an attack.

That power, supported by aerial photography, mapping, targeting and their use in warfare, nevertheless has its limits—details are dissolved by distance and the photographic evidence can leave stark traces to those who are left to reflect on its efficacy after the fact. The form which Airminded takes is visually aimed at approximating the bank of data monitors that a drone pilot is required to analyse and act on, with multiple screens feeding a continual flood of information which viewers cannot be expected to process in a single sitting. And so, the film asks implicitly: how can the pilot be expected to organise and act on this data coherently?

Using original aerial footage shot by the filmmakers, photographs and film excerpts from local film archives, press articles, and documents from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Air Ministry and Colonial Office of the British Government 1919–37, Airminded is reflective of the current availability of information from the past and of tools to create new film images today. The potential of these resources to aid detailed objective analyses is contrasted with the fragmentation, misdirection and missed details that frequently characterise their handling. The film is both historical and speculative in its approach, exploring Lincolnshire’s relationship with flight and revealing the complexity of geographical vectors along which control is exercised today and how much further the reach of such control might be extended in the future.

Airminded's ominous soundtrack mixes droning jet engine sounds—both field recordings and samples—effectively conveying the nauseating experience of flight, with additional spoken words throughout; though it is overly reliant on a ‘glitch’ effect, repeatedly used in the film, to punctuate the audio narrative. The film’s visual hyperactivity is approximated aurally by the inclusion of three voices of narration—a woman speaking in the neutral tone of a newsreader, recounting some of the earliest attempts at flight within the county and diagnosing the commonplace, Lincolnshire sentiment as regards the role of the local Air Force stations; the voice, of an origin other than English, of an eyewitness to drone attacks in the Middle East; and that of a young girl articulate beyond her years who at one point states, memorably: ‘You don’t need me to tell you about Boolean logic.’ It’s an odd statement, the inclusion of which is not immediately comprehensible. But, if anything, this mathematical reference explicitly introduces a key binary distinction: truth or falsity. The truth and falsity of images—as well as other oppositions, between the general and the particular, and here and there—are brought under consideration in the film.

Above: Images of the World and the Inscription of War

Soon after seeing Airminded I recalled Harun Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) and its similar references to the wartime uses of aerial photography, power and the limits of images. Viewed back to back, the connections between the two rise quickly to the surface and in particular the problem of the unseen. Despite technological advances, the ever-widening scope of our vision and the reaches of photography, these films remind us that an observer is still prone to miss seeing something crucial, even when it is directly within their gaze. The effects of this can be devastating, as revealed in the Allies’ images of the I.G. Farben plant shown in Farocki’s film. In these reconnaissance photos, the lines of newly arrived prisoners at Auschwitz, as well as the concentration camp’s main buildings, go unrecognised. Important visual details are also lost to us through distance, both vertically and horizontally: the effects of local acts on distant co-ordinates can remain unseen and unfelt in an age of remote operation and imperfect resolution.

Above: Images of the World and the Inscription of War

But every image speaks volumes, if only we could see past what we expect to see, or do not see due to a lack of interest. And the relative safety of looking at an image far from its point of origin; from the specific locale and historical context in which it was taken—which may be a perilous one—can diminish one’s emotional response to ‘elsewhere’. Our view of everything is limited, from the state of a landscape to the depth of a culture, including that of cinema. Yet many try to place a frame around things in a way that allows them to feel that they understand; or maybe others choose to place multiple frames side by side, as Airminded does, to detect patterns, to make sense, to form narratives.

Images of the World and the Inscription of War is not the only film which shares Airminded's interest in considering the scrutiny of images removed geographically or temporally from their point of capture, alongside the implications of photography and video as used in military engagements. Ici et ailleurs (1976), made by Jean-Luc Godard, Anne-Marie Miéville and Jean-Pierre Gorin originally for the Palestinian army, also sees the filmmakers expressing their relationship to images of war, in a similarly experimental and self-interrogating manner. The repetition of scenes, shots and sounds in Ici et ailleurs as well as its concern with complacency versus action, and how best to organise the audio and the visual so as to shift the meaning of images gives it a surface resemblance to Airminded: at times it even arrives at a similar multi-screen format. The Society for Ontofabulatory Research, like the Dziga Vertov Group, show an interest in using film to raise political concerns, disperse the concept of the single author and wrench cinema from its conventional forms and modes of address.

Above: Ici et ailleurs

But connecting Airminded so readily with these other, widely recognised examples of the essay film or its intersection with militant cinema of the past, is to aim for that bigger picture—within film history—and risks neglecting the significance of its blunt, local address. Screened within a museum which is a popular tourist attraction within a city renowned for its place in English aviation history, Airminded took a rare, daring look at the more unpalatable and underrecognised aspects of Lincolnshire’s role for the Air Force and the rapidly advancing and unseeable technology that can be put to uses both beneficial and highly questionable. It is a film that is meant to be seen locally. Although it is easy to see its similarities with other works, which might leap to mind so readily in a media culture where so much is available to see, Airminded opposes the drifting rumination that characterises many popular essay films. Airminded's polemic is aimed at specific co-ordinates—though its message might readily provoke engagement further afield.

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