Camouflage

            Perhaps the most stark irruption of formal dominion over content was the development of cubism, when the figure succumbed to reductivist design structures built up from Cezanne's famous cone, sphere, and cylinder. The decade of World War I was also the time when Wolfflin introduced the discrimination of form and content into analytic discourse. In fact, World War I brought into being the most prominent and widespread usage of design to specifically obscure content, namely camouflage. During the same decade, gestalt psychology was invented to provide a disciplinary context for studying the human rendering of content through the perception of form.

            The First World War began in the traditional way, with troops gaudily and recognizably decked out in uniforms. When, however, engagements became reduced to the trench warfare that was in the end the hallmark of that war, priorities were rapidly reversed: it had become obvious that being conspicuous was deadly; being invisible let one live on to fight another day.

the invisible man hg wells

            This life and death premium on invisibility called upon the military for unanticipated expertise, in the form of a nuanced understanding of visual systems of shape and form recognition--an understanding that had long been the province of artists. Suddenly artists were important and useful. Among the many artists who designed World War I camouflage were Marcel Duchamp's brother, Jacques Villon; the founder of the Maison Cubiste, André Mare; Grant Wood; Thomas Hart Benton; and Charles Burchfield.   A ndre Mare; Grant Wood; Thomas Hart Benton; and Charles Burchfield. (Behrens 35, 68, 100) The cubists, who had so systematically created visual interest by unexpectedly fracturing the subject, recognized parallels to their work in camouflage. In his biography of Picasso, Roland Penrose points out that "Harlequin, Cubism and military camouflage had joined hands. The point they had in common was the disruption of their exterior form in a desire to change their too easily recognized identity." (Penrose 205. Quoted in Behrens 71)[Penrose, Roland (1973), Picasso: His Life and Work . New York: Harper & Row.] Gertrude Stein described Picasso's reaction to a camouflaged tank on the streets of Paris. "Pablo stopped, he was spell-bound. C'est nous qui avons fait ca , he said, it is we that have created that. And he was right, he had. From Cezanne through him they had come to that." (Stein, quoted in Behrens 70.)[Stein, Gertrude (1933), The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas . New York: Random House.]    

 

            The most startling and inventive approach to camouflage in World War I was called dazzle . Dazzle was an approach to naval camouflage invented by the British artist Norman Wilkinson in 1917. Whereas on land the stationary object can be concealed like a leopard by melting it into the background, at sea ships were in motion against distant and changing backgrounds, and they were getting blasted to the bottom by U-boat torpedos. Wilkinson

suddenly got the idea that since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer--in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course on which she was heading. (Wilkinson 79) [Wilkinson, Norman (1969), A Brush with Life . London: Seeley Service. Quoted in Behrens, Roy R. (2002), False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage . Dysart IA: Bobolink Books, p. 86.]    

            This radical inversion forces our attention to the broader question: what is camouflage? Where is it to be positioned among the larger vocabulary of dissumulating tactics--disguise, magic, misdirection, and lies? Dazzle makes it clear that camouflage is not one thing, a figure, but is systemic, a paradigm; in this it participates in the linguistic discrimination, metaphor versus metonymy, or paradigm versus syntagm, familiar from the writing of Roman Jakobsen. Disguise, the substitution of one face for another, is a metonymic transformation, whereas misdirection, the figural interruption of content, functions on the metaphoric plane: and the formal system of visual signification bears this resemblance to the larger rhetorical structure of language. However, we are doing more, here, than reduplicating the structuralist understanding of signs, that for instance of Roland Barthes's Mythologies . Camouflage is indeed a form of magic --it encompasses misdirection, illusion, the interrogation of issues of completion or incompletion of the object; but beyond these matters (that form the infrastructural support of magic), camouflage also asks us to participate in the psychology of the hunter and the hunted, to examine the structures of control and influence that pin down the prey, that show the hunted how being fascinated can renegotiate the system of authority from the posture of the unarmed.

            Here we arrive at the fascinating place where authority ceases to be limited to authorship, where the forms of language are insufficient to spellbind the prey: this is the moment at which the induction becomes the learning experience of trance, where the subject's language moves from the domain of usage into the doman of structure, from conscious to unconscious. At this transition point, which is so unclearly delimited, ideosystemic learning begins and theory ceases. It's easy enough to talk about your pets; you remember them; but how many people learn why their pet is here, now? You can raise your hand?    

            We have learned to despise psychedelic art because of its baseless pretention, its disingenuous adoption of style as a substitute signifier for the very things it claims, for its paradoxical invocation of subjectivities that make psychedelic art unnecessary if you are high and inscrutable if you aren't. Yet curiously psychedelic art bears a striking resemblance to camouflage--both land confusion and sea dazzle versions. Again and again, the elements of twentieth century art that eluded the discourse of its time can be reinterpreted under the terms of the very excess that slopped over the boundaries of discourse at the time, when peered at anew under the dappled light of camouflage.

            A remarkable instance is the photographic collaboration between and the German model, Veruschka.

            In the twentieth century, the constructivist approach to art continued and elaborated the representational esthetics of Western art. This approach, and its continuation in the Greenbergian and minimalist traditions, tended to an idealistic view of art; in important ways, art was primarliy seen as a representation of an ideal, of an idea, or of itself. However, there was always a relational component, however relegated to the background, in Western art as well. By this term I intend the social and political aspects of the work--its relation to the social position of its subject, to the situational context of the work itself, and to the authority which the presence of the work imposes upon its viewership. These are issues that were brought to the fore in social critiques and within art-making itself, by people such as Hans Haacke. Early in the twentieth century, surrealism--to the degree that it followed the maxim of Reverdy, that the more distant and accurate the relation of two realities the stronger the image--conveyed a different, subjective relational approach, one that seemed on the face of it to have little connection to social issues, in spite of the outspoken and sometimes radical social pronouncements of Breton and some other surrealist theorists. The social and subjective elements that are disjunct in surrealism began to coalesce in the "relational aesthetics," to use Bourriaud's term, of 1990s artists. Bourriaud's views, though, as represented in his books Relational Aesthetics and Postproduction , take a snapshot from too close up to let him expose how the relational approach can lift the blinders of theory from our stare toward work left behind because it was colored outside the lines.