Surgical strikes

Claire Moulène

‘The art of war says many things about our contemporary world.’ Clément Cogitore has verified this hypothesis at least twice since the beginning of 2015. In his first full-length feature film, Ni Le Ciel, Ni La Terre currently showing after being selected by Cannes’ Critics’ Week, coinciding via a progressive transition with a Western notion of war – we are here in the company of a French garrison at the Afghan border – towards a system of beliefs carried by the ‘enemy’ which spells trouble for the most Cartesian minds, of heroes and spectators alike.

But also in the DIGITAL DESERT exhibition currently held at the White Project gallery in Paris. Like the painter Jean Fautrier who in his day, at the end of the Second World War, evoked in equal measure admiration and scandal with the series Otages (Hostages, 46 hideous and formless masks inspired by photographs of the dead), Clément Cogitore offers a representation rather than an image of modern conflict and its collateral victims.

A little like looking at Fautrier’s canvasses of the time, the four photographic diptychs presented in the gallery first remind one of aerial images of charnel-houses that have abounded in our collective imagination in recent years. But doubt progressively insinuates itself: what first look like remains turn out to be military uniforms littering the ground. Taken in the Moroccan desert, Clément Cogitore points out that the series is ‘the first without human figures’ and brings to the stage a new camouflage technique called ‘digital desert’ that allows one to escape not an entrenched enemy anymore but the invisible eye of drones. How to disappear is Clément Cogitore’s big theme, whose film already focused on the disappearance of four French soldiers.

A 1992 law prohibits the distribution of satellite images that exceed 50cm/pixel to prevent any risk of litigation concerning the invasion of privacy. Yet, as much as this resolution makes the ‘surgical strikes’ of drones very difficult to detect, in turn it also means that their targets cannot be seen if they remain under the threshold of representability. Amongst other things, this is what philosopher Grégoire Chamayou decrypts in his latest book La Théorie du drone (Drone Theory) understood as an instrument of violence without reciprocity.

With his images, artist Clément Cogitore shows what is at play in the transition from the famous ‘jungle’ weave of brown and khaki military uniforms of the 20thCentury to this pixilated motif of the 21st Century that scrambles the most sophisticated receptors. In this David versus Goliath fight, one can’t help but be reminded of ‘Razzle Dazzle’, the camouflage method very prized by First World War vessels. In other words, an optical wall-painting that prevented the adversary from knowing the precise position and course of the ship to be torpedoed. Obsolete as a result of the advent of radar, this ruse inspired by an artist and Royal Navy reserve demonstrates the formal inventiveness that presides the art of war. But if the French army once called upon avant-garde artists and cubists in particular, requisitioned for their technical know-how regarding the deformation of reality, today it is to American engineering that we owe the ‘digital desert’ that ironically, as Cogitore points out, ends up clothing ‘the soldiers of Daech or the Russian army.’

Therefore, what interests the artist here is both the subject, that of a rapport de force now in the arena of technical innovation, as much as the new aesthetic landscape it gives rise to.

In Ni Le Ciel Ni La Terre, Clément Cogitore makes abundant use of surveillance footage, thermal imaging and night vision. Once again, in the exhibition at the White Project gallery, the language of art consolidates the political reach of the images.

‘I’m a hyper believer’ jokes Cogitore who has made of the superimposition of the narratives, factual or rumoured, and combination of the writing registers, material and political, his hallmark. ‘A great part of my work focuses on this, on the way narrative resolves the real, on its absolute necessity’.

Claire Moulène
Claire Moulène is art critic for Les Inrockuptibles and Art Forum.