Although students of design shouldn’t be blamed for keeping an optimistic outlook about their field, they should still acknowledge this one hard truth: some of the most successful, most reliable, and most immediately recognizable human artifacts from the modern era have also been its most efficient killing tools. The Colt Gov’t / M-1911 pistol, which has spawned dozens of clones and not has seen only minimal tweaks to its functionality since it was put into service a century ago, has probably been seen by most of the planet’s population. The same can also be said for the AK-47 assault rifle, the iconic weapon originally sketched out by the 29-year old wounded tank commander Mikhail Kalashnikov as a therapeutic exercise to stave off recurring nightmares of being routed by the German army. While AK-47 sales themselves have always been a brisk business (well over 100 million in production to date), the design industry that has shot up around the rifle is equally impressive. An Etsy site search for handmade items bearing images of the AK, or fashioned from whatever spare gun parts could be salvaged, returns a deluge of results that takes hours to wade through: everything from cartridge case necklaces to cookie dough cutters to baby onesies. For the more couture-minded, the Fonderie 47 boutique offers jewelry made from decommissioned rifles, lovingly crafted by James de Givenchy. In terms of their lasting grip on the public imagination, these tools easily rival more “civilian” artifacts as the Fender Stratocaster or Apple Powerbooks and MacBooks – and as such, it’s worth wondering how the Kalashnikov legacy became as worthy of study in design schools as it is in military academies.
If there isn’t a readily available answer to that question, it’s partially because mass media’s saturation by both fictionalized and real automatic weapon images has been the status quo for so long, people no longer bother to look for reasons why the weapons have become universally accepted symbols for self-determination. Anyone thinking that celebration of full-automatic death dealers is limited to gun show enthusiasts and ‘bunker mentality’ survivalists hasn’t seen too many blockbuster movies recently, or switched on the radio for that matter: just about every species of modern music infused with a hardcore attitude puts the assault rifle to good use in its lyrics, iconography, and actual sonic content (e.g. sampled automatic shot bursts as a percussive flourish.) The back catalog of Ice Cube alone is practically a running infomercial for Kalashnikov’s design, with the rapper confessing that days without a shot fired in his ‘hood were an exception rather than the rule (i.e. “I didn’t even have to use my AK…I gotta say it was a good day”), or using lack of commitment to the gun as one of the many reasons to diss ex-collaborator Eazy-E as a sellout (“first you was down with the AK / now I seen [sic] you on a video with Michel’le”). Not to be outdone, Ice Cube associates Da Lench Mob lend a hearty endorsement for the weapon with “Freedom Got an A.K.,” an incitement to urban guerilla violence which features the laughably morbid anti-nursery rhyme “‘A’ is for apple / ‘K’ is for killin’…I’m dealin’ / 47 million civilians.”
Even an incomplete stockpile of these pop culture references could easily swell to a whole book volume, to say nothing of those cases where we an assault rifle reference is perceived when none was intended: this author only recently realized that the name of the anarchist book publisher AK Press isn’t a winking reference to the gun as a potential tool of insurrection (in actuality, A and K are the initials of Ann Kanaan, founder Ramsey Kanaan’s mother.) So, to cut to the chase, the assault rifle has long since become a stand-in image for an amped-up level of assertiveness and dedication, whether one has the actual wherewithal to kill with the gun or not. References to the guns amount to a ‘Rorschach blot’ type of conversation starter, which can be counted on to tease out others’ stances on burning socio-political issues, and more besides.
This dovetailing of gun culture into mainstream culture has provided the basis for some more strictly conceptual or investigative art pieces, including the late Chris Burden’s 1971 Shoot (in which he famously consented to be shot in the arm, noting how “about fifty percent of American folklore is about people getting shot.”) However, artworks that successfully re-fashion mechanized violence into a thing of ethereal beauty are much harder to pull off. At least one recent success comes in the form of the Vietnam-based Propeller Group’s A Universe of Collisions, the final exhibit put on at Kansas City’s dowtown Grand Arts space. The exhibit consisted mainly of several austere blocks of clear ballistics gel, into which AK-47 and M-16 projectiles were fired from opposing sides and made to collide with one another (for the obvious grim reasons, the gel has a density similar to that of human tissue when kept below room temperature.) By the artists’ accounts, even one successful collision of this kind involved plenty of frustrating false starts, but was successful in the end with some help from the operating savvy of additional ballistics engineers, special rigs built to steady the opposing guns, and working around the U.S. State Department requirements for conducting such an aesthetic experiment. The act, replayed in slow-motion on a flat screen in the gallery, is eerily placid and fluid, the thick ripples of displaced gel massaging viewers’ entranced eyes and inviting plenty of repeat viewings.
This exhibit might not have worked as well if it originated from somewhere other than The Propeller Group’s native land: Vietnam hosted the first major conflict in which assault rifles became the dominant instrument of war; where the AK-47 and its archrival weapon, the M-16, were first set against one another. The M-16 was, in fact, rushed into production in order to counter the former, and was famously unreliable in the early going, to the point where plenty of official cover-up jobs were necessary to quell the voices of outraged and outgunned G.I.s. Both rifles were the end result of tangled bureaucratic processes rather than a pure response to a public demand (see C.J. Chivers’ excellent The Gun for a head-spinning full account), but the Propeller Group has chosen to focus not on their backstory so much as upon the present day “brand identification” these weapons enjoy. The Propeller Group members have a significant history as subverters of advertising and marketing strategies, and their experiment here was informed not just by a curiosity about what a frozen moment of impact might look like, but by the realization that the “AK-47 vs. M-16” debate has become an almost innocuous competition on par with the “Cola Wars” of the 1980s or the ongoing video game console wars.
The group’s sculptural objects are something of an anomaly in the world of military-industrial art: for one, because they seem to neither condemn nor celebrate the objects in question. The true value of these objects, though, lies in the way they reverse the trend of familiarizing and domesticating the killing machines. Unlike the steady stream of knick-knacks and fashion items bearing screen-printed images of assault rifles, or more contemplative performance pieces like Burden’s, these little blocks’ reduction of violent collision to an atomic level – implying collision as both the origin and termination of fundamental processes – makes them seem like artifacts from some distant other civilization guided by principles less clearly defined than our own. Without expert knowledge of what ballistic impacts are supposed to look like, or pre-awareness of the exhibit’s theme, the bullet collisions are barely recognizable as such, looking like a cross between a celestial curiosity that might be spotted by the Hubble telescope, and something organic in the way that the frozen moment of impact “blooms” within its solidified gel casing. They wouldn’t be entirely out of place next to some glass-blown novelty by craftsmen like Dale Chihuly or Lino Tagliapietra.
The gel blocks’ restrained elegance becomes much better appreciated after viewing their companion piece, a half-hour supplemental video that the artists have prepared in a separate viewing room. In an exhausting collage of assault rifle-powered violent film scenes, AK-47 and M-16 rifles are pitted against each other in such a way that they represent lifestyle choices rather than tactical decisions. Much of the appropriated material is immediately recognizable, coming as it does mainly from Hollywood blockbusters, with a smattering of Vice News features, training videos and at least one Russia Today encomium on Kalashnikov. The mind-numbing mashup shows how integration of these weapons into popular culture has raised them to the status of designer brands. Though this video is of course a highly selective portrait drawn mostly from U.S. sources, it still points to a world wherein destructive weapons are chosen less for practical metrics like shooting accuracy and firing rates, and more for the ways in which they project personal and cultural characteristics.
Time and again, we’re shown footage in which the AK’s legendary reputation for accessibility makes it the constant companion of those who are thrust into worlds where it means the difference between surviving another day, or not. It’s a fascinating inventory of characters, from drug-runners to anti-government insurgents to hapless child soldiers, which is set in stark relief against the more professional military users of the M-16, who have the patience and foresight to stick by their flawed weapon in troubled times and to eventually reward it with over 50 years of active service. As is the case with the better war stories, we get the idea that each side lays claim to having the more heroic narrative, but more importantly we get the picture that these weapons are not just fighting tools but also “self-actualization” tools.
Seen in this light, the exhibit also becomes a reminder of the perpetually misplaced hope that certain combat innovations would come along and, once intensifying the nature of human conflict towards a certain crucible point, would set conflict on a historical path towards gradual down-scaling or just end it outright. Kalashnikov himself harbored these dreams, later expressing an almost naïve dismay that his gun only seemed to expand the menu of available conflicts worldwide (he lamented how he was only working “for socialist society, for the good of the people, which I never regret.”) His hopes were part of a lengthy tradition in which early adopters of Colt revolvers called them “peacemakers,” and early backers of the Gatling gun argued that its hitehrto unseen destructiveness would paradoxically grant it a peace-making power: it would force fighting men to “learn to settle their disputes by arbitration or some other means less destructive of life”. None of this, of course, ever happened: none of these utopian dreamers seemed capable of realizing that millenia of human competitiveness would have to somehow be undone before any warfaring innovation could take place without someone, somewhere, eventually volleying back with an equal reaction. The results of the Propeller Group’s simple collision exercise therefore point to an important and alternative way forward for design and creativity in general: they suggest that, in the end, it isn’t the ratcheting up of competitiveness which lays the groundwork for creative expression and evolution, but a thirst for seeing things differently. Art and design should return us to that point at which the expansion of perception, and not just the expansion of conflict, is a valid enough reason for existing.