Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces
“Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces” presents artist Hillary Mushkin’s newest project. Incendiary Traces is an experimental art, research and media initiative investigating how landscape imagery is used in international conflict. It brings groups of artists, scholars, and students to active, local militarized sites to draw, observe and otherwise “trace” locations that have included the 29 Palms Marine Corps Base, the US/Mexico border, San Clemente Island Naval Weapons Testing Range, among others. Through research, event reports, and public scholarship, Incendiary Traces has collected drawings, photographs, and stories that highlight the various ways we visualize war. Counter to the mediated experience of remote conflict, Incendiary Traces provides a fresh view of national security and war as a physical, grounded American public experience. Engaging Pomona College students and faculty and other artists and scholars, the project will include an exhibition, an off-campus site-specific drawing event, a public forum, and a publication.
“Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces” will be on view concurrently with the Museum’s exhibition “Goya’s War.” Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War has been a source of inspiration for Mushkin for over a decade. In particular the prints Yo lo vi (I saw this) and Esto es lo verdadero (This is the truth) discussed by Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others eloquently speak to Mushkin’s concerns. Sontag points to these and other artworks to illustrate the challenges of representing an authentic experience of war. Do images and text help connect viewers, re-inscribe distance from war, or both? Taking the legacies of Goya’s series and Sontag’s critique as a starting point, “Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces” will explore connections between Disasters of War and contemporary human and technological visualizations of US international conflict.
This project is supported in part by the Pasadena Art Alliance.
"Hillary Mushkin: Collectively Drawing Conflict," by Rebecca McGrew, Senior Curator at the Pomona College Museum of Art
This publication accompanies “Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces,” the first museum exhibition of Hillary Mushkin’s Incendiary Traces, which she describes as a “conceptually driven, collectively generated art and research project that explores political facets of representing landscape.” Over the last two decades, Mushkin has examined contemporary and historical intersections of visual culture and socio-political consciousness, investigating the ways virtual and physical landscapes are imag- ined, represented, and ideologically invested. Blurring fact and fiction to question the role technology plays in mediating subject- ivity, she works in studio and post-studio forms, including drawing, video, new media, and public practice. In earlier work, she focused on how American utopian ideals of comfort and security shape a militarized society and addressed how technology and cultural fantasies of landscape influence perceptions of our everyday surroundings.
Mushkin’s newest project, Incendiary Traces, is an experimental art, research, and media initiative that investigates the role of landscape imagery in international conflict through on-site public “draw-in” events, ongoing research and public scholar- ship, and publication of related materials by diverse contributors. She frequently collaborates with other artists, architects, poets, scholars, and technologists. The research contributions from scholars, scientists, art historians, and other experts, who “focus on historical and contemporary visual materials related to the sites we visit and technologies found there,” are a critical component of the project. Their contributions ground the events “in historical and cultural context beyond the militarized frames of reference represented at the sites.” As she explains the process, “On the day of the drawing event, invited experts and scholars give informal presentations to the Incendiary Traces group. In tandem, the work of these and additional researchers is published, along with a report on the event, primarily on KCET’s Artbound.” In addition to these publications, the project website archives each event, corresponding scholarship, and related thematic images and source material.
Landscapes—the spaces we live in—are framed pictorially. These images produce compelling narratives and wield political power. Artists, explorers, speculators, even military strategists have used landscape imagery to voice and define our relationship to national identity, security, and war. Incendiary Traces aims to demon- strate—counter to the mediated experience of war— that battlespace is both dispersed and local, immaterial and physical, and that the public inhabits and witnesses international conflict in our own backyards. Incendiary Traces offers a fresh view of national security, identity, and territorial delineation as physical, grounded American public experience. The project aims to use our real and symbolic affiliations with landscape to help the public to connect firsthand to foreign conflict.
To help accomplish these goals, Mushkin brings groups of artists, scholars, and students to local militarized zones to trace the sites through observation and drawing. Subjects have included the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, in Twentynine Palms, California; Mexico City’s C4i4; Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, in Redondo Beach, California; the San Clemente Island Range Complex; the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, in Los Angeles; and the US-Mexico border. These events have provided opportunities for the participants to explore satellite technologies, national bound- aries, and simulated urban combat environments.
“Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces” is presented concur- rently with the Pomona College Museum of Art’s exhibition “Goya’s War.” Francisco Goya’s etchings Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War) focus on the 1808–13 Spanish War of Independence from France. From 1808 until about 1820, Goya worked on the eighty prints in the series. Rather than depicting scenes of epic battles and heroic soldiers, Goya produced stark, sobering images of brutality and corruption. Goya’s images of the barbarity and futility of war have been a source of inspi- ration for Mushkin for over a decade. Susan Sontag’s eloquent discussion of the Goya prints Yo lo vi (I saw this) and Esto es lo verdadero (This is the truth) profoundly influenced Mushkin. For Sontag, these and other artworks illustrate the challenges of representing an authentic experience of war. Sontag’s book, Regarding the Pain of Others, ponders whether images and texts help connect viewers to or re-inscribe viewers’ distance from war (or both).
Taking Goya’s series and Sontag’s critique as a starting point, “Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces” explores contemporary human and technological visualizations of conflict zones. Incendiary Traces’ collaborators and participants leverage the act of drawing to better understand power and the act of bearing witness in our contemporary, post-photographic world. By organizing drawing events at locations where authorities and defense contractors use technology to envision conflict, Mushkin positions drawing as a collective visual practice parallel to the military’s, while highlighting human observation, interpretation, and gesture. In contrast to technological imaging, drawing is a slow, meditative process that involves the artists being present, on site for hours at a time. Each drawing event or artist-coordinated site visit becomes a performance of art, research, and collective action.
Incendiary Traces stems from Mushkin’s early investigations into the complex relationships with visual propaganda in everyday environments and the ramifications of the overt militarization of Western culture. Her 2003 video The Sleep of Reason, which was influenced by Edmund Burke’s writings on the sublime, conflates CNN’s iconic nightscope footage of the bombing of Baghdad, in 1991, with time-reversed Fourth of July fireworks. The combination of hand-drawn, computer-generated, and live-action imagery highlights the often unsettlingly abstract experience of war, in which viewers watch from places far removed from the actual sites of violence. In a series of drawings and animated video drawings entitled As We Go On (2005–8), Mushkin investigated “symbols of our national mythology of sugary plenty and sanitized security” and their relationship to landscape imagery. The compositions reflect American battlefield photographs and pastoral landscape genre painting of the nineteenth century and the more current, pop landscape paintings of Ed Ruscha. The Girl with Lions series (2008–9) was inspired by the connections among decorative arts, architectural ornament, and visual languages of nationalistic power. Made entirely with digital tools, the works contrast hand-drawn, delicate images of children with graphic, stylized symbols of mythic animal rulers. Incendiary Traces grew out of these prior investigations and Mushkin’s desire for a more thoughtful dialog that would reach beyond her studio. Knowing there were people who were professionally engaged in addressing these issues, she determined to create a forum for collective research, practice, and discussion centered on tracing landscapes of war as a conceptual practice.
“Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces” highlights the history and the collaborative investigative quality of Incendiary Traces, which grapples with fundamental themes of humanity, politics, and war in the twenty-first century. Simply by asking if picturing landscapes can be a political intervention, Mushkin proposes that collective action and public engagement reveal truths about the ways we interpret images and offer reflections on how conflict is understood in our time.
1. Hillary Mushkin, Incendiary Traces website, http://www.incendiarytraces.org/about/.
2. Mushkin, correspondence with the author, July 10, 2016.
5. This material is currently published on Los Angeles’ KCET program Artbound and available at http://www.incendiarytraces.org/articles-1/.
6. Mushkin, http://www.incendiarytraces.org/about/.
7. The exhibition, “Goya’s War: Los Desastres de la Guerra,” was organized by the Pomona College Museum of Art and the University Museums, University of Delaware. The accompanying publication includes essays by Museum Director Kathleen Stewart Howe and exhibition curator Janis A. Tomlinson (University of Delaware Press/ Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).
8. See Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).
Essay by Susanna Newbury
"The Intimate Technology of Remote Vision," by Susanna Newbury
Fireworks bloom over the nestled hills of a darkened city. They rise and crest, retract and disappear with subtly precise rhythm, streaking the skyline in red, white, and smoke. They are somehow sinister in their isolation—a piercing advance guard approaching from the dark. Over the course of minutes, they merge seamlessly into abstraction. The chromatic spec- trum saps to black and white. The pointillist tracings of blooms and tails render to watery grayscale. At first, it’s difficult to tell whether we’ve simply lost focus, camera caught in nondescript middle-distance, vision drifting into somnolence. The skyline, however, remains the same, a horizon anchoring the view. In a few minutes more, the scene begins to resolve. Patches of light stain sickly green. Arcing contrails return, illuminating a horizon-shift to rooftops. All is not well. The joyous sound of crackling turns to a screech; the decrescendo of a slow fall becomes reverb upon impact. Fireworks have become bombs. One more change washes over: whorling discs of light circle the screen, then retract, light gagging and consuming itself back into darkness, a dream absorbed to its origins in conscious- ness. The sound devolves to baseline fuzz, encompassing a wide range of heterogeneous action into a white noise whose simultaneity eclipses the senses.
This is Hillary Mushkin’s 2003 video The Sleep of Reason, a work named after the well-known print from Francisco de Goya’s Caprichos series (1797–99). Both stage the rational world dissolving into chaos in times of deep geopolitical conflict. In Goya’s orig- inal, the chaos is allegorical: an artist is asleep over his paper as bats, cats, and owls creep over his crumpled body, their eyes wide and hungry. In Mushkin’s, the chaos is recorded: celebrations morphing into air assaults. In turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Spain, folly and willful ignorance characterized national ideol- ogy, as the monarchy fought for access to its colonial territories in the Anglo-Spanish war. Mushkin’s new millennium sees proxy wars fought over access to global commodity reserves in the faraway theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan. While Goya’s print uses iconography to mediate fear as a consequence of inaction, Mushkin uses both raw footage of actual events and abstract animation to blend politics and conflict between reason and chaos. Terror and exuberance, darkness and danger appear from the distant edge of consciousness, hidden in plain sight.
Today, technology shapes vision and narrative meaning with an immediacy that makes it functionally invisible. For Mushkin, this became particularly evident within the context of Operation Desert Storm, the United States-led, NATO-backed invasion of Iraq following its takeover of Kuwait’s oil fields in 1990. Operation Desert Storm, and its 1991 opening air assault on Baghdad in particular, was the first war to be broadcast live in a 24-hour format. The night-vision footage of the air assault and counter-strikes that Mushkin uses in The Sleep of Reason appeared on CNN. Filmed with military cameras mounted on aircraft and stationed on rooftops, the footage was streamed back to viewers with live commentary. (“It’s an incredible panorama of flashes!” reported an ABC news anchor. “Red trac- ers, white tracers!” exclaimed an NBC reporter.) Technology delivered war as an image that abolishes every possible remoteness, to paraphrase Martin Heidegger, as an immaterial phenomenon of visual delivery shocking, visually safe, and aimed at a nonparticipant—the viewer. In a counterintuitive development, representation replaced embodied experience. Immediate access fused with the inside perspective of military surveillance, which was presented as unmediated knowledge. This “close-up at a distance” visuality forged a remotely coor- dinated impression of intimacy, a view so aligned with one perspective it eclipsed critique. Visualizing information—the fact and quantity of airstrikes—simulated a first-hand expe- rience of conflict from the remote safety of the homeland and the absolute of controlled surveillance, of information.
Mushkin’s “Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces,” at Pomona College Museum of Art, takes up this paradox as a governing fact of life in our present time of endless war. The project, which has occupied Mushkin for over five years, combines the intense vertical inquiry of scholarly research with a desire to visualize war in the everyday world, revealing a globalized landscape of techno-defense anchored in and around Southern California. To do so, Incendiary Traces combines two seemingly opposed strategies: an investment in decoding defense technology’s informational “view from nowhere,” and an insistence on the validity of individual experience—a composed and authored view from the ground—as grounds for collective knowledge. For each installment of the project, Mushkin selected a site and concept— remote control command at Northrop Grumman, simulation and war games at Twentynine Palms, surveillance and infrastructure along the US-Mexico border—to examine on individual, collective, and institutional levels.
For each she used email and Facebook—another digital matrix disaggregating images and information—to solicit participation in on-location plein-air drawing sessions. Participants gathered on the given date in parking lots, next to industrial parks, and in other forgotten spaces to observe how research and technology operate under the radar of everyday sight and to image national security infrastructure. Following site tours, information ses- sions, and other official forms of orientation, the participants were invited to make their own impressions of place through lines of sight. Mushkin then gathered their drawings and notations and entered them into her own research record, publishing them as illustrations to essays. Some of these works are the physical evidence on display in this exhibition. Paulina Pulido, for example, sketched the compressed security infrastructure around Mexico City’s C4i4 surveillance complex as a sequence of fences, electrical lines, and bishop’s crook surveillance cameras. Eva Struble shaded a page of her notebook with a bird’s-eye view of the US-Mexico border wall from an adjoining mesa, all paths and patches and hedges. Mushkin herself rendered the bank of screens at the C4i4 control room as a mosaic of watercolor shapes—turning control into color-blocked design. Deploying the medium of Sunday painters and hobbyists, the participants collectively envisioned the tactical and shifting terrain of tech- nological warfare in vignette—translating a clandestine world of geographical surveillance into the composed and personal rhetoric of landscape.
The results differ from the typical view of California—all outdoor living, prize gardens, movie stars, and reality shows. It is a view of modern pragmatism. Behind the Hollywood pro- scenium, Southern California’s military-industrial boom, led by aerospace, steadily moved the region into a technological command-and-control economy anchored in information sci- ences. From visual reconnaissance to no-fly lists, geographic information systems (GIS) and virtually operated unmanned aircraft, Southern California’s aerospace and tech industries have developed a strong security infrastructure resolutely divorced from analog description. But unlike the virtuoso campuses of Silicon Valley, their activities remain hidden behind the banal architecture of logistics centers, in operational environments running as nearly neutral administration. They have no public image. In the same way as the live broadcast of videotaped footage of Operation Desert Storm aligned pub- lic vision with military perspective, the visuality of national security collapses into data—a view of the world contained in numbers. Representation’s explanatory efficacy is in doubt at a time where image fails to encapsulate the boundless activity of network society.
Visual representation is a political operation. So, too, is the representation of the external world as numeric code. In a society ever more inclined to place its faith in the simplicity of numbers, representation sheds its significance, reduced to an aggrega- tion of finite units then quantified as logical fact. Conclusive, evidence-based identification can take place without needing to pass through the critical faculties of human reason and inter- pretation. And yet critical media scholars consistently point out that this digital world is structured and articulated, strangely, by visual rather than computational rhetoric. Computer scien- tist Ben Shneiderman explains, “To understand something is called ‘seeing’ it. We try to make our ideas ‘clear,’ to bring them into ‘focus,’ to ‘arrange’ our thoughts.” The frequency of visual metaphor in describing computation as a relatable process of autonomous thought hints at a deeper relationship between visibility and fact. Whereas data has come to stand not only for “raw” (and therefore objective) information, it is worth consider- ing how it is always already representational, an interpretation of object to code, a return to the complex negotiation between image and information.
So, how to put vision to data, to place virtuality? Incendiary Traces proposes that knowledge is a plural condition of experience, vision, and analysis generated by viewers as authors of reason. The goal of touring the Marine Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms is not just to confirm what we already know—that this corner of the Mojave desert passes for Iraq and Afghanistan in war games—but also to examine how such train- ing in generic and data-built virtual environments requires the construction of landscape: a world set up as a perspectival field, with view, vanishing point, and human subjectivity as the origin of action. Visiting aerospace firm Northrop Grumman’s head- quarters in Redondo Beach anchors the virtual vision of remote command, control, and surveillance that orchestrates global theaters of war. Visiting the site, sandwiched between Costco, the local performing arts center, and the 405 freeway, in the banal- ity of suburban sprawl, enacts the same mission as Northrop Grumman’s research: recovering geospatial information behind the anodyne curtain of being hidden in plain sight. The fiction of surveillance’s “god’s eye view” begins to be unmasked as a prod- uct of Southern California’s military industrial complex. From the control room of Mexico City’s C4i4, technicians monitor not only the visibility of bodies and objects in space but also the environmental effects of matter displaced—changes of moisture, elevation, and heat that could indicate phenomena from the gath- ering of people in public space to the rumblings of an earthquake or the presence of gases and other biological agents. Here, view- ing’s transformation into data is complete. Human command of the observable world finds its strength from numbers as the root confirmation of vision.
Taken collectively, therefore, the disparate elements within Mushkin’s exhibition at Pomona offer a vigorous interrogation of landscape in a world in which our technological enchantment with images proposes an absolute and quantified visuality. Against the conventional authority of surveillance and data collection, her project makes room for an imperfect first-person reportage, for “small data” that textures meaning. The display cases on view contain plein air sketches and paintings, historic photographs from public archives, and corporate documents. The project’s implementation on the Internet—on Artbound, the cultural journalism program of the independent public trans- media station KCET; Places Journal; and Registro.mx—further speaks to Incendiary Traces’ distributive motive, providing a platform for reports and writings in widely available, if intangible, form. In making their publicity available within the iterative space of a college art museum, the exhibition posits that infor- mation consists of material things, giving it an object status with origin, lifespan, and tactility that undermines its supposed objective authority. This “use factor,” the evidence of personal contact and fabrication, argues that information necessarily passes through some form of bodily filter—eyes, hands, brain, reason—on its way to becoming a manifest visual statement. It is, in other words, non-technical and subjective. In an evidentiary manner, Mushkin provides her volume of multi-authored and collective knowledge: laid side-by-side, annotated, and publicly contested in the world of information.
1. For more on Goya’s political agency, representation, and place within the world of an emergent public sphere, see Janis Tomlinson, Goya in the Twilight of Enlightenment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
2. For a comprehensive history of media coverage of Operation Desert Storm, see Susan Je ords and Lauren Rabinovitz, Seeing through the Media: The Persian Gulf War (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994).
3. Walter Goodman, “War in the Gulf: On Television, the Theater of War,” New York Times, January 17, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/01/17/world/war-in-the-gulf-tv-critic-s-note....
4. Martin Heidegger, “The Thing,” Poetry, Language, and Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 163.
5. Allen Feldman, “On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King,” American Ethnologist 21:2 (May 1994): 407.
6. Laura Kurgan has written definitively on the roles digitization and data visualization play in producing the a ect of objectivity in geospatial politics, and I borrow her term here. For more, see Kurgan, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics (New York: Zone, 2013).
7. For more on the urban development of postwar Southern California, see Greg Hise, Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth- Century Metropolis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). On Southern California’s role in developing network society economies, see Manuel Castells, The Rise of Network Society (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996) and Rob Kling, Spencer Olin, and Mark Poster, Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County since World War II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
8. Kris Fallon has recently written on the politics of documentary vision in a digital world. See Fallon, “Data Visualization and Documentary’s (In)visible Frontiers,” in Documentary Across Disciplines, ed. Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 294–313.
9. Ben Shneiderman, “Information Visualization,” in Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think, ed. Stuart Card, Jock Mackinlay, and Ben Shneiderman (San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 1999), 1.
10. As danah boyd and Kate Crawford have stated, data is not generic, and even at the present scale of infinite volume we take for comprehensive objectivity, it is necessary to understand and recognize comparative bias in the process, investigation, and methodology of its collection. Boyd and Crawford, “Critical Questions for Big Data,” Information, Communication & Society 15:3 (June 2012): 668–71.
Susanna Newbury is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History, Criticism & Theory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her book Speculations: Art, Real Estate, and Global Los Angeles is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press