A Discourse on Prototyping, War Crimes and Artistic Practice

Sach Catts

The prototype and the work of art share connotations of invention. I want to explore the prototype (and the practice of prototyping) as an epistemological model for understanding artistic practice and cultural representation more broadly.

A prototype is an attempt at materialising an idea, the manifestation of a conceptual form as phenomena. It exists to inform an understanding of the concept rather than define it. (For the purposes of this discussion, the ‘prototype’ is framed with reference to the design of objects). In the process of invention, a product begins as an idea, an abstraction in the creator’s mind, a hypothesis, ‘on paper’. In this state it exists only as speculative potential. A prototype is produced to see how the design functions in reality, whether it concurs with its abstract counterpart.

The idea and the prototype are in dialogue. The idea tells the prototype what it is meant to do. The prototype tells the idea what it actually does. The idea may change shape as a result of this feedback. The prototype is remanifested in response and the conversation continues. The design process is completed once the idea and the prototype are in agreement, the conversation ends (the design is finalised, ‘put into production’) and they rest in equilibrium.

The prototype allows a design to be understood in an alternate modality. It is a representation intended to develop discourse. The mass media image performs a similar role. It is a representation of an event that informs discourse around it. It provokes inquiry. The photographs that documented prisoner abuse by military police at Abu Ghraib prison are a case in point. The Iraq War and the broader War on Terror existed as ideas in the mind of the global media audience as much as real incursions into time and space. The images of bruised, hooded, naked Iraqis dramatically changed the war as an idea. (It quickly went from a good one to a bad one.) Just as the prototype responds to and re-informs the design concept and therefore the manifestations of it that follow, the Abu Ghraib photos shifted the public understanding of the war and the media representations the proceeded them. With a nod to Baudrillard, the images allowed the abuse to exist.

In comparison, the Dasht-i-Leili massacre remains a fiction; unrepresented, invisible and (at best) hypothetical. Here’s the thrust of the story.

In 2001, in the early stages of the war in Afghanistan, many Taliban fighters were surrendering in the face of their regime’s immanent defeat. Northern Alliance troops, under the supervision of United States personnel, loaded two thousand of the surrendered Taliban into shipping containers. The containers were sealed and loaded onto trucks. They were driven across the Afghan desert for three days. When their captives began clamouring for air and water the soldiers fired on the containers “in order to make holes for the air to get in.”1 Witnesses in villages along the convoy’s route described a container resembling a colander with blood spouting from the bullet holes. The massacre stands as the “most serious war crime” of the campaign.2

To date no documentary image has emerged of the event. Milica Tomic’s Container project began as an attempt to “create the non-existing photograph”.3 The process was one of production design; prototyping with the brief of synthesising an artefact – the gunshot riddled shipping container. This process is undertaken anew each time the work is exhibited. Each hole documents two acts of violence performed on a shipping container. Each Container evokes both the acts of shooting in Afghanistan and the act of shooting involved in the work’s production. The artwork is thus a function and representation of the conditions under which both violences are commissioned and committed.

Milica Tomic, Container, (2004-2011)

Consider a hypothetical extract from the artist’s internal monologue: ‘I want a container with bullet holes in it. I need to get a container. I need to get someone to shoot at the container. Getting the container is easy. Getting someone to shoot at it is less so.’ In Belgrade Tomic found a “shooting service”, offered by a police and army personnel gun club, to perform the act. In Sydney the only willing gunmen were kangaroo hunters, (commonly referred to as ‘roo shooters’). The work’s performance in Belgrade by members of national agencies (the police and army) is a closer re-enactment of the original massacre by US backed Northern Alliance soldiers. The use of private contractors in Sydney allowed the work to engage with the broader conditions of contemporary global conflict. Just as the US Defence Department outsourced defence security to XE Services LLC (formerly Blackwater), in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tomic had to contract out the act of violence she sought to perform.

Container, video still, Belgrade, 2004

Tomic, by way of documentation, implicates the process of production in the discursive fabric of the artwork. A prototype exists not only to understand the function but also to work out how to make it under the relevant conditions. The design is only functional once it is manufactured.  A method is tested to see whether it can produce the desired outcome. Like the aforementioned idea and object, process acts discursively.

Container, Sydney, 2006

The dialogue with process in Tomic’s work that permits comparison with design prototyping is true of all artistic practice. The artist’s conceptualisation of the work is constantly re-informed and re-determined as they make it. The prototyping model falls down at the end, or lack thereof. The design reaches equilibrium and goes into production. The artist and their work never do.

1. Milica Tomic, “Container”: Milica Tomic, http://milicatomic.wordpress.com/works/container/ (accessed 4/03/2014)
2. Scott Horton, “Dasht-e-Leili, Ten Years Later”: No Comment blog, Harper’s Magazine, December 13, 2011, http://harpers.org/blog/2011/12/dasht-e-leili-ten-years-later/ (accessed 4/03/2014)
3. Tomic, op. cit.

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