Disguise & Deception: Anika Schwarzlose interview

Interview by Enrico Grigoletti
Images by Anika Schwarzlose

Week 40

I’ve always been fascinated with camouflage as a fluctuation of visual patterns, rather than as a means of deception. But I have never truly considered the design process behind the act of being camouflaged, or camouflaging if you will, and how colours, shapes and patterns disrupt or blend together.
So when I stumbled upon the work of Anika Schwarzlose, I was impressed by her photography, and the way she uses it as a tool to explore illusions, imagination and alternative perceptions of reality.
Her artwork, Disguise and Deception, was particularly intriguing, as it investigates a special division of the German Army called Tarnen und Täuschen (Disguise and Deception), which undertook research and development of camouflage technology and the fabrication of decoy weaponry during the war.
In addition, the artistic medium of the piece, photography, is used as a metaphor for deception itself.
Curious about all these things, I decided to contact Anika for an interview.

Enrico Grigoletti) Hello Anika

Anika Schwarzlose) Hi Enrico!

EG) I’m really curious about how you managed to get in contact with the German Army. I know it’s often difficult to get an official authorisation.

AS) Yes, that was indeed the first big challenge I faced when I started this project.
The military unit is a closed facility, in the middle of a forest in Germany. It took me a few months to get an invitation to visit. A lot of research and reconnaissance was required. Overall it was more of an investigative journalism process. This is usually a phase of my work that I really enjoy. Most of my projects include a research phase, but the nature of the research is always quite different. This time it was about gaining access to a secure place, and building trusting relationships in order to make the work possible.

EG) Tarnen und Täuschen continued operating after WWII. Why do you think they kept developing their techniques and their decoy weaponry, and what’s the strategic meaning behind it?

AS) The name of the unit “Technologiestützpunkt Tarnen und Täuschen” translates in English to “Disguise and Deception” and this became the inspiration for the title of my book. The unit did not actually exist during WWII. Even though at that time similar units existed in different countries. One that is quite well documented is the Ghost Army – a division of the American Army that was busy with tactical deception manoeuvres. They recruited artists to create decoy weapons and various deception techniques. They are one of the most well recorded cases where creativity of this kind was used for military purposes.
Tarnen und Täuschen were more of a product of the Cold War, even though they did very similar things to the Ghost Army. They developed inflatable tanks, which can be folded together and carried by a single soldier. But they also produced hollow stones that could be filled with cameras or other recording equipment, and many additional objects, which were never what they seem to be. Basically their work is motivated by two main intentions:
On the one hand, their work of producing fake equipment could deceive an enemy army into believing that there were a lot more existing resources then there actually were. Those decoy weapons were also sometimes placed in vulnerable positions in order to be destroyed by the enemy, and to deflect attention from the real equipment that was hidden in other places.
On the other hand, they are crafting replica of things, like land mines for example, to practise how to diffuse them. So this held more of an educative purpose rather than a deceptive one.

EG) What grabbed your attention about this special unit, and why did you decide to start your Disguise and Deception project in the first place?

AS) In the beginning my interest was maybe still a bit superficial. The secretive air about the unit made me curious. The name implies excitement and mystery, and the fact that a military unit employs artistic craftsmanship and creativity seemed strange and special. But then I started my visits and I conversed with the technicians and soldiers who are working at the unit. The more I got talking to the workers and the closer I looked at what is produced at Tarnen und Täuschen, the more I found myself in quite a confronting situation: I discovered striking similarities to my own work.
The military facilities are akin to a large theatre/art workshop. They have a metal workshop, one for wood, a tailoring station, a sculpting and casting place – all the production facilities that you would for example also find in an art academy.
I was familiar with the materials for sculpting and crafting objects produced by the technicians, and this allowed us to exchange ideas concerning techniques and knowledge about our work. I also recognised a visual similarity between their objects and the images that I had produced years beforehand. Before I had even heard about this military unit.
This feeling of confrontation eventually lead to putting the publication together – as a visual dialogue between the images I took during my visits at the army, and my own work.

EG) In your art you often explore the concept of reality and illusion, which are perfectly embodied in Disguise and Deception. How do they relate to each other?

AS) As a visual artist with a strong connection to photography, my work is largely occupied with processes of image production, reproduction and dispersion. The relation of copies to originals, the existence of images in versions is an important concept for me. Also, my own work deals quite frequently with subjects like the manipulation of perception. In a way I think as an artist, I too am in the business of creating illusions. It’s just that I have a very different perspective of my work – my motivation and the impact that my images have is a fundamentally different one.

EG) And what about ideology and aesthetics?

AS) When I spoke earlier about perspectives, motivation and impact, that already points in the right direction. I am very interested if it is possible to see intentions in forms and colours. The concept of beauty is often connected to a certain type of innocence and purity – most of all beauty in the classical way is connected to truth. This is an idea that becomes very complicated once we closely observe the design of a military airplane for example. It is made to function and often to fulfil a very destructive purpose. On the other hand its appearance is also made to capture the mind of a little boy – as a toy it invokes fantasies of flying and power, and maybe makes him dream of becoming a pilot one day.
This raises questions in my opinion:
Is a “harmless” copy of a weapon something like the benign brother of its evil twin original?
What does it mean if an object or an image mimics the shape and appearance of something dangerous?
Does it become dangerous itself?

EG) Mimesis is understood as an almost reliable method of protection in evolutionary biology. In your opinion, can we consider “Make Believe” an equally important notion in the evolutionary system?

AS) In biology we decide between two different mimetic strategies: aggressive mimicry and defensive mimicry. Here I can quote the text that Johan Frederik Hartle wrote for my book:
“… Both forms have found their equivalents within the world of military strategy. Aggressive mimicry (or Peckhamian mimicry) is primarily the adaptation of an attacker to its surroundings as a form of disguise. Its purpose is to surprise prey within a supposedly harmless situation. … In the avoidance of falling prey to a predator, defensive mimicry suggests menace where there is none. Such cases of crypsis or mimicry are an organism’s optical approximation of an alternate, predatorial species, effectively providing protective and defensive functions. This involves elements of surface manipulation (camouflage and deception) as a survival strategy: the hover-fly looks like a wasp so as not to be eaten or swatted…”

So evolutionary “Make Believe” works in two different ways and is not always a method for protection – but also for attack.

EG) How long did it take to put together Disguise and Deception?

AS) If you start counting from my first visits to Tarnen und Täuschen it took me almost three years to publish the research. The book is my first publication, and I wanted to take the time that I needed to find the right way of framing the project. It was such an honour that the Photography Museum in Amsterdam (FOAM) wanted to exhibit the project and organise the book launch. When that opportunity came along, the time was right and the book was ready. I was also very lucky to work with excellent people. The publication is a co-publication between Van Zoetendaal in the Netherlands and Kodoji Press in Switzerland. Both publishers have been immensely supportive with their expertise and experience. Johan Frederik Hartle, who wrote the text, has done such an amazing job by giving the images the historic and political context they needed. Gaël Paccard, who designed the publication, is one of the most talented graphic designers I know. My conversations with Brian McKenna, who has advised me on the editing and translation, have perhaps the most important intellectual influence on my work. So this book – as most publications are – has been a team effort, and a long but very enjoyable process.