Sunday, July 05, 2009

Simulating The Air Disaster

A year ago in Source magazine I discovered some incredible photos by Richard Mosse of aircraft in pieces, on fire and otherwise not as we'd wish to see them. It turns out that many of these are not vehicles but rather full-size mock-ups, used to practice emergency procedures such as dousing fires and rapid escapes. These scenes immediately bring to mind the virtual accidents of which Virilio wrote, in his articles on military space, speed and politics.

"One exposes the accident in order not to be exposed to the accident" said Virilio in the interview Cyberwar, God And Television. Accident preparation enables us to view the accident as just another item on the agenda; the accident becomes an occurrence in the world that we are trained to deal with. It is no longer unexpected and intrusive, no longer an accident at all, in fact. The simulated air crash transforms the actual air crash into a normative event.

Which it is. As Virilio would have it, the invention of the car was the invention of the car crash. The invention of the aeroplane was the invention of the air crash. Yet we view these two forms of the accident completely differently. Thousands die in carnage on the streets and we don't blink an eye. We see the petrol stains, skid marks and shattered glass on the highway and worry only if it will delay our travel. Whereas a single aircraft going down in the ocean instigates a torrent of media activity, apologies, investigations and accusations.

It's not just the scale of the "disaster" that makes it noteworthy. It is as though this was an accident of an entirely different kind, an psychic fissure which plays into our ancestral memories of falling and loss. They were cut off. All power was lost. There was no signal. The plane fell to the ocean. They knew they were about to die. Airspeed was lost. The aircraft broke up in the air.

This accident was fated as long ago as Icarus. It's poetic justice.

The images in Mosse's Airside series are worth viewing from start to finish. A few are banal or underwhelming. But in general they are highly successful; the cumulative effect is unsettling. Consistently shot in wide angle (let me guess 18-24mm) they approach their subjects from a 45 degree angle, as though attempting to expose the full dimensionality of the subject. This could be a simple expedient to present as much information as possible in the frame. But I see it as an attempt to heighten drama, especially as perspective distortion is prominent in some shots. Burning fuselages and displaced nose sections loom out at us like characters in some scripted drama, which is entirely the case. It's tragedy, Greek style.

Imagine how different these shots would have been if composed side-on to their subjects. A distance would open up between the forms and us. The plane of the camera would be prominently inserted into the architectonic space, an absence between object and viewer. Without the additional perspective clues, some of the shapes would become ambiguous; we would need to work harder to decode the images. Though less gripping and immediate, this approach, through its austere formalism, would highlight the process of photography itself.

That's the approach I'd have taken. The accident of photography, the freezing of time into arbitrarily imposed slices, would become the process on display. No need for dramatic devices.

Though I commend Mosse on his approach, it seems a little too fly-by-wire.


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