The Belly of the Beast
James Wham on There Will Be No More Night

There Will Be No More Night screens Saturday, July 31 at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 20/21.

The images in Eléonore Weber’s There Will Be No More Night might best be recognized as products of “night-vision”—strange formulations of a netherworld that lives beyond light. In them, living bodies glow like stars in amorphous, shifting forms, made shapeless and faceless and already spectral. Color is often dulled entirely, and reality, both visually and morally, appears black and white. How useful this is for the soldiers responsible for these images: when the world is reduced to such simple terms, all that’s left is for you to hover your crosshair over that burning target and pull the trigger. It’s illumination as immolation—as the saying goes: Light ‘em up.

Night-vision is an aesthetic all its own, most often associated with war, survivalists, and video games. It departs from the function of the cinematic camera (we are no longer “painting with light,” here) by reaching into the protonic realm, seeking out x-rays and gamma rays, ultraviolet and infrared, as a means of articulating the invisible. What results is often less revealing than it is distorting, a kind of twisted facsimile or alternate reality born of our collective PTSD (one that was never “post” but always “present,” just as all our wars are permawars and all our traumas are unending).

In Weber’s film, we are always looking through this lens. We observe the world from far away, through the direct perspective of soldiers in the Middle East (this is, quite literally, what they see). Most footage is from the “War on Terror,” where civilians and combatants are assassinated alike, usually from a helicopter or some other privileged position that goes unnoticed until the soldiers open fire. Those soldiers—always members of the invading, policing force, either American or French—dutifully narrate their actions for their superiors, and therefore, unwittingly, for us; their words are matched by Weber’s own language, essay-like and expository, which is delivered by narrator Nathalie Richard.

That the soldiers speak so personally and practically (“May I fire, sir?”) reveals the important fact that these images were never meant to be observed, so to speak. In their military application, they are produced and consumed in tandem: they exist strictly as a way of seeing, enhancing the soldier’s vision, where the nightless world is rendered in real-time. It is a technology of the post-human: the predatory functions of the body taken to their logical conclusions. (We have two forward-facing eyes to hunt, why shouldn’t they see everything?) Only later, in an internal process of review, are the images ever revisited by an “audience,” to question whether the actions taken on camera were justified. In Weber’s film, that role falls to military consultant “Pierre V.,” who had worked as a helicopter pilot and is responsible for similar images and actions. He almost always argues in the affirmative.

That Weber makes these images available to us at all resolves an ongoing tension in the art world: one in which art is either displayed publicly or kept hidden away in private collections. This same tension is inherent to the military. War, after all, is a public service, draining the majority of the American tax dollar, and yet so often it is enacted in the shadows, deliberately obscured from Western media, supplanted by Hollywood heroism. It seems only right that this footage should make its way to the nonprofit, government-funded screens at Museum of the Moving Image. These images belong to us.

Recontextualizing such harrowing footage as “art” in this way recognizes that killing, too, is a matter of design, a creative pursuit all its own. Weber refers to the “theater” of war, which military moralist Carl von Clausewitz defines as follows:

Such a portion of the space over which war prevails as has its boundaries protected, and thus possesses a kind of independence. This protection may consist in fortresses, or important natural obstacles presented by the country, or even in its being separated by a considerable distance from the rest of the space embraced in the war.

Von Clausewitz’s definition is bound to the geographical limits of war, where a singular battle is confined to the space of its participants (though battles today rarely feature “participants” in the traditional sense of man-to-man). Weber’s formulation is more focused, referring strictly to the edges of her frame. But there is another way to understand this “theater” in spatial terms that responds to the technological supremacy of Western military power. Consider, for example, the atomic bomb, which need only be dropped once to prove its point (and was therefore dropped twice). Its deployment offers a kind of corollary to Genesis: mass extinction reduced to a single sentence. (In the beginning… In the end… that Oppenheimer invoked the Gita rather than Bible seems to prophesy who this technology would be inflicted on.) How can we understand the concept of the theater of war any longer if the entire world has become a site of possible apocalypse? With the A-bomb ever looming, its potentiality renders the world unlivable. For those who would oppose the West, there is no air left to breathe.

In the post-atomic age, then, war, as a material, terrestrial action concerning human players, only becomes more grotesque. All invasions, occupations, policings, killings, tanks, guns, and bullets become superfluous. We have found the biggest stick and it is world-ending. Perhaps this is why the aesthetics of warfare seem to have transcended reality, as is evident in Weber’s film, whose vignettes sometimes play out like story-missions in Hitman or Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell.

“Want to attack war? Compare it to a video game, as in: war has become as mindless as a PlayStation game,” writes Hito Steyerl in her essay “Why Games, Or, Can Art Workers Think?” She continues: “People divorced from the consequences of their actions push buttons on consoles in remote locations. Daesh fighters are zombie swarms, drone pilots play arcade games,” before recalling the alternative: “It’s so much more wholesome and healthy to kill scores of people if there is no screen separating you from your target. Shoot the enemy face to face, in an intimate and heartfelt way.” This thought intersects nicely with Weber’s thesis, which is recounted as a kind of poem towards the end of the film:

There will be no more night, nor need for lamp or sunlight. There will be no more distance. Nothing far and nothing close. There will be neither shelter nor nooks. Nowhere to hide. No more resort or escape. We will distinguish silhouettes, but we won’t see people’s faces. There will be no more reciprocity, no more head to head.

The beginning of this passage—the title of the film—is not taken from Genesis but, perhaps more fittingly, Revelation, the book of the apocalypse. There is no need for lamp or sunlight, it states, because “the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” What Weber elucidates here are the consequences of our steady march toward technological godliness—the loss of reciprocity, intimacy, and, ultimately, the loss of humanity.

In this way, There Will Be No More Night works nicely as a companion piece to Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976), a film composed of nuclear explosions and mushroom clouds. Both films feature black and white footage reappropriated from military usage to audience spectacle; both repeat the same awesome vision of destruction over and over; both demand a kind of reckoning from the viewer, one of simultaneous complicity and detachment. That latter point is perhaps the most telling, in that our perspective has shifted between these two films and is now perfectly aligned with that of the perpetrator.

Though killing has become less intimate or reciprocal, it has also become more exacting and precise. There are times, watching Weber’s footage, when one can imagine that the victim must feel totally singled out—where bullets materialize as if from thin air, and follow anywhere they run. The anxieties of the post-atomic age have developed into a highly personalized paranoia, where a drone or satellite can track you from an imperceivable distance, marking your location to the pixel on a global positioning system, cataloging the contours of your face, the rhythms of your gait, the nuances of your posture. Your entire life is databased, and then someone—maybe in a war room on the other side of the world—pushes the button to have you executed. The panopticon has been fitted with a cannon, one that fires seemingly at random: to be seen is to be killed, and this technology is all-seeing.

In another essay from her book Duty Free Art, “How to Kill People,” Steyerl writes that “the design of killing is a permanent coup against the non-compliant part of people, against resistant human systems and economies.” Resistance is a fitting term, given that those who suffer at the hands of the West have gone on fighting—acting in a theater without air. It is impossible for such people to “win,” and yet this theater is their home, where they live, and so they must go on living. Whether or not resistance is futile, there is nothing else to do. With this in mind, the outsize, endgame model of cat and mouse on display in Weber’s film seems to exist for purely psychological reasons. The narrator tells us, for example, that farmers will often throw their tools into the fields upon hearing the sound of a helicopter, lest those menacing shapes be mistaken for a weapon. When they run, soldiers speak of suspicious behavior and promptly gun them down. One sequence presents a caravan of men in the mountains, surrounded by beasts of burden. For whatever reason, the soldiers open fire, and the men scatter as they are killed. We start to see as the soldiers do, searching behind plumes of dust and smoke for the glowing embers of life—we spot a wounded man crawling on his stomach towards a crevice in which to hide, and the camera-crosshairs follow him there, giving him time to think that perhaps he has escaped, and then, once he has settled, they fire again.

It’s hard to know what we are meant to take away from Weber’s film, which, per its title, suggests a slow-moving apocalypse. In part, it’s a meditation on how we see—the psychology of the image. Our experience with the footage is played against that of the soldiers who narrate their actions, where the key “reading” is one of either guilt or innocence. (That soldiers must analyze the images in this way is not so far from the duty of the film critic.) However, as with all things war-related, there is an element of redundancy here. Though Weber seems to argue that technology is distorting our ability to act or think morally, more often than not, those actions are now outsourced to technology entirely. Algorithms can identify enemies and fly drones all on their own, so why not have them pull the trigger as well? Where humans do factor into things, “morality” is vetoed: Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama famously had all “military-aged” men killed in strike zones recategorized from civilians to combatants. Guilt and innocence don’t tend to factor into this kind of killing. Even on home soil, justice is a rare thing. This is not to say that Weber is ignorant or naïve in this sense. Her perspective is fittingly cynical.

As the film ends, the narrator talks of how our technological advancements have subverted the earth’s natural cycle, how there exists now a “real night” and “fake day.” Again, this recalls Revelation, which ends on the creation of a new heaven and earth. Weber has invented a post-light cinema, and she suggests that we are living in a post-light world.