Richard: So I liked your show [Extraordinary Rendition].
Gemma: Thanks, thanks for coming.
R: Did it go well for you, did you enjoy the run in Dublin?
G: Yeah, it did go well. It requires quite a bit of endurance. It takes us by surprise a bit, every time, I don’t know why.
R: Yeah… I mean, you go on all day, you literally do it all day.
G: Yes. Six hours a day. Four people an hour. Yeah… so it’s quite… you don’t expect it to be tiring, but it is. It’s on this 12 minute loop… I simultaneously don’t do anything at all, and do a lot. You can’t switch off from it, you’ve got to be concentrated the whole time… but it went well.
R: The piece kind of threw up a lot of what I’ve been thinking about recently in terms of… I’m reading a lot of Marshall McLuhan.
G: Oh yeah.
R: You read that guy, don’t you?
G: Yeah, I have read him yeah, not recently.
R: Oh yeah. Maybe it’s something I’m always interested in anyway… he’s not the only one interested in this I suppose, but how the world is mediated, you know? And if you take any bit of time to think about it, it is quite troubling the amount of evil stuff that can happen. A lot of evil stuff happens, right?
G: Yeah… yeah…
R: And somehow, even though everything’s observed, this stuff happens. And I think your show is touching on that right?
G: Yep, I think so. Yeah, I think we were interested in the way in which those two things intersect, like our experience of the world as it reaches us through the screen. But also the experience of war and how that reaches us through the screen. And how for me, as a British person, all of that stuff is always at at least one remove, because the wars we’re involved in are happening far away.
R: How did you end up talking about war? How do you, as a human, not even an artist, but how do you think you’ve kind of… well not just accepting it the way it is, that we get this message of war and…
G: Yeah, I think it’s funny, I mean funny-weird, to be in the position where there’s this constant implication of our complicity in violence and warfare that’s happening, perpetrated in our name, and how that is sort of going on all the time, but it’s basically invisible. And I have never lived anywhere where I’ve had to come in direct contact with war, or the effects of war, and yet it’s somehow… I just felt like, at a certain point, I don’t know when, James [Stenhouse, the other half of Action Hero] and I just suddenly, like, tuned into it. Somebody calls it, I don’t know who, but ambient warfare. The idea that the traces of war and warfare are everywhere, and I think at some point I just decided to tune into it. And then I guess you sort of realise that it’s kind of everywhere and that that’s very normal. And that’s really weird. I just think it’s really a very odd thing. At the time we started thinking about the project, I guess it came out of this thing of people being held in Guantanamo Bay, and I’d been interested in following that in the news for a long time, but then there was a bunch of people who were going to be released and there had been a big report about it… and then this artist Trevor Paglen did this series of works about rendition flights, and about the networks of those flights, and it was just something that became super interesting to me to ask about visibility and invisibility and about how, with those rendition flights, they were just happening in plain sight. All the evidence was just there and it just took a bunch of people to start to knit all of it together and suddenly it was really visible. And then we started thinking in that way, about what are the things which are happening in plain sight all the time, and then how to try to make those visible.
R: Yeah, yeah.
//the traces of war and warfare are everywhere, but I think at some point I just decided to tune into it\\
G: And then at the same time, I know it sounds stupid, but maybe like lots of people, James and I have this long-running obsession with the film Top Gun.
R: [laughter] Right!
G: I just really love that film. I like real blockbuster, trashy films. And I guess just sort of becoming interested in the idea that when wars are being fought, that that happens on multiple fronts, and it also happens through the medium of one of the tools in modern 21st century warfare, or not even 21st century, 20th century as well, is how the media and popular culture, specifically film, is used as part of… it’s like a tool in the arsenal I suppose.
R: In terms of propaganda?
G: Yeah I think so… but when you say the word propaganda, I think people think you mean… propaganda sounds like a stupid word, you know what I mean?
R: So obvious, it’s like bad art or something.
G: Exactly, and the history of that stuff is super interesting, about how different artists and art forms have intersected with moments of war… so then like all of our experience, in the West anyway, our experience of what war is actually like, in Iraq, the war that is happening right now in Iraq, all of our experience of that ends up being through a film that was made in Hollywood. And they didn’t film it in Iraq, they film it in Miami or something.
R: Yeah, yeah.
G: And I don’t know, there’s just so much of that kind of material… all that stuff, it just starts to loop back on itself, so many times. And it’s very, I don’t know, it’s very dense and for me really interesting, and we’re sort of right in the middle of it, we’re in the eye of the storm.
R: Man, that’s my feeling, that we are… it’s the impotence of too much… of too much evidence and not enough to grab onto.
G: Yeah, yeah, for sure… because I think it’s interesting… I feel like we’re still kind of stuck culturally in a mindset of… I don’t know… good and bad, things we see and things you can’t see. But actually it’s so… all of this stuff is so complex.
R: The good and bad is like the morality story. And we really expect that the world will have a clear good and bad, or right and wrong, but of course reality is never so simple.
G: No… and for me it’s really interesting thinking about warfare and invisibility and the traces of warfare in civilian life and how that stuff becomes invisible until you decide to tune in to see it and then you realise it’s incredibly visible and it’s everywhere.
G: And how those kind of games of visibility and invisibility are exploited and used very effectively by people who want to obfuscate what they’re doing in war or whatever, because the easiest way to do that is to create a kind of chaos where you can simultaneously see everything and nothing, because nothing makes any sense. You can’t see how it’s all connected and interlinked. And there’s something interesting for me in how film plays into that idea of truth and fiction, and fictionalising of a real thing that’s happening now… and I don’t know, then we see the kind of fictionalised version of … I’m thinking about that film, Zero Dark 30, about the capturing of Bin Laden.
//the easiest way to do that is to create a kind of chaos where you can simultaneously see everything and nothing\\
G: There’s something so… I feel like there’s so many kind of crazy layers going on in the fictionalising of that event through film, in terms of what it’s meant to do for us as a viewer, what are we meant to think about it and why it was made, to the idea of an actor playing the role of Bin Laden… or the idea that you would build a studio and in the studio, they have like, I don’t know, the room where they’re waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to try and get him to tell you where Bin Laden is living or like… that seems so crazy. I just imagine them doing all this stuff and then the director says ‘Cut!’ and in your mind’s eye, you pan back and it’s actually in a studio and then they go outside and get a coffee.
R: Or they’re discussing all morning how they’re going to do this – how will we film this, how will we show this…
G: Exactly… yeah.
R: And the result looks inevitable to us… that’s what’s interesting… it looks like it could be no other way, when you watch that movie, you know? But even the making of it is full of contentious decisions, you know?
G: Yeah, it really is – because when we see it, we feel like we’re seeing the real thing.
G: In the absence of being able to see the real thing, we see this other version… and there are so many things standing in for other things. The film standing in for the real event, an actor playing a CIA agent, or like a fictional CIA secret prison standing in for a real CIA secret prison, which in itself is fictional as far as the authorities are concerned, because it’s a secret thing anyway.
R: The audience know that was fiction, right? They know that it was actors recreating scenes…
G: Yes, yes, they do.
R: So it’s like we know it’s lies, or we know it’s made up, and yet we treat it like it’s the truth.
// we know it’s made up, and yet we treat it like it’s the truth \\
G: Yeah, or it makes us feel… even if we know it’s fiction, which of course we do, but it makes us feel something true and then when it comes to things like the relationship that us as viewers might have to real acts of warfare that are happening right now in other countries, by our governments… and then through that same screen you see war footage on the news and they feel like they’re of the same world, even though one is real and one is a film.
R: You know what Zero Dark 30 reminded me of, it’s something that really annoys me about sports coverage… so let’s say Liverpool win the league this year. They’ll make films about all the great things Jürgen Klopp did, all the great decisions, you know, how he pulled it out of the bag, and the story of Liverpool’s Premiership campaign will be one of inevitability, that they were going to win.
R: And yet we know that’s total blarney ‑ it’s a sport, it’s a bouncing ball bobbling around. One miss here, one strike there, and they lost. And yet we consistently watch sport and look back at the history or the narrative of sports events as inevitable. And I think that’s what ends up happening with war. And the same thing, when they report on the capture of Osama… I read a good bit about that capture and there was a lot of risk involved… they went into another country, they went into Pakistan, which was a sovereign nation, a nuclear sovereign nation, and that army could have reacted very strangely you know? I don’t know – that’s only one of the things that was contentious that didn’t happen… so they had to make decisions and they made ‘em and it worked out this way. But it was not inevitable. And I think that’s what freaks us out when we watch…. before the Iraq wars, all the Afghan wars, they were always told to us as inevitable, we will inevitably win.
G: I think there’s something interesting about the human, I wonder if it is a human desire, but like the human desire for a narrative, a linear and straightforward narrative through a series of events. Because I don’t know, I think those things are comforting to us somehow because I think they allow us to orientate ourselves within a simple kind of… if A happened, and then B happened and then C happened and then D happened, and then it was the end, and the good guys won and the bad guys lost. Whereas I think the truth of the world is that actually everything that we understand and experience in day to day life, things that are visible and things that are invisible, all of those things are inextricably linked together in some kind of ginormous web of interconnectedness. And we as humans can never understand fully the connections between all of these things, because if we did how would we be able to move through the world or make sense of it? So I think it’s like a human survival mechanism or something to want there to be a simple, linear narrative through a series of events and then we can understand ourself in relation to it… but personally I think the world isn’t like that.
R: Well I always thought that’s what being an adult was about, like understanding that the world isn’t a fairtytale, it’s a risk… I liked that about your show. So for the person who will be reading the transcription of our chat, I will recall my experience of being brought into a room, being brought inside an aeroplane, and there was this eerie feeling of you didn’t know what was going to happen next, you know? Eh… throughout the experience you were being managed along, so I think it did bring us into that kind of, I don’t know, a non-narrative world, a world without narrative.
G: Yeah, and I think that for me what is interesting is the idea that, I guess, the kind of stuff we were exploring in the piece was like a web of interconnected… a rhizome of interconnected ideas and… and that as the audience member, the piece tries to illuminate in some way, this kind of interconnected territory of how war intersects with film intersects with the media and intersects with the experience of being on a plane or travel… I think we wanted the piece to be like, to give you a sort of a response that didn’t necessarily… I guess we wanted to make a piece that didn’t try to be like an ‘about’ kind of piece. ‘This is about this thing’. We wanted to make a piece that tried to place the audience inside a structure of ideas somehow.
//We wanted to make a piece that tried to place the audience inside a structure of ideas somehow\\
R: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
G: And, you know, and for that to feel a bit anxiety-producing… like that the environment where the piece happens, inside the cabin, makes you feel like you’re inside a plane. And the lights flash on and off and there’s another human in the space with you, and it's quite a small space, and also how I kind of mostly ignore the audience member, not like I’m mean to them…
R: But air travel is a narrative. And the narrative is, you’re going to get to your destination safely, you know? I mean, going through airports is just like… we’re such little farmyard animals. It’s really humiliating now, going through airports.
R: Like, you’re told to walk over there, take off your clothes… I’m a grown man, I’ve paid for this flight and you’re making me take my clothes off!
G: Exactly, and in a post-9/11 world, air travel for me, and I guess for lots of people, air travel is inextricably linked with a post-9/11 world and the idea of the war on terror, which is still going on, air travel is part of that, is part of that world, because… and it’s funny when we do the piece and when people come in, I have this grey tray, like the exact same ones they have in the airport, and I ask people if they’ve got anything in their pockets, or if they’re wearing any jewellery, and get them to put their valuables in the tray.
R: And no questions asked, we all do it, right?
G: Everyone does it… maybe like, one in 60 says no. One person said no in Dublin. She just went ‘no’. It was just like a really clear no. And then I just move on to the next thing.
//air travel is inextricably linked with a post-9/11 world and the idea of the war on terror, which is still going on \\
R: That’s because she had something really embarrassing in her pocket.
G: Maybe… she was very anxious definitely. I think she was anxious about what was going to happen. But yeah, people just do it – often people just give me everything in their pockets and then they’ll say ‘Oh, I’ve got this jewellery, do you want it?’ Or they’ll say ‘I’ve got something in my inside pocket’, so they volunteer their stuff away.
R: [laughing] Ah man.
G: Because it’s so familiar. I think we’re very used to that level of control so I think for a performance it’s surprisingly easy to… I find it really interesting how you can just tap into a structure. So we do, we tap into that structure of getting on a plane and then you can just do all of these behaviours which in any other context would feel ridiculous. In any other performance, if you said, ‘give me all of your personal belongings, and I’ll take them away from you and I’m not going to tell you where they’re going or what I’m doing with them’… But because I look like an air hostess and you feel like you’re on a plane and there's plane noise… it’s not even questioned really.
R: I was reading a lot about Syria, the war on Syria you know, and political life under Assad and you know, they had this thing, a lot of dictatorships have it now, these invisible jails, they’re called hidden jails, and you just disappear. A lot of people have been put in these jails and they just disappear. People have come out, very rarely, and what they describe is unbelievable, but, your family, nobody knows where you’ve gone. You could be gone for 30, 40 years, or until you die. Or you could be dead. So this is like an aspect of life in Syria, but just to compare with what you’re saying… you get invited into the police station and the guy whose biography I was reading, he voluntarily walked to the police station. Even though he knew, because he was working for the rebels and there was always a chance they might find out or whatever, you know? It’s like with authoritarian regimes they make it that you have to obey all these rules. And it’s ok, it’s to your benefit for a while, but then when it’s not… there’s no difference.
G: Yeah… I read this really interesting book when we were making this piece, I can’t remember the name of it exactly, it’s about torture. It’s like a kind of encyclopedia basically of all the different types of torture, how it’s used and why. And it talked about visibility and invisibility in torture and how it’s used in different regimes and the benefit of a regime or country wanting to be very visible about how the state exerts its power. So it might be in the interests of the state to very visibly let people know that if you break the rules then these awful things will happen to you and we’ll let you know by flogging people in the streets or having public executions or, you know, it’s very visible, as a mechanism for control. And how in other countries, which tend to be democracies, or called democracies, the mechanism and power of the state is wielded in a way that makes it invisible because it’s not in the interests of the state for that power to be seen by anybody. And so starting from that premise, the book talks about different types of torture and why they’re used, and why some might be used because they leave a visible mark on the body and why some might be used because they don’t leave a mark on the body. And so I guess it plays again into that thing about visibility and invisibility and the role that the state might play in those mechanisms.
R: Like how aware they are of that mechanism? They’re very aware of it I think.
G: Yeah, yeah, I think so.
R: You’d think that the UK would want to keep everything hidden, but actually most protestors complain when they see arrests at protests on the TV, because it frightens the ordinary person from joining the protest and so it’s quite a conscious thing that the police want to be seen arresting innocent people very often.
G: Yeah, 'cos it’s a demonstration of the power of the state. You know, I mean in a soft way, you know in the scheme of things, like arresting some people that are protestors.
R: It’s not Bashar al-Assad.
G: No it’s not, but still it functions in the same way, it’s a performative action by the state to demonstrate control or power. So I think with all of this stuff, the action of rendition and Guantanamo Bay and all of these kinds of things, it's about how these things are invisible and then when they’re rendered visible… It can change a relationship.
R: Did the US want people… maybe they wanted the world to know they were torturing in Guantanamo?
G: Maybe in the end… they didn’t want people to know they were renditioning people around the world. Guantamo wasn’t secret and there are lots of prisons around the world that are used by our government, and other governments around the world, which are secret, but Guantanamo was never secret. I guess it was important that it was a visible response.
R: Yeah yeah. They wanted the world to know they were torturing, even though they called it ‘enhanced interrogation’ or whatever…
G: Enhanced interrogation, yeah. And it’s still there now. Still 55 people I think, still there.
R: We think that the US should be embarrassed by this. “Oh, it’s really embarrassing for us that we’ve got these 55 prisoners that haven’t been tried.” And you go, well maybe it’s not embarrassing. Maybe it’s really, really useful for them that the world knows.
G: Yeah, maybe. It’s funny isn’t it, it’s hard to understand.
R: It’s hard to say for certain, either way. So we’re left going "we don’t know."
G: But what we do know is, it’s definitely there.
G: It’s definitely happening. And I think it can be hard to see the wood for the trees sometimes, in terms of what is… ok it’s there but what’s going on there, like on a bigger level, and what is the role that we all play in its existence? Because we’re all, ya know, we’re all linked in to it. And we’re culpable. In some way. But it’s hard to see those connections, and if you do, what do you do about it? I don’t know.
R: This is the thing… the famous thing is, more people protested against the recent Iraq war, the 2003 invasion, than any other war in history, in Britain or America, and it still went ahead.
G: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It makes me think about bodies, like, those 3 million people or whatever it was, they decided they felt so strongly about this that they’re going to put their bodies in the way of it somehow. To say, "I feel strongly about this, I’m gonna place my body somehow, like symbolically, against it." And then it makes you think about the visibility of the body in public space, compared to, like you were talking about those people in Syria just disappearing… the invisibility of the body. And then in Guantanamo Bay, the invisibility of those bodies there, compared with the invisibility of those people when they’re being rendered, in secret flights across the world… to render their bodies invisible. It just makes me think about… bodies. Yeah.
R: Yeah, let’s say it’s 3 million, but the people who protested, it was symbolic protest, which is very different to industrial protests from the 19th century, where people would block the gates of the factory, or suffragettes who would actually chain themselves to the gates of Westminster… Is it something… is it the result of our mediated experience of the world now that we even think of our body as a symbol, as opposed to…
G: Maybe… and it’s also like a function of the way the world is mediated and our experience of the way bad things that might be happening in the world is mediated, through this screen. So say I’m a protester in the birth of the Industrial Revolution and I’m smashing up a loom that’s going to take my job…
//say I’m a protestor in the birth of the Industrial Revolution and I’m smashing up a loom that’s going to take my job…\\
R: Yeah! I’m with you Gemma, smash that Industrial Revolution at its source! Continue.
G: I can go to the thing which is the problem and I can break it with my hand. But the way that modern warfare works, I can’t see the thing, even. I can’t see it, I can’t touch it. Because everything is happening in these remote ways. You think about drones or… a kid could throw stones at a plane or something if a plane is trying to drop a bomb on your village, but maybe if the plane is a drone, there’s like… everything is at this one remove, more than one remove, I don’t know how many removes. So it’s like, there’s this gradual removal of the body of like… the aggressor… do I mean aggressor? I guess it’s like the removal of the body from these arenas of warfare is an interesting to think about, and which bodies are present and which bodies are not present.
R: But even the machine is missing, it’s not even the human, the machine is missing. Those drones, if you’re in a village in Waziristan… there’s nothing much happening, a normal day, "oh there’s a cow there walking around"… and then BOOM! There’s no warning, there’s nothing, it’s sudden destruction. I don’t think we’ve any idea. I don’t know what we can even compare it to. There isn’t even time for fear.
G: There’s something I guess about… there’s some kind of collapsing of dimensions or something is happening there… I don’t know. The body’s not there and the machine is not there… it’s so far away that you can’t see it… so for the person who wants to make an intervention into that to say I object to this thing happening, I want to put my body in between it, in front of it… But there is no "thing."
R: If you’re in Holland, and the Nazis are invading, you could look at the Nazis and say “shame on you!” With your eyes even. But I mean that’s not even there.
G: Because it’s about the human… still the power of the human to human moment. That thing… but maybe that’s also why, I dunno, you could argue, from a successful warfare perspective, if you can remove the human to human element, you’re probably going to be more successful, because humans care about each other, on an instinctive level, unless you’re a psychopath. If you’re the Nazi soldier and the Dutch person looks you in the eye and says "shame on you", that does something.
//I want to put my body in between it, in front of iT... but there is no "thing"\\
R: That’s with you for the rest of your life.
G: Yeah. Even if you brush it off, that’s still that moment, that human to human moment. It’s very powerful. But also what’s so interesting now, in the last five years, maybe more, those tools of like… those media tools, how they’ve been used to reflect war and be a weapon of war on our side of the fence, are now being used in a very sophisticated way by ISIS for example. ISIS have a magazine, a glossy magazine, and ISIS do video of course… It’s extremely high production value stuff, because they understand the power of that mediated experience, which is why they make those horrible videos of people being beheaded with music in the background and prayers…
R: The argument would be that they’re more sophisticated in understanding what social media does than we are. Certainly more so than our government agencies. They were very aware, quite quickly, of how that monstrous scene, or the car crash… that that’s what people want to see online… and in many other ways in how they recruit their other young soldiers using YouTube. YouTube is very useful for them to recruit young soldiers.
//ISIS have a glossy magazine… It’s extremely high production value stuff\\
G: Completely tying back into this idea of creating a simple narrative, the hero’s journey, to create this… it’s very sophisticated, it’s really sophisticated. I think they have a real understanding of the medium, how the medium functions. It brings it full circle in a way, they’re wielding those weapons of… those media weapons, they’re wielding them very successfully.
R: Yes, they’re wielding them very successfully yeah. It seems what the US didn’t seem to understand when they invaded Afghanistan or when they invaded Iraq, is that the war has to be won ethically, the narrative has to be won. They seemed to be very media unsophisticated when they launched that invasion, to think that, yes they’ve got all the military personnel, yes they’ve got lots of money, which if you’re fighting a 19th century war would mean you’d definitely win… but we live in a media age and so you have to have your narrative. If they’d gotten on to any advertising agency, they’d have said, "No way, you’re never going to win this narrative. This message won’t fly." They
seemed really unsophisticated.
G: I wonder what it would be like if that war started now. Compared to when the invasion of Afghanistan was. I wonder… the change in the world since then, in terms of media and stuff, is enormous, absolutely enormous. If it was to happen, the same situation, if it was to happen tomorrow, I wonder how it would play out, you know, in terms of like… I guess that thing… all that Marshall McLuhan stuff about the screen, and all of that stuff… was it him that wrote that the Iraq war didn’t happen because we just saw it on our screens?
R: I think that was Baudrillard.
G: Yeah, that essay about it. That it was the first war that had happened that way, that came straight to our homes in that 24 hour news cycle type of way. I guess the war in Syria, maybe it’s the first one that’s happened online.
R: That’s a good point. Because the narrative could be managed by the guerrillas… the big media companies were not able to manage the narrative of the war. If you’re on the ground in Syria… I don’t know, people don’t seem to… I don’t see it talked about it very much, but… yes, there’s our side and we’re probably still in a whole world of misinformation, not much might have changed actually for us in the West, but on the ground in Syria, day by day, blow by blow, it’s what everyone’s talking about. It’s what’s being communicated, so there’s a non-stop competition of narratives going on about what’s happening. Online. On Twitter or social media. I think the screen is more impotent than we think. When we grew up, if something was filmed, it became a political issue and something would be done about it. Let’s say, Live Aid. There’s a famine in Ethiopia and people are getting all worked up, and they’re getting the money together, and they’re getting out there to do something about it. But the screen has just become more and more impotent.
G: Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean.
R: Eh… so. Any questions?
G: [laughs] I’ve got loads of questions, but probably that’s it for now.
R: Yeah, that’s it for now.
G: Yeah, it’s nice to chat.
R: Yeah, thanks very much for the piece, I enjoyed it.
G: Yeah, a pleasure, I’m glad.
More on Action Hero here. Images: Paul Blakemore