The Etiquette of the Arms Trade exhibition cover



01.10.17 - 31.12.17

Jill Gibbon

The world is awash with weapons. The wars of the twentieth century have skewed manufacturing in the US, Russia, France, Germany, China, and the UK towards military production. At the end of the Cold War there was a brief opportunity to diversify into other areas; instead arms companies merged into multinationals and started selling to almost anyone who would buy. Arms fairs were established in the 1990s to provide international venues for these deals.

The world’s largest arms fair DSEI (the Defence Security Exhibition International) takes place every two years in London. There are similar fairs in other cities – Eurosatory in Paris, IDEX in Abu Dhabi, and ADEX in Seoul. Here, a bomb ‘steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.’ iii Missiles glint under spotlights. Ammunition shells are arranged in ascending order. Mannequins show off the latest batons, pepper gel, and tear gas. Tanks and helicopters are open for viewing. And between the jets and bombs, tables are laid with white cloths, beer, and pretzels, while hostesses hover with trays of champagne.

Buyers include repressive regimes, unstable states, and countries involved in aggressive wars. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are regular guests at DSEI. iv The Middle East has become a key focus for arms sales since the repression of pro-democracy movements, and subsequent civil wars in the region. Bahrain used UK-made tear gas and armoured vehicles to suppress protests in 2011, and Saudi Arabia is currently using UK and US-made bombs in Yemen where a humanitarian crisis is unfolding with the destruction of homes, hospitals and infrastructure. v

Sometimes, clients become opponents. The UK and US sold military equipment to Saddam Hussein a decade before the Gulf War, and to President Gaddafi before intervening against him in the Libyan civil war. vi When regimes topple, their weapons fall into the hands of non-state groups. ‘Islamic State’ is using machine guns, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and artillery that the UK, US and other producers sold to Iraq. vii This trade is not illicit, but actively promoted by the UK and US governments. How is it validated?

This exhibition explores the etiquette of the arms trade through drawings and artifacts from DSEI, Eurosatory and IDEX. 

The performance:

 “All satire and irony lead back to naivety.” viii

Hugo Ball

I visit arms fairs by dressing up as an arms trader with a suit, heels, paste pearls, and a sham business. The security guards have seen through my cover twice, but I have changed my name, invented a new company, and visited again.
In Museum Highlights (1989) the artist Andrea Fraser performs as a museum docent (gallery guide) by adopting the fictional name of Jane Castleton, wearing the institutional uniform, and taking unsuspecting visitors on a mock tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Using phrases and quotes from catalogues, art reviews, and other sources she described architectural details of the gallery such as the toilet, the fire extinguisher, the cloak room, and light fittings, to draw attention to the institutional context that confers status and value on art. Ix

“The docent played by Fraser in her gallery talks, Jane Castleton, is as much a site of institutional discourse as a gallery wall, a display case, or a public relations pamphlet: each produces the spectator’s expectations, and experience of, the museum.” X

Museum Highlights has become a key example of ‘institutional critique,’ work that consciously chooses to politically engage with the art institution. The Etiquette of the Arms Trade shifts the critique from the art world to the military industrial complex.

My parody is intended to draw attention to arms trading as a ‘dramatized public life performance’ xi, highlighting the rituals of dress, language, and deportment that give the industry a civilised veneer. The arms multinational, BAE Systems, claims that what matters is not the products it makes, or where they are sold, but how this is done.

“Our culture focuses not on what we do, but how we do it. If we focus on the how, the future that we wish to attain will follow. We have a culture of total performance.” Xii

The paste pearls provide a metaphor for a wider performance of respectability in the arms industry. Here, to an extent, everyone is acting a part.

  1. Bertolt Brecht, ‘On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.’ in Erdmut Wizisla, Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, (Verso, 2009), p.184.
  2. Ban Ki-moon ‘The World is Over-armed and Peace is Underfunded’ Press Statement, United Nations, September 9th 2009, http://www.un.org/press/en/2009/sgsm12445.doc.htm
  3. Karl Marx Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, (Cosimo Classics, 2013), p.82.
  4. CAAT, Buyers at DSEI 2015, https://www.caat.org.uk/issues/arms-fairs/dsei/delegations, 23 October 2015
  5. Amnesty International, Yemen: Evidence indicates US-made bomb was used in attack on MSF hospital, 19th September 2016 BBC, UK-made bomb ‘destroyed Yemen factory’ 25th March, 2016 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-middle-east-35898999/uk-made-bomb-destroyed-yemen-factory. BBC, Bahrain uses UK-supplied weapons in protest crackdown, 17 February 2011 The Independent, British Arms Sales to Bahrain Total £45 million Since Arab Spring, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/bahrain-protesters-tortured-while-britain-signs-45marms-deal-a6872166.html, 13th February 2016
  6. The Financial Times, UK Secretly Supplied Saddam, https://www.ft.com/content/52add2c4-30b4-11e1-9436-00144feabdc0 CAAT, UK Arms Sales to Gaddafi’s Libya, https://www.caat.org.uk/resources/countries/libya/uk-gaddafi
  7. Amnesty International, How Islamic State Got its Weapons, https://www.amnesty.org.uk/how-isis-islamic-state-isil-got-its-weapons-iraq-syria, 7th December 2015
  8. Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights, (MIT Press, 2005).
  9. James Meyer, exhibition text, What Happened to the Institutional Critique? at American Fine Arts, Co. Colin De Land Fine Art, New York, New York, September 11 – October 2, 1993
  10. Jonathan Harris (ed.), Dead History, Live Art? Spectacle, Subjectivity and Subversion in Visual Culture since the 1960s, (Tate Liverpool Critical Forum, 2007) p.14.
  11. BAE Systems, Careers, http://www.baesystems.jobs/job-senior-principal-ii-software-engineer-25473br, accessed 11th July 2017

past exhibitions