– Autumn/Winter 2012

The Pull of Violence: Paul Chan's Trilogy of War

Paolo Magagnoli

Paul Chan, Now Promise Now Threat, 2005, single-channel video, 32min, still. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

The Tin Drum Trilogy (2002—05), Paul Chan’s series of video essays, explores three different moments of George W. Bush’s war on terrorism: the US decision to invade Afghanistan (Re: The Operation, 2002), the life of Baghdad’s citizens under Saddam Hussein regime before the US occupation (Baghdad in No Particular Order, 2003) and the war at home dividing red (Republican) and blue (Democrat) states (Now Promise Now Threat, 2005). The series is a trilogy only in hindsight. The three videos were conceived separately and screened individually until 2005, when, for a solo exhibition at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis, Chan began to show them together. The trilogy can be distinguished from the animated projected drawings and installations for which the artist is more widely known. Space and duration play a less important role than they do in the artist’s installations, which can last up to five hours, as in the case of Sade for Sade’s sake (2009). Baghdad in No Particular Order is the longest of the three single-channel videos (50 minutes), while Re: The Operation and Now Promise Now Threat are each approximately half an hour in length. The videos are also characterised by a hybrid documentary style. Interviews, handheld camera shooting, animation, poetic voice-over, digital distortion, photomontage, found footage and archival photographs appear in all three works. Because of its blending of fictional and non-fictional representational strategies, the trilogy clearly possesses an affinity to those contemporary practices by artists (such as Hito Steyerl and Walid Raad) whose ambition is to reinvent the creative possibilities of documentary beyond the merely informational.1

Re: The Operation is based on a fantasy concocted by Chan that requires us

  1. On these practices, see Hito Steyerl and Maria Lind (ed.), The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008. 

  2. See George Baker, ‘An Interview with Paul Chan’, October 123, Winter 2008, pp.205—33.

  3. Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (trans. Breon Mitchell), London: Vintage, 2010, p.453. As some critics have pointed out, Grass’s hero does not simply resist Nazi culture but, in a sense, is influenced by it to the point of complicity. On the one hand, Oskar vehemently criticises the society he lives in; on the other, he shares its pathological symptoms and his aesthetic of savage noise links him, paradoxically, to Hitler (who accepted as a compliment the damning epithet ‘the drummer’). For this interpretation, see David Roberts, ‘Aspects of Psychology and Mythology in Die Blechtrommel: A Study of the Symbolic Function of the “Hero” Oskar’, in Manfred Jurgensen (ed.), Grass: Kritik, Thesen, Analysen, Bern: Francke, 1973.

  4. Paul Chan, ‘Online Footnotes to the video Baghdad in No Particular Order: Marquis de Sade and Depleted Uranium’, available at http://www.nationalphilistine.com/baghdad/sade/sade.html (last accessed on 24 June 2012). The website was created by Chan in 2003 after his trip to Baghdad.

  5. P. Chan, ‘A Time Apart’, in Klaus Biesenbach (ed.), Greater New York 2010 (exh. cat.), New York: MoMA PS1, 2010, p.84.

  6. Ibid.

  7. On Chan’s video projections, see Daniel Birnbaum, Chronology, New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2005, pp.186—96. See also G. Baker, ‘Paul Chan: The Image from Outside’, in Melissa Larner and Ben Ferguson (ed.), Paul Chan: The 7 Lights, Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2007, pp.4—18.

  8. See Hal Foster, ‘Precarious’, Artforum, vol.48, no.4, December 2009, pp.207—09, 260.

  9. For a survey of critical reception to Salò in Italy and France, see Naomi Greene, ‘Salò: The Refusal to Consume’, in Patrick Rumble and Bart Testa (ed.), Pier Paolo Pasolini, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp.232—41.

  10. See David Edelstein, ‘Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn’, New York Magazine, 6 February 2006, available at http://nymag.com/movies/features/15622/; and George Zornick, ‘The Porn of War’, The Nation, 22 September 2005, available at http://www.thenation.com/article/ porn-war (both last accessed on 24 June 2012).

  11. P. Chan and Martha Rosler, Paul Chan/Martha Rosler, New York: A.R.T. Press, 2006, p.20.

  12. G. Baker, ‘An Interview with Paul Chan’, op. cit., p.209.

  13. For the concept of ‘mimetic adaptation’ or ‘mimetic exacerbation’, see H. Foster, ‘Dada Mime’, October, issue 105, Summer 2003, pp.166—76.

  14. For this recent literature, see, for example, Sharon Sliwinski, Human Rights in Camera, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History, New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2007. For a more sceptical view of the power of photography to activate a visual politics of human rights, see Susan Sontag, On Photography, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979; S. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003; and William Kaizen, ‘Aftershock and Awe, or, War Porn, the Plight of Images and the Pain of Others’, Aftershock Magazine, issue 1, Winter 2006, unpaginated.

  15. Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, p.33.

  16. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, London and New York: Verso, 2009.

  17. Ibid., p.96.

  18. Michel Chion defines sound’s ‘added value’ as ‘the expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression, in the immediate or remembered experience one has of it, that this information or expression “naturally” comes from what is seen, and is already contained in the image itself’. M. Chion, Audio-vision: Sound on Screen (ed. and trans. Claudia Gorbman), New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p.5.

  19. Thomas Carl Wall, Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot, and Agamben, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999, p.65.

  20. Maurice Blanchot, The Step Not Beyond (trans. Lycette Nelson), Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992, p.50.

  21. Steven Shaviro, ‘Complicity and Forgetting’, Modern Language Notes, vol.105, no.4, September 1990, pp.829—30.

  22. Ibid., p.830.

  23. J. Butler, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography: Thinking with Sontag’, Frames of War, op. cit., p.95.