2014, installation

5 infrared and 2 visible projections, flat monitor, window, wooden house construction with dimensions: 4x5x6 m, furniture.

Before entering the installation, the viewers are given night vision devices and instructed how to use them. With the goggles they will be able to see infrared projections, which are otherwise invisible for the bare eye.

Stepping inside the gallery, they surrender to complete darkness and a soundscape of shooting weapons of different type and caliber – nearby machine guns and faraway tanks and rockets. But once the night vision goggles are put to use, the darkness is replaced by an overwhelming medley of war scenes. The viewers find themselves amid a group of armed men running around and shooting. In the distance, a once urban landscape reveals the remains of a neighborhood. A group of shattered buildings has frozen in complete stillness, showing no sign of human presence. Only the monotonous shelling of a tank yields clouds of dust now and then. Destruction is so total, that the tank seems incapable of producing any more damage. The nonsensical stubbornness of the war machine aiming at the ghost neighbourhood seems to have the only function to keep the time, a metronome in a place where life itself has been suspended.

A house abandoned by its owners has now become a fire point. The viewers walk inside to witness how the new occupants have reduced it to an entrenchment. Machine guns and snipers are stuck in the shell holes in the wall occasionally firing at targets outside. The fragile security of this former home allows the viewers to observe the action outside - from the balcony, for the braver ones or by safely peeping through the holes in the wall for the more cautious.

Combining architecture, remnants of interior and infrared projections, the installation forces the viewers’ perception to constantly balance between immersion and conscious observation of oneself within a staged situation. The lack of depth perception and the very particular viewing experience the military night-vision devices produce is disorienting. Cognition, which relies mostly on the perception of visual stimuli, has now become unreliable or at least questionable. The phenomenological experience of the self, which is otherwise formed by one’s relation to their surroundings in the visible world, here, in the dark room is interrupted by the extraordinary mode of perception. The mind operates in futile loops trying to resolve the paradox of illusion. On one hand there is the sense of first hand experience of war. But then the rational understanding that the war theatre is a multimedia production is furthered by the presence of logos of news agencies anchored in the top left corners of all scenes projected in the installation.

The scenes are from the civil war in Syria. The confluence of two technologies — smartphone cameras and social media — has produced, via the instant upload, a new phenomenon in the course of mediatisation of war. If the Vietnam War was called “the first televised war” and the Gulf War in 1991 was referred to as “CNN war,” because of the real time TV coverage, the Syrian civil war is now dubbed the "first YouTube war.” It is led not only with arms in the conflict zones, but also in internet with video materials uploaded continuously with the purpose to incite the fighting sides and manipulate the public opinion in real time.

Unprecedented number of videos from the conflict zones is published in the most popular video sharing platform, reaching online viewers and further audiences through TV re-broadcasting. Along with documentary footage by journalists and videos shot by both the government and opposition forces, a lot of entirely staged videos can be found, the purpose of which is to incite the fighting sides and manipulate the public opinion. The online coverage of the war is not limited to journalists, fighters and civilians. News agencies are being created for the purpose, producing videos that so obviously hesitate between the insistence of documenting reality and the instructive approach of propaganda.

While we all know that war takes place indeed, the media illusions it produces seem to suspend our ability to understand what is real, rational and just. The trickery of the visual keeps our minds busy; the constant feed of facts and figures paralyzes the logic and thus maintains the strategic illusion that war is reasonable and unavoidable.

But what kind of psychological operation is it that Dourmana induces with his incorporation of media coverage into a perplexing immersive environment of infrared projections ? The mediated YouTube war now has become a bodily experience. The experiences itself, coupled with the realization of the experience, are an essential element of the situation the author constructs. The audience is part of the work in the way society at large is part of the construction of war. The immersion and paradoxically – the realization of the immersion, function in parallel. The confusion in the realization of the self amid this rather unusual new lifeworld sensitizes the mind and opens the possibility of experiencing one's own body as another. No roles are readily prescribed by the author, but a catalogue of characters is on offer as one roams the space, populated by soldiers of the government army, fighters from the opposition armed forces and civilians.

And while the imagery and the sensation produced by the war theatre installation is mediated, heavily relying on technology and illusion, using found footage produced by media agencies, the experience of the second chapter of the installation is very intimate and personal. After the enormous dark hall full of ruins, one enters a small white room with neat and frugal interior. It replicates the interior of refugee camps in Bulgaria where fake walls made of bed sheets separate the enormous rooms of former school buildings into small private areas, allowing several families to cohabitate and still have some privacy. One such cubicle is recreated in the installation. Everyday life in a refugee camp, documented by the artist, unfolds through videos and objects. Simple activities make human life tenable again. Women make bread. Kids sing songs and recite nursery rhymes in a language new to them. Men play football in an abandoned schoolyard.

The psychological potential of the work lies in the linking of the two parts of the installation and it is left to the viewer to put them together. While in the first room the self of the viewer-become-protagonist is questioned, the second room presents the audience with the role of an observer of the confused self of the refugees. In normal life identity is constantly affirmed through the re-telling and re-invention of one’s life story, and yet in extraordinary situations, as it is with victims of war, this narrative is interrupted. Thus the routine and the temporary escape in basic, everyday activities become a means for the physical and emotional survival of the refugees.

The question of identity is deeply embedded in the work, although the mode in which it operates changes significantly in the two parts. While the dark space plays with the phenomenological construction of identity and the subjective experience of oneself in relation to war, the second room offers the viewer to play their self against that of the other. Here identity is realized through a series of inclusions and exclusion and the possibility to relate to the other by comparison. The one vehicle for the experience of identity that the author seems to purposefully not employ in this work is empathy – probably the most widely used one in media representations of war. No dead bodies, no crippled men and women, no mothers holding the lifeless bodies of their young children are to be seen. The work does not call for sympathy, but offers a transformative experience through destabilizing one’s own identity and calmly exposing the complex life situations of refugees. The exploration of self and other is enhanced by the realization of how subjective our sense of proximity is. The armed conflict in Syria may seem remote, but the reality of the refugee camps now sprawling not only in the there of the Middle East, but already in the here of Europe is literally at our footstep.

* The technological platform used in this project was developed by Dourmana in 2008 and used for the first time in his project Post Global Warming Survival Kit. Through modification of digital projectors, he makes the devices operate only in the infrared part of the spectrum, thus emitting no visible light. The result is invisible projections in completely dark space, which can be observed with night vision devices. Image production and processing in infrared is heavily used in the military industry, particularly for devices meant to be used at night.

The project is presented at Schafhof - Europäische Künstlerhaus Oberbayern as part of exhibition Illusion der Gewalt