Military Eyes

A Camera Obscura Project in the Army Bunkers

of the Golden Gate, 1996.

Franz John, a Berlin based artist, developed the project which became »Military Eyes« as a site specific investigation while an Artist-in-Residence at Headlands Center for the Arts (HCA) in 1996.

He chose the site for this project because of its location amidst the unique confluence of military architecture and dramatic wilderness. Impressed by his ideas and commitment, Headlands Center for the Arts invited him for a residency in order to carry the project to fruition.

Following old military maps, Franz John explored the area on foot, becoming intimately familiar with the terrain and military architecture. Using the vantage points provided by the remains of the military bunkers, John recorded traces of the soldiers' activities and observations made in the bunkers. He employed both the older camera obscura technique, and a modern hand copier drawn across the concrete surfaces. Unlike traditional photographic techniques, the copier allowed him to work instantly and capture visual information on site.

To gain artistic access to this unusual architecture, John explored ideas about the potential relationship between strategic planning, tactical behavior (i.e. selection of place) and aesthetic perception.

In his words, Carvings on the wall, sketches, notes and even accidental traces can give information about how generations of soldiers have lived and what they might have perceived. Those traces are also references of collective perception as the point of view throughout the bunkers was standardized by the restricted views from observation slits. While I'm working, I think about the boredom of the soldiers who spent hour after hour in the bunkers doing tedious »militar-fremde« jobs such as plotting wind direction, the humidity in the air and even the rotation of the earth.

To get the desired images in overlay, John used special covers that turned the observation slits of the bunkers in the lens of the camera obscura which projected the »military point of view« directly onto the concrete walls of the bunkers. These mirrored realities can also be seen as the »eyes« of the »military brain«.

Upside-down reality in motion and in color can also be seen in relation to Plato's Cave.*

By using a camera at long exposure time Franz John »engraved« these moving images such as ocean waves or passing ships on photographic emulsion. The resulting works exhibit a haunting, soft beauty often resembling »Renaissance painting«.

Franz John's »Military Eyes« is one of the most imaginative and most successfully realized projects to use the unique site and history of the Marin Headlands. It is artistically provocative on many levels, marrying contemporary technology and artistic practice to older human pastimes, states of mind and perception. We are indebted to this artist for showing us how to see, with new eyes, that which was both forgotten and familiar. We will never look at these sites the same way again.  Kathryn Reasoner, Executive Director, Headlands Center for the Arts

*In Plato's allegory, the limited view of the cave dweller substitutes shadow for the realities in light of day.

Refering link:
Franz John - Headlands Center for the Arts

This project was made possible by the generous support of:
German Cultural Center of San Francisco (Goethe Institute)
ifa - German Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations
Senatsverwaltung für kulturelle Angelegenheiten, Berlin
Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito