Landscapes - the spaces we live in - are framed pictorially. Landscape images produce compelling myths and wield political power. In international relations they can highlight or fabricate virtues and erase the appearance of violence. In this way, are landscape images a kind of psy-ops - a weapon? Can picturing landscapes also be a political intervention?
Traditional landscape paintings usually depict few, or no, people. In 1991, CNN broadcast blurry green night scope footage of the U.S. bombing of Baghdad that married the aesthetics of traditional landscape painting with the theater of contemporary remote war. The glowing lights of anti-aircraft fire in the night sky dominate the frame. Below, the city is dark, its inhabitants imperceptible. Landscape aesthetics are a kind of psychological weapon here, applied to blur and soften violence.
In the months leading up to the 2003 U.S. "Shock and Awe" bombing of Baghdad, I scrutinized CNN's 1991 landscapes in anticipation of seeing a new version with the impending attack. Looking at the dark city, I noticed for the first time palm trees and low-lying stucco buildings that looked unsettlingly like my neighborhood in Los Angeles. It seemed that this landscape is that landscape. This home is that home. This could be here.
So, could our otherwise celebrated palm tree-dotted landscape be reverse engineered to bring home connections between Los Angeles and countries with whom we have political conflict? This project seeks to use the act of (re)picturing as a tool for connecting to remote sites of conflict; to bring the there here.
The images shown here, the first phase in the Incendiary Traces project, are my initial response to this question. Starting from the 1991 footage of Baghdad, I used two pictorial strategies to make connections. First, with my own camera I tried to reproduce the scene shown in the CNN footage. I drove around my Los Angeles neighborhood seeking shots of low-lying stucco buildings, palm trees, and bushy built horizons in the same composition as the video stills. Though close, my photos of Baghdad in L.A. are less than perfect. So I traced CNN's images of Baghdad and my L.A. images. Tracing, my hand covers the territory of both places, bringing them home through this intimate process. These tracings are shown here.
Since this project began in 2011 for the LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design online gallery, Incendiary Traces has evolved to include multiple manifestations, influences and partners. It includes a developing series of events and archive of images investigating the reverse engineering possibilities of the palm tree-dotted landscape. Last December, a draw-in held in El Segundo by the LA Air Force Base and Northrop Grumman was the pilot event for an upcoming series of draw-ins. In early March of 2012, Incendiary Traces held a panel event at the Velaslavasay Panorama entitled Landscape is a Weapon.
Over the next several months, I will be tracking the development of the project here. Features will include guest contributors, new imagery, and references to historical and contemporary variations on how the palm-dotted landscape is represented for political and cultural purposes. I am currently seeking contributions to the archive and discussion. If you are professionally and/or personally engaged in investigating these questions I would like to hear from you. More information can be found here, and you can follow the project on Facebook here.
A version of this article was first published on the
LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design website in early 2011.
Hillary Mushkin is a visual artist exploring contemporary and historical intersections of art, visual culture, social and political consciousness. She works in studio and post-studio forms including drawing, media, and interactive formats. Mushkin frequently collaborates with others from fields including poetry, architecture, and digital media.