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

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder