Theatre of Visibilities

The Naked Bandit in the Theatre of Visibilities
Control, Attention, and Performance in Recent Projects by Knowbotic Research

Andreas Broeckmann

Or for night to fall. Beckett

Attention is the key to the society of the spectacle, and visibility is the key to the society of control. We live in both, and contemporary subjectivity is built on the affective attachment to media images, as well as on the regimes of surveillance and fear.

Visibility and attention play crucial roles in recent works by the artist group Knowbotic Research. The project "be prepared! tiger!" was presented at the PubliCity exhibition in Duisburg in April 2006 and included a self-built stealth boat, two video projections, a computer terminal and an advertisement in an online shop, offering the boat up for sale. One projection showed a short film loop, culled from the Internet, of two Tamil Tiger rebels proudly driving through Sri Lankan marsh land, while the other presented a re-enactment of that scene with the artist-built boat on a quiet, European river. Though visible to the camera and the human eye, the boat is invisible to radar and might thus be useful for specific military and other kinds of operations, and it is no contradiction that such a boat should be on view and for sale through the Internet – the object alternates with ease between the domains of commerce, of military action, and symbolic representation.

The performative action "Passion 5" was staged in Zurich in November 2005 when a small cleaning van drove around the city, with large loud speakers on its roof, blaring out a collage of original sounds recorded during the revolutionary May 1st demonstration, an annual spectacle of political and ethnic diversity. For a brief period only, the van would drive through the newly refurbished Puls 5 building with its assembled art audience, only to disappear again into the city's street labyrinth after a few minutes. In the building, the political passion machine of the van had a brief, staged encounter with the scientific passion machine of a small blimp which is used for experimentation with machine vision systems. Cleaning cart and blimp – two unlikely, yet symbolically charged actors in an art spectacle that reflects upon the social and technical scenarios of controlling public space.

A different type of transit, and a different type of dichotomy between visibility and action is explored in the concept for the "BlackBenz Race", a project that will take a small caravan of black Mercedes cars on the route from Zurich via Bari and Tirana to Pristina, and back. The cars, quite visible along this axis of migration and trafficking, are used as a metaphor for the difficulty in understanding the meaning of over-coded public spectacles. During the drive down to Albania and Kosovo, the passengers send back descriptions, images and other mediated reports of their journey, which in turn are published in different venues in Zurich, some more private, others blatantly visible in the main streets which could easily become the scene for one of the illegal night races that Kosovo youth organise under the eyes of the UN Blue Helmets as well as in Zurich.

The project that preceded these explorations of the politics of visibility was a series of variations on a formula, naked bandit/here, not here/white sovereign. Its kernel is the scenario of being caught up in a relationship of power in which the weaker part, the naked bandit, is held by the metaphorical white sovereign in a state of limbo where the bandit has to affirm his role of the subjected (here), while at the same time being kept in a status of absence and having no outside authority to turn to for mercy or objection (not here).

One instantiation of the project comes in the form of software code that turns the scenario into a computer process. Here the drama of the naked bandit is played out as a struggle between dependent processes running under a UNIX operating system, where the hierarchies are structured as 'parent' and 'child' processes. The white sovereign process controls the scene and demands of the naked bandit to continuously report back, here, not here, affirming the uneven and isolated relationship. However, modifications of this repetitive process can be set in motion which will, eventually, allow the naked bandit to create a clone of itself, a shadow or avatar, that will from then on report back to the white sovereign, while the original bandit can liberate and re-install itself on a higher level in the computer system's hierarchy.

This programmed drama has been used in the spatial realisations of the project "naked_bandit / here, not here / white_sovereign" both as a text-based narrative running on modified PCs, and as the source for a sound element in which the dialogue of the players ('naked bandit', 'here, not here', etc.) is spoken by different voices and projected into the exhibition space. On the monitor screen of the PC the visitors to the exhibition can follow the computer process running through its different stages, and by pressing the 'Start' button of the PC, visitors can initialize the steps that will lead to the eventual 'liberation' of the naked bandit. Each of these steps is echoed by the two voices that speak the terse text of the scripted relationship, culminating in a third voice joining in, affirming the double presence of the naked bandit: 'naked bandit, here, and now'.

The most elaborate version of the project comes as a spatial installation in which large, lengthy black balloons hover vertically in a white space. While these balloons are passive, the small blimp which has later also been used in the "Passion 5" project, moves around vividly in the space. It is mounted with a miniature vision system that allows it to recognize individual objects (in fact, it recognizes 'something dark and vertical, surrounded by white'), and to fly towards these objects until they get hit by the front tip of the blimp ('camera vision field completely black'). The blimp then backs off, turns, and seeks the next victim – which can, in the exhibition, also be a visitor who is standing among the balloons watching the blimp move around.

Whereas in "Passion 5" the blimp is an ambivalent symbol for the exploratory passion of an engineer who constructs systems that can be used for surveillance purposes and might thus endanger public liberties, the blimp is here a metaphor for the white sovereign who actively controls the scene. The sound of the voices ('naked bandit', 'here, not here', etc.) is in the room, coding the interaction of blimp and balloons. And when the sequence is set in the motion that modifies the computer process running on the PC, upon the 'liberation' of the naked bandit the blimp will be caused to halt for a few seconds, – before the computer process again starts from the beginning, returning the bandit to his Sisyphean fate.

A third recurring element of the different versions of the "naked bandit/here, not here" installations has been a text excerpt from the Steven Spielberg movie "Terminal", which deals with the absurd situation in which a man arriving at an international airport without a valid passport or visa is kept in the 'limbo' of the transit lounge because legally he can be neither accepted into the country, nor detained, nor sent back. Mr. Navorski, currently the citizen of nowhere, is 'simply unacceptable'.

In this vignette from the Hollywood movie, the relationship of territoriality, legality, and power, is again pinpointed sharply. The subjectivity of the naked bandit is constructed, in all its different variations, as one that is tied into oppressive power relations which leave little room for manoeuvre to the individual. While the balloons get pushed around as utterly passive victims, the computer-coded bandit has the potential, when helped from the outside, to replicate and free itself from the dependency. Each time, we experience a situation in which inside and outside are radically separated, in which the threshold between inside and outside is existential. The naked bandit can only be liberated because it can delegate its attention to a digital clone, while for the balloons and for Mr. Navorski the border is absolute.

A theoretical discourse that resonates throughout the "naked bandit/here, not here" project is one regarding the homo sacer by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. While the line of flight of Agamben's analysis is an understanding of modern forms of power culminating in the concentration camp, including its most recent instantiations, he also reminds us that the figure of the homo sacer, the person who is banned from the legality of society and who can be killed by anybody, dates back to ancient Roman law. Crucially, Agamben explains how the modern understanding of legality and sovereignty as it was developed since the 18th century, is anchored in the homo sacer as an exceptional, yet necessary, 'external' position on the inside of society. The epitome of this logic is the concentration camp which is ruled by a permanent state of exception, and where that which is to be excluded from society, is interned.

Knowbotic Research make only tentative references to Agamben's thinking which has been quite widely received over the last years. Recent excesses of US and British soldiers in Iraqi prisons, as well as the strange omnipresent invisibility of the camp in Guantanamo Bay where the USA keep their own version of the homo sacer, the illegalised unlawful combatants, have highlighted the uneasy relationship of power and legality which lies at the heart of those cherished Western values. In the same way as the different variations of the "naked bandit/here, not here" project seek to transcode aspects and elements of the respective logics of space, agency, and machinic processes, in order to bring out similarities and differences, and in order to trace potentials for resistant behaviour, in that same way the naked bandit can be read as a variation on the homo sacer. And, accordingly, the elements in the different installations.

The white_sovereign blimp operates purely on the basis of optical data that it extracts from its environment and that, when analysed, provide the parameters for its next action. It is a device of visual surveillance and articulates the relationship of space, visibility and power. In contrast, the mechanism of control and 'surveillance' in the computer programme is firmly scripted into the code. Like in an obsessive theatre play, the parent process continuously demands of the child process to respond and confirm its presence. The power relation here is abstract and purely systemic, and only the voices that repeat the machine exchange give the dialogue a human dimension. However, ironically, the latitude of the programmed bandit with its potential to liberate itself, is larger than that of the balloons which, although they hang freely in the delineated space and can even be moved and protected by exhibition visitors from the tentative attacks of the blimp, are damned to utter passivity – their drama will repeat until they go flat.

The visitor who enters the installation of "naked_bandit / here, not here / white_sovereign", enters a theatre stage on which a scripted and repetitive action is unfolding. The space is specially designated and allows for specific forms of audience engagement that thread into the narrative of the play on power. Like in the "BlackBenz Race" and in "Passion 5", the spaces of the performance and the audience space intersect without necessarily becoming the same – only those audience members who identify with the scene and decide to share the fate of the vehicular actors, can transgress into the exterritorial and secluded room of the action. The vehicles themselves – the blimp as well as the car, the boat and the cleaning van – are players with only partly defined roles that can get scripted into different scenarios set at the boundaries of visibility, action and camouflage in public space.

An interesting set of precursors to these mobilia are the Vehicles constructed by the Polish-American artist Krzysztof Wodiczko since the early 1970s, most notably perhaps the early "Vehicle" (1973), a lengthy mobile walkway with a tilting platform at the top which the artist can walk up and down on; as the platform tilts in a seesaw movement, this energy is transformed into a movement of the entire vehicle, which travels always in the same direction. Insisting that the object may only be used by the artist, Wodiczko constructed an instrument for an authorial performance in which his meditative walk is turned into the motor of progress. Later works, like the "Doppelgänger" prosthesis of the "Alien Staff" (1992) and the famous "Homeless Vehicle" (1988) were meant to be used by disadvantaged individuals, in this case migrants and homeless people. Wodiczko's contraptions are designed to draw the attention of passers-by, since the "Homeless Vehicle" was not only meant to make life on the street easier, but is also there to make the fate of the homeless visible. People who are normally only tolerated when they are unobtrusive, are here given special attention by making them the owners of conspicuous vehicles.

Like Wodiczko's vehicles, the recent projects by Knowbotic Research explore the potentials of agency through performative scenarios in a theatre of visibilities: From the spectacular "BlackBenz Race", through the strategic play on visibility and invisibility in "be prepared! tiger!", to the public performance of "Passion 5" in which the city becomes a stage and the audience is drawn into the metaphorical re-enactment of the May demonstration in confrontation with the blimp as a symbol of an equally passionate control apparatus and its agents.

"naked_bandit / here, not here / white_sovereign", finally, comes across as an absurd drama, part tragic, part humouristic, given the repetition and inescapability that the computer script, the balloons, and Mr. Navorski seem to share. They raise the question of the potential for transgressing a designated space, and ask whether we need to think of power as something that operates within limited scenarios, or across different such stages. The visitor entering the installation space is confronted with different conflicting processes of simulation and dissimulation in which he or she has to define her own role. In a world lit up by the glare of spectacle and surveillance cameras, we have to find our place between spotlights and camouflage covers.

In Samuel Beckett's play 'Waiting for Godot', the two protagonists are stuck in a place somewhere in the middle of nowhere, anticipating someone who they think is called Godot. The exposed spot lays bare the fact that their waiting is futile, and that they are caught in a loop of obscure dependencies which will, if there is a tomorrow, always bring them back to the same situation. Their only hope is that night may fall and that darkness deliver them from the inescapable deadlock. A small hope. Instead – this I add to Beckett's scenario – the sun seems to grow brighter by the day.

AGAMBEN, Giorgio (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press
BROECKMANN, Andreas (2000): Wirksamkeit und konnektives Handeln. Zu den translokalen Konstruktionen von Knowbotic Research + cF. In: Heute ist Morgen. Über die Zukunft von Erfahrung und Konstruktion (M. Erlhoff, H. U. Reck, eds.) Bundeskunsthalle Bonn, p. 213-237
FOUCAULT, Michel (1977): Discipline and Punish. London, Allan Lane
KNOWBOTIC RESEARCH (2005): Transcoding the Dilemma - naked bandit. Zurich
WODICZKO, Krysztof (1992): Instruments, Projections, Vehicles. Barcelona, Fundacio Antoni Tapies

(Berlin, 26. 9.2006)

Created by: admin last modification: Friday 23 of March, 2007 [11:42:55 UTC] by admin