2022 was a promising year for space travel: radiation-test dummies were sent on a voyage around the Moon, and came back intact. It was a much worse year for respecting spaces down on Earth, with three major wars (fought out in Myanmar, Ukraine, Ethiopia) and seventeen minor ones (Colombia, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, Congo, Uganda, Nigeria, Tunisia and all of its neighbours, Iraq, Sudan, Chad, Syria, Mali and Yemen). Half those soldiers watch dubbed American TV and wear Chinese-produced clothes when off duty, and most of what people pay attention to is, when it comes down to it, a bunch of voltages on servers which are everywhere and nowhere. But if places don't matter any more, why are we still fighting over them?

One answer is that territory is still money, or food, or rare-earth metal mining concessions, or just the opportunity to sell drugs. A good half of our current wars come down to that. But land also provides the soil part of blood-and-soil racism, which the other half are about. Either way, we usually end up seeing our conflicts as being somehow about the clay they're fought over, not the people doing the fighting. Perhaps that's because the people are ephemeral anyway, taking the long view: only the land is eternal. Even a century after the event, that clay is for some reason different - it's now the scene of the crime, or sacred to the memory. Historians, artists, politicians, writers, and tourists go there in order to commune with the past, however little sense that makes. One field in Pennsylvania "is" Gettysburg while another is never visited even though the experience would be exactly the same.

A field
A field
One of these is site number 66000642 in the USA's National Register of Historic Places, and the other is not

Still, saying this is the actual place always has a certain magic, and we'd feel short-changed if a documentary about the American Civil War hadn't gone there in person. If we live in an age of violence, we also live in an age of commemoration, of re-living through photography and video and even re-enaction. Patrick Brian Smith's book Spatial Violence and the Documentary Image, out later this year, argues that the intensity of injustice done in the name of physical space is increasing in the modern world, not decreasing: but so, at the same time, is documentation of that injustice. Cameras can go anywhere now, in the aftermath if not actually at the time of the events, and film-makers are not tied to the traditional cinematography of war documentaries, where news-reel is solemnly voiced-over by an actor with a gravelly voice. It's a rich field for experimentation, in fact. We must hope nobody fights over it.

cover of Spatial Violence and the Documentary Image

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