Art review: Drone attack

A new exhibition raises uncomfortable questions about the modern way of waging war.

On the door of the gallery is the following warning: "You are likely to find some of the documentary images of bomb victims very distressing. Not suitable for children."

I sit down in front of a large projector screen. A video of low quality footage composed of photographs and amateur film plays. Running on a continuous loop, the only sound comes from the images featuring drones buzzing in the sky and the projector whirring behind me.
Part of Gaming in Waziristan, these images are by journalist Noor Behram. They form one part of the three-piece exhibition currently on display at the Beaconsfield gallery - its aim to draw attention to the unreported consequences of growing drone strikes in Pakistan and the Middle East by American forces.

Little is known about such military attacks waged by the U S in remote areas. They utilise the latest technology and are reported upon only sporadically. Often they are just a footnote in articles reporting military successes, for instance when a member of Al-Qaeda is killed. Flown by the U S military out of bases in America, they allow allied forces to attack barren areas where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are believed to take refuge. Keeping home casualties to a minimum, they use information from a network of CIA-employed spies in the area to find their targets.

On the screen: a still image of a child appears. He lies buried amongst rubble, killed after an American drone attack. At first you don't notice, you think it is a trick of the light, but the top of his head is missing. Looking again you see also his face is partially crumpled like a deflated basketball.
Of the 60 strikes Behram has managed to document in North and South Waziristan, 27 feature in the looped reel at the exhibit. His work goes beyond the official narrative on such attacks to show the horrific and hidden consequences of what is a new way of waging war.

Whereas traditionally one would see first hand the outcomes of one's actions whilst fighting, drones create a mode of combat in which the outcomes of deadly acts are dehumanised. Placing physical and emotional distance between actions and consequences, between the act of killing and the killed, they alter the nature of conflict. No longer does an American soldier need to be present on the battlefield, to look physically at their targets or see with their own eyes the outcomes of their deadly behaviour.

On the screen: A child, killed in a drone attack, lying in state. He is adorned with flowers.

Drones are, proponents argue, highly accurate and relatively safe ways of fighting a war, however information from reporters such as Behram contradict this. Civilians, not terrorists, are by far the heaviest casualties of drone attacks (Reprieve states that of the 2,490 people killed in Pakistan by U S drones since 2004, as many as 2,046 have been wholly innocent).

On the screen: a severed hand is held up before a group of people.

Even if one were to question the veracity of Behram's work (his pictures, the curator at Beaconsfield tells me, have not been authenticated) I would argue their truth is not essential to the impact of this exhibit. For what we should take from it is not necessarily a collection of facts, but rather a set of questions that need to be raised and ultimately answered; questions about how we should understand this new and even more inhuman way of warfare. A way of war that makes it possible to sit in a control room in the U S and kill a group of people in Waziristan one moment and go on your lunch break in a pleasant park the next.

Gaming In Waziristan runs at the Beaconsfield Gallery, London SE11 until 2nd September

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The cult of clean eating in a fast-food nation

In Britain, it used to be vulgar to comment on one’s food. Now, it’s a bit weird not to.

These are the top food trends that the British media predicted for 2016: seaweed, parsnip puddings and sprouted seeds. And yet what was the most popular recipe on BBC Good Food, the country’s biggest cooking site? Lemon drizzle cake. When it comes to the food that we eat, the gulf between fantasy and fact has never been wider.

A third of British children are overweight, yet from the pictures tagged as “kids’ food” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram you would think they lived on pumpkin muffins and raw breakfast cereal. The same site boasts 290,229 posts on #avocadotoast and a mere 7,219 for #baconbutty, but I would bet my best spiraliser that we eat more of the latter.

Food trends have always been the preserve of those wealthy enough to enjoy the luxury of choice. If social media had been around in the 18th century, the exotic pineapple would have been trending heavily even as the majority of Britons subsisted on bread and gruel. Yet rarely have these fads been so hard to ignore: right now, we are a society obsessed with our stomachs . . . or, at least, our eyes, given that these seem to do much of the consuming.

The average British adult spends five hours a week watching, reading about, browsing and posting about food – and just four cooking it. A record 14.8 million of us tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off – almost as many as saw England’s dismal performance against Iceland in last year’s Euros – yet the most commonly eaten meal in the UK is a sandwich. That conjures a depressing image of each one of us sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through endless pictures of kale smoothies and activated quinoa as we tuck in to a floppy BLT.

A nation in which it was once considered vulgar to comment on one’s food has turned into one where it’s a bit weird not to. The current feverish interest in all things culinary feels, I imagine, like the Sixties must have done after Britain discovered sex “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. And as with the sexual revolution and its fantasies of free love and cosmic joy through tantric chanting, perhaps the idea is more popular than the reality: increasingly, this endless parade of recipes cooked and meals eaten seems to be about more than the food itself.

While sex has (largely) thrown off its ancient shackles of judgement and shame, our diets are increasingly becoming their own morality tale. Once upon a time, “bad food” meant adulterated food – cheese dyed using lead, bread bleached with chalk – or perhaps cruel food, such as battery-farmed eggs. Occasionally someone who seemed to take too much pleasure in their meals might feel the weight of the country’s Protestant past, but wholesome food was generally seen as good rather than sinful.

Social media can’t be wholly to blame for the demonising of simple nourishment in the 21st century. Writing in the Observer last year, the philosopher Julian Baggini cited Salman Rushdie’s “naughty but nice” cream-cake advertising slogan from the Seventies as an early example; but “wicked” food was once a largely playful concept. Now, it is hard to find the humour in the modern idea of clean eating or, indeed, in its “dirty” dark side.

Clean eating, if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the torrent of smoothie bowls and bone broths pouring forth from screen, billboard and printed page in recent years, is a way of life (most adherents reject the word “diet”) with many rules – the Hemsley sisters’ “simple, mindful and intuitive” approach for “a long-term lifestyle change” takes up six pages of their bestselling recipe book Good + Simple. But there is little consensus among its advocates as to what these rules are.

Although clean eating is often described merely as a movement that champions minimally processed, “natural” foods, one of the few things that unites its various congregations is the need to eliminate what they deem to be unclean alternatives. Gluten is a popular target for dismissal, because it can be “hard to digest”; legumes are sometimes blamed for “bloating”. Cane sugar is definitely out, but consumption of dates and honey is actively encouraged, often served with a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter (but not peanut butter, because that “gives you cancer”).

Given the often spurious scientific grounds for these strictures (tomatoes are said to cause inflammation; dairy steals the calcium from your bones), it’s little wonder that clean eating stands accused of promoting what the food writer Bee Wilson described recently as a “twisted attitude to food”, valuing certain ingredients as pure and cleansing, while others come with an unwanted side order of guilt and anxiety.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming – and on social media, the crucible of the eat-clean craze, nothing is served in moderation. “Dirty” food, which revels in its own naughtiness, is the inevitable flip side of the clean-eating coin, a world where adherents compete to outdo each other in crimes against cookery. Online audiences encourage such extremes; they like their food, to misquote Longfellow, either very, very good or horrid. In short, a simple spag bol is never going to get as much attention on Twitter as an “Italian-style” beefburger, dripping with Bolognese sauce, drenched in Parmesan, and served between two slabs of deep-fried pasta (this does exist).

Such fantastical foods are fine online; as with pornography, the problem comes when they influence the way people eat in real life. Bee Wilson, who was subjected to a barrage of online abuse when she dared to question the thinking behind one clean-eating guru’s “philosophy” at last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, cites growing evidence of the dangers of clean eating from those working with people who suffers from eating disorders. One specialist in London told the Sunday Times in May that between 80 and 90 per cent of his patients were following so-called clean diets.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ­Oxford University study published last year in the journal Brain and Cognition explored the possibility that “exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger inhibitory cognitive processes such as self-restraint”. The researchers concluded that our brain has to make a great effort to resist temptation when looking at “food porn”, in order to “maintain a reasonably healthy weight”. And not everyone succeeds.

It remains to be seen whether this appetite for public displays of ingestion endures. I can’t imagine the world needs any more pictures of fried eggs but others disagree: 264 have been added to Instagram in the time it has taken me to write this piece.

Technology will decide – work is already under way on virtual-reality headsets that allow diners to eat one food while looking at an image of another. This is a significant development, as evidence suggests that changing the appearance of food can affect our perception of its taste and flavour.

It is possible to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, chowing down on a plate of steamed fish while gazing lasciviously at a bacon cheeseburger. Or we could just learn the old-fashioned art of moderation. Is there a hashtag for that?

Felicity Cloake writes the New Statesman’s food column

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times