Disaster nationalism as geovisual play (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 14)

This is the fourteenth instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH


Disaster Nationalism as Geovisual Play

By Eray Çaylı


On 23 April, when both Turkey and the UK had just completed their first month of coronavirus-related measures, a special flight took off in each of these countries. A Turkish Airlines flight numbered TK1920 flew over central Turkey, leaving radar-trackable traces that amounted to “the world’s largest Turkish flag” on occasion of National Sovereignty and Children’s Day. Turkey’s current parliament was founded on this day in 1920 (hence the special flight number). The founders, the story goes, wanted to gift parliamentary democracy primarily to children. As a result, many a child’s playtime every 23 April is infused today with nationalist iconography. In the UK, the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance, outsourced to the private company Woodgate Aviation, conducted a flight on 23 April 2020, which traced out the initials N(ational) H(ealth) S(ervice) capping a heart-shaped trajectory. The idea, said the company, was to offer “a unique way of saying ‘thank you’ for the heroic work being done by frontline NHS staff to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.” There was, of course, nothing particularly unique about Woodgate’s enterprise, except perhaps its sheer geographical scale. The motifs it featured have, over the past weeks, become a ubiquitous sight in much of the UK where they have been drawn on home windows and pavements especially as children’s play.


Flight-tracking image for TK1920 on 23 April 2020


Flight-tracking image for Northern Ireland Air Ambulance on 23 April 2020


Play and aerial imaging correspond to prominent themes in Harun Farocki’s oeuvre, the latter more directly than the former. His manifold investigations into the visuality of violence and the violence of visuality exposed aerial photography and satellite imagery for serving, right from the outset of their military origins, highly selective and often-violent political agendas rather than the objective technicality associated with them. These technologies, showed Farocki, have led military violence to harden into dominant visual regimes that, at every purported turn from war to peace, prove far longer lasting than warfare proper—so much so that, gradually since the end of World War Two, many of these regimes have increasingly become oriented not towards depicting the world but rather towards its destruction. Farocki also charted a convergence between visual technologies of warfare and those of play, particularly in the realm of computer games. Dovetailing with larger processes through which machines of militarized imaging have conditioned the ordinary eye, this convergence has rendered relatable and even playful the act of seeing another as an object to be targeted, monitored and/or surveilled.

The two flight-radar-trackable images drawn this past 23 April in both Turkey and the UK indicate a particularly sinister phase in the visually charged entanglement between play and war that Farocki dissected so masterfully. No longer is a militarized visual technology rooted in violent nationalism simply being made playful or the visuality of play merely being restructured around that of warfare. At stake here, rather, is the pragmatic and programmatic simplicity that characterizes play in its purest form—play that lacks geovisual targets, monitors and surveillance proper, or play, in other words, as nothing else but play even when it may involve the drawing of a national symbol. It is by appropriating play as such that these two images prop up a certain disaster nationalism—a “we’re all in the same boat” ideology—and, in so doing, obfuscate ongoing socioeconomic disparities that mark the way coronavirus is experienced in neoliberal settings such as Turkey and the UK, and the political responsibilities involved therein.

Just in time for the appearance of these images of disaster nationalism as geovisual play, children on my street had made the below drawing on our pavement.


Children’s chalk drawing on a London pavement near where the author lives

Appropriating the simplicity of play, it seems, might come with consequences.

Eray Çaylı is an ethnographer and currently Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); he completes work on the book The Architecture and Violence of Confronting the Past in Early 2010s’  Turkey while also conducting new research on how Turkey’s resilience policies intersect with its histories of political violence.
May 6th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

A  word on “post-truth” by postcolonial and photography scholar Zahid R. Chauhary (from his 2020 essay “The Politics of Exposure: Truth after Post-Facts”):So perhaps it is not simply that truth acts (such as whistleblowing) expose what we already know, but that the place of knowledge in an atmosphere of fetishistic disavowal lends such disavowal a libidinal frisson. In cynical reasoning, truth actually matters a great deal because acting in spite of it is what endows the action with its distinctive fetishistic pleasure.”

October 26th, 2021

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020
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