PRINT September 2005



The professional relationship between Basel-based artist Christoph Büchel and Zurich-based curator Giovanni Carmine started traditionally enough: Carmine commissioned a work by Büchel for the 2002 group show “Unloaded: Coming Up for Air,” which used former Swiss Army bunkers as its exhibition spaces. The next year, Harald Szeemann asked Büchel to contribute to “G 2003: A Village & a Small Town Receive Art,” an outdoor sculpture show in Ticino, the Italian-speaking southern region of Switzerland, and Büchel invited Carmine to join him as an artistic collaborator. The partnership yielded Operation Ex Voto, in which they attempted to transplant a chapel from Vira, a village in Ticino, to Iraq.

“The invasion of Iraq had just begun and we read that looted Iraqi artifacts from the National Museum were arriving in Ticino,” explains Büchel. “Our idea was to dismantle and reconstruct a Swiss chapel in front of the National Museum in Baghdad or beside a road leading to the capital, as a transfer of cultural assets from Switzerland to Iraq.” But at a late stage, the owner of the chapel, which was built as an ex-voto during the Russian army’s invasion and looting of Ticino in the late eighteenth century, backed out under sudden pressure from the village of Vira and its citizens.

Nonetheless, Operation Ex Voto caught the attention of the curators for the Sharjah International Biennial, held last April in the United Arab Emirates. There, Büchel and Carmine unleashed their project PSYOP—Capture their minds and their hearts and souls will follow. Highlighting the US Army’s psychological-warfare operations, the duo created a fake classroom in the Sharjah Art Museum where they screened a 1968 army training film to which they added Arabic subtitles. Filing cabinets in the room contained thousands of facsimiles of propaganda leaflets dropped during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and the current conflict in Iraq. These were available free to visitors, along with copies of a book that contained reproductions of 124 leaflets and translations Büchel and Carmine found online, such as “Coalition Forces support a brighter future for Iraq!” and “Who needs you more? Your family or the regime? Return to your home and family.”

Marc Spiegler


Christoph Büchel: Propaganda is a weapon. Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States–led coalition has dropped millions of leaflets on Afghanistan and Iraq, and they are still doing it. Physically, it’s a rain of paper across the landscape. It’s all about weakening and dissolving the unity and beliefs of the “enemy,” destroying their sense of “reality” with a new “reality” that falls from the sky. Information designed to have a certain authority is dropped into a territory with the goal of undermining the local authority. Just the idea of information exploding from the sky, like manna from heaven, has a mythical side.

Giovanni Carmine: After we decided to develop the psychological-operations (psyops) theme for the Sharjah Biennial, we began to collect examples of military propaganda, like radio messages and leaflets. On the official CENTCOM [United States Central Command] website there were a lot of leaflets that had been removed, but we found them via different Internet links. Most of those sites, like, are pro-war. We were amazed by the designs of some leaflets that we tracked down. A US psyops team uses local advisors to help them deploy the visual language of the area, so the leaflets often turn out to be really interesting from a graphic and semiotic point of view.

CB: We tried to discover the details of how coalition forces “bomb” an area with leaflets—the specific mixtures of leaflets they use and the different techniques for disseminating them. We bought leaflets on eBay to check out the quality of the printing and the quality of the paper, because that’s part of the technical specifications—it determines how leaflets fly through the air. As part of the project we reprinted a mixture of 120,000 US leaflets to drop on the Emirates, which are members of the Operation Enduring Freedom coalition. But in the end we weren’t able to do this because we couldn’t organize an airplane to drop the leaflets in a specific target area in the Emirates.

GC: We also found this US Army film used to train soldiers called Psychological Operations in Support of Internal Defense and Development Assistance Programs. The narrative is based on a fictitious nation, Hostland, that is asking America for help against “subversive seeds” being introduced by a foreign power. In the film, it’s some vaguely South American country. We subtitled it in Arabic to change its context and reflect the current political situation. The tactics explained in this film are the same ones being used by the coalition today to gain support, spread fear and insecurity, and influence local opinion.

CB: The film is dated 1968, but I think it must have been made earlier. It looks a bit like a bad Frank Capra movie. We wanted to show the film in a conference room somewhere in Sharjah. When it turned out that was not possible because of logistical reasons, we decided to set up an installation in the form of a psyops teaching room, not to convince people that this was a military instruction center but to represent the oscillation between fiction and reality inherent in mediated war that comes through in propaganda, leaflets, and the film.

GC: We looked all over Sharjah for school furniture. Finally we went to the museum’s basement, which was like the kingdom of the Pakistani workers who are employed by the museum to clean or install artworks. In the basement there were only these guys, some of whom even sleep there. We spotted most of the material we needed in a mountain of garbage that came from a former art school. It’s amazing that exactly what we needed was considered garbage. It’s like a metaphor for how things work in the Emirates, where everything is new and consumption is so powerful.

CB: Before any of this happened, though, we had to wait while the Sharjah Biennial decided whether we could even install the psyops teaching room. Later, they nearly stopped the printing of the leaflet publication since they were waiting for written permission from the Minister of Culture of Sharjah. In the end they made us choose either not to print the book or insert a disclaimer saying: “The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the 7th Sharjah Biennial.”

GC: This was ironic because the book is exclusively a documentary collection of texts based on US Army instruction manuals and the leaflets. But through this added disclaimer it becomes both more political and more ambiguous.