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Technologies of Experience: Harun Farocki's Serious Games and Military Aesthetics

Technologies of Experience: Harun Farocki's Serious Games and Military Aesthetics
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  Technologies of Experience: Harun Farocki’s Serious Games   and Military Aesthetics Anders Engberg- Pedersen  I recommend aesthetic exercises.􂀔Alexander Baumgarten, Ästhetik  In 2009, a group of soldiers from the US Marine Corps were driving their tank across the desert in Twentynine Palms, California, when some-thing appeared to block the road (Figure 1). The object did not look like any-thing they were trained to identify, and the lack of recognition made them stop. They quickly realized, however, that the sand- colored triangular object wasn’t real. It was merely a glitch.Using the computer program Virtual Battle Space 2  , the soldiers were engaged in a so-called serious game􂀔a simulation designed to pro-vide soldiers with an immersive, virtual experience of war before they are sent into action. Safely located at the Marine Corps base in California, their minds and bodies were at the same time inside the Battle Simulation Center, driving along a virtual but real terrain generated from actual carto-graphic data from a potential combat zone. Expecting an improvised explo- boundary 2   44󰀺4 (2017) DOI 10.1215/01903659- 4206373 © 2017 by Anders Engberg-Pedersen Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own. Downloaded from UNIV PITTSBURGH useron 03 July 2018  156 boundary 2 / November 2017 sive device (IED), the soldiers drove on when they realized that the object on the road was a harmless error in the software program. Pixels depict-ing the desert sand had been copied onto the pixels depicting the asphalt road, but they really weren’t there. This glitch is the starting point for Harun Farocki’s video installation Serious Games I– IV   from 2009–10.For several decades, German documentarist and installation artist Harun Farocki traced the technological development of the images of war. His early film Nicht Löschbares Feuer/The Inextinguishable Fire   (1969) on the Vietnam War and Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges/Images of the World and the Inscription of War   (1989) on aerial photographs of Auschwitz, were followed by an examination of what he called “operational images” in Auge/Maschine/Eye/Machine   (2000–2003). Such images first emerged in the first Gulf War and are characterized by being purely functional: they are read by machines and not intended to be viewed by human beings. In recent years, Farocki turned his attention to the simulations of war that are currently performed by immersive virtual reality (VR) war games. Since the 1990s, when Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “military- industrial complex” morphed into the “military- entertainment complex” (Lenoir and Lowood 2005), or the “military- industrial- media- entertainment network” (MIME- NET) as James Der Derian has labeled it (Der Derian 2009), leading military powers have poured millions of dollars into the development of VR war games such as Virtual Iraq   and Virtual Afghanistan   in close collaboration with the video game and film industry. Such games hold out the promise of providing war experience by proxy, of generating experiential effects by virtual means.It is not at all clear, however, what the nature of this experience is. In other words, what happens to traditional notions of “experience” with the emergence of immersive VR technologies? How does this equipment Figure 1. Serious Games I: Watson Is Down  . Courtesy of Harun Farocki GbR. Downloaded from UNIV PITTSBURGH useron 03 July 2018  The Militarization of Knowledge Dossier / Engberg-Pedersen 157 organize perception and memory and marshal them for potential action? How do its designers experiment with the senses and what kind of sensory management do they seek to effect? These are some of the questions that emerge from Farocki’s four- partite video installation Serious Games  . First displayed at the Biennale in Sao Paolo in 2010, the installation offers a criti-cal documentation of the intricate commingling of virtual war and actual war, and its probing inquiry reveals how contemporary warfare has, to an unprecedented degree, become a matter of aesthetics. Indeed, the military- entertainment complex, or the MIME- NET􂀔however we choose to call the current collaboration between military institutions and creative industries􂀔has developed an aesthetic regime that increasingly governs how we wage war today. Using advanced simulations in which fictional worlds reorganize the sense perception of the soldiers, the military has encroached upon a field one would not usually associate with military efforts􂀔the field of aes-thetics. Farocki’s installation may serve as an index into the emergence of a newfangled military aesthetic regime, in which a field traditionally asso-ciated with art has been co- opted and militarized. Using Farocki as its guide, this essay situates Serious Games   in the history of war simulations and aesthetic theory in order to sketch out the nature of contemporary mili-tary aesthetics and its consequences for our understanding of the experi-ence of war. The essay first lays out the recent institutional collaborations between the military and the creative industries, and then it revisits a key moment in the history of war and technology: the invention of the mod-ern war game around 1800 and the replacement of texts with games as the preferred military technology of experience. We get a better sense of the character of this experience if we consider it in the light of classic and more recent work in aesthetic theory. I therefore turn to Alexander Baum-garten, John Dewey, and Jacques Rancière and consider their reflections on aesthetics, experience, and politics as a frame for the recent collabora-tion between the military and the creative industries. Finally, I return to our guide along the way, Harun Farocki, and examine the effects of the military co- option of aesthetics on the field of art by charting the difficulties that beset his own attempt to reclaim aesthetics from the grasp of the military. 1. Creative Warfare A milestone in the establishment of the military aesthetic regime was the founding of the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the Uni-versity of Southern California in Los Angeles. In 1999, the Department of Downloaded from UNIV PITTSBURGH useron 03 July 2018  158 boundary 2 / November 2017 Defense awarded the university a $45 million five- year contract to spon-sor a university- affiliated research center working in collaboration with the US Army Research Laboratory. At the opening ceremony, the president of the University of Southern California appeared next to the secretary of the US Army, along with the CEO of Silicon Graphics, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, the deputy mayor of Los Angeles, as well as the governor of California, Gray Davis, who was virtually pres-ent on a screen via satellite from Sacramento.¹ The purpose of this joint venture between the military, Hollywood, the game industry, and the politi-cal and educational institutions was, in their own words, to bring “film and game industry artists together with computer and social scientists to study and develop immersive media for military training, health therapies, edu-cation and more” (ICT 2014). The ICT has since received three new con-tracts, the most recent one worth $135 million. Over the course of the past fifteen years, the institute has produced a number of immersive media and synthetic environments that have gradually been adopted by US military institutions.²One such project was the virtual reality war game Full Spectrum War- rior  , developed in collaboration with the independent company Pandemic Studios. Given the familiarity among male teenagers with video games, the ICT sought to leverage their knowledge and habits for the purpose of mili-tary training. A war game, Full Spectrum Warrior   is a combat simulation intended to familiarize recruits with the war experience by immersing them in a virtual world in which they can train in skills such as tactics, decision making, coordination, and so on, without suffering the deleterious conse-quences of actual warfare. But such war games also conduct a complex affective management. In Farocki’s first installation, Serious Games I: Wat- son Is Down  , the left side of the split screen shows the simulation “Virtual Battle Space 2,” while the right side shows the soldiers sitting in front of their computers playing the game. As the platoon comes under attack, the soldiers’ reactions are strangely subdued. In the background, other gamers are laughing, and they seem disengaged and emotionally detached from the virtual events unfolding in front of them. Several of the soldiers appear to be bored and stare coolly at the screen. When suddenly Watson’s ava-tar is shot and killed and falls from the vehicle, Watson himself, the ava- 1. Detailed accounts of the opening can be found in Der Derian 2009 (160ff), as well as in Lenoir and Lowood 2005.2. One of these projects was Flatworld (2001–2007), the archive of which has been examined by Suchman 2016. Downloaded from UNIV PITTSBURGH useron 03 July 2018  The Militarization of Knowledge Dossier / Engberg-Pedersen 159 tar’s real- world counterpart, simply sighs and pushes himself away from the computer (Figure 2).The lack of emotional involvement is not happenstance but the effect of a carefully calibrated affective management designed to insure not just the bodies but also the minds of US soldiers. Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a research professor at the ICT, has developed two projects that make use of immersive VR technology to manage and control human responses to the extreme experience of warfare. The first one, Stress Resilience in Vir-tual Environments, or STRIVE, is a VR training program that optimizes the psychological response to combat. The premise that guides the program is that pre- exposure to certain types and levels of stress may protect sol-diers from being traumatized, and that systematic training will strengthen the soldiers’ “resilience” (i.e., how quickly and efficiently they return to a normal psychological state after the stress of combat). The blasé attitude, the mental mode that blunts the impact of sensory data that Georg Simmel once diagnosed as the survival strategy of urban modernity, has in mod-ern warfare become a product of systematic training (Simmel [1903] 1972).³The second project, Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, or VRET􂀔the subject of Farocki’s third installation, Serious Games III: Immersion  􂀔is designed for soldiers returning from war with PTSD.⁴ Immersing soldiers in virtual Middle Eastern– themed scenarios, prototypes such as Virtual Iraq    3. In December 2014, STRIVE was awarded the Army Modeling and Simulation Award. See project- receives- 2014- army- modeling- and- simulation- award/ (accessed January 17, 2015).4. The system is currently distributed to over sixty sites, such as VA hospitals, military bases, and universities. See (accessed November 1, 2015). Figure 2. Serious Games I: Watson Is Down  . Courtesy of Harun Farocki GbR. Downloaded from UNIV PITTSBURGH useron 03 July 2018
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