Culture Wars

Triple Canopy deputy editor Molly Kleiman with artists Toby Heys and Lisi Raskin.

WHEN SUN TZU WROTE The Art of War in the sixth century BC, he probably wasn’t thinking of artists, let alone Toby Heys and Lisi Raskin, the two artists who delivered presentations on the weaponization of culture on Tuesday night at Art in General. He was, however, advising his readers to exhaust every strategy short of physical combat to defeat their enemies, and that, Heys and Raskin showed, is the aspect of war for which art and culture have been conscripted to play a part, particularly since the dawn of communications technology and electronic media. Sponsored by Triple Canopy, this (literally) small talk felt like a slightly rambling but often engaging tour through the audiovisual scrapbooks of two mildly paranoid obsessives. Being a mildly paranoid obsessive myself—one who, like these artists, is fascinated by music, deception, intelligence work, and the cold war—this was fine by me. I did find myself occasionally wondering what others were getting out of it.

After a brief introduction by Triple Canopy deputy editor Molly Kleiman, Heys, a British sound artist, began his talk. He announced that he was going to play twelve sound clips from a laptop, each an example of audio designed to deceive, dispirit, or terrorize. Though he promised something from the 1930s to start, the familiar descending bass slide of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” came on instead. An early instance of sonic deception? No, a glitch. (Oddly, for two artists so focused on technology, this was a recurring theme throughout the evening.) Cueing up the intended clip, Heys said that the innocuous Guy Lombardo–style big-band tune was by Ben Selvin & His Orchestra. Selvin, a hyperprolific bandleader and producer, holds the Guinness Book world record for most recorded sides in music history. He was also, more to Heys’s point, an early program director for the nascent Muzak corporation in the ’30s. Muzak is generally thought of as annoying but harmless elevator music, but, as Heys noted, it has been deployed strategically since its inception on factory workers (as Taylorist “audio anesthesia” that would mask the grimness of their surroundings and make them work harder) and on shoppers (to lull them into a consumerist trance).

Next, Heys played a clip of the Ghost Army, a WWII cadre of artists (including Ellsworth Kelly), set designers, sound engineers, and the like, who were enlisted to mimic or exaggerate US forces in the field, fooling the Nazis with live mixes of sound-effect records of armored vehicles, munitions, explosions, etc. These multi-turntable mixmasters were the “original battle DJs,” Heys quipped. He followed this with the eerie, psychedelic “wandering soul” tapes from the Vietnam War. Over an Acid Test collage of severely Echoplexed musique concrète, a mournful female voice told her countrymen in Vietnamese that she was trapped in limbo between life and death because she had died far from her home village. A CIA psy-ops project inspired by Vietnamese folk superstition, the “wandering soul” tapes played a part in Denis Johnson’s novel Tree of Smoke and have a distinctly Apocalypse Now vibe. With several clips of music, including “These Boots” and the Barney theme, used to force those under siege to surrender (Koresh in Waco, Noriega in Panama) or to elicit confessions from detainees (Guantanamo Bay), Heys theorized that the key element of such “touchless torture” is repetition, the rate of which has been increasing in music culture ever since the invention of the radio. (The sampled loops of golden-age rap might have bolstered this point, though he didn’t mention it. Adorno had something to say about this as well.)

Left: Installation view of “AUDiNT: Dead Record Office” at Art in General. Right: Toby Heys and Lisi Raskin.

Raskin began her PowerPoint presentation with a slide of the Greenbrier fallout shelter in West Virginia, a massive, real-life Strangelovian facility that was intended to house Congress in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Known for installations inspired by cold-war military and intelligence culture, Raskin (like Heys), seemed to be sharing the source material for her work. She ran a long, hilariously retrofuturist AT&T ad from the early ’80s about their spanking new fiber optic network, the promise of which seemed to be that it would make routine interoffice communications look as whiz-bang as an episode of The A-Team. She spoke about ARPANET, the cold-war Defense Department network, connected by fiber optics, which slowly mutated into today’s Internet. Over a still of Michael Caine sitting in front of an early computer bank, from Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Raskin free-associated about Honeywell, a long-standing conglomerate that, like General Electric, makes everything from mundane household products (thermostats) to military supercomputers to napalm. To emphasize the horrors of the last, she played an infamous news clip of burned Vietnamese children fleeing a misdirected napalm attack.

During the Q&A, both artists spoke about the repurposing of culture for warlike ends and how some artists and their appropriated works can slowly be returned to the cultural realm without blemish. Raskin noted that Hugo Boss once designed uniforms for the Nazi brownshirts and that Donald Rumsfeld’s “logic” (“known unknowns,” etc.) sounded like Deleuze. Heys asserted that modern communication technology abnegates personal responsibility and provides cover for malign or negligent corporations. The connotations of commodities are effaced by time, they agreed, and hence it’s hard for anyone or anything to remain “outside” this process. Strangely, two middle-aged women in the audience challenged the artists on their perceived pacifism, one saying the use of cultural material as weaponry can sometimes be justified because war itself is necessary; the other maintaining that a pacifist stance “opens one up to risk.” Well, yeah. So does being born. I knew the Mama Grizzlies were out there in the heartland; I didn’t expect them to be near Canal Street in a small gallery with a bunch of liberal-academic cultural elites. Maybe they were part of a psy-op… or perhaps they’d just been temporarily repurposed.