Sirens and Surveillance, Performance and Power – Grasso’s Silent Movie


Laurent Grasso – Silent Movie

Every year since I can recall, they’ve played the public warning system air raid sirens on the 15th of September (Civil Defence Day). They also play it on 15 February as that is Total Defence Day and also when the Japanese invaded Singapore during World War II. I’m not sure why 15th September was picked to be “Civil Defence Day” but it has always seemed suitable as a sort of birthday bell of sorts. I always thought it was quite special to have some island-wide sounds to look forward to on my birthday.

This year I am in Paris on my birthday, but I still got to hear the siren as I asked my friends back in SIngapore to record it for me and a number of them kindly obliged. It was awesome, because the places where different people had recorded it all sounded so different: some sounded like they were living in the middle of nature with insects all around, whereas others sounded like they were next to traffic. And in the midst of all the different landscape sounds, there was the same steady cry of the air raid warning siren. It can be easy to forget that the chiming sirens’ real purpose is to be a test of the air raid sirens and public warning system in Singapore; a monthly chime that resembles a charming little church bell plays on the first day of each month and I am sure that many think it is a church bell – but it is actually the testing of the public warning systems.

I will confess that there is very little need to “sell” the idea of civil defence to me; my father had been a naval officer and he had always talked about the importance of various strategic outposts as surveillance or radar stations that would be Singapore’s eyes out at sea, and which would allow one to “safeguard” one’s shoreline by watching it closely. So if you asked me, I would be inclined to agree that everything within one’s own capacity ought to be done to ensure the safety and security of one’s own home, even if this translated into keeping a close eye on all of the movements in international waters around Singapore. After all, if you did not preemptively collect and monitor this data or information, then how would one truly understand what was really going on?

When me and another friend did a surveillance camera performance some years back with a public webcam that pointed at a walkway along Wisma Atria (a public walkway that no longer exists today), I was excited by the fact that someone I wouldn’t know could also be watching this. I google every single thing. I expect to be able to search and scour every piece of information and for the same to be said of the information I am putting out (although, in reality, i do realize not everyone is so inclined to do so, so its safe to say that probably no one is obsessively googling me now – but they could be! and I could be obsessively googling for something else too… and you would not know).

For this reason, I was quite attracted to Laurent Grasso’s work. Especially Silent Movie, which shows the different surveillance points and deserted military installations on the coast of Spain. At first, one is more impressed by the spectacular view of the coastline, craggy rocks and scenic outcroppings from which one can see the sun glittering in the sea. The shots themselves are intentionally long and ponderous, and with nothing else to look at besides the scenery, one eventually stares at it until a hint of the installation reveals itself. Like a submarine sailing past. Or that the camera is on top of a big gun. Or that the curious building in the distance is not just any building but a military outpost.

The military fortifications embedded into the coast were made to be visible to those approaching the coast, and in a way, their visibility could be more important than their functionality, for we are shown how their strategic viewpoints provide an overview of the coastline. Although the military installations are now seemingly disused and empty, the physical presence of the military architectures still suggests to the observer that he is being watched; like Bentham’s Panopticon.

It is a bit like the big (and slightly ostentatious) mobile column of brand new armoured vehicles, battle tanks, and military equipment that occurs every five years at the National Day Parade in Singapore and then makes an epic tour around the different neighborhoods of Singapore. Are ordinary Singaporeans really interested in looking at our military’s numerous tanks and armoured vehicles? Maybe they are interested in it, but certainly these shows of power aren’t just for Singaporeans but it is also a public performance and display of heavy military equipment that is meant for our foreign neighbors to see.

Singapore’s defense expenditure will constitute almost 25 percent of government spending in 2012, with Singapore Budget 2012 reporting that expected total expenditure by Ministry of Defence “is projected to be $12.28 billion. This makes Singapore’s defense budget the largest in the Southeast asian region. There is also a well-known and established military manufacturing sector in Singapore and Singapore-made rifles, anti-tank weaponry, warships, etc,. are also exported to other armies. For example, rather than purchasing off-the-shelf guns that would not be as suitable for smaller asian people and would have high maintenance costs, they instead developed and produced the SAR 21 (Singapore Assault Rifle 21) to fit asian physiques and over time also produced new models which improved on various design weaknesses that were commonly found in other assault rifles. Nearly ever able-bodied male in Singapore will at one time or another be conscripted into the military. Singapore also makes it into the GMI (Global Militarisation Index) at 2nd place; in an index calculated by “the comparison of a country’s military expenditure with its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and its health expenditure”.

On the significance of the Militarisation index:

In many countries, excessive militarization hinders the necessary structural change of the economic and social framework conditions and enforces development deficits in its industry and agriculture. On the other hand, a low degree of militarization can also be problematic and thus hinder development as it can point to fundamental deficits in the security sector. A weak or not functioning security sector cannot prevent violence and conflicts which negatively affect the population and its development as it cannot successfully enforce and uphold a monopoly of violence. One result is often fragile and weak states in which economic growth and development cannot prosper.

Power is a performance which must have an audience. A performance could consist of just people watching each other to see what each other would do. I don’t quite buy it when people say they perform for no one, or make works without regard to who will see it. But I suppose that is why interaction is important for me in my own work.

Abrupt end to post: Today the sun is great and I am going out for a walk.