The Work of Art in an Age of MECHANICAL DESTRUCTION

THE SPINNING WHEELS AND GEARS THAT DEFINED THE 20TH CENTURY IN BENJAMIN’S time have given way to the icy hum of computers and the static winking of fibre-optic communication. That which still turns is miniaturized. It’s only a truism that everything Benjamin predicted came true in his own lifetime; that was the cause of his own end. In Sarajevo, the assembly lines cranking out perfect replicas of the original VW golf have been stalled for years. Their repetitive noise was replaced not by the vibration of computers, but by the sound of an assembly line reproducing, in multiple digits, the type of mass-production murder only the human species is capable of.

* * *

IGMAN. THE FIRST SNOW OF WINTER HAS BLANKETED THE HUGE MOUNTAIN. CONVOYS of tractor-trailer trucks strain up the ice-covered dirt road, each propelled precariously by a single pair of wheels in chains. Along the ascending path, one of them has fallen on its side at the edge of steep drop. As night falls, the bullet-proof Land Rover (with UN plates and a red cross on each side) accillerates upwards, ambulance siren whining, past dark convoys and snow-covered trees. The tiny villages just visible in the fading light would be picturesque, if it wasn’t for the fact that no light is visible through “windows” made out of wood, not glass. My initial comparison — made to mysefl, through mud-spattered glass– is not entirely accurate. This is not dacha country outside Moscow. It is the damaged constellation of wooden structures orbiting Sarajevo, the most European of 20th century cities.

On the other side of the mountain, during the long descent into the city’s fish-bowl, the heavy traffic stalls in its tracks. Suddenly, there’s a pounding on the door. It’s a French “blue-helmet”, demanding to know if we have oxygen. Two French “peace-keepers” have been injured in an accident. The answer is negative. This is no ambulance; it’s a Soros taxi, and it daily makes takes the route over Igman to the outskirts of the ravaged city of Mostar, where it picks up people and supplies. In this case, the cargo is an expatriate American film-maker, his recently completed film, and two friends.

Although the Serbs have largely refrained from firing anti-aircraft cannon at the Sarajevo side of the Igman road for more than two weeks now, this — the only relatively open route into the city — has always been dangerous in equal part due to its nature as a dirt track on the side of a steep mountain. Only three months before, an armored car containing American diplomat Bob Frazer and others plunged into a ravine below Igman, killing everyone inside. To make a specific comparison, Igman is to Sararejevo what the ice-road over Lake Ladoga was to Leningrad during its siege.

War, I have always assumed, is like cancer. The white-blood count in the arteries of the Bosnian “peace process” has always been kept dangerously low. The distinction between the accidental and intentional has likewise been vague. Mostar had made the cancer analogy abundantly clear. On the Western, or Croatian side of the town, shops and cafes buzz with life. The streets are filled with reasonably well-dressed people going about their business, and although many buildings show the impact of rocket and mortar blasts, the life of the city continues. Closer to the river that divides the town, though, the damage inexorably increases — “peaking” finally in a red zone indistinguishible from Berlin, 1945. An entire kilometer of buildings in ruins presents an image of the total democracy of total destruction.

In this sense, totalitarianism and democracy are indistinguishible. Democracy allows all sides their bid; but the winner is always the one who musters the most power. Totalitarianism imposes the total logic of a total system on everybody. In this case, they are undifferentiated flip-sides at the front line of last year’s fighting between the Bosnian government and Croatian nationalists. The splintered buildings on the Bosnian side of the river contain all the information one needs to know about the lopsided balance of power that a UN-enforced arms embargo has imposed on the citizens of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The car makes its way past the accident site, vaguely visible through the mud covered bullet-proof glass. A hive of disturbed blue-helmets and stalled vehicles, harshly rimmed by floodlights. Below Igman, we thread through more blacked-out village streets, each with a small hand-lettered sign at the end: Sarajevo. The name, for the first time, has a direct immediacy to it. Suddenly, an up-ended Antonov jet juts out of a blackened depression, it’s tail a skewed crucifix. We are on airport runways. This is the border between Government-held Bosnia and the single, small gap in Serbian siege lines patrolled by the UN.

In practice, what this ostensibly open link in the chain around Sarajevo’s throat has meant is that, for the last three years, it was the United Nations which policed and enforced part of Sarajevo’s siege-lines. One of many — and not the least telling — of details comprising the morally devastating picture which has served to condemn the Western powers over the last four years. The French, in fact, were known to have turned spot-lights on desperate Sarajevans trying to make their way out, or back, across the airport — thus providing a handy target for the Serbian snipers all around. A French check-point now serves as the only formal entry into the city. Ahead, street-lights wink in the gloom. For more than a week now, a nominal supply of electrical power has pulsed through the city’s gradually reviving nerve-endings.

Driving in, for the second time I am reminded of Moscow — this time not dacha country but the bulk of the vast city itself. Huge, underlit apartment blocks loom ahead, flanking the main road to the center. In the gloom of the Bosnian capital, the damage to buildings is not yet apparent. It is the Soviet capital of the seventies in winter: sallow under a snow-blanket, devoid of neon, low in traffic. Moscow had always struck me as a city under sedation.

It’s Sunday night. We arrive at a building beside the river-bank, where a wall of sand-bags can’t hide a glow of light and warmth. The Obala Arts Center. Several people appear. Because of our one-day delay in coming over Igman, it is explained, my film Predictions of Fire has been re-scheduled for Monday. Above and behind us, somewhere, another film is being projected for a large crowd. After a round of drinks, Prle asks: You want to see it?

I hesitate: we’ve finally made it to Sarajevo. It seems, somehow… “Of course”, I say. Appropriate. Dregs of the century, blood at the bottom of the glass. We are ushered into a huge hall, packed with over a thousand silent Sarajevans, sitting in the dark. Across the expanse, a shifting blue glow defines distant projection machinery. A film flickers vividly on the huge screen. It is “Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf” by Leos Carax. The universe of the moving image unfolds again, expanding, ricocheting through the retna, creating it’s own logic. Fireworks flare across night-time Paris skies. They reflect in glittering waters of silver halide.

Juliette Binoche is water-skiing on the Seine.

* * *

THE CITY, RAVAGED FROM END TO END, IS EXHIBIT A IN THE MUSEUM OF MECHANICAL destruction. Encased within, the huge hall in which a thousand people watch the visions of French director Leos Carax. In the hills above, tenders of the assembly line of mechanical destruction man machinery designed to pound concrete, glass and human flesh into fragments and shards. Although their inverted economy has been suspended — nobody knows for how long — they are ready to resume pounding at any time. Watching TV in Ljubljana several months before, I saw a report from the city below. Children were being interviewed. “It’s up there, over the ridge,” explained one young girl. “It?” asked the interviewer. “What is?”

Another pause. The interviewer finally prompts: “Is a sniper a person or a thing?”

The girl hesitated. Thinking. “Both”, she answered. Beyond her, the hills, glinting on the TV screen. In the projection booth, now, here, another kind of machinery rattles, spinning celluloid through cog-wheels, re-constituting motion and time long since vanished from a Paris sound-stage.

Machinery of dis-assembly; machinery of re-assembly.

* * *

ALL IMAGES ARE POLITICAL IMAGES. ALL CULTURE IS PART OF A LARGER WAR. WE know these liberal truisms by heart. Still, if a trip to Sarajevo does anything, it makes the facts abundantly clear. In Moscow, prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin appears on television, joking along with the life-sized puppet of himself used in a program of political satire. A year earler — in a typically clumsy move — Yeltsin had tried to ban the same program. Now, in one stroke, Chernoyrdin earns millions of votes. Still, he is way behind in the polls. Simple answers gather charisma in Russia. Generals with two-syllable names offer visions of law and order. It is a process ominously familiar in the Balkans.

At the other end of the channel-changer, the cinders of Sarajevo’s state library are only the most obvious example of a concerted attempt by the Serbian nationalists ringing the city to destroy the culture of one of Europe’s oldest and most distinctive urban centers. Walking into the center of the library’s shell, I see that despite their best efforts, a perfect Islamic symmetry remains. And yet the building is an eerie echo of the destroyed Reichstag. The rubble on the ground, the shattered girders above, the smashed tinfoil which is actually steel, defining a vanished roof — all of it looks exactly like the building Anselm Kiefer depicted in one of his huge canvases (based on photographic documentation — silver halide reverting to pigment on canvas; transformed now, again, to raw reality, the materials of construction/destruction…).

In a 1993 essay called “Machines of Disorder”, Russian philosopher Valery Podoroga recalls passages from Albert Speers’ memoirs. The state’s Chief Architect had drawings made of Reich buildings in ruins. “The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that ‘bridge of tradition’ to future generations which Hitler was calling for. It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past… In Hitler’s entourage this drawing was regarded as blasphemous. That I could even conceive of a period of decline for the newly founded Reich destined to last a thousand years seemed outrageous to many of Hitler’s closest followers. But he himself accepted my ideas as logical and illuminating. He gave orders that in the future the important buildings of the Reich were to be erected in keeping with the principles of this ‘law of ruins.’”1

Surveying Sarajevo’s ruined buildings, one can see that Speer had a point. We’ve seen ruins, Reichstag style, before; this is why the shattered skyscrapers in “new” Sarajevo somehow have more “shock-power” than the library — this despite the evidently democratic distribution of barbarism throughout the encircled city. Looming like black shells over equally destroyed residential neighborhoods, the concrete and glass skyscrapers of modern Sarajevo are a stark definition of the death of post-modernism. If they are a premonition of the 21st Century, then it will be even more efficient than this one was at destroying utopia.

Meanwhile, the act of projecting a film in the largest hall of the city (in which homeless lovers sleep on a multi-million dollar replica of the Pont Neuf Bridge) becomes a decisive act in a larger drama (in which the city, which was supposed to expire gasping on it’s UN hospital cot, takes a limited but decisive turn for the better). Had the rapists and killers ringing the city triumphed, it would have made life easier for a whole lot of people. And not just those experts in criminal psychology cleaning their weapons and preparing statements for CNN in the hills above.

Instead, three years into their crime, the villagers of Pale take note via, TV BiH, of a major film festival in the city they are no longer welcome to visit.

Victory comes in various forms.

* * *

IN SARAJEVO, LIBERAL TRUISMS AND CONCEITS ARE UN-CEREMONIOUSLY SPUN ON their head and left there, legs sticking ludicrously in the air. In the old days, for example, it was clear that a man in camoflage fatigues and a scope rifle, wilfuly intent on the demise of his fellow human beings, was… well, bad. This went without saying. Certainly no good could come of this. My Quaker friends, among many others, had no doubt about it.

Welcome to the new times. Envision the following scenario. Your city, built across centuries under looming hills, is inexplicably surrounded by heavy artillary, troops and snipers. The artillary pounds. Exploding shells rain down, not for days or months, but for years. Snipers mow down women, men, children, old people. Electricity, heat and water are cut off. One by one buildings are reduced to rubble. One by one your friends — teachers, students, collegues, parents, children — disappear into the earth. Their funerals, too, are shelled. Women kidnapped from their homes across the republic are installed in hotels near the city, where they are systematically raped, then taken outside to be shot. The pounding of the artillary drives the cats and dogs of the city into various stages of nervous hysteria. Every pane of glass ever fitted to a window in the entire urban area is smashed to fragments. The price of one egg approaches the ten dollar mark.

Meanwhile intellectuals and politicians appear, as if by magical “beam-down” from the west, make statments under the TV lights, and depart from whence they came. Certain words — “mercy”, “humanity” — disappear from the dictionaries of the city. Burning pages of ancient manuscripts blow into the river from the flaming national library. Ten thousand people die (the figures are meticulously maintained on UN clipboards). Refugees flood in from vast tracts of countryside, where they have been methodically and permanently damaged, their nerves and personalities shattered by terror and murder — until finally there is no question about their signing away all property and cash on documents provided by their torturers.

Envision all this, and more. Run, if you can stand it, the scenario backwards and forwards through the projector. Gradually, we witness a highly unusual phenomenon. The bright liberal arts student — who has directed several plays, and who once had asperations to be a playwright — climbs into camoflage fatigues. The middle-aged ex-hippie, now serves the managing editor of a well-respected cinema theory journal, climbs into camoflage fatigues. The photographer — well-known for sensitive black and white portraits of local cultural figures — climbs into camoflage fatigues. They have only one goal: to end the destruction raining down on their city. Specifically, to put a stop to the lives of those trying to murder everyone still living below. These people will kill their tormentors with great satisfaction. If certain liberal notions (for example, the stigma surrounding the soldier with murder on his mind) have to be unceremoniously abandoned — it’s certainly not their concern. They’re living in an entirely different universe than the one that can give credence to such notions.

There it is, then, legs sticking ludicrously in the air. The death of Quakerism.

* * *

FILM STORY NUMBER ZERO. THE UNNAMED AMERICAN DIRECTOR AND FRIENDS HAVE been staying in a top-floor apartment maintained by Soros and the Obala Arts Center. The apartment itself is tended to by M., a good-natured refugee who barely escaped alive from a village in Eastern Bosnia. Like thousands of others, her family has disappeared in the terror. Although she still hasn’t given up hope, she appears to be the sole survivor. But M’s ordeal was not over. Less than a year after her narrow escape, she would loose a leg as well. It would be blasted away from the rest of her torso, and for the rest of her life, in the first of the so-called “marketplace massacres.” Still, for a second time, M. was lucky to escape with her life.

Despite her handicap and vanished family, M. climbs, with prosthetic leg, the seven floors from the street every day, displaying no signs of bitterness. In fact, like so many Sarajevans, she radiates a striking self-assurance and sense of humor.

Several days after the screening of his film, the unnamed American director is asked to give an interview for the Sarajevo film-theory magazine Sineast, which has already published three issues during wartime. He invites the two young journalists to the top-floor apartment. M. makes coffee for everyone — then vanishes with her slightly awkward movements in the direction of the hallway. The interview commences; three men, each in more-or-less respectible physical shape, discussing the great directors, the role of art an an indifferent universe, culture as part of a larger war, and the current dilemna of film-makers in an age of commercialism. Pretentiously, the director enjoys the attention. Pretentiously, the journalists ask erudite questions. Everything, actually, is as it should be: there is a film festival in town, after all.

Nobody notices any sounds coming from the direction of the hallway.

After more than an hour of discussion, fashonable dispair, and a modicum of hope, the tape recorder is finally turned off. M. has re-appeared, with her habitually good-natured smile. Outside, the light is fading on shattered buildings. The two journalists pack up their notes and vanish into the hallway. Only then does the director note that the bathtub — that ubiquitous Sarajevo water-reservoir, empty since the morning, is now — full. Of water. Large plastic water jugs stand beside it.

During the interview, M. has quietly hauled a hundred liters of water up seven flights of stairs.

Michael Benson
November 1995

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