Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

NATO: The Military Codification System for the Ordering of Everything in the World by Suzanne Treister

Albert Mobilio

The borders of NATO member nations were once hair triggers for nuclear war with the Soviets. But in the post-cold-war era, NATO appears more like a geopolitical relic than a key piece in the apocalyptic endgame between superpowers. Still, the alliance remains a vast and powerful one, and as is always the case with things military, there exists a heroically proportioned bureaucracy. Artist Suzanne Treister makes canny use of one of its elements, the classification system of NATO’s Maintenance and Supply Agency, for her watercolors. The agency has a designated code for an entire world of military and nonmilitary material, an empire of stuff that ranges from religious candles to nukes. The list in her table of contents for NATO: The Military Codification System for the Ordering of Everything in the World includes “Camouflage and Deception Equipment,” “Aircraft, Fixed Wing,” “Pyrotechnics,” “Saddlery, harness, whips and related animal furnishings,” “Space Survival Equipment,” “Games Toys and Wheeled Goods,” “Nuclear reactors,” “Badges and Insignia,” “Sheet and Book Music,” “Guns, over 30 mm up to 75 mm,” and “Underwear and Nightwear.” Treister’s soft-focus images of items that fall under these rubrics are pastoral studies of banality. Her Whitmanesque taxonomy presents, for instance, a two-body mortuary refrigerator, a snowplow, a jet fighter, a sewing machine, a submarine, and false teeth. The system accommodates all manner of flotsam and jetsam: lethal, benign, common, or one of a kind (the USSR’s first atomic bomb). If the tiny portraits are marked by a picturesque delicacy, it is of the sort found in upscale consumer catalogs (think J. Peterman). Treister depicts each object with a noticeable (and noticeably ironic) degree of commercial zeal—she’s serving up the Sperry 417A klystron, with its “octal base and coaxial take-off ports,” for sale. The global military-industrial complex is complex (check out the thicket of numerical identifiers) and military (there’s really only one use for a grenade launcher), but mostly it’s always been industrial—about the production of goods for purchase. And profit.