| Is there
a biographical side to the Unbombing project?
The immediate inspiration came from my first visit to Japan, in 1995. I was
picked up at the Narita airport by a hostess, an attractive lady
who accompanied me to the campus of Keio University on the other
side of Tokyo. As we drove through the city, I didn't see a single
old building. You know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but you don't
realize that Tokyo was bombarded and burned to the ground. I was
overwhelmed by a sense of shame because I had not known this. It
reminded me of my travels through Germany after the war, in the
early 1960s, and how those cities had been stripped of their soul.
Often they had been set ablaze from the air - Hamburg, Berlin, Dortmund.
Take Würzburg or Nuremberg, cities that were reconstructed,
with concrete structures covered in authentic cladding and topped
with wooden roofs as a result. Another detail is that during my
early childhood I stayed with my grandmother, who lived on the Laan
van Nieuw Oost-Indë in The Hague. Across the street lay the
Bezuidenhout, which the RAF had bombarded by mistake; it remained
in ruins for years and I used to play there. This is precisely where
all those new office buildings now stand. And naturally you can
also draw a connection to my later involvement with urban activism.
The tabula rasa that bombardments provide mostly coincides with the modernist approach
to urban planning of CIAM/Charte d'Athènes and architects
like Le Corbusier, who thought it was marvellous that entire cities
had been razed, because they could come up with projects that would
not otherwise have been possible. Just think of Mainz, where Marcel
Lods, during the first years of post-war French occupation, comes
up with a plan in the spirit of the Charte d'Athènes that
virtually rewrites the entire pre-existing urban planning structure
- the plan is ultimately not implemented - but also of Rotterdam,
with its Lijnbaan, where nothing recalls the past and the high-rise
housing estates stand in orderly to catch the maximum amount of
light, in accordance with the CIAM doctrine: light, air and space.
Amsterdam is a separate case - it was hardly bombarded from the
air, but it is often said that a bombardment from within took place.
If you look at the map of the demolition of houses during the famine
winter of '44-'45 due to the firewood shortage, you can see that
it coincides exactly with the Jewish quarter and with later reconstruction
plans involving motorways, office buildings and the metro; at the
time there was no talk of restoring old structures yet. The battle
against the construction of the metro through the Nieuwmarkt quarter
came in the wake of the deportation of the Jewish population.
When you're building a database like this,
are you also trying to evade the moral distinctions between bombardments
in a 'good' or 'bad' cause?
Their greatest common denominator is remoteness, literally and figuratively.
These days you can trace a Hamas leader using a mobile phone and
take him out - a matter of transmitting spatial co-ordinates to
a guided missile. Before, however, it was primarily a question of
remoteness in terms of height. The higher you could fly, the smaller
the chance that you would be shot down, since from the very beginning
air attacks and anti-aircraft artillery were in competition.
I collect eyewitness accounts from victims as well as attackers. I just read
a pilot's report from World War I which notes that during certain
missions in bad weather, above the clouds, bombs were dropped blindly.
You can imagine the sort of 'collateral damage' this must have caused,
or how terrorized the cows must have been.
The aim of Unbombing
is to show that compassion for victims has vanished, and to give
them a voice once again. This violence especially emerges in the
language. All this equipment, all those permits - contracts have
to be signed, factories built to make planes and missiles; there
have to be explosives, maps, targets - in short a whole carry-on
to make bombing possible. What actually happens has to be camouflaged
within all of this organization. The fact that it is about attacking
people and their living environment, that military and civilian
targets are barely, if at all, distinguishable, is buried under
a layer of military jargon. In consultations with politicians and
at press briefings the potential and the eventual victims of this
are hardly visible, if at all. To this very day, at the Imperial
War Museum in London, only a single display notes the thousands
of bombardments of German cities, and then only in terms of 'economic
targets', while the Blitz on London and other cities is dramatized
with a genuine civilian air-raid shelter, which shakes and rattles
and in which - thanks to an ingenious device - you can even smell
fire. And we're talking about at least half a million bombing fatalities
on the German side and forty to fifty thousand on the British side.
I recently found photos of air force operations during the Suez
crisis in 1956. In the entire book there was not a single word about
civilian casualties. If you look more closely at some aerial photos,
you could see that people lived right next to that railroad station,
airport or military encampment.
World War I is often
seen as a trench war, but at the same time the first experiments
with air warfare were carried out then; cities like Cologne, Trier,
Saarbrücken and Mainz were regularly bombarded - an eye for an eye
- after all, the Germans flew over London, Antwerp, Liège
and Paris with their Zeppelins, and when this proved ineffective,
with the feared first heavy 'bombers', the Gothas.
The conquest 'of' the airspace from the very beginning also means a battle
'for' the airspace, and by extension for those that rule the land.
It was about a lot more than 'dogfights' by heroic 'aces'. The old
battlefield with forts and trenches was obsolete. The age of armies
fighting each other was over. The entire population would be turned
into 'combatants'. Military strategists, like the Italian general
Douhet (1869-1930) in 1923, called for striking the vital centres
of a nation, 'exposing the soft core', breaking the will of the
people by conquering the enemy airspace and bombarding cities. If
a government refused to capitulate, the populace would at the very
least revolt against their government, in order to make the terror
bombardments - 'strategic bombardments' in military jargon - stop.
This doctrine was adopted by, among others, Mitchell (1879-1936),
the father of the US Air Force, and also influenced RAF pioneer
Trenchard (1873-1956) and continues to apply to this day. The city
can turn into a battlefield at any moment. Whether this works is
another matter. There was no rebellion by Japanese workers or the
middle class against the Hirohito regime during the heavy bombardments
of cities in 1945 - preceding Hiroshima and Nagasaki - and we saw
the same thing in Yugoslavia in 1999, when the NATO bombardments
in fact created solidarity around Milosevic. Bombardments of civilians
has an adverse effect, and yet they are still carried out - every
day you can see the reverse psychological effect of air attacks,
be it in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine.
power, the 'big stick policy', once based on gunships, is now primarily
based on the air force. Practising terrorism in the name of anti-terrorism
is wholly accepted. I am trying to offer an humanist point of view,
to balance ends and means. Ultimately it is always about people.
I recently found a contemporary protest book about large-scale Japanese
bombardments of Chinese cities in 1937. Some people also still remember
the Italian incendiary and gas bombs dropped on Ethiopia in this
period. The Americans, at the time - before they entered World War
II - found this 'barbaric', but a few years later they would
be doing the same, and worse.
a project that essentially can never be finished. Nor can I do this
project alone - it's too wide-ranging. I am developing a methodology
- not just for this project, incidentally - by which participants
can collect, input, classify and comment on data. The medium of
the Internet seems the obvious solution. I would prefer to see it
as a growing process, in which Unbombing can travel from
city to city, with the 'virtual' component balanced by very material
For other projects you developed very tactile
interactive interfaces. Do you intend to do the same for Unbombing?
I want to use traditional
steel desks with empty sliding drawers (although now, with computers,
drawers under desks are disappearing). The whole desk surface is
a screen, and as the drawers glide from shut to open you can see
the many thousands of bombardments since 1911 unfold. The desk as
interface symbolizes the remoteness of war planning. In my Unbombing
the World database, I've recorded over a thousand cities, villages
or areas (this is just the number of places not the number of air
raids). In this number of one thousand I count London only
once, although it has been attacked many times, both in the First
and Second World Wars, starting with Zeppelins and finally with
V2 rockets. The inhabitants of Kabul have known air attacks since
1919, when the British were trying to bring the area under control,
and subsequently it has been bombarded by Russians, warlords fighting
one another, and the Americans and their partners from 1978 to 2001.
My current rough estimate of the total number of fatalities from
air bombardments and rocket attacks now stands at more than a million
deaths (see full bombardment overview at imaginarymuseum.org/UBW/UBWdatabase.pdf),
including the fact that fatality figures from bombardments during
the Korea and Indochina wars are still difficult to estimate.
It is important to
put the fatality figures in the right perspective. I recently found
a book from the 1950s on the psychological effects of atomic warfare.
It includes statistics from German and Japanese cities during World
War II and how relative the reduction in population numbers actually
was. There is a temporary dip in the statistics line, but it is
quickly corrected. An influenza epidemic or SARS can have a much
graver effect, it seems. And yet we feel much greater revulsion
toward military violence.
It took a long time
for the military to recognize the limited effect of bombing with
only heavy explosives and move to systematically setting cities
on fire. The Americans first built a mock-up of a portion of a Japanese
city in order to test how it could best be set ablaze. Outrage about
the Italian, German and Japanese air bombardments could and can
be expressed without difficulty. Only a few during the war dared
to condemn the fire bombing of German and Japanese cities. The Anglican
bishop of Chichester, George Bell, spoke out in Parliament against
'indiscriminate bombing' and the American writer Lewis Mumford spoke
of an 'unconditional moral surrender to Hitler'. If you look into
the literature you find lawyers, ethicists, historians and sociologists
who did indeed put the mass bombardments of cities during World
War II and later in Korea and Indochina under the label of genocide,
such as Leo Kuper (1908-1994), a South African lawyer and sociologist
who fled to the United States. This brings you to the ongoing discussion
on the International Criminal Court and recent proposals for the
creation of a court not only for 'winners' but also for the 'losers'.
When you read the details
on Indochina and what was dropped there in the 1960s and 1970s -
I did demonstrate against the bombardments in Cambodia, in the early
1970s, but I had really no idea how extensive, dirty and vicious
that was. This is untouched history. Statistics are important in
this regard, in order to draw comparisons. There will be never be
exact numbers, a precise body count, and the estimates of 'the historical
camp' can vary widely, but the order of magnitude can be determined.
Japanese and German casualties are on the order of hundreds of thousands
of deaths. The Netherlands during World War II, in contrast, was
on the order of thousands. Many still see aerial bombardments as
a necessary evil and certainly not as 'genocide', because in their
estimation there was no intention to kill entire populations based
on religion or race. Others criticize the limitations of the definition
and seek new terms to describe these acts of terror, like the political
scientist and statistician Rummel with his term 'democide'...
How would you create a non-official memorial
and what constitutes the need for this, in your view?
You could erect a stone
engraved with the most evocative panoramic photo of a bombarded
city. Next to this would stand a cauldron with glowing charcoal
(symbolizing the burning city), from which you would take a piece
of coal. You could take a sheet of paper and make an impression,
a rubbing of this stone. You could also combine several cities or
fragments. Then there would be a washbasin in which you could wash
your hands 'in innocence'. A stone would be added in every city
to which the exhibition travels.
This idea comes from
the tradition of public monuments, which often originated from temporary
memorials temporarily erected by survivors and relatives, some of
which later received official status and evolved into local and
sometimes national memorials. Think of the Ossuarium in Verdun,
which is a memorial to the victims of trench warfare. In the small
Vietnamese city of Dien Bien Phu, where the French were defeated,
they are now reconstructing the trenches of the time in order to
attract tourists. Therefore there will also be a heroes' monument
to the people who died there. I see this sort of monuments as a
cartography of human violence. This also includes the absent monuments,
as in the case of Tokyo, which in fact has no public monument for
the more than one hundred thousand dead that fell during the American
bombardments in 1945.
We make choices as
to which monuments have meaning for us or not - and we even make
new ones. The important thing is how monuments can be explicated.
What interests me is whether you can make a monument in which you
make room for opposing views of what happened. Until now monuments
have been mostly national stories that provide only one viewpoint.
What surprises me is the huge number of monuments and statues that
were designed but never built, memorials that were made but never
erected, or erected only to be taken down again. In the Netherlands,
for instance, you find no monuments to the Batavian Republic that
emerged from the Patriot Movement at the end of the eighteenth century.
Yet there was an Italian sculptor who made one. A remnant of that
monument represents one of the leaders, Joan Derk van der Cappelen
tot den Pol, and still stands in a garden in Rome. So after the
fall of the Dutch monarchy, a lorry can be dispatched to Rome to
pick up that statue and put it up after all.
How do you see the relationship between
virtual and material monuments? Am I right in thinking that you want
to add a stone portal to the Internet?
There are already thousands
of books on bombardments. So that's not the reason for doing this.
You always make choices. Everything is turned into fiction; you
can't avoid that. It always gets documented and preserved, romanticized
and dramatized, even if you think, like Adorno, that it should not
be made into poetry.
I want to make monuments
that exist beyond the unity of a single viewpoint. Just look at
Iraq - you see it happening there already. There are websites from
prominent news media on which you can read about and see how many
and which American soldiers have been killed. Fortunately there
are now also groups trying to do the same in terms of Iraqi civilians
You can be tempted to think that as such documentation efforts are
made, the number of victims is also shrinking. But then you suddenly
get the genocide in Ruanda and this is no longer the case. This
was killing with kitchen knives, facilitated by interactive radio.
These were active listeners indeed, and we can expect more of the
same. It begs the question whether genocide is something that is
only initiated and committed by evil politicians and statesmen,
as some academics claim.
What my projects can
bring about is placing data in a better perspective. People often
have a moral problem at the start. They cannot or refuse to make
a distinction between 5,000 and 500,000 dead; some numbers seem
to be beyond comprehension. I say you have to try. Huge numbers
can always be broken down into smaller units in which a multitude
of stories lie. Unlike the Spielberg archive (http://www.vhf.org), in which everything is cast
in a single format, I place a high value on a variety of viewpoints
and opinions, and a variety of sources. The Unbombing project
includes texts by military planners, pilots' logbooks, attackers
as well as defenders, memories of those who were bombarded, in the
form of autobiographies, letters, interviews, schoolchildren's essays,
and so forth, with links to original documents and the places where
these can be found. The Spielberg archive contains set questionnaires,
video interviews with Holocaust survivors conducted according to
a set protocol - a sort of 'Legoization' of history. I do not question
the therapeutic effect of the Spielberg method - it is primarily
useful for the survivors and relatives. My approach looks more at
the planners, the attackers and the victims of bombardments, the
response of urban planners, and lets divergent and opposing viewpoints
stand alongside one another, without drawing conclusions. Of course
there is also a process of selection, but I hope that methods can
be found to permit the choosing of material by many participants
from differing positions and viewpoints. If you just search on the
Internet for the words Dresden and Hiroshima, you find numerous
pages filled with lively debates and highly divergent views. The
visitor or user of the Unbombing project is not confronted
with certainties, but rather made to doubt things. They are stimulated
to come to their own insights.
In many of your projects you use the roll
as a medium, in which the user, on paper or on a screen, scrolls back
and forth along a panorama of Photoshopped images flowing into one
When the Internet started
out the idea of vertical scrolling, the rotulus, played a
significant role. Many web designs are based on pages, yet a lot
of information is presented by flipping through windows. Horizontal
scrolling never caught on, because it was considered awkward and
the software seemed unsuited for it. This does play a role for text
in our writing, because your eye has to jump from the end of a horizontal
line to the beginning of a new one, but this is not true of images.
You should not break up text in columns that are too wide, but images
have hardly any such restrictions. Sadly images are still treated
as illustrations for text - the other way round is also possible.
These days I mostly
use digital scrolls in lectures, but I have also used paper scrolls
with a camera set up above. In an installation on shamanism for
the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam in 1997 there are physical scrolls
with handles in a wooden cabinet as well as digital scrolls projected
onto a drum head. They were already in the Museum of Revolution
in 1989 as well. At the time they were film projectors with a roll
of images in a loop showing a series of revolutionary monuments.
The use of scrolls as information carrier is as old as humanity itself; natural
materials, like tree bark, cactus leaves or papyrus, were hammered
and pasted together and served as bearers of images and writing
characters. This is one of the things I show in my Panorama
of Pre-Cinematic Principles for the 'Future Cinema' exhibition
The moral of this story is that 'new media' are not all that new
and have a long history. I also want to show that inventions do
not appear out of thin air, but often consist of new combinations
of existing principles. Cinema, for instance, is the result of a
combination of scientific discoveries and 'bricolage'.
A few years ago, during the 'Next Five Minutes' media conference, I tried
to sum up 4,000 years of multimedia forms in a 40-minute performance
lecture, which sadly failed due to a lack of preparation and available
resources, but to this day I am interested in shadow play, spinning
tops, fireflies and spinning fire pots. People have known for a
long time that the eye is slow and makes up its own story out of
the movement of light. It's important to show the simplicity in
learning processes, how high tech and low tech relate to each other.
A historic example of the scroll is Trajan's Column in Rome, which tells of
the Romans' conquest and plundering of Dacia, the present-day Romania.
This is, as it were, a pole around which a scroll with a story in
pictures is wrapped. This pillar used to stand between two libraries,
one of which contained scrolls, volumina, and the other bound
paginated books, codices. You can also think of rock paintings,
murals and frescoes, from Mayan frescoes in Bonampak to medieval
church frescoes in Italy, Greek and Cambodian temple friezes, the
Parthenon and Angkor Wat. There are endless art history debates
about how you should read these. The viewer animates the image during
his stroll, just as the paintings on Greek or Mayan plates, vases
and bowls can be brought to life by turning them, bringing
the images in sequential view. Thinking in separate pages, leafing
through quickly, is a modern phenomenon. The continuous surface
of image and text was shattered at a certain point, in part because
in the Western printing process type and image had to be mounted
separately. The zigzag books still produced in Asia, based on wooden
blocks onto which both text and images are carved, offer a nice
middle course between bounded pages and scroll. In unrolling and
rolling up a scroll a panoramic surface comes into view, offering
an overview and assisting short-term memory. You can see where you're
coming from and where you're going. Both in the Roman picture story
on Trajan's column and in East Asian scrolls, you see separate scenes
made to flow into one another by their creators. The way we still
speak of 'a scene unfolding'. The scroll is a quintessential narrative
medium. The beauty of making scrolls is that you often start from
the image, which conjures up new associations through all sorts
of combinations. You might only later go looking for text to fit the
image, and by 'making arguments with images' you also arrive at
insights other than from the study of text alone.
When one thinks of new media one often thinks
of virtuality. In your work, by contrast, you put the emphasis on
media and memory as matter.
The eye and the ear
are being privileged over the senses of smell and touch. In the
ZKM in Karlsruhe you can see that during an exhibition like 'The
Future of Cinema', attention is devoted to the material and historical
aspects of media. Yet this does not happen as often as you would
like. At the Waag in Amsterdam, which calls itself the Society for
Old and New Media, I have yet to see old media represented, and
that also applies to V2 in Rotterdam, which is primarily imbued
with a futurist-oriented technophilia. It is a short-sighted view
of what 'new media' can be. You often see museums, when they want
to appear modern, resort to Disney-like or futuristic installations.
They fail to see how older principles, older forms of interface
could be integrated. In order to look forward, you have to be prepared
to look back.
My database, Ars Memoria
System, comes from the long tradition of the 'commonplace books',
florilegia, anthologies in which interesting fragments
from other books and writings were copied and arranged. These collections
of quotations, collections of 'commonplaces', 'loci communi', were a collective preservation and classification system of knowledge.
University libraries are now beginning to see the value of such
'commonplace books'. Until recently they were not taken seriously,
because they were not original works, but seemed to consist merely
of copied materials. I had an argument about this at the Institute
for Social History. It concerned whether certain newspaper-clipping
collections should be kept or not. These days these are often discarded
because the newspapers themselves are archived anyway. The value
of newspaper-clipping collections is not the information in the
clippings itself, but the connections a particular collector has
made among all these clippings, the personal way of arranging them
and the insights derived from this. What I now make are idiosyncratic
bibliographies and documentation collections; the standardised descriptions
and links need only be done by a small number of competent libraries,
and anyone can obtain this easily in this or that format from the
Internet. The important thing is the freedom to make fresh selections
and combinations out of the same sources - the 'ars combinatoria' along with the 'ars
memoria'. Many different pancakes can be made
from flour, eggs, milk and a pinch of salt.