Drones have made killing easier. True as this may be, recent studies have revealed that the screen’s simulation effect is no guarantee against the psychological ravages killers will encounter – even those who operate from air-conditioned booths on American soil.
Since mid-November, visitors to Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau have been able to watch a film about the PTSD experienced by drone pilots, on a pair of small overhead monitors, installed in a facsimile airport waiting room. The film and the mock waiting room comprise a work by Omer Fast, called ‘5000 Feet is the Best’, which is included in his labyrinthine retrospective ‘Talking is not always the solution’. Torpor and anxiety melt into one another, in this uncanny mis-en-scene, which is a virtual reality in itself.
Throughout the exhibition, Fast’s films are installed within similar environments. However, a particularly haunting affinity develops between ‘5000 Feet’ and Fast’s most recent work, ‘August’ (2016). The latter is Fast’s first foray into 3D technology, and facilitates a rendezvous with the German photographer August Sander. Old, blind, and isolated, Sander is haunted by spectres no less potent than those that haunt the drone pilot: his son, who perished in a Gestapo prison, and the Weimar citizens whom he spent his career documenting.
In order to find purchase within the monstrous and sprawling topic of drone warfare, ‘5000 Feet’ presents a fictionalized interview with an American drone pilot. In an unusually darkened hotel room, the astringent pilot responds to basic questions with elusive anecdotes, as piercing reverb intermittently breaks the narrative, forcing the man to wince and reach for a nearby Aspirin bottle. As the pilot leads his interviewer through these tangential answers, Fast’s film cuts away from the gloomy room, following the narratives. Each time the film returns to the interview, the same dialogue is repeated, with slight variations. In this way, memory is revealed as a cycle of perpetual revisions.
It is not until the third of these digressions, that a link appears with the film’s central theme. Therein a suburban American family, embarking on a road trip, passes through a military check-point manned by Chinese guards. In this moment, the film’s purview widens past the psyche of one pilot, to the paranoia of America at large. Shortly, this family will come across a group of rednecks digging a roadside hole. When Fast cuts to a grainy aerial view of the men, it becomes clear that these working stiffs are insurgents in a future version of the United States. Their hole will become home to an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), if the Chinese drone doesn’t intervene first.
Like ‘5000 Feet’, ‘August’ also presents a perpetual return of memory, in the context of war. But while the pernicious virtual reality facilitated by screens is subject matter in ‘5000 Feet’, ‘August’ uses 3D technology to draw us into the memorial torment of the aging German photographer—and, by extension, into a closer relationship with the dark recesses of his country’s past.
Sander’s photographs of Weimar citizens had taxonomical consistency. In this 3D film, we seem to hover close to Sander, as he uses rope to carefully measure the distance between his camera and his subjects. Elsewhere, Fast’s film rejoins Sander late in life. He is now blind, with his plates and negatives confiscated by fascists and destroyed by allied bombs. It seems that Fast has a penchant for darkened rooms, and the blind photographer navigates his domicile by following an elaborate network of string. The 3D technology amplifies our presence as voyeur ghosts, not so unlike the figures who visit Sander in the film: spectres of his photographic subjects, and at one point a Nazi officer who informs him of his son’s death.
Both ‘5000 Feet’ and ‘August’ are elusive portraits. In divergent ways, each describes a figure that has gauged and encountered the world through the virtual reality of their time – the drone pilot’s infrared screen for Sander’s large format camera. In one sense, the way in which violence encroaches on their different practices, is incomparable. While the pilot is a state employed assassin, the German photographer preserves the image of life in the midst of nascent horror. But Fast’s subject is as much the perceptual and ideological mechanics of witnessing and coping, as violence itself.
‘5000 Feet is the Best’ seeks to break down the hermetic boundary between drone warfare, and the distanced understanding of it that runs through domestic society. Likewise, ‘August’ delivers us out from an understanding of August Sander as mythic figure, into a more difficult proximity to the domestic, perceptual, and psychological circumstances that formed his life. This humanization of war may be the greatest strength of Fast’s work. Using virtual reality—whether as subject or method—the two films reflect the mixed up sense of reality so characteristic of our own place in time.