“Do you remember that he asks the reader somewhere what he would do if he could make a fortune by killing an old mandarin somewhere in China by mere force of wishing it, and without stirring from Paris?”
Balzac, Father Goriot 1835
Called by the names from the horror movies: Predators and Reapers; grey, their shapes resembling the Giger’s alien, unnamed aerial vehicles tirelessly travelling the air space above the high mountains of the East and the deserts of Africa. Lacking windows and cockpits, the anthropomorphic substitutes of eyes, they seem blind; nothing is more erroneous. They were equipped with the Gorgon Stare observation system, which got its name from the mythical beast capable of killing with its gaze. The modern, military incarnation of the Gorgon’s eyes, described as “city-sized, 24/7 persistent surveillance”, is promoted as providing three tiers of simultaneous imagery: “synoptic, wide-area coverage, full field of regard”; “multiple sub-views” of this; and “best-resolution tactical chip-outs.” These correspond with three different kinds of use, characterized as: “forensics/pattern of life (30-day mission data archive)”; “areas of interest overwatch”; and “tactical consumers/ first responders.”
A group of men stopping on their way to prayer, a circle of cars is automatically recognized as a terrorist formation and all are wiped off the face of the earth with the help of the Hellfire missile. Copywriters in the American military sector have a strange affinity for biblical and mythological motifs; perhaps in their education, they limited themselves to ancient history and maybe, in their opinion, only classic tones guarantee due seriousness and an aura of eternal inevitability. Despite the significant difficulties and catastrophic consequences of the first attempts at utilisation, we are constantly working on systems that autonomously combine the function of the recognition and elimination of targets. The development of reliable visual patterns that would allow the detection of an enemy without human intervention would give us the comfort of taking life without bearing personal responsibility as a particular offender. Despite the unreliable high-level software and considerable failure rate of the human operators’ psyche, the technical means with which combat drones were equipped are impressive. DARPA (the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) is developing the ARGUS-IS project. Again [we have] a mythological name. Argus was the hundred-eyed servant of Hera from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. His contemporary incarnation consists of two telescopes, each containing ninety-two image recorders that, during one day, record eight years of high-definition video. The manufacturer ensures that the system covers an area of one hundred square miles with an accuracy of one pixel corresponding to 15 square centimetres of the monitored area, i.e. ARGUS-IS, at one moment, can see an entire large city with postcard accuracy. Of course, there is a demand to make use of these abilities in rescue missions, observations of the blooming of oceanic algae, the early detection of forest fires and the tracking of patches of oceanic rubbish, but the impulse for the development of the mythical powers of new technologies and the home theatre of their activities is, above all, military conflict.
The history of civilization is a story of the increased distance from which you can eliminate your enemies. A thrown javelin, a stone launched from a slingshot, then a bow, a crossbow, firearms and rockets. The distance that separates the victim from the perpetrator determines both the symbolic value of the act of killing and its effectiveness. While the closer the warrior’s physical involvement in the combat, the greater the prestige gained in a war, his combat value is inversely proportional to the distance and it gets greater as it increases, which also increases the survival rate and offers the possibility of multiple use, elevating the professionalization or utility value of a warrior. A war hero is someone who puts their life at risk in direct combat. It is difficult to find heroism in an air-conditioned pavilion in the middle of a closely guarded secret military base in the American Midwest, where all it takes to kill a Mandarin in distant China, Peshmerga in Syria or any other person represented on the screen, is willpower. Meanwhile, on the other hand, terrorists, smugglers, rebels, other hostile forces and accidental residents of conflict zones may either disappear from the face of the earth due to a missile explosion unexpectedly fired from the all-seeing drone flying high above the clouds, or vanish from its field of vision.
According to specialists in so-called public (national) security, criminal activities and hostile acts of violence cannot only be analysed, explained and tracked at the level of the surface of the earth, water and airspace. All forbidden activities, as imagined in the paranoid mind of their adversaries, are located in cavernous undergrounds where the lines of flow of people and means are constantly changing their course and resistance points and focal points appear and disappear regardless of the organization of ground infrastructure and landscape. Professionals are unanimous in this schizoid vision of unknown forces swirling underground that, being out of control and elusive in the face of the most advanced surveillance and impenetrable by above-ground forces, multiply in a free and unpredictable way and spread on a global scale.
It used to be a common belief that mice and frogs are born from mud. Nowadays, it is common to believe that the nature of underground distribution and the escalation of illegal practices and concealed identity is identical for all the phenomena associated with secret activity and its contraband. For military experts, news editors and Hollywood screenwriters, the underground grid of universal evil overgrows the earth like a rampant mould culture. Cross-border tunnels between Mexico and the USA, underground corridors connecting the Gaza Strip and Egypt, and any other examples of hidden smuggling tunnels embarrass the globalized surface empire with all its military, cultural and financial resources. In an atmosphere of feelings bordering on certainty, the economic and military formations of secret states, subversive movements and global criminal organizations allow being led in a phantasmatic dance behind the ever-bolder steps of the surface empire.
The battle in the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan, which was to end the Coalition’s clash with the mythical Al Qaeda, began with a raid by B-2 stealth bombers. Based on intelligence data about a vast terrorist infrastructure in a network of mountain caves, the US and UK forces began a complex military operation. Surgical bombings, subtle tactics, innovative field communication and command systems, and the most advanced equipment and weaponry have been harnessed and correlated into one complex organism, capable of meeting the challenge of enigmatic mountains and their rocky nooks. Only the most sophisticated technology and strategy could face the natural architecture of terror, consisting of underground tunnels and caves hiding beneath the naked rocks. The entire potential of the most powerful army in the history of our planet was subordinated to the poetics of the meanders and holes of the mountain complex and the goal of purging them of the human element. It was both an anti-terrorist and anti-geographical mission.
As it turned out, the Tora Bora mountains did not hide any vast network of tunnels and caves. Bound up with paranoid logic, inspired by the non-existent schizoid architecture of holes, cavities and furrows annexed by the Other, the forces of the anti-terrorist coalition had designed in their mind a full-size, fictional model of underground cities like those discovered years ago in Cappadocia. According to this logic, when hostile actions are inconsistent and asymmetrical with ours and thus illogical, there must be some hidden reason, probably rooted in dark, mysterious holes. So, if it is not possible to locate unclear activities on the surface, a model of underground infrastructure beneath that could serve such functions can be built — and then hit with full force, regardless of the so-called facts. Although there was no extensive cave terrorist superbase in Tora Bora, the underground cities of Cappadocia prove that beneath each rock and mountain there is, or could be, a ramified network of inhabited caves, dungeons, tunnels, lifts and chimneys, and no paranoid mind can ignore this possibility. The escape to the mountain cave started in 3300 BC. Ötzi, the oldest surviving man whose frozen body was found in an Alpine glacier, wounded and most likely chased, hid from his pursuers high in the mountains only to die in one of the rocky caves. The battle at Tora Bora ritually recreates this pursuit of the alien hiding in the dark.
The fascination with what lies underground, especially with hidden, empty spaces, has always aroused both fear and desire. Regardless of whether it is the underground or the underworld. The physical, speleological space hidden inside the Earth: a cave, grotto, tunnel, catacombs, bunker or basement; mythical or metaphysical, imaginary spheres into which souls travel, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Don Juan’s teachings by Castaneda or Notes from the Underground by Dostoyevsky; or all resistance movements, insurgent and emancipation organizations in the political-military domain, such as La resistance, Solidarity or the underground railroad; the economic sphere of hidden income and illegal transactions, and finally the boheme associated with counter-cultural movements.
This combination of anxiety and desire combined with a direct confrontation with the underworld seems to be a universal experience. Its trace can be found in the family film Goonies, in the Virgin of the rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, and Gerontikon by the Desert Fathers. At the sight of the entrance of a cave, there is growing fear of menacing and impenetrable darkness and the desire to see if there is anything wonderful hidden inside: a hidden treasure, geological formations of unusual beauty, rock paintings or spiritual enlightenment. Entering the cave will always be an act of courage and hope, because it requires exceptional motivation to replace the ground under your feet, clear perspective and clarity of view with the dark, inscrutable and dangerous depths of the Earth’s interior.
In 1940, while visiting the Lascaux Cave, Polish architect Oskar Hansen became fascinated by the integrated forces of impact of this place, with which, in his opinion, no contemporary artistic realization could compare: “The temperature difference when going down into the cave, the noticeable change in humidity, air movement, feeling the ground with the touch of feet, and finally your own attitude towards space-time inevitably turns against contemporary art and its shallowness.” All the values of the Palaeolithic masterpiece, revealed in the authentic movement of the recipient, were, in the eyes of the architect, far ahead of the achievements of the art of later eras, including antiquity and the Renaissance, and lose nothing of the original power of its influence. As he goes on to say: “As we walk around the cave and the horizon was changing due to the unevenness of the terrain, it seemed to us that the painted figures were moving. This phenomenon of apparent movement resulted from the unevenness of the painting base — the rock and the deformation of the figures. They were hiding and emerging from the rock unevenness at a pace and manner dependent on our movement. In light of the Palaeolithic torches, this movement was certainly more expressive and could imitate hunting in the wild, because in this painting, space-time seems to have served some magic, but also teaching how to hunt.”
Touristic, mythological, spiritual, heroic and artistic journeys into the depths of the underworld constantly serve to reinforce the connection between life and death. Blades cut out of metal, devoid of a hilt, strange weapons that hurt both perpetrator and victim, were sent into the guts of Earth. This telluric journey could be a tale of an escape from the eternally insatiable demon of the art world. This publication especially, as in the story of Orpheus, who lost his heroic effort with one glance, restores the unseen to the visible and destroys all the magic of leaving the field of view.
1. English translation by Ellen Marriage.
2. Mark Dorrian, Drone Semiosis. Cabinet Magazine 54, 2014.
3. Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Re.Press 2008.
4. Oskar Hansen, Zobaczyć świat [To See the World]. Ed. J. Gola. Warszawa: Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki [Zachęta National Gallery of Art.] 2005, p. 64. [In Polish, transl. A.M.]
The publication appears on the occasion of the Residency Gurzelen in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland (November 2018 - March 2019). Inside Job (Ula Lucińska, Michał Knychaus) alongside Maya Hottarek descended to one of the ice caves in Jura Mountains to make the photo documentation of their works. The physical structure of the cave has changed over recent years due to global warming. Earlier, throughout the year, one could observe phenomenal ice stalagmites and stalactites, which are now difficult to see even during winter. By using subtle interventions, they treated this changing, melting environment not only as a backdrop for their sculptures — but as a central figure in the whole narrative.