Falcon by Alex Quicho
An Excerpt from DRONES
In a sodium-lit hall thick with smoke, a drone flies low over a woman in gymnastic back-bend, her breasts bound flat by bandages. Its twin green lights appear like animal tapetum in the dark as it cruises below someone walking a tightrope, holding two fans for balance, which look like ping-pong paddles or semaphores. A girl is shouldered by a squadron of wan actors, her arms draped like Christ’s dead weight, while a boy trust-falls from one comrade’s back and into the arms of the others. Over the span of four hours, the performers let their hair down from spiral staircases, shotgunning vape smoke between near-kisses; they pour Pepsi-cola down the walls, or spritz noxious spumes of spraypaint, or headbang slowly in a circle, leaping to slide on their knees like soundless rockstars. Perched on a suede glove, a sedated falcon sees it all.
Anne Imhof is the director of this ‘opera’, the second in her three-part series of durational performances, Angst. Taking place at Berlin’s Hamburger Banhof, Angst II draws after-hours masses who wait buzzing round the station’s entrance, vultures at a nightclub. Once inside, they’re set loose in its vastness. There’s no stage for this opera, nor acts, nor intermission, only Imhof sending directions to her fifteen actors via text message, leaving her audience to cruise for action. The smallest movement stirs a paparazzi rush; basal instinct is prised up from its basement suite.
Imhof’s order of rituals rest on an underlying technological structure. As with Poitras’ Bed Down Location, power’s replica appears in miniature. Undercurrents of text messages shape the action on the ground, while drone and bird keep hawkish watch. Surveillance, though Imhof wouldn’t call it that, becomes as textural as fog. The falcon is The Prophet, who watches the Diver, the Lover, the Spitter — the last being a boy whose only task is to chew and spit sunflower seeds, despondently. While the persona of these human characters is faded out by typecasting and product placement, their roles are defined by action, which sets everything on a continuum. Like the old game of ‘animal, vegetable, mineral’, such broad definition gets interesting when the distinctions are shaky.
“That’s my favourite time,” says Imhof, “when the outlines of things become blurred and the colors become increasingly saturated.”
Appearing in her work alongside brand names so familiar they’ve become total — Gillette lathered across jowls, Adidas swished around contortions — the drone becomes known as a consumer object. But, as Adam Rothstein writes, “drones are still overwhelmingly weapons, and that any drone today will look and serve fundamentally as a weapon, regardless of what branding we simultaneously launch.” By calling up capital’s alchemical fable — turning metal into polymer, and turning death into leisure — Imhof exploits the ambiguity between civilian and military technology. “Now, as there have been many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends were also many; the end of economics was wealth, that of bomb-making a bomb, that of plastic manufacturing a plastic bottle,” writes Joana Demers, meaning that apocalypse is both always continuous and imminent. Angst II catalogues nihilistic pleasures in an atmosphere of constant ending. Clad in skull-patterned vests and death metal tees, death performs its coolest oeuvre, acting out that most clichéd of glamour paradoxes — that youth’s invincibility can only live on through a quick end.
Fitting for what haunts Imhof’s smoke, the most common consumer drone is called the Phantom, though the names of newer models unravel into the fantasy character’s consonant crush. A more fatal juvenilia baptises military technology as, from the Predator to the Gorgon Stare, military drones are given mythological names. Each hints at the terror they deliver with black metal’s escapist grandeur. The genre makes intricate metaphor of violence, which is no longer hyperbole but realism in an interrogatory environment that sees blood rain out from prisoners’ hooded heads. The use of heavy metal in the interrogation rooms of Abu Ghraib is not unexpected, though the aesthetic of military subjugation is patchy at best; auditory torture is Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty as it is Deicide’s Fuck Your God, a double garotte of ideological and sensory assault.
Angst II’s soundscape is gentler, though it still aestheticises dread. A chorus, not sung but lip-synched to what’s blasted from scattered PA systems, builds to fever pitch. Sometimes, a mechanical whirr pierces the atmosphere, not unlike the scream of violins that heralds a killer’s appearance on film, or the low notes of an electric guitar are strummed more to elicit the screech of feedback than a song. Attention isn’t only scattered but scraped raw by anxiety, and atonality unsettles even the most mundane of gestures, revealing the danger in the most everyday of objects. Fear becomes environmental, as it did in the United States following the paradigm shift of 9/11. Take Demers’ words more literally: a bomb can be contained in a water bottle, suicide in a safety razor.
Reviewers write Angst as a “sad teen” performance for the ages; the choreographed gestures, stretched to their limit on the rack of time, recalled both adolescent slouch and squalid depression. To be bored, of course, is metaphorical death. Boredom brings madness, existential paralysis being the one consequence of a vertiginous awareness. How many svelte internet It-Girls write from the depths of their beds? How pathologised is depression, and how glamourised, the body wasting not on the heroin-chic of the early ‘90s but on the pure junk of running on fumes? If “the whole earth has turned into a malicious, hopelessly divided middle class that is doomed to perish,” as Dietrich Diedrichsen writes, it’s done so without the past’s corporate-ladder security. Instead, the demands of ad-hoc and freelance employment have infected every space available to Imhof’s generation. That is to say, if Angst II seems indulgent in its teenaged squalor, it may be because leisure seems foreign. In the dirge of witch-house band Austra: “In mornings I rest here / In evenings I work here / My debt isn't spent.”
During art school, Imhof worked at Robert Johnson, the Frankfurt nightclub, dreaming in its candy-pastel interior and friends-mostly policy. “Ghosts that become your friends and accomplices,” says Imhof of her influences, in true club-kid style. Who, in the nighttime fade, doesn’t feel all soft surface, the reigning cliché of the party being its shiny refraction? And what’s a club but a shallow watering-hole, or a collection of vapours in an empty room? Imhof sees what happens when entropy is paused, its elements poured out. Her cadre of models, hired from a Berlin agency, makes a stilted diorama of catwalk sashay and moshpit contact. In the nightclub, on the runway, and under the drone’s eye, especially — it’s all occasion for display. And if it all seems too newly artificial, think Baudrillard, who incanted three decades ago: “seduction never belongs to the order of nature, but that of artifice — never to the order of energy, but that of signs and rituals.”
Note the substances feasibly ingested: no cocaine, only study drugs; no heroin, only Red Bull and Pepsi Max. Speed persists in this universe, only it’s because it’s so molecularly close to Adderall, a basement powder for those who’d rather not rattle off their failures in exchange for a prescription pill. (And how, in this age of acceleration, could we resist something so aptly named?) It’s a regimen of the hyperproductive made vacuous by burn-out. No coincidence that the accoutrements of youthful production are those of last decade’s gamers. The hyperfocus required of days-long Starcraft marathons is now transmuted into a public sphere where male nerdiness is king, dusted not in crisp-packet crumbs but in Silicon Valley money.
Seen through synthetic highs, violence and pleasure aren’t so much opposites as bedfellows. Nazi soldiers gobbled amphetamines to “banish the fear of combat and replace it with a sense of invincibility.” A speed pill called Captagon, embossed with double Chanel Cs, made headlines in 2015 as the fuel for “zombie [soldiers] roaming [Syria], all smiles, across fields of ruins and severed heads”. And under the U.S. drone programme, ‘soldier’ became synonymous not only with crew-cuts and desert fatigues, but also man-children slouched in their office chairs, buzzed on energy drinks and Adderall. The chemical cocktails sustaining these bodies are close to the polymers that make up the new drone, closer still to what sustains the night time economies. In Angst II, fizzed syrup, hovering entity and indoor bodies all become proximate so that the continuum is obvious.
When reviewers write that Angst II is Instagrammable, they mean not fleeting but fashionable. Everyone is thin, white, mussed from the bedsheet’s solo toss, and their aesthetic — the term almost visible in everyone’s mouth, used with a degree of irony to denote one’s belaboured presence on- and offline — brings to crystalline bearing the proclivities of the moment. 2016 was the year the West awoke to find itself in techno-dystopia, with hellish elections won by algorithms and the churn of globalisation stuttering to a halt. Everyone dressed for the occasion. The fashion Imhof channels is a brief history of techno-culture, from t-shirts bearing shiny CG waveforms to the black rollnecks and wire-framed spectacles of Gates and Jobs.
The turn inwards has come full circle, and the woodsy fantasy that took hold of America at the time of Diedrichsen’s exhibition — think DIY workshops in the heart of Brooklyn, an uptick in ‘wildcrafted’ and ‘farm to table’ ingredients, a youthful elite trimming synthetics from their lives — has decayed into the Portlandia farce it always was. No woods lie beyond the cramped urban bedrooms in which the laptop’s screen presents false rest and real escape. Imhof’s generation was the first to be raised on CG escapism, and the first to truly comprehend the material bleed between online and offline. Websafe2k16, a project named after the early Internet’s colour palette, documents the first strange loves begat through late nights on internet chatrooms or forums, no less significant in spite of reactionary braying for the sanctity of the ‘real’. Imhof’s work makes sense in this continuum, another reading of the reviewers’ gloss being its representational ease both in person and on-screen, each tableau fit for framing and capture. “It’s all real, how does that make you feel?”
Angst II is one giant bedroom, if one thinks of the bedroom now as retreat, cage, and asylum. In acts analogue to pacing, actors drag a single line of paint from one wall to another, or scribble on the white ground in gold marker, or concoct dark paintings with scratchy handwriting and washes of black. Cans of soda are popped and hardly touched. Pumped half-full by a fog-machine, the atmosphere is positively synthetic.
In an interview for Mousse, Hans Ulrich Obrist remarks on the appearance of animals in Angst as “tableaux vivant.” Imhof disagrees serenely. “Their function is to create passages, to function like lines parting the space,” she says.
Animals work as metaphor, and even beyond Angst, the falcon stands in for war. The very evocation of its cousin, the hawk, is used in American politics to denote bloodthirsty politicians. The Global Hawk is a type of drone, but animal and machine share traits beyond name alone. See the falcon in the skies, unhooded, blood cleared of tranqs. Its circling movement, buoyed by columns of air, brings the landscape into clearer and clearer definition, each pass sharpening the known world until a pinprick of movement hooks the falcon’s glassy eye. Only then does it bolt down like a weapon, re-linking with the earth in its strike.
“Amidst everything else worth fighting for, a fierce defense of the basic right to be alone with the others amongst sky, trees, birds, and wind without the omnipresent swarm of commerce feels like one of our many battles just on the horizon,” tweeted theorist Evan Calder Williams, after the first-ever Amazon drone delivery in 2016. The falcon is but one of many bodies threading airspace now highly legislated. A map of the skies sees that blue expanse — once synonymous with freedom — divvied up into commercial routes, no-fly zones, and national bounds cast up from the ground.
Migrating from the Middle East to Europe via the invasion of the nomadic Alani, the practice of killing remotely was documented as early as 2,000 BC. Falcons extended a hunter’s vision and reach. They co-mingled male hunter with female power, as female falcons were thrice the size of males. Until falconry, domesticity had meant docile — mules and chickens. Real, predatory wildness was untameable. Snatching prey for its horsebound master, the falcon brought a hint of coming control. “Falconry,” writes Russian orinthologist G.P. Dementiev, “is the sister of war.”
The falcon first pierced popular consciousness as a form of ‘conspicuous consumption,’ its elegant conduct an aspirational product for Medieval strivers. In England, birds were purchased across classes for status more than sport, though which bird belonged to who still followed a clear hierarchy — female falcons were reserved for nobility, leaving the diminutive males for ordinary nerds. But the falcon would not remain arm-candy: though the invention of the shotgun in 1850 took down the bird’s popularity as a hunting tool, the development of the airplane would turn it back into a useful creature.
“Is a falcon a fighter jet?” asks historian Helen Macdonald. “Both are conceived of as pushing the outside of the envelope of physical possibility; both are often considered perfectly evolved objects in which form and function mesh so precisely there is no room for redundancy.” Macdonald describes one early engineer’s gaze upwards at a falcon’s flight, saying, “When we develop a motor strong enough, that will be the shape of an airplane.” As aeronautic design idealised the falcon’s form, its precision targeting and quick, clean strikes were seen as source material for an elevated form of killing. This logic would eventually take flight from the bird itself, becoming a foundational pillar of military ethics today. After all, the drone’s ‘surgical striking’ abilities are part of why it’s celebrated as a supposedly more ethical weapon.
But surely the only ethical killing would be euthanasia. There is such a thing as too efficient, and the rise of machines that see, think, and kill better than humans engenders a particular anxiety: that systems of technology are spiralling beyond human control, even — especially — as they manage human lives. To neutralise this new and unparalleled dread, what’s left to do but to turn to a deeper one — to the primordial fear of the wild?
“A lesson common to history, and a truism of capitalism: When humans are motivated by power, they compromise survival, while nature, driven only by an impulse towards survival, manages to retain its power,” writes Ayesha Siddiqi, Instagramming a golden eagle snatching a renegade consumer drone out of the sky during a training exercise. The birds were drafted by French and Dutch police as an anti-drone force, as the unruliness of instinct, for now, overrides regimented control. “I don’t care about power, I care about survival, and because I’m not afraid of dying I care about your survival more than mine. Which makes me a bad person, but a good animal.”
In search of signs of life, Angst II’s viewers roam the vast hall, circling the bone-white spiral staircases that form a panopticon in triplicate, brushing past the white leather punching bags dangling from the rafters, surfaces decorated with drawings of enthusiastic fellatio. The performers, in between action, stay occupied with being themselves. They bend and stretch, or flop together, silently commiserating or checking their phones. (“Hold a pose until you are bored with it,” Imhof instructs them, pre-performance.) Bursts of activity seem spontaneous, as sudden as birdsong: an arm wielding a baseball bat is wrapped around another neck; someone is shaved by a double-edged razor; the tightrope walker, light-footed in spite of metaphor, once again walks the line ratcheted taut across the room.
“The urgent sense that we are doing something, that something is happening, temporarily overrides the idleness at its core,” writes Alison Hugill of the performance. “The labour generated in this piece represents a means without end, which — in a capitalist society where value-producing, waged work dominates — might be the most unnerving kind.”
Heightened observation both makes and breaks idleness. In her short story collection, When Watched, Leopoldine Core sees time fattened by the ennui of her female protagonists. “She thinks that it isn’t true what people say about time, that it’s fast. Because time has felt fat to her. Every minute has been like a steak passing slowly through space. And she is tired. Tired of wading through the lard of her lifetime, the minutes and the hours,” she writes in the story ‘Chubby Minutes’. But the hours spent outside of cycles of production — some stories span weeks of unemployment, while others conclude in the time it takes to burn a joint down to its cherry — still fester. Optimistic escape routes offer only snatches of grace; otherwise, Imhof’s manifold theme of angst, encompassing its adolescent-Anglo connotations as well its heavier Germanic foundations, pervades.
Sex is famously thwarted by angst; anxiety is a boner-kill; yet desire thrives on doing nothing. When watching, minutiae take on monumental significance. Newer tics, like the downward glance at an iPhone or a bouncer’s approving beckon, are choreographed together with a longer history of slouching toward repose. Above the action, the drone lingers on the slack loop of its own flight, hovering like a wallflower tightening its fist around a sweaty drink. An unwelcome guest, it’s entertained nonetheless. Says one reviewer, “the performance-as-warzone,” and one can see the connection to the military drone’s persistent leer, waiting for a quarry’s telltale gestures to unwittingly signal a strike. But it’s all too murky for direct analogy. Instead, human and non-human actors perform vibes like “like layers, on top of one another, like applying oil paint on a surface.”
Fear can be hot, so long as the body’s protected. “Privilege makes you reckless,” and when reviewers write “it’s not meant to be interpreted or decoded because it’s not really about language,” there’s an assumption that language is something to opt-out of. Sliding from fleeting to art-historical, the performance is never brute, and so never brutally argues about whose body language is plumbed for a death-sentence. See the exhibition from a satellite view — zoom out of exhibition hall, out of city, out of country — to the performance’s dead-cold register on the scale of relative tensions. Nihilism is easy when there’s nothing at risk, and beyond its treacle-drip seduction, Angst II’s static glory is a monument to what’s pursued under safety — the suburban delinquency of every overgrown teen.
4 Diedrichsen, Dietrich and Anselm Francke. The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside. Sternberg Press: Berlin-New York. 2013.
5 Austra. “Spellwork.” Feel It Break.Domino Records, 2011.
7 Baudrillard, Jean. Seduction.New World Perspectives: Montreal, 1990. p. 2.
8 Jay, Mike. “Don’t Fight Sober.” The London Review of Books, Vol. 39 No. 1. 5 January 2017.
10 Duncan, Fiona. “Shit Just Got Real.” Alldayeveryday. 2016.
13 G.P. Dementiev, The Gyrfalcon. Moscow, 1960.
14 Macdonald, Helen. “Military Falcons.” Memory Maps. University of Essex Centre for Creative Writing. Online.
18 Hugill, Alison. “The instagrammable angst of Anne Imhof.” Momus. 5 October 2016. Online.
19 Core, Leopoldine. When Watched. Penguin Books: London, 2016.
20 Ulrich Obrist, Hans. “Choreographed Layers: Anne Imhof.” Mousse Issue 54, Summer 2016.
21 Laidlaw, Katherine. “A Place of Absorption.” Hazlitt. 16 March 2017.
22 Twerdy, Saelan. “Morbid Symptoms: In Search of the Post-Contemporary at the 2016 Montreal Biennial.” Momus.
Alex Quicho is a writer whose essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in The White Review, Art Review, Canadian Art, Real Life, Adult, The Puritan, Ocula, Broadly, and more. Her book on drones in contemporary art will be published by Zero Books in 2019.