Instead of Pleading Up
Amateur airdrops and the seizure of the vertical
Originally produced for Camp Carpa Residency, 2013
Leaflets drops have been an important tactical weapon of war since 1870, when the French sent a balloon to deliver messages across enemy lines during the Franco-Prussian conflict. However, the first recorded use of the strategy was in China in the year 1232 when kites were used to deliver paper messages by air into a prison compound in order to incite a riot.1 The U.S. has employed the use of airdropped propaganda in nearly every war it has fought since its birth as a country. And, leaflets are still a crucial element of contemporary warfare—perhaps the most critical medium of the U.S. military’s Psychological Operations [PSYOPs]. In recent years U.S. use of leaflet bombs has greatly increased. Leaflets targeted at enemy soldiers and civilians alike have been routinely snowed over the landscapes of Afghanistan and Iraq since the War on Terror began. During Operation Iraqi Freedom the U.S. dropped over 33 million leaflets urging Iraqis not to support Saddam Hussein.2 The Israeli Defense League frequently uses leaflets to announce imminent attacks upon occupied territories, demanding that Palestinians evacuate from certain areas and declaring anyone who chooses to stay an enemy combatant. In this way the leaflet drop is a mechanism to preemptively negating the possibility of collateral damage. As delivery systems for vital information, suggestive threats, and government proclamations these paper messages from above have been used to extend control, to terrorize, and destabilize troops and communities in terrains of conflict for hundreds of years.
Looking at both present-day and historical examples of paper-based psychological warfare, it’s hard to believe that these little slips of paper have any authoritative sway over a viewer. But their simplified, iconic visuals, and the quickness with which they are produced contribute to their truth power and effectiveness. They work to undermine structures of reality and belief, presenting misinformation as fact in an attempt to instill doubt and render people feeling isolation, powerless, and unable to resist. Jennifer Gabrys in her paper Leaflet Drop: The Paper Landscapes of War describes this method...
of “bombing the enemy with ideas,” as a carefully orchestrated campaign to cast doubt in enemy territory, and to force the surrender of troops by a bombardment of “facts.” Indeed, leaflets are often accompanied by photographs that serve as forewarning or “proof” of destruction wreaked in nearby territories...The leaflet drop activates doubt “at three primary levels: first, through its materiality—both light and easily distributed—which contributes to the construction of fact; second, through the forceful, direct and descending delivery of the leaflet, which renders information at once convincing and nearly mythical; and third, through the landscape, which as both battlefield and “outside” condition, challenges the authority of the text.3
These “weapons of mass persuasion” (as they have been referred to) and their modes of deployment and dispersal became interesting to us as we began researching the ways that drones are transforming how contemporary media represents reality. What we came to call drone realism is a way of seeing whose authority and factuality is confirmed through a complex combination of aesthetic codes and technological residues, like the markers of real-time broadcast, location awareness, digital abstraction, and 9-eyed aerial perspective. Drone realism is the dominant contemporary visuality of the first-world. It is the world seen through the algorithmic and networked machine as it has been internalized by a generation of users who carry satellite vision in their minds, and drone technology in the smartphones. What came to interest us about the form of the leaflet drop, be it from an amateur drone, sling-shot, kite or balloon, was its potential to be a low-fi, low-cost, and mildly weaponized exhibition site for dissent, one that could reclaim the vertical from the grips of those who have held a monopoly for far too long.
The air is a site of enforcement, belonging to all but controlled by a few. (These sites have been highlighted as potent places for occupation in recent years as the conversation about the enclosure of the commons strengthens.) It is by air that satellites and drones circle and map us, creating a surveillance network and a visual colonization of the globe that becomes more complete everyday. Having the ability to see, enforce, or inform from above is to activate one of our most dominant structural metaphors. Our understanding of up is based on layers of physical experience and cultural associations that connect up-ness with godliness, consciousness, truth, and authority; it’s no wonder that messages descending from above have a unique hold.4 The form of the leaflet drop (as differentiated from the content of specific leaflets) is an almost sacred ritual, gaining force through shared recollections, cultural narratives, and mythology as they become threaded into the fabric and sense memories of a world.5 But also it’s the performativity of the drop—the beautifully choreographed descent of paper that makes visible the shape of air. While we recognize the ritual content of the leaflet drop and its power to organize and enforce bodies and minds, we’re more interested in harnessing its mythic aerial power for subversive and playful experiments.
Airdrops do have a scattered non-militarized history, both as hair-brained performance and public action. In 1969, as he was contemplating and drawing feet, Ray Johnson was invited to participate in the 7th Annual Avant-Garde Festival. His piece consisted of renting a helicopter and dropping 60 foot-long hot dogs onto the backyard lawns of Ward’s Island. He remarked that he was surprised to learn that many people ate the hot-dogs “mistaking them for food.” The Futurists before him were masters at theatrical dispersal. When they weren’t distributing their manifestos by throwing them at people in the street, they threw them into the wind from speeding cars and the heights of clock towers.6 More recently, Swedish public relations firm Studio Total airdropped nearly 1000 teddy bears bearing slogans over Belarus, attempting to garner some of the attention that was being paid to a political struggle there.7 And, since 2005, North Korean defectors in South Korea have used balloons to carry packages over the Northern border with leaflets condemning the North Korean government, as well as Bible verses, $1 bills, condoms, toothbrushes, and other supplies.8
What the dissemination of Ray Johnson’s hot dogs and the Futurist’s manifestos share is their open-endedness as experimental actions. The structure of a PSYOPs operation or a PR campaign or a demonstration is based on precise strategies of assessment--measuring the susceptibility, projective responses, and affinities of a target audience--and using them as guides for the creation of a successful visual deployment. An “experiment, on the other hand, can be described by its capacity to produce new sentimental intelligence and experiences of power and pleasure. The experiment is attached to the sphere of play. The figure of the child in playful experiment cannot be discounted.”9
The child turns everything into a toy, an object for improvisation, even things that probably shouldn’t be. “Toys are entities, once sacred, belonging to a particular functional use, but no longer. The relationship of the toy is that which profanes anything—that returns it to the sphere of free use.”10 Turning a military ritual or tactic into a toy isn’t just a thin inversion made in ironic distaste, or a re-application of psychological violence against a different target audience. It comes from a heartfelt inquiry, and an inclination towards appropriating overdetermined objects and forms so that through play, they might undergo an improvisational re-imagining. Maybe even become a form of contagious counter-terrorism.
1. John Peffer and Herbert A. Friedman. “Paper Bullets: An Interview with Herbert A. Friedman,” Cabinet Magazine, issue 12, 2003.
2. Jennifer Gabrys. “Leaflet Drop: The Paper Landscapes of War,” in Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture, issue 8, University of Rochester, 2004, p. 1.
3. Ibid, p2.
4. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, p.16.
5. Politics is not a Banana: The Journal of Vulgar Discourse issue 1, Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009, p. 78.
6. Martin Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-gardes. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006.
7. Frank Jordans and Yuras Karmanau. “Teddy bears drop in, bring down 2 Belarus generals.” Yahoo News, August 1, 2012 11:10 AM, http://news.yahoo.com/teddy-bears-drop-bring-down-2-belarus-generals-140614095.html
8. SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.), Psyop Dissemination, accessed on October 15, 2013. www.psywarrior/dissemination
9. Politics is not a Banana: The Journal of Vulgar Discourse issue 1, Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009, p. 78.