Radiabolus disarms propaganda by putting it in the gallery


Art | by Gregory Beatty

Neutral Ground
Until Nov. 10

Probably the most famous military recruitment campaign in history is the “Uncle Sam” poster the United States used after it entered World War I in 1917. It depicted a stern, elderly white dude in “Stars & Stripes” attire, with his right index finger pointed out at the putative viewer with the caption “I Want YOU For U.S. Army”.

Communications technology was in its infancy then, so the army didn’t have a lot of tools at its disposal to attract recruits. With the poster, and a related WWI image of a young blonde woman named Columbia in a “Stars & Stripes” gown with her arms stretched out beseechingly, marketers were appealing to the patriotism of potential recruits.

That’s still an effective card for military recruiters to play. But as anyone with exposure to modern communications media knows, recruiters have a lot more options to deliver their message now.

That’s the starting point for Radiabolus­ — a collaborative exhibition by Robert Saucier and Toby Heys. Saucier hails from Montreal where he teaches at UQAM, while Heys teaches at Manchester School of Art in England. Together, they’ve assembled a collection of over 100 soundtracks from military recruitment ads that have aired on TV in over 30 countries in the past 40 years.

I’ll get to the soundtracks later. But first, a bit about the broader installation. Elsewhere on this page, you’ll see a picture of it. The pillar is part of the gallery, and the artists have used it as an anchor to pitch a tent — which is a common form of shelter when armies are in the field.

The tent is made from a parachute, which evokes the notion of elite paratroopers being dropped behind enemy lines to establish a covert position to undermine enemy defences and/or make contact with local resistance leaders. That impression is reinforced by five communications stations set up on metal crates around the tent.

The stations have no transmission capacity. But they do function like listening posts, at least to the extent that you can activate them and listen to the tracks that Heys and Saucier have compiled. To do that, though, you must adopt a bit of a military mindset and follow orders by punching in a four-digit code that, in classic espionage fashion, changes frequently to frustrate enemy efforts to decipher it.

In truth, I struggled a bit getting the right code punched into the panel at the right time. I didn’t sweat it, though, as it was opening night, and other people were activating the stations successfully, which permitted me to hear various tracks.

As noted, Radiabolus spans 40 years of advertising from 30-plus countries. NATO nations figure prominently in the playlist, not surprisingly, but countries such as Afghanistan, India, Israel, China, South Africa and Russia are also represented. The time-frame, too, is sufficiently broad to encompass various shifts in musical tastes and styles that have occurred over the decades.

As originally broadcast, the soundtracks would’ve formed the backdrop for the visual narrative that marketers were intent on delivering. By stripping away those narratives, along with accompanying voiceovers, Saucier and Heys permit viewers to focus on the role played by music in the ads.

In visual media, music is usually employed to help set the emotional tone. Patriotism, I suspect, remains the top draw for armies looking to attract recruits. But depending on how you frame an ad, you could also appeal to a potential recruit’s sense of adventure, honour, justice, or even compassion (if you’re trying to sell the idea of the army as a defender of public order in times of crisis).

Music’s appeal isn’t limited to emotion, of course. It also has cultural cachet, with different genres, be it country, rock, metal, hip hop and whatnot, typically appealing to identifiable demographic groups.

As it happens, at least in countries that don’t have a draft or mandatory service requirement, armies are typically composed of men/women from identifiable demographic groups — underprivileged, visible minority and rural being the three largest. To effectively “target” them, prudent recruiters would presumably use music that was likely to appeal to them.

Radiabolus closes on Nov. 10 — the day before Remembrance Day. I don’t know if the timing is deliberate, but it’s appropriate. It’s not that the show is anti-military, or disrespectful to fallen soldiers in any way. But it does provide us with a strong reminder of the need to be aware of how those with a vested interest in promoting a military agenda — be it major players in our corporate economy, or hawkish politicians — market their vision to us.

It’s not limited to TV ads either. Just think of the link that’s been forged in recent years between the military and pro sports. Whether it’s honour guards, or “salute to veterans” days, or flyovers, such as those that occur before every Rider home game now, pro sports and the military, and the ideals they embody, are much more closely aligned than they once were.

That’s not necessarily bad. Just like the increased militarization of our police force isn’t necessarily bad — in certain circumstances. But bottom line is that when armies (and police) get involved, it usually means that other more civilized ways of settling a dispute, such as diplomacy and negotiation, have failed. And that’s always unfortunate.

I was reminded of that when sitting in a corner jotting down notes at the opening. With several people in the gallery, multiple sound stations were being activated at the same time, so that multiple audio excerpts were playing over each other, effectively battling for supremacy — just like real armies do.