The Subterfuge of Screens


Written on the occasion of Emanuel Licha’s exhibition Now Have A Look At This Machine at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Feb. 2017.

Excerpt from the catalogue essay:

“The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg. And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot. As the man died his body grew cold, and his thermal image changed until he became the same color as the ground. I can see every little pixel, if I just close my eyes.” (Brandon Bryant, Former Drone Operator)

This literally chilling account of the chromatic transformation of a thermal image in the aftermath of a U.S. drone strike over Afghanistan was recounted by Brandon Bryant, a former Air Force drone pilot who has since become an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led war on terror. As the heat signature of Bryant’s target cooled, his victim’s body quickly becomes an indistinguishable field of monochromatic pixels that convert figure into ground. In this transition from hot data subject to cool data cache, the distinction between image and event fully merge. Different ontological realms are remediated, such that the on-screen dynamism of a wounded running man is converted into the pure electronic stasis of the screen. While the material violence of the event—a hellfire missile strike conducted via satellite link between Nevada and Afghanistan—was already subsumed into the visual economy of the image as a transaction conducted between sensors and screens, Bryant’s harrowing description of his remote but intimate televisual assassination emphasizes the degree to which the conflict zone has migrated almost entirely to the operations of the screen. Yet this is not the public interface of broadcast television that mediates and transmits conflict as nightly news and sound bites, but the informatic screen of conflict pixels and sonic weapons or sound bytes. A private screen event conducted between code and combatant.