the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"Still Free"

Late last week, Marc Ecko, the organizer of the “Still Free” Air Force One hoax (consisting of the anonymous circulation of a grainy, two minute video which appeared to depict several hooded figures spray painting the words “still free” onto the side of the president’s plane [on the fusilage in the center of the image reproduced here]) came forward to claim ownership over his creation, and to explain how he had accomplished it. Rather than relying on trick photography or computer simulation, he instead rented an actual 747 and painted it to look like the real Air Force One, and then proceeded to film the surreptitious defacement of his new creation with black spray paint.. As the Associated Press reported on Saturday, the resulting video was so convincing that even the Air Force itself was initially confused, and had to double-check and make sure the plane was unscathed:
"We're looking at it, too," said Lt. Col. Bruce Alexander, a spokesman for the Air Mobility Command's 89th Airlift Wing, which operates Air Force One. "It looks very real."
Col. Alexander’s confusion over the reality of the video, in turn, resonates with the Ecko’s own claim that, “I wanted to do something culturally significant, wanted to create a real pop-culture moment." The irony here is, of course, that the “reality” of the resulting “pop-cultural moment” is very directly grounded in the blurring and breakdown of boundaries between reality and representation. Air Force One was not “really” defaced, but the simulation of that defacement (together with the cultural stir which it produced) was, nevertheless, quite “real.”

The surname of the hoaxer--fashion designer-turned-video game developer Marc Ecko--, furthermore, itself evokes this confusion between reality and simulacrum. “Ecko” reads as an aural echo of the word “echo,” which itself describes a copy of an original sound. [In fact, the caption to the original AP image actually misspells Ecko’s name as “Echo” (true as of Sunday evening; it is possible that the AP may subsequently correct their mistake)].

On his “stay free” website Marc Ecko now emphasizes the fictional nature of the video (this “does not depict a real event”; the “foregoing fictionalization and dramatization was not real”), and furthermore emphasizes that is was his intention to encourage viewers to “think critically about freedom of expression and speech and the government’s responses to the same.”

Though the website includes a number of interesting links on the history of graffiti, etc., nowhere does it allude to what must have been one of the primary objectives of the hoax, this autograph of anonymity: namely, helping promote the eponymous Marc Ecko Enterprise’s new video game, “Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure.” This game has as its protagonist a graffiti artist named Trane in a corrupt urban environment, using his graffiti skills both to compete with other artists, as well to “expose the oppressive mayor and set the city free.”

Though set in a virtual world, Ecko’s game nevertheless makes a considerable effort to anchor itself in reality, incorporating, for instance, “authentic tags from more than 50 actual graffiti artists from all over the world.” This archivist tendency, furthermore, is replicated within the logic of the game itself. As Jason Allen notes in his recent review, the character Futura (based, apparently on an actual graffiti artist by the same name) instructs Trane at one point to “know his history,” and tells him that every time he “sees a legend's piece around the city, he should take a snap-shot of it and put it in his Black Book.”

[In this respect, "Getting Up" resembles another game apparently still under development. Entitled “EyeWitness,” and designed by students at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, the game’s is a photographer documenting atrocities committed during the “Rape of Nanking”—and the photographs which he takes are adapted from actual archival images of the incident.]

This layering of representation and simulation in the Air Force One hoax, meanwhile, is reminiscent of another recent artistic intervention. Last September, as part of the some of the carry-over from the 2003 celebration of Central Park’s sesquicentennial, a rather unusual art work was displayed in the waters around Manhattan. When Robert Smithson--the American artist known for his work with large scale art pieces, known as “earth works” or “land art,” in which the work is integrated within the natural environment—passed away in 1973, he left unfinished a project which he had sketched three years earlier--a project consisting of a tugboat towing a barge containing a replica of Central Park around Manhattan. Last September, the art organization Minetta Brook, in cooperation with the Whitney Museum, carefully recreated Smithson’s sketch, complete with living trees. Then, for a week in mid-September, the tugboat patiently towed the man-made island around the island of Manhattan.

If the story ended here, it would be an interesting commentary on the intimate imbrication of reality and simulation, with Central Park (itself a completely “artificial,” man-made site which is carefully manicured to make it look as “natural” as possible) serving as the inspiration for a project idea Smithson sketched out near the end of his life—a project which would remain unrealized until being carefully (re)created 35 years later.

However, the story actually does not end here. One morning toward the end of the island’s one week run, it found itself unexpectedly pursued by a motorboat [in bottom left of the photograph reproduced below] carrying a small-scale replica of one of the 7500 saffron gates which had adorned New York’s Central Park (the real one) the previous February as part of Christo and Jean-Claude’ vast installation piece, “The Gates” exhibit. As the creators of that earlier work note, when Central Park was created a century and a half ago, the landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead originally planned to install a series of steel gates to lock the park at night. Dissatisfied with the specific gates which the designer proposed, Olmstead ultimately jettisoned the idea of the gates, though many of the entranceways continue to be referred to as “gates.” Christo and Jean-Claude, meanwhile, first had the idea to install an array of cloth replicas of the steel gates as early as 1979, but it was not until 2003 that they were finally able to secure permission from the city for their project. Like “Floating Island,” “The Gates” functions as a belated incarnation of an artistic vision from the past (in the case of “The Gates,” it is actually a double vision, looking back both to 1979, but also to the 1850s).

This interloping, parasitic avant-garde art work in pursuit of “Floating Island,” meanwhile, turned out to be orchestrated by some “art studenty” twenty year olds, who thought the Gates project was “stupid, and wanted to make a joke about it.” The art students’ insistence on anonymity (they apparently refused to identify themselves or even speak much about what they were attempting to do), together with their ironic appropriation of the symbolism of the "Gates" project, stand in stark contrast to the insistence on propriety on the part of Christo and Jean-Claude themselves (their web-site warns sternly that “Fabric, parts and separate Gates are NOT for sale and NOT available for any use whatsoever”).

The timing of Smithson’s posthumous project, furthermore, is not insignificant. It was on the 15th of September that “Floating Island” began its daily journey around Manhattan—just days after the fourth anniversary of the Twin Towers attacks. The improbable mobility of Smithson’s island, therefore, stood in stark contrast not only to the patent immobility of Central Park itself, but also to the general standstill to which most of Manhattan was brought on the day of the attacks (and, to a lesser degree, for weeks afterwards). Meanwhile, President Bush on that same day was anything but immobile, spending the greater part of the day on Air Force One, initially going in circles over Florida, and then following a much larger circuitous route over the Southeast before finally returning to DC more than 10 hours later.

In this way, the anonymous motorboat pursuing “Floating Island” brings us back to the Air Force One hoax. Air Force One is not only a symbol of the president’s mobility (as exemplified by his actions on 9/11), but also of his links to the military (e.g., the Air Force itself) and, by implication, his status as Commander in Chief. Just as “The Gates” and “Floating Island” represent the belated fulfillment of a dream dating back to the 1970s (in the case of both works), or even to the mid-nineteenth century (in the case of “The Gates”), it has been frequently observed that the Iraq War (which the events of 9/11 were used to justify) could also be seen as the belated realization of an unfulfilled goal dating back to the early 1990s—namely, Bush’s Oedipal desire to one-up his father by sucessfully deposing Husein.

Ecko’s Air Force One graffiti hoax (and its position at the margins of the real), meanwhile, evokes Baudrillard’s (in)famous claim that “the Gulf War did not take place,” and his argument that the technologization of warfare has created a situation in which some kinds of military engagement are conducted as though through a giant video game, resulting in "a masquerade of information: branded faces delivered over to the prostitution of the image, the image of an unintelligible distress." (Virilio makes similar arguments in his War and Cinema). This argument about how simulation comes to assume the force of reality, is, of course, directly relevant to the current Iraq War (which, though it involves far more "direct" combat than the first one, was nevetheless grounded on numerous false premises which have come to have assume the force of reality),
in turn, mirrors (or echoes) Robert Smithson’s own eloquent observations about how “time turns metaphors into things,” and how he seeks “the fiction that reality will sooner or later imitate."

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