Peter Whitehead and Terrorism


In April 2007, novelist and filmmaker Peter Whitehead was invited to the ICA to talk about some of the pop promo films he’d made in the sixties. His frenetically edited clips of Eric Burdon and World War II dive-bombers played on a kaleidoscopic programme of similarly themed film and video work by the likes of Gerard Malanga and Nam June Paik. Interviewed on stage after the screening, Whitehead patiently fielded the usual questions about his work with the Stones and Hendrix in a further display of the seemingly endless public appetite for nostalgic sixties anecdote. Towards the end of the session however, he was asked about his thoughts on contemporary film. As a director primarily associated with the sixties, perhaps the pivotal decade of the 20th century, who in his opinion did he feel was making interesting work in the 21st? Whitehead paused momentarily before announcing that the greatest film of the 21st century had in fact already been made. It had been made in New York on September 11, 2001 and it had been made by Osama Bin Laden. Heads shook and there were no more questions.

Whitehead was here recapitulating comments he had made a year earlier in ‘In the Beginning was the Image, Before the Beginning was the Avant-Garde’. This was an essay on the current status of avant-garde art written as the introduction for La Cinéma Critique (2010), a book on experimental film published by the Sorbonne. In it he argued that in the current cultural context, the terrorist has rendered the artist redundant having ‘learnt the tricks and gambits of Art’s Artifice’. Working from the basis that ‘the true purpose of the avant-garde’ is to ‘nurture (if not enact) acts of war […] a calculated violation of frigid sterile form’, Whitehead presents Bin Laden’s ‘cleverly contrived film of ‘Several Missile Planes’’ as a supreme example. The events of 9/11 and the widely disseminated matrix of footage are seen to be monumentally effective in creating a work that is ‘directly and belligerently dangerous’. Whitehead goes onto suggest that Bin Laden’s ‘legacy- his ‘film’’ should be called Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, a phrase that would have significant resonance for his own subsequent work.[i] He took it as the title for his 2007 novel which he then adapted into a full length film that recently premiered at the Viennale.
Terrorism as art. What to make of this? The icy response of the ICA audience indicates that the connection obviously doesn’t work as a joke. Is this uncomfortable juxtaposition intended as provocation or an expression of misanthropic delight? Whitehead is certainly no stranger to the former. As a filmmaker he’s best known for a series of documentaries, the most incendiary of which are Benefit of the Doubt (1967) an account of the Royal Shakespeare Company performing US, and The Fall (1969), an examination of the decline of the American protest movement. Benefit contains a sequence in which Glenda Jackson delivers a monologue begging for the horrors of the Vietnam War to be brought into polite English gardens. Similarly, The Fall presents the viewer with riots, police beatings and equally brutal performance art to suggest that violence is the inevitable outcome of initially peaceful protest.
Much of the critique in these films was directed towards the paralysis Whitehead saw as characterising mainstream responses to Vietnam; the public inability or unwillingness to adequately make sense of a seemingly distant conflict. His comments on Terrorism could be taken in the same spirit, a cultural wake-up call designed to trouble western complacency. The problem with this comparison is that 9/11 essentially fulfils the mid-sixties wish of Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company; one of the entanglements of American foreign policy is devastatingly realised in the domestic sphere. As such, a crucial difference emerges. The performance documented in Benefit shows the use of an art form – dramatic theatre – to galvanize political commitment. The elevation of the twin tower attacks to the level of art could be seen to offer the reverse of this stance. The act of aesthetising a physically traumatic event potentially erases its material implications and political hardwiring. This is difficult in the case of 9/11 as whilst the attack carried clear symbolic resonance as regards the conflict between two ideologies, the spectacular magnitude of the occurrence made it difficult to deny the ground-level consequences, most prominently the human cost. As musician Mark Manning observed in Collateral Damage (2002), when he first saw images of the burning towers, his initial experience of ‘an unholy, gleeful sense of karmic schadenfreude’ was quickly sobered by the ‘reality’ underpinning this shift of the ‘cosmic equilibrium’: ‘the firemen, the secretaries, the innocent families’.[ii]
Having highlighted these problematic factors however, it is important to reiterate Whitehead’s concern with the concept of the ‘avant-garde’. In his argument, this familiar term of artistic creativity and experimentation (which carries its own semantic echoes of attrition and warfare), signifies a mode of creative action that is at odds with the control mechanisms of late capitalism. He notes that currently, nothing can be called ‘art, avant-garde or otherwise, unless it appears on a seductive Technicolor screen or processed by seductive video machines’.[iii] Here Whitehead is outlining the cycle of recuperation that the Situationists observed in the operation of the spectacle: the dominance of commerce and the associated ability of the mass media to neutralise oppositional forms of expression by incorporating and imitating their imagery and technique. In response, a form of outflanking is advocated that involves the creation of ‘authentic art equal to the challenge, as powerful in its methodology as the brain-washing techniques exploited by the Media’. This for Whitehead constitutes Terrorism, a process of subterfuge that works to ‘expose the rules of the game being exploited by the beholders of the Institutionalised Barbaric’.[iv]
Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts directly enacts this strategy. The film draws upon the plot of the novel and the other two texts that make up Whitehead’s ‘Nohzone Trilogy’: Nature’s Child and Girl on the Train. MI6 agent Michael Schlieman is ‘assigned to Paris to infiltrate a cell of Eco-Terrorists planning a high level political assassination’.[v] The group’s leader, Maria Lenoir, is said to have been responsible for the death of two French agents and the only clues to her whereabouts lie in a series of seemingly cryptic e-mails. Realizing that the messages all refer to literature, film and philosophy, Schlieman is able to decode the allusions and determine that the group is active in Vienna. He relocates his operation to the city and begins to drift around the two circles of the Ringstrasse tram, haunting Maria and the other members of the cell.
On the basis of this synopsis, it would seem that Whitehead is working within the conventions of the detective and / or espionage thriller. The film certainly draws upon the language of these genres as it is structured around a narrative of investigation; makes use of a central voice over; contains numerous femme fatales and takes place within a foreboding urban environment. However, having established these signposts, Whitehead quickly moves away from their expected usage. The film as a whole is radically non-linear. Rather than depicting the terrorist actions that the voice over alludes to, the film’s imagery and on-screen quotations are arranged on the basis of their dissonant potential. Whitehead’s aim is not to move from uncertainty to certainty – as would be expected of the investigative narrative – but to produce meaning across the film’s 3 chapters as a consequence of the interference that occurs between his unexpected combinations of visual, audio and textual information.
This structure carries significance for Whitehead’s project at the level of both form and content. It can initially be seen as instrumental in communicating to the viewer the particularity of Schlieman’s subject position. Much of the film is conveyed from his point of view, a perspective which the references to Thomas DeQuincey suggest is characterised by an opium intensity. Specifically, the intention is for the character to mirror the figure of Tiriesias as he appears in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Tierisias is the perpetual spectator, detached from the events he observes but his presence is also that which unites and motivates the poem. Similarly, the substance of the film is what Schlieman sees, and as in Eliot’s text, all the women he is in dialogue with are essentially one woman: they are different facets of the eternally absent Maria that Schlieman projects onto those around him.[vi] The multiple associative links that the film establishes act as a record of this hallucinatory psychogeographical movement. As Schlieman’s idiosyncratic camera I/eye traverses the multiple circles of Vienna - the city of dreams, the Freudian unconscious and The Third Man – it creates unexpected synaptic connections across different artistic, philosophical and historical zones.
On a wider formal level, the application of this framework enables Whitehead to make reference to the operation of film as a medium insofar as it draws attention to the operation of montage, cinema’s hidden hand. The tension that Whitehead establishes between the film’s diegetic levels is instrumental in highlighting the extent to which cinematic verisimilitude depends upon their largely unnoticed synchronicity. It is as if he uses the film to explode a recognisable genre as a means to expose the devices that maintain a normative view of ‘reality’.
Jean Paulhan described a similar process of expression and critique in his book The Flowers of Tarbes (1941). Writing on the subject of ‘Terror’ in literature, Paulhan argued that it represented a tendency in literature opposed to ‘Rhetoric’. Describing Rhetoric as a rule-bound imperative that affords language communicative stability, Terror is offered as an engagement with ambiguity, a ‘continual aspiration towards originality’.[vii] From this perspective, the literary terrorist works within language with the aim of creative reinvention rather than working at the utilitarian level of ‘verbalism’. For Paulhan, one way of perpetrating this terror is by signposting Rhetoric, self consciously highlighting cliché and generic conventions as they appear in language.[viii] What we see with Whitehead is a comparable foregrounding action. In contrast to Benefit, with Terrorism Whitehead is not merely articulating what has previously gone unacknowledged but is pointing to some of the structures of repression that have conditioned the limits of what can be said.
At this point Whitehead’s formal experimentation can be connected to a wider cultural critique. The film repeatedly links its fictional terrorists to a real life event, the sinking of the Greenpeace ship ‘Rainbow Warrior’ in New Zealand 1985. The ship was attempting to disrupt nuclear testing in the area and was sunk by members of the French Secret Service, an act that resulted in the death of the Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira. For Whitehead this sabotage constitutes an act of State terrorism, institutionalised barbarism. It is indicative of the way in which violence and oppositional tactics are used on both sides of the imaginary moral divide between the establishment and the attacker. He notes that this type of correspondence is generally obscured by the State’s cultivation of the fear of Terrorism ‘as a means of extending their manipulative repressive powers over and through the Media and the Multi-national companies.’[ix]
In light of this situation, what the film outlines is a tactics of exposure that represent a creative means of negotiating such a power structure. If Terrorism is to be seen as an action that shocks, damages and affronts, then Whitehead’s pairing of it with art does not suggest an attempt at neutralisation. Instead he is encouraging the development within creative expression of an analogous capacity to disturb the ‘collective inertia’.[x] When faced with the power mechanism and blank surface of the contemporary mediascape, Whitehead sees it is necessary for art to assume the efficacy of the street, to be as explosive as a car bomb; as disturbing to the status quo as a cobblestone torn up and hurled at the police.
Peter Whitehead – www.peterwhitehead.net
Nohzone - www.nohzone.com
Originally published in the film journal One+One

[i] Peter Whitehead, ‘In the Beginning was the Image, Before the Beginning was the Avant-Garde’, in La Cinéma Critique ed. by Nicole Brenez and Bidhan Jacobs (Paris: Sorbonne, 2010), pp. 26-30 (p.28).
[ii] Mark Manning, Collateral Damage (London: Creation, 2002), p.6-7.
[iii] Whitehead, p.28.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Whitehead, ‘Synopsis: Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ (unpublished synopsis, Peter Whitehead Archive, 2009), p.1.
[vi] Tierisias described in T.S. Eliot, ‘Note 218’, in The Waste Land and Other Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1999).
[vii] Jean Paulhan, The Flowers of Tarbes or Terror in Literature [1941], trans. by Michael Syrotinski (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006), p.xvi.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Whitehead, ‘Synopsis’, p.1.
[x] Whitehead, ‘In the Beginning was the Image’, p.29.