Professor Shell, who has been working in Prague as part of the Agosto residency program, spoke to us about the development of camouflage, her film work, and her fascination with “the skins of things”.
Vít Bohal: Both your book Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography, and the Media of Reconnaissance (Zone Books, 2012) and your short film Blind (2012) deal with the theme of camouflage. You portray camouflage as more than just a customary textile pattern, but rather see it as “a set of institutional structures, mixed-media art practices, and permutations of subjectivity that emerged over the course of the twentieth century in environments increasingly mediated by photographic and cinematic intervention.” How has camouflage found its way into so many facets of modern life?
Hanna Rose Shell: As I argue in the book, and aim to “embody” in the film Blind, camouflage emerged in direct response, and in tandem with the emergence of techniques of photographic registration, which themselves only date to the mid-19th century. The word, “camouflage” wasn’t coined until the First World War – in late 1914 and early 1915, in France and England respectively. It was no coincidence that WWI was also the first time military forces had to contend with new forms of photographic surveillance. This was really the first time that armed forces needed to develop strategies not just to hide from one another, but to hide from photographic technologies. The word camouflage really took off once it was introduced; it really captured something that was happening not just on the battlefield but also in society at large.
What I found in my research is that starting in the late nineteenth century, photography – even as it began to be deployed in natural history research – really changed how people were thinking about, and looking at animals. Suddenly photography entered the picture as a way of “looking” and hence as something available to hide from.
In terms of the well known camouflage-pattern textile prints that have become ubiquitous in contemporary fashion applications, that is a different story having to do with military surplus as well as counter-cultural appropriation during and after the Vietnam war. These patterns’ proliferation in the past couple of decades into elements of high-fashion, and then mainstream fashion could be thought of in terms of cultural re-appropriation. Perhaps one way to think about camouflage’s role as fashion is in terms of the ironic binary between “standing out” and “blending in.” But these patterns and textiles are really just a small part of the story and a minor facet of the set of systems and practices that comprise the full nature of what camouflage is. Those “camouflage printed” uniforms didn’t become standard in armies until after WWII, and debates are constantly going on about which disruptive patterns are effective.
You yourself are also a working artist, and camouflage figures prominently in your work - like in Blind or Sniper:Scout. What originally drew you to addressing the theme of mimicry and camouflage in your artistic work?
I have always been fascinated by the “skins of things.” For decades I’ve worked on – pursued in prose, photography and on film – the “lively surfaces” crafted for and by our bodies and minds. Camouflage is an outgrowth of my interest in animal skins – their treatment and display through forms of taxidermy and diorama construction, my previous major project. It also emerged alongside the other current project of mine on secondhand clothing, which includes a book project, several films and a project called Morphologies currently on exhibition in Jihlava, (Oblastní galerie Vysočiny v Jihlavě) Czech Republic. The show is up until the end of this summer, and is – as in the camouflage project – very much engaged in issues of textiles and practices of usefulness and concealment. I reappropriate the generally hidden padding with which we insulate our automobiles, which is in fact made of shredded up old clothes. For me, in that project, the material becomes an artistic medium, and it is one that is generally overlooked, and utterly unseen.
Secondhand clothing – including secondhand camouflage uniforms I should say – can, at times, have the peculiar effect of transposing elements of the former wearer’s identity onto a new body. By entirely obscuring the body, camouflage can have the practical effect of the temporary erasure of identity. There are certain questions about identity, how it is inscribed on our skin, and on the skin above our skin, or what we wear, that surface and resurface in my work. Many of these questions remain implicit and resist specific and literal formation. I see my work, in some ways, as brining to light and opening people’s minds to seeing more deeply into the facets of many overlooked and often ignored artifacts around us – the skins we shed, from camouflage netting, to piles of rags, to scratched up aerial photographs from over a century ago.
As for situating art and aesthetic production in the context of mimicry, I absolutely think camouflage is a very helpful and even provocative way to think about mixed-media artworks of various kinds over the past century or so. I have an exhibition in the early stages of development called “Hiding in Plain Sight,” which will be looking at some of the more contemporary manifestations. But certainly cubism has many interesting resonances with camouflage; and indeed many of the first camouflage developers in WWI were actually cubist painters working in collaboration with engineers. I’ve thought a lot about camouflage as a frame for thinking about experimental film.
In today’s world where state-of-the-art technologies of surveillance, biometrics and targeting are being developed at staggering speed, is camouflage keeping up with this arms race, both on the modern battlefield and in the context of the urban environment?
Interestingly, the last decade or so has seen a lot of “scandals” surrounding various countries spending vast sums of money to outfit their soldiers in “new” camouflage patterns, that ultimately end up being more “fashionable” than actually useful for the purposes of concealment on the battlefield. A big story just broke in the United States; that the U.S. spent (or as the watchdog agency reported “wasted”) $28million completely outfitting the Afghan National Army in new camouflage uniforms, with a pattern chosen at the whim of a particular Afghan official who thought a certain pattern was more “stylish” than what was being used previously. The new pattern being used is actually less effective than what was used previously; it’s a jungle pattern (all lush greens), but the Afghan environment is almost entirely desert.
Camouflage seems like something which harbors potential for a form of passive resistance to what Paul Virilio has termed the dromocratic state – a state predicated on biopolitical control which “filters the fluidity of the masses, the penetrating power of the migrating hordes.” What is the future of DIY forms of camouflage?
There is a dialectical aspect here, with human-machine interaction, as well as individual human’s interactions with her or his own media environments, providing a creative engine. It’s like “machinima,” the practice of video game users hacking into the structure of video games to create their own narratives. While there are some notable instigators and “breakthrough” moments which deserve recognition, the bulk of the work developing camouflage techniques has been done by a whole class of “camoufleurs,” working in many different armies, for different nations over the course of generations. Camouflage is not like a gun or a knife that is mass-produced and then issued, along with instructions for use, at basic training. Camouflage rather consists of an active and evolving network of strategies, technologies, and techniques which necessarily must be adapted and re-adapted continually by active agents, by each and every individual. Camouflage, at an essential level, is always DIY.
This interview first appeared in Czech in A2 magazine #15, 2017.