Simulator or stimulator, sumulacra or spectacle – the truth will out

The course ends section one with a project on altruism in practice, about truth, integrity and finally about reality and hyperreality and on thinking about this, watching the videos I wondered about a previous section on “spectacle and truth”. And how these twin projects conflate in my mind, which perhaps suggests an immaturity of comprehension, however Debord and Baudrillard’s individual and combined philosophies which are quoted extensively in these sections aren’t going to trap me into another few weeks of research and contemplation.

When I first ventured forth into the heady world of research with the Ministry it was to a section called ‘Simulators’. This department dealt with aircraft research and in particular developing newer and bolder techniques for ‘simulating’ both the conditions of the in cockpit experience and providing realistic (or at least as realistic as possible) situational experiences in as many dimensions as possible. I started to remember this as I read both Debord’s quotations about spectacle, how what was presented to the inhabitant of the simulator needed to feel as though what he was experiencing was as real as possible, how he would be encouraged to ‘suspend belief’ – a term I think I shall return to later – and to fully immerse in the arena, the theatre, being brought about.

The ‘simulator’ was a combination of ‘cockpit’ which was designed to be as representative of a real or actual cockpit, nowadays simulators are designed specifically to represent a particular airfcraft; my experience was, shall we say – some time ago! The seats were real seats, the control panel was fitted with typical instrumentation, altimeters, fuel gauges, electrical and hydraulic dials, radio and radar displays. The user would enter the rig and once enclosed within the lighting inside the simulator would be similar to an actual aircraft. Outside of the cockpit there was a long, I seem to remember about one hundred feet of a heavy canvass that was about twelve feet wide which was held in a loop vertically connected to motor systems that would roll the canvass in front of a camera, or indeed sets of cameras that would provide the feed to the cockpit. On top of the canvass was a three dimensional model of a fictitious place with villages, towns, countryside, cityscapes and of course runways for aircraft to land and take off from. The simulator presented an imaginary world in an artificial environment to represent reality in the hope that the pilot would suspend belief and imagine that what was being displayed was reality, hyperreality in fact and therefore react accordingly. The spectacle that he was presented with had no connection to reality, they were the concoction of model makers in collusion with scientists to drive an environment that represented reality by presenting an environment that had all that one might suspect should be there. The cockpit environment had three dimensional motor systems and would also move according to how the ‘flight’ progresses i.e. it would incline and decline upon take off and landing, it would bank and roll, pitch and yaw depending on how the control stick was being used. It also crashed. I crashed it many times. The senior scientists weren’t happy when it crashed as it would likely ‘take-out’ a building or two when the camera met the canvass and it also meant ‘down-time’ whilst it was repaired.

Baudrillard famously wrote a series of articles in 1991 about the first Gulf War published in a book “The Gulf war did not take place”. I haven’t read the book but, as I understand it, Baudrillard asks firstly whether it wasn’t an atrocity and therefore not a war but also whether it actually happened as it was portrayed to us – the viewers – as a spectacle, as a truth. The second question because the media were – and perhaps have always been – manipulated by powers that have the power to control how it wants to be represented.

One doesn’t need to ‘look’ too far into this to start to see that perhaps Baudrillard might have something here. The war as it was presented to us in the west certainly was quite a clean war. The desert tank campaign that overran the Iraqi forces – portrayed the ‘enemy’ as both technically inept (quite an important point) and cowardly (representative of the ‘bullying tactics’ of Saddam Hussain – most of the rest of the imagery was of burning oil fields set alight by a ‘petty’ Saddam but also representative of the main reason that the ‘Allied’ forces were there. After this first phase of the ‘war’ we, in the west, we treated to another spectacle that of the cruise missiles providing ‘clinical’ hits to military targets inside Iraq, especially in the capitol Baghdad. Of course the notion of ‘clinical’ was important as much as the use of ‘stand-off’ weapons – weapons that are deployed to a place a long way away from the person pulling the trigger. Limiting body bag collateral damage is very important especially when those body bags contain your own countrymen. The US military ‘allowed’ us to ‘see’ the ‘spectacle’ of this ‘new’ war from the comfort of our lounges. The lessons learned by the military and government from conflicts such as Vietnam meant that journalists would never be able to portray the realities of war in the same way again – though some ground has been retaken in the coverage of the Afghan conflict, it has to be said – the horror of what war is really like is never likely to fill our screens again, unless of course they are images of our losses, such as 9/11 or 7/7.

These images of the strikes into the heart of the Iraqi capitol were filmed by news crews settled in hotels, but we were also provided military film footage that evidenced the clinical precision of the attacks, and the lack of civilian collateral damage – this view of war with an almost zero cost to civilian life was an ideal of war that is still present today; the hope of robots fighting for nation states on a virtual battle field to the viewer, but some actual forgetful field in a foreign country is very high on the superpower’s military agenda. So the vision, the spectacle of a ‘safe’ war was brought to our screens in a lo’ fi’ vision that has been superseded by the video game generation, but the analogy, in this digital world, suggest that generations fed this diet of on-screen conflict will come to recognize this as reality. That we are conditioned to believe that robots will be able to create a decision is an anthropomorphic delusion fuelled at first by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis through to The Terminator and Blade Runner. The reality is that robots can barely decide what side of the bed to get out of; such is the parlous state of artificial intelligence. But no matter.

Whilst Baudrillard’s contention that the Gulf war didn’t happen is an interesting speculation, Dubord’s on spectacle has been served by the resultant imagery. The spectators, sitting in the comfort of our lounges, sitting rooms, bedrooms have become inured to these image tropes residing in the ether between transmitter and screen. I am reminded of, again, Larry Burrows’ work that I saw at the Barbican; it was special for a couple of reasons firstly it was one of only a few photographers being exhibited in colour, but it was the sheer cinematic scale of this imagery that struck me and I wondered if Mike Nichols had any of Burrows’ work in mind when he directed Catch-22, it is certainly evident in Apocolypse Now? That Burrow’s work now seems dated, to me, is partly to do with what I think Dubord’s postulates, that, as we become inured to the ‘what appears is good; what is good appears’ only lasts as long as the product sells. In this capitalist society “we got to move these refrigerators, got to move these colour tv’s”. The ‘good’ becomes stale, what we are presented with to energize our consumerist nature, needs to excite us ‘what appears to be stale is bad; what is stale is worthless’.

Dubord wrote about the ‘Spectacle’ in the mid sixties, in France they had two television channels, in the UK we had 50% more. Now on television we aren’t surprised when we have MP’s eating scorpions in the outback, a reality programme that is as far from reality as cruise missiles clinically removing a military encampment whilst suggesting no impact on the school that is it’s neighbour, as far removed from reality as the notion of a rolling hundred foot vertical canvass with two inch buildings. The truth that hides behind all this seems to me to be walking away from this spectacle of hyperreality, to be deciding to seek a refuge in a place that is unfettered by how the market and the needs of a fewer and more distant set of people, and that is inside of us. I wonder what Baudrillard and Dubord would think today. Quelle surprise?



Back to the Barbican and the exhibition “Everything was changing photography of the 60s and 70s.

I don’t suppose for a moment that Li Zhensheng anticipated he would end up in Harbin. the capital of the northernmost province in China.The temperature in summer may rise to a sultry 25 oC or so, but in the winter -40 oC isn’t uncommon – it’s not on most tourist itineraries – a quote from the “China Travel Guide” “Harbin is now a popular destination for both domestic and international travelers, with exotic flavor. It has so much tourism resources to show the world. St. Orthodox Church, Ice & Snow World and Central Street are always on the top list of every traveler to Harbin.” Tempting isn’t it?

Zhensheng’s pictures at the exhibition were of two types, reportage (he was a news photographer for the local newspaper) and self portraits. And whilst self-portraits can be very symbolic it is his journalistic work that concerns me here. This link takes the viewer to his web-site (english version) but not to his home page. Scrolling to the right one encounters a photograph of an execution, also shown here (these executionees would almost certainly have had to pay for the bullet that ended their life) :

copyright Li Zhensheng

copyright Li Zhensheng

copyright Li Zhensheng

copyright Li Zhensheng

I was reminded of a similar set of photographs taken three decades earlier from a more hospitable (at least in climate terms) part of the country, that of the old capital Nanking (Nanjing). It has been a while since I read Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking”, regarding the Japanese invasion and how she includes, amongst the terrifying text, some pictures, documents, of the atrocities metered out by the invading forces. The photographs in her book come from various sources and have, of course, been contested by revisionists and some historians. It is perhaps true that some doctoring of the photographic evidence has taken place – but there is no denying the overall tenet of her story.

So what of Zhensheng’s work? I am interested, because I have been to China many times, to Harbin and Nanjing amongst other cities – I hosted a conference in the old capital a few years ago and spent some time in the museum dedicated to the events Chang relates in her book. I don’t think Zhensheng has doctored his images – I think the photographs on display at the Barbican tell of a story that happened, that China is still coming to terms with; Zhensheng is still alive – 68 I think – and has a good tale to tell about his exploits as a graduate of film school who subsequently worked as a photo journalist. His stitched panoramas (in itself symbolic of scale) of the huge political rallies of the 60’s symbolising both the terror of the PLA – not turning up to these weekly events would have been a crime in itself – and the scale of the enterprise that Mao had decided upon with the cultural revolution; making it a movement and momentum that would have been difficult to have been resisted, maybe impossible. On another photograph the sign the Buddhist monks were told to hold for their “liberators” saying that they were “full of dog farts”. Symbology everywhere.

I was particularly struck by one of the self-portraits, that of Zhensheng laying on his bed reading Mao’s little red book, symbolising the adherence to the code, but also because I remember reading it myself, and probably in bed.


I have been to India maybe thirty times, business took me there and privately, we have made many friends there, had a few dramas, got caught up in terrorism, been hospitalised and needed operations – I’ve lived to tell the tales and whilst this isn’t the point of this entry, it does start to paint a picture. I started taking a camera sometime after I first went to Bombay (as it was called then) and Bangalore (ditto) to record, not necessarily to document, what I felt about what I saw. I remember deliberately choosing a 35mm manual camera and choosing very fast film black and white film for the purpose, The camera was fast, I was used to it, the film would do a better job in recording the detail in the shadows, which is where I felt I wanted to be able to record. I exposed many hundreds of negatives during those years that I went there. I produced a book of those images which worked for me in expressing my feelings towards a country and society that is rushing headlong to become something something that it isn’t into something that it thinks it needs to be – western.

I suppose my reasons for undertaking this course might be summed up with a couple of photographs. Ernest Cole was a photographer who worked in South Africa, I wasn’t aware of his work, though I recognised a few of his prints, until I went to the Barbican to see the “Everything was moving photography from the 60s and 70s” exhibition. And this is the first post from me from that show, there was just too much there to post a ranging piece, so I will come back to individual photographers periodically.

These two photographers are, one by me and one by Cole – here they are:

Schoolboy India

This photograph came about when I commissioned a small boat to take me over the river from where I was staying to a small fishing village    on the opposite bank. The village was very small and had a daily fish market, which I missed, a few ramshackled huts and, what I think was the only solid building, a schoolhouse. We were allowed in, despite the two room school being occupied by children studying and were welcomed – the children all rose and said hello – we later found they were taking exams. There was no electricity and the school day was defined by the available light coming through open windows – I suspect in the monsoon they would close the class. I asked and was given permission to take some photographs. As you can see the boy was very happy to have his photograph taken, despite being ready to leave school and play with his friends. A charming shot perhaps.

I was reminded of this shot of mine when I was in the Barbican. Ernest Cole had taken one, not entirely similar but, and perhaps this is where I remember Goeff Dyers book “The ongoing moment” about how photographers will visit the same subject either by conscious or subconscious decisions. Cole’s image though has so much more about it.

Copyright Hasselblad foundation

Copyright Hasselblad foundation

Here is a boy intent on learning, there isn’t anything that will distract him, it will be his salvation. The intensity is palpable. His focus is solely about improvement.

Mine is a happy sweet picture, Cole’s has a poignancy that is missing from mine. It is about the difference between a photography student and a photographer.

Cole’s photography catalogues the plight of South African black’s in a way that would have been difficult even if he hadn’t been black – I shall review David Goldblatts’ work soon, whose ‘view’ has to be different. There isn’t a great deal of Cole’s work around, he died penniless after apparently selling his negatives to help pay for basic provisions. I have added my thoughts on David Goldblatt here on my Documentary blog