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How to uncover the ghost wars behind our digital overload

July 03, 2018
topic:Political violence
tags:#poverty, #big data
located:Libya, Egypt, Syria
Some say we’ve entered a new age of digital warfare—this age is ironically marked by a disquieting unconsciousness amongst us all, where images of conflict and violence are disappearing into an abyss of oblivion called big data. How can these ‘disappearances’ of war be resisted and reinserted into our consciousness?

By Wan Hui Keoy

We live in a time when we are constantly preoccupied with feeding our narcissism on social media, growing our egos while simultaneously seeking out new interests and connections, satisfying instant gratification or falling prey to marketing tactics vis-à-vis our hyper-connected reliance on technology; yet believing we are still coolly aware and well-informed individuals.

Where algorithms form the modern-day confirmation bias, we are less radical than we think we are. There are countless happenings, violence and deaths in this world that escape our vast consciousness. (Or are washed out daily by news deemed more sensational, like the royal wedding among other celebrity gossips.) While the worldly burden of political disputes, social poverty and the likes are not ours to shoulder alone, we can hardly get away from some responsibility and culpability towards what is happening around us, albeit from a distance. (They say privileged silence is also a form of complicit violence.)

In that distance, war crimes are being committed in secrecy; the oceans are buoyed by thousands of refugees’ desperation for a new beginning, white supremacy still reigns with the persistence of authoritative abuse by police not only in America and our post-truth era lingers with false reporting by the media either to embellish, distort or obscure the truth. Thus we inevitably keep abreast of our ignorance, sometimes perhaps without even intending to.

Syria is an ample example of one of those lands that escape our consciousness whether out of political, geographical or social distance. Yet the violence rages on in that country since nearly a decade ago when the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010 marked the beginning of a revolution. The brutality and deaths that occur on a daily basis in these lands are so easily overlooked by us outsiders, leaving our assumed activism against human rights violations decidedly insular and troubling.

French video artist Ange Leccia tries to appeal to our sentience in a call to resist forgetting; to resist not knowing there are battlefields more devastating than our own. Leccia’s mishmash of television footages of the riots during the Arab Spring—a wick that initiated a huge movement of freedom in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain—with portraits of the youth he met on his travels across the Middle East for an elegiac reflection on the ongoing violence. This new work, Wardreams, places these political demonstrations in a haunting reverie, where the faces of young girls and women emerge in a near-transparent veil to confront, even subdue these potent images of war.

Another newly commissioned work, Disappear, exhibited alongside Wardreamsin Leccia’s first solo UK exhibition at Senesi Contemporanea (26 May – 13 July 2018), also resurfaces the near-forgotten histories of those castaway on the side-lines in our consciousness. In a series of overlays and sequences from his travel log, we journey with Leccia from the Twin Towers in 1986 to Palmyra in Syria, which he visited over a decade later. The Twin Towers is a universal symbol of economic and military might as well as a symbol of world violence to an unfathomable degree, while Palmyra is an ancient city famed for its Roman ruins that were nearly lost forever to the captive of the Islamic State (IS) militants during a bloody and unceasing war. By placing these two signifiers of conflict side by side—one that has been insurmountably engraved into our worldly conscience and in physical memorials, against another that hardly a fraction of the world’s population would ever have heard of, the morality and impartiality of our consciousness is put into deep question.

Yet these are merely two moments of ‘ghost’ wars that occur in Syria alone. These conflict zones are charting a more complex geography of violence than traditional news media can and has accurately reflected on, under the lurking dangers of state surveillance, big data and drone attacks. As Israeli architect Eyal Weizman says, “Architecture and the built environment is a kind of slow violence.” Increasingly, paramilitaries and political powers in these war-torn countries are using architecture as a means to strangulate and separate the communities, making it unliveable for the population.

Since 2011, tens of thousands of civilians have disappeared into a vast network of detention centres run by the Syrian government, where many have been taken to Saydnaya Prison, incarcerated and systematically tortured to death in detainment. The existence of these brutal systems in a prison so successfully obscure, having been hidden away from the light of the media and deliberately persecuting their hostages in absolute darkness all these years, was brought to public attention by Forensic Architecture, a Goldsmiths' research body dedicated to investigating and exposing alleged war crimes, state violence and human rights violations in conflict zones. Only a few survivors’ accounts were used to create an acoustic architecture modelling of their petrifying experiences; the video stimulations might be the only testament to these forces of terror that allow us to come to know these unlawful carnages.

Whether we actively stand against these violations and contribute to the protests and petitions that advocate the end of state violence anywhere in the world or raise our individual awareness of these happenings through art and exhibitions on a more personal, reserved manner, social media and the internet has shown us time and again that the collective effort of image-sharing, of truth-seeking in a post-truth era is ever formidable. Boris Groys once wrote, “We are constantly fed images of war, terror, and catastrophes of all kinds […] And in the meantime, politics has also shifted to the domain of media-produced imagery.”

What matters is how do we confront and deal with this visual barrage to seek knowledge, truth, and above all, to not lose touch with our mindfulness in this world. Amid this age of excess, in all senses of the word, I quote Fabien Danesi in his curatorial note for Ange Leccia’s exhibition ‘Disappear’: “There is maybe one way to measure this excess: to accept that the impact of touching is also the one to be touched in an undecidable overthrow.”

This article was first published on

Libya Egypt Syria
Embed from Getty Images
We still believe we are still coolly aware of everything and well-informed individuals.
Embed from Getty Images
Where algorithms form the modern day confirmation bias, we are less radical than we think we are.
Embed from Getty Images
There are countless happenings, violence and deaths in this world that escape our vast consciousness.
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