text and curatorial work>>> fatal surveillance


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Fatal Surveillance

A show of oil paintings by Matt Bahenand mixed media works by John Scott and Matt Bahen.  

A Space Gallery, Toronto. 2004.



curratorial essay>>>>>

Through a Glass Darkly

There is a very specific reason why Damien Hirst called one of his works (the shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde) "The Physical Impossibility of Death" as opposed to a more descriptive or literal title, such as "Shark in Formaldehyde": it is because the work alludes to something else altogether, which is conceptually much greater than the subject matter. It is about coming face to face with one our worst fears, the fear of death.

This is the case with Matt Bahen's sniper paintings. They are not a glorification of war, but an allegorical illustration of the relationship between the predator that surveys, and the prey. The snipers are frozen in mid-motion. The blurry backgrounds, like the out of focus backgrounds of war photographs, indicate movement and speed. They are beautifully rendered life-size images that are painted with a vibrant palette that is applied in luscious impastos. These aggressors are caught in the act of killing. But who are the bullets intended for? Are we the intended victims, or is it the other way around? More specifically, what side of the gun are we on?

Bahen fractures the picture plane into different "compartments" which are occupied by thermographs depicting humanoid forms that are painted flatly in primary colors. These thermographic images (The kind of "heat maps" that are seen in Catscan images) are contrasted with the richly painted   textures and bright colors of the snipers. The subtext of this juxtaposition of snipers with thermographs is a critique on our society from a socio-economic standpoint. Every time that we answer a questionnaire, or visit a website, or make a credit card transaction, a myriad unseen "eyes" survey and record our every move: our buying habits, what sites we visit on the internet, our personal I.D., our credit card transactions, etc. From this template a profile is generated: A profile that can be exploited and used by others for their own personal gain without our ever becoming aware of it. This is what makes this surveillance "fatal".

The snipers and the thermographic images are equally anonymous. However, whereas the snipers are easily identifiable as soldiers, the humanoid forms in the thermographs are completely featureless. They could be soldiers or civilians, friend or foe. But their existence as prefabricated images in relation to the elaborately painted snipers suggests that these flat and peripheral surfaces are in fact the dehumanized future victims which the snipers view through the telescopic lenses of their guns.   This dichotomy illustrates the "us and them" mentality that characterizes our attitude in the West towards the people in developing countries the world over who are being taxed and exploited in order to provide us with our standard of living.  

The paintings are meant to confront the viewer. When looking at them one has the feeling of being face to face with an "unseen enemy"; an executioner who can shoot and kill from a very long distance without ever being detected. But the question remains: What side of the gun are we on? The snipers peer at us through their masks and camouflage suits. They are obviously not meant to be seen.   It would be easy to assume that, since the thermographs are "dehumanized," they denote "others". Yet one can't help but feel threatened by the life-size figure of the sniper. As if in fact it is us who are being threatened. The answer is that we are on both sides of the gun. We are the perpetrators and the victims all at once, like the faces of a flickering coin.

The fracturing of the picture plane alludes to the fractured nature of the images which come to us through the news media. Bahen plays with the surfaces of the canvas in the same manner that the news media manipulates and fractures the images and facts surrounding world events: By decontextualizing and distorting the facts and presenting them in newscasts composed of easily-digestible tidbits of non-information sandwiched between commercials.

Matt Bahen's message is ultimately a warning that we must heed if we are to survive the conflicts which assail the world today: That we must closely scrutinize and analyze the information that reaches us through the mass media in order to separate truth from falsehood and not blindly believe everything that we are being presented but most importantly, that the way to win in modern warfare is not through a show of force but through the exercise of mutual respect, consultative will, and a just redistribution of resources amongst the peoples of the world.



Matt Bahen and John Scott



Interview with Matt Bahen>>>>>

What is the significance of the large paintings that are painted on army canvas?

It is the process of mixing the old with the new. the fact that these army canvases are actually no longer made, they only use vinyl to make them now, so it's the representation of contemporary military technology on an outdated military surface that interests me. That is the juxtaposition that I am creating. And the canvas has a smell, a texture, a feel and a real presence that is an effect I really like to use.

So is the work a sort of retrograde, a kind of "back to the future" aesthetic, or is it attempting to create a jarring effect of creepiness?

I think that it creates a break with the idea of warfare that is in our consciousness. Warfare is ostensibly conflict and conflict is the pinnacle of human interaction. So it is   a display of the hypocrisy of this pinnacle of human interaction and how one sided it actually is.


Is it one sided because of the subjectivity of the victor versus the vanquished or the "enemy"?

It's more like    "if you meet me with fists I'll meet you with fists" versus "If you meet me with fists I'll meet you with a B52 bomber and melt you with a nuclear impact"


What's the reference in your paintings of unmanned aircraft? What are those paintings trying to convey?

The unmanned aircraft are known as UAB's or UCAB's."Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles" or just "Unmanned Air Vehicles", and they're beginning to replace the recognizance planes such as the U2 or the SR71 Spy Plane and UCAB's are eventually going to replace jet fighters. So jet fighters are really the last cowboys as it were, and they're going to be automated now.   So I feel bad for the poor sucker who's in a manned plane, he's flying, and he calls back: "Captain! I am being attacked by robot planes. What do I do now?!" Our idea of war should start changing very dramatically, and there should be a greater opposition to it than there already is. With just the means that are being used to fight them , it's ridiculous. You might think twice before getting into combat with that


So then the jet plane is to modern warfare   what the cavalry was in the Second World War?

Exactly. That's exactly what it is. And now the real irony is that we ("we" in the sense of the West) have all this great science fiction-type technology, and yet it really is quite ineffective against the kind of enemy that they're facing in the sense of the terrorists. War was always state versus state, army versus army. But there's no state anymore, there isn't even an army. So the ways that they've been trying to fight these forces are ineffective because they have the wrong enemy in mind for the way that they're supposed to fight these forces. Probably the way to fight them is to improve the living conditions of really poor countries, and make sure everybody has a job and not rip people off so much and then people won't be so angry.


It's like Sun Tzu's The Art of War , have you read that? The Art of War ? I love that book. because it says that "To win without fighting is best". I guess that's what guerilla war does. It's like what you said: The West puts up a show of force, but all these little nations, all these terrorists are just using their own cleverness to bring down Goliath to his knees.     

And they're using the means at their disposal to do it. History shows the U.S. getting bogged down in Vietnam specifically because of that. because it wasn't only an army that they were trying to fight, they were fighting against complicated guerrilla tactics. There was a picture in yesterday's New York Times of a kid, maybe six or seven years old, passing a U.S. checkpoint. And these two soldiers in full gear are searching him because they thought that he might be a human bomb. That's the kind of enemy that they're figthing  


Such as in Stanley Kubrik's Full Metal Jacket, where the sniper that kills the American soldiers turns out to be a little kid.

Exactly, in the first Gulf War, George Bush senior was a little more intelligent in the sense that he didn't go into Baghdad. He just fought in the desert. So it was exactly an army versus an army and there was a sweeping victory throughout. It lasted less than one hundred days. In the most recent Gulf War, we see the U.S. getting bogged down in these urban centers, and it's exactly the same reason that they got bogged down in Vietnam. This is a big mistake for a lot of different reasons.


So how does this kind of scenario differ from the role of the U.S. in the Second World War?

It differs because the technology of the Superpowers in WWII was very much similar. And also there were Superpowers that were involved in the conflict. Now there's only one. These Superpowers had massive armies, and the "good guys" and "bad guys" (let's call them that) were using very similar tactics to fight each other. So it made sense. The way that the war was fought made a lot more sense. It went a lot more smoothly


So it relied upon and was based on soldiering

Yes.   It wasn't composed of kids and women and everyone else. It was composed mostly of soldiers. In today's war everybody is involved, and the homelands of the good guys and the bad guys are pretty much being threatened.


Right, because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor during WWII, but even though they attacked a U.S. territory, it was Hawaii, it wasn't the mainland United States

Yes, and even in the case of the World Trade Center, where three thousand people died and it was a real tragedy and an action that must be condemned, however, it pales in comparison to the kinds of means and the kinds of actions that our foreign policy in the West in general has had to do to maintain our lifestyle.


Right, because these very means and actions are what perpetuates the unhappiness that is generating the problem in the first place.

And the role that the media plays in all of this, in the sense that their analysis of the events is very surface-oriented, doesn't delve into deeper issues in the way that it probably should, and that has a lot to do with the way that the media systems are set-up and designed. Programs are limited to one hour, which is approximately forty-five minutes of programming time. And they're interrupted by commercials for five minutes every fifteen minutes. So it's a very fractured way of getting information.


How does this relate to your thermograph paintings and to the snipers in Gilles suits?

Well, it relates because the surface of the canvas is broken up. There are several different methods of painting that are being used in every canvas: A very pixilated form, a very smooth form of photographic blurry background, and a heavier oil paint. So when you step back it all looks very clear. But as you move closer, and as you examine the painting more closely, you start to see how complex the systems are, or how complex the paint is, and it makes less and less visual sense. So I try to make that into a reflection of the way that the news media works. If you just look at it quickly from far away it makes a lot of sense. But then, when you try to get deeper and closer in examining what's happening, it becomes quite a confusing mess.


Is this analogous to looking at the pixels of a television image?

Maybe not quite so literally, but a news program is pretty fast and it is not something that is useful to think a great deal about. If you just take literal meanings in the phrases that they use it makes a lot of sense. But when you start to really analyze what they're saying, when you try to get really close to the heart of it, you realize that it's actually a confusing mess


So we exercise closure to bridge in our minds the gap between the surfaces of images and events, and their actual significance

Yes, and for us to actually organize in our heads exactly what's going on, we need to do a lot of editing. And maybe budging a few numbers, dates and events to make them it fit into our idea of what warfare is, and what it means. And rather than taking the whole picture or changing our idea of what the event actually was, we take it and put in a particular box.


Nowadays even the pages in magazines look fractured. They look like web pages with little windows and sidebars with snippets of non-information

Yes, non-information. And everything is within a finite surface. Especially in magazines and newspapers, there's a finite area in which to put something. The way that magazines and newspapers are set-up reflects (and influences) how our understanding of what they're trying to say is going to be. On the other hand, the way that our current system is set up is such that they (the powers that be) don't really lie to us very much in the sense that they do say, to use the example of Iraq, that they haven't found any weapons of mass destruction. All the events have been recorded in the news media. And yet the amazing thing is that you can get off committing a crime, and you can actually say that you committed a crime, and nobody will care. And that's really the greatest trick of neo-liberalism or late-period capitalism or whatever you want to call it; that the sponge is so big that it can absorb any movement from being counter-cultural and make it a part of the system. Or to put it differently, "The man" can absorb it, and he can have its face now, and any crime can be committed and it will be forgiven.


It's reminiscent of the robot in The Terminator which when it is blown to bits, liquefies itself and comes back together again as a solid working mass.

Exactly, that's a great metaphor. Then how do you as an activist, as basically someone who has some sense of humanity, how do you move through that system?     Those are some of the questions that I'm trying to ask myself and that I'm hoping the viewer will ask as well.


It is interesting to me that when I look at the work it almost looks like a glorification of war, particularly the snipers. When one looks at them, they almost seem like Native American "Braves" in full regalia, with their feathered headdresses and tribal uniforms, but in this case they wear army camouflage and Gilles suits.

I do admit that there's a choice of imagery that I go back to again and again, and part of the reason I do it is that I think it looks really cool. I am a victim of exactly the same thing that I'm talking about or trying to fight. Ultimately I can't really say what the paintings are about and I don't have a piece of paper that says "This is exactly what I am doing" with a list of checkpoints. It will have to be arrived at through a dialectical process. And the meaning of the paintings will change for me as the dialectical process ensues. The things that we have been talking about are the sorts of things that I'm thinking about when I'm making the works, and I believe that some of this comes across. But most of it will probably come across through conversation and things that the paintings and the imagery allude to, directly or indirectly. But I think It's important to know that the imagery that I use is used primarily as a metaphor, and it is also used to talk about the connotations or the meaning surrounding that kind of imagery. I would hope that it wouldn't be just looked at in the way that a minimalist painting is looked at: "This is a black surface and it is only a black surface." If I decided to paint an X47 Pegasus ECAB, it wouldn't be just to say "This is a great ship, and it is only a great ship." There's a lot more going on. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but there's a lot going on.


There is a strong interplay of textures and images in your work.

Texture, imagery, the way that I paint is sort of a very pixilated kind of painting which I appropriated from Van Gogh, and it creates a tension with the flatness and prefabricated feel of the thermographs.


Some of the works are also epic in scale.

One of the people that I'm often compared to is Liam Gullop and I can see the comparison. But one of the things Gullop did was that his paintings are ten to twelve feet high, never mind what their length is. So the figures in his paintings are twice life-size. My figures are about life-size scale, so there's a very real interaction of the body with the work. It's causing the viewer to ask the question, "What side of the gun am I on?"


That's beautiful, because then the viewer identifies with the image, because it is a life-size image.

And you see it as threatening because it would be harmful to you, but another reason why it might be threatening is that it challenges your image of yourself, since there's a really good chance that it is you who is holding the gun.


When viewing the paintings, I had a feeling of being face to face with the "unseen enemy". It was like getting a good look at someone who can shoot you down from a very long distance. Do you know the old WWI saying, that you never hear the bullet that kills you? It is a very uncanny feeling, of looking at someone who could kill you, but you would never know.

They are an Invisible Fatal Surveillance. And the funny thing is that Canada has the best snipers in the world. The U.N. and the United States use our snipers whenever they can, because apparently we're the best at killing people from far away.  


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