Fighting for Our Enemy ©Justyna Badach

Justyna Badach: Artist Statement

Fighting for Our Enemy, 2019 © Justyna Badach


The following statement is about the artwork included in Asymmetric Warfare, an exhibition featuring the photography of Justyna Badach at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center February 21 – April 18, 2020.

“It is evident . . . that terrorist organizations, alongside transnational corporate interests, are one of the more vigilantly opportunistic exploiters of ‘events, spasms, ructions that don’t look like art and don’t count as art but are somehow electric, energy nodes, attractors, transmitters, conductors of new thinking, new subjectivity and action.’” 

— Seth Price, from Dispersion (2002)

My work examines the transmutation of history and repackaging of violence though appropriation and re-contextualization of images derived from films created for a male audience.

My latest project, Land of Epic Battles and Proxy War are comprised of large-scale prints made using gunpowder. The images depict scenes culled from the online archives of ISIS recruitment data streams as well as American and Russian military internet propaganda, released as part of the ongoing war in the Middle East.

Today the great landmarks of tradition have been destroyed, but without society proposing new ones in their place. In a recent book, La Vraie Vie, Alain Badiou conceptualizes male adolescence “as the experience of disorientation following the dissolution of the patriarchal symbolic order in the West. For boys and men . . . there is no clear exit from the symbolic disorientation in a capitalist desert where traditional rites of initiation into adulthood such as a job and marriage no longer operate. . .. So, in the happy, anxious void where the Law of the Father once spoke, we now have revenge porn, trolling, and terrorism. Their nihilism is a mix of sacrificial and criminal heroism, and a general aggression toward the Western world. This aggression is based on forms of traditional and identitarian regression, on the debris of tradition that are offered to them.”

Land of Epic Battles (2015-2018) focuses on the hyper-masculine, violent world of ISIS recruitment videos that grew out of these socio-economic, technological and cultural shifts that are occurring on a global level.

Disseminated via YouTube, as well as through private, encrypted internet subscription channels, ISIS data streams are endemic of the larger proliferation of computer files and digital “info-war” visuals that are provided on demand and watched by choice, negating concerns about legality and morality that have traditionally defined mass-media content.

Similarly, Proxy War (2018-present) examines the parallel world of Russian and US military internet propaganda that grew out of “the war on terror” and seeks to glorify military operations taking place across the Islamic world. As these two adversarial nations compete to maintain their sphere of influence in the region, they, like ISIS, employ the pervasive glorification of violence and wanton destruction as a tool to motivate their “followers”.

Working from the position of both censor and video editor, I isolate the single frames depicting sites that serve as backdrops for these displays of male camaraderie, acts of violence, and mutilations.

The resulting screen captures do not overtly display the acts violence. Instead, the images give form to the info-war coded lexicon of methods, signs, and symbols of contemporary warfare. Through this coded iconography and the destructive potential of the gunpowder that is used to make the images, the violence of the source material is registered.

In Land of Epic Battles, the title for each image is taken from the ISIS video episode in which the image appeared, drawing our attention back to the horrific acts disseminated by these streams. These titles, such as The Necks Cutting; Crush Your Enemies; or My Revenge, lend context and form to what at first glance may seem like a series of random objects and sites. An image that resembles a graphite drawing of an empty truck in the desert or a helicopter hovering in a cloud-filled sky is indeed innocuous, until we’re told that the context is ISIS-produced media and that the print itself is made of explosives.

The appropriation of language is also an important to the understanding of Proxy War, which take their image titles directly from language used during US and Russian press conferences on the war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Land of Epic Battles and Proxy War become the means through which we witness the pernicious forces at play in contemporary internet war media that employs the sophisticated tools and visual vocabulary of virtual reality games, reality TV, and DIY videos. Employing and subverting methods commonly used in the entertainment industry, ISIS and the military create media, that feeds on viewers’ addiction to social media, exploits the voyeuristic lure of reality TV, and nourishes their audience’s desire to watch what is socially taboo.

One of most striking features of the ISIS DIY “video streams” is their slick production strategies, and like the military messaging, their ability to continuous morph their distribution channels in order to avoiding attempts at image suppression or origin verification. It is clear that our collective experience is becoming increasingly fragmented and the reality of global events is being defined and shaped by surreptitious media producers and algorithms designed to getting as close as possible to viewers. As such, Land of Epic Battles and Proxy War registers the initial signs of a larger impending seismic shift that will inevitably alter our future collective experience and understanding of conflict and war.

— Justyna Badach