Aernout Mik b. 1962
Training Ground (2007)
Duration: 36 minutes
Aernout Mik: Training Ground
Rituals of Engagment
Essay by Claudia Schmuckli
Training Ground (2006), a looping thirty-eight-minute, two-channel-video installation by the Dutch artist Aernout Mik, is part on an ongoing investigation into what he characterizes as defining constituents of contemporary Western society. Having first explored the notion of civil war in pieces such as Raw Footage and Scapegoats (both 2006), he then turned his attention to the issue of illegal immigration. Training Ground, which was at the core of Citizens and Subjects, Mik’s contribution to the Fifty-second Venice Biennale, is exemplary of his recent engagement with pressing issues in the larger geopolitical arena and their metaphoric relevance to the uncertain condition of today’s world.
For the first ten minutes watching Training Ground, the viewer unfamiliar with Mik’s work might be fooled into believing that she is looking at footage of an actual training exercise for police officers in northern Europe as they are instructed in the ways to apprehend refugees and illegal immigrants. The uniformed and armed officials are assembled casually, receiving instructions and watching demonstrations of body searches on one of their own as they furtively put on their latex gloves, while the subjects of their investigation sit around and wait for their turn, seemingly unconcerned about what will or will not happen to them. When it is time for them to participate in the exercise, they do so with an impassive air, willing participants in a role-play. That something is slightly amiss readily becomes apparent as we realize that the people playing the refugees actually look the part. In their ethnic diversity and generational composition they seem too perfectly cast to be part of a regular law-enforcement exercise. This impression is further enhanced by the presence of a group of truck drivers taking a lunch break and watching the goings-on from a safe distance. Actual training would hardly unfold with such a realistic roster of actors or in a public arena, and we realize that what we are watching is a fictional enactment of a training session and not a real situation.
For the most part, the proceedings are recorded from multiple viewpoints within, provoking a sensation of physical immersion into the scene, which is reinforced by the work’s presentation. Installed at floor level, the two video screens mirror the position of the viewer, who by extension becomes part of this larger social body. About ten minutes into the loop, the perspective suddenly changes and we observe the action through the windshield of one of the trucks, the view partially obstructed by a phalanx of superhero figurines occupying the dashboard. Their intrepid poses and air of self-possession are mocked by a singular puppet head in their midst, sticking out its tongue at them and, in extension, at us. As the camera focuses on its ridiculing face, Mik introduces a different atmospheric element grounded more in notions of irony than of heroism. With this temporary change of viewpoint, things begin to unravel. Initially, the roles of police officers, refugees, and truck drivers are performed by the actors in keeping with conventions of embodiment and reflect established hierarchies of power. But this system abruptly breaks down: from a distance we see detainees escape or assuming control, truckers getting involved, and chaos breaking loose. By the time we find ourselves visually amid the actors again, the distinctions among police, refugees, and even truck drivers has become blurred, as their performance no longer corresponds to the behavioral patterns conventionally associated with their roles. Immigrants take over power, officers lose control and perform arrest techniques on one another, and truckers are captured or join arms with the immigrants, who now patrol the perimeter of the Training Ground with wooden replicas of shotguns. There is the occasional attempt to restore order, but any compliance with the status quo is temporary and additionally undermined by some characters entering a delirious stage from which only a few seem to recover.
If the unresolved and repetitious reversal of fortune among police, refugees, and the occasional truck driver introduces an element of the absurd, the trancelike state that some of the characters enter cements the sudden prevalence of an irrational force that seems to have taken hold of the situation. The delirious lose any control over their bodies; shaking and drooling, their civilian selves give way to spiritual possession. In fact, Mik—who usually gives minimal instructions to his actors, preferring them to feel their way through their performance based on the relational dynamics of the groups involved—here asked a few performers to act out states of delirium in direct citation of scenes from an ethnographic film made in 1954 by Jean Rouch and titled Les Maîtres Fous (Mad Masters). Rouch documented the ceremonial tradition of the Hauka, a sect active in parts of Ghana, who coped with its colonial past through a cathartic reenactment of the oppression during which its members entered a state of trance and possession by the spirit of their colonists. In Training Ground, Mik’s actors manifest the same physical ailments that befall the possessed in Rouch’s film. But here, the distinction between oppressor and oppressed becomes blurred to the point where we see police officers as well as refugees undergo spiritual entrancement. More importantly, though, the ritualistic aspects of Training Ground reveal the practice of exercise itself as representing a form of exorcism, albeit born out of fear and directed toward the future and not, as in Rouch’s example, necessitated by the trauma of a time past.
As Mik points out, there is an inherent risk in societies attempting to prepare for future emergencies such as the possible invasion by refugees and illegal immigrants alluded to in Training Ground: “We actively shape our present and future through imagining things to come through the prism of fear, anxiety and violence. . . . Complex as it is, it also seems that in the very idea of training, or preparation, a desire is embedded for things to happen in order to be able to employ the skills acquired. Does it not make things more likely to happen?”1
With illegal immigration emerging as one of the main challenges to Western society, the concept of citizenry as a viable foundation for identity and political governance is increasingly thrown into question. Training Ground consciously destabilizes the supposedly heroic efforts involved in the protective mechanism of any nation. While raising questions about the imbalance of power relationships between those who have legal rights afforded to them by their nationality and those who don’t, Training Ground also warns of their potential for impermanence. Who is to say that in the course of the world’s ongoing ethnic, religious, and geographic reorganization, the national havens of today may not house the refugees of tomorrow? The reversal of roles is a simple but powerful demonstration of just such a possibility. Mik’s filmic theater of the absurd serves as a wake-up call against complacency and encourages reconsideration of the status quo. The creation of a demonstratively artificial scenario, here the enactment of a training exercise, allows “space for moral ambiguity”2 that, by instilling doubt about a situation, carries within it the possibility of change. This ambiguity becomes especially apparent when we realize that the actors have no knowledge of actual methods and procedures used in the enforcement of laws on illegal immigrants and how they affect apprehended refugees. Their simulation, with its overt emphasis on physicality, in terms of self-protection of the officials and aggression toward the immigrants, is based on collective projections or assumptions, oftentimes mitigated through media images. For Mik, the theatrical situation defines a space “where there is a possibility of hope and emancipation, or at least a space to test whether a creative obstruction of the existing pattern is a possibility or not.”3
Training Ground implicitly bears a relation to current events in the Netherlands, where the hotly debated question of dual citizenship and resulting political loyalty is tied to ultranationalist concerns. But to interpret the work solely as a metaphor for this particular conflict and in view of Dutch immigration policy is falsely reductive. The Dutch situation is only one example of a broader development of nationalist impulses that seem to have taken the world hostage and are at the basis of the reigning atmosphere of heightened anxiety vis-à-vis the issue of immigration. In the context of the global war on terror, Training Ground’s message of hope and emancipation applies just as much to the situation in the United States as it does to that in Western Europe. It matters little if the potential threat comes from the east or the south. The fear of national invasion and economic erosion by an “other” is universal and the methods of prevention comparable. If we’re lucky, Mik’s message carries across national borders and into a collective consciousness where everybody is considered a citizen of the world.
1 Rosi Braidotti, Charles Esche, and Maria Hlavajova, eds., Citizens and Subjects: The Netherlands, for Example (Utrecht: BAK; Zürich: JRP Ringier, 2007), pp. 37–38.
2 Ibid., p. 36.
3 Ibid., p. 38.
AERNOUT MIK was born in 1962 in Groningen, Netherlands, and now lives and works in Amsterdam. He’s had solo exhibitions at the Camden Arts Centre in London, Kunstverein Hannover in Germany, Fruitmarket Edinburgh, Scotland, UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the New Museum in New York, MCA in Chicago, and Centre pour l’image contemporaine in Geneva, among many others. He recently represented the Dutch Pavillion at the Venice Biennale in Italy.
CLAUDIA SCHMUCKLI is the Curator of Contemporary Art at Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston. Exhibitions organized and publications written by her for Blaffer Gallery include Katrina Moorhead: A Thing Called Early Blur (2007), Amy Sillman: Suitors & Strangers (2007), and Urs Fischer: Mary Poppins (2006).