I came across this conceptual art piece by British artist Fiona Banner which is currently on display at the Tate in London.
The sculpture is an actual Harrier jet and it’s the latest in a series of works by Banner looking at aircraft as instruments of war.
Interviews with Banner reveal a sort of morbid fascination with military aircraft. Talking about her current installation entitled Harrier and Jaguar 2010 she says;
“It’s hard to believe that these planes are designed for function, because they are beautiful. But they are absolutely designed for function, as a bird or prey is, and that function is to kill. That we find them beautiful brings into question the very notion of beauty, but also our own intellectual and moral position. I am interested in that clash between what we feel and what we think.”
As someone who still hasn’t grown out of their adolescent fascination with loud planes, that conflict between what I feel and what I think has only gotten stronger. Every few years I go to the air show in Victoria and each time I have to overcome a little more discomfort in order to enjoy the spectacle of it all. Because, for me, cutting edge military aircraft are completely awe-inspiring for what they represent in terms of technical achievement and also thoroughly depressing for what they represent in terms of mis-directed energy and purpose.
Added to this is the fact that the technology is putting more and more distance between soldiers and their victims. Over the last ten years military aviation has made warfare very remote for some of those involved and, in doing so, it may have brought the prospect of war that much closer. In 2003 I met one of the crewman on a US B52 bomber. I thought it was nice of him to hang around all day chatting with the general public but it turned he wasn’t allowed to stray more than a hundred meters from his aircraft because even though they were in Australia as a PR exercise they were still at ‘combat readiness’. He explained that, if the order was given, they could take off and bomb a target in Afghanistan in a few short hours. They might not even need to fly over Afghanistan at all because the Cruise Missiles that the B52 carries have a range of over two and a half thousand kilometers.
Since then some pilots have been moved even further away from the battlefield and the repercussions of their missions. The unmanned ‘predator’ drones currently carrying out bombing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are piloted by soldiers in offices on US soil. Instead of being constantly on call they work regular shifts, commute to work and spend their time off the same way they would if they were working at a supermarket. You can see a bit about this system in an excerpt from a PBS documentary entitled War By Remote. The video doesn’t delve too deeply into the implications of the technology but the comments on that page are telling in that some of those that object to the drone bombings do so not because they reflect poorly on humanity but because they would somehow damage the reputation of the armed forces.
That perverse line of thinking recalls what must be one of the first recorded objections to the mechanisation of warfare; a quote from King Archidamos II who ruled Sparta about 400BC. He was also shown a device for killing people at a distance.
It was a catapult.
“Woe,” he said, “the valor of man is extinguished!”
But I think it’s only fair that everyone should share a little of the guilt that I feel when admiring the beauty of these aircraft because almost every household appliance, telecommunications device and piece of consumer electronics owes its existence to one arms race or another. All the tiny incremental innovations and the great technological leaps forward that have made our lives easier or longer have been spurred on by research aimed at making someone else’s life harder or shorter. The rockets that took Apollo 11 to the moon were made by the same scientists that blitzed Britain with V-2 rockets during the Second World War.
Which is why Banner’s artwork and others like it are so important- they add fuel to a debate which ought to be much larger than it currently is. One about state-sanctioned violence and technology and the extent to which we distance ourselves from the wars we have chosen to be involved in.