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Camouflage, you might
think, is about blending in. But just as often, and especially these
days, it’s about standing out. Camouflage hides shapes by generating
hints of many other possible shapes. Instead of staying silent, in other
words, camouflage succeeds by being noisy: it hides signal with noise.
Socially and esthetically, too, camouflage is more and more often about
We are looking for a few good pixels
Only Marines can wear the new MARPAT pattern (tiny anti-copying
devices protect it from unscrupulous army-navy store vendors) and the
Corps website proclaims that the virtues of the new look seem to imply
its very appearance will make enemies run away: “Distinctive to the
Marines, the uniform is designed to inspire fear in the hearts and minds
of all enemies.” But isn’t the uniform supposed to make Marines
Certainly the Army must feel, if not fear, at least irritation—as
they so often do with the glory-grabbing antics of the jarheads. The
Army had to settle for a version of the pixelated MARPAT scheme with the
black removed. This is embarrassingly similar to the camo of the overly
passive Canadian army.
The pixelation is less a result of the way the camo works than of
its design and production. From a distance, the edges blur. What is
revealing is that the army version of the pixelated pattern is different
from the Marine one. The Army is said not to need black since its job
is more general, and the theaters where it may be called on to perform
are more diverse. But in Iraq the two services fight side by side.
At least the Army got pixels instead of blobs, which are so, well,
Gulf War I. The old “camel-shit” pebble and boulder look of the
Schwartzkopf era seems downright venerable now. The new camo is all of a
style with the pixelations of video sat phones and blur-outs to protect
faces and name bars. “Pixelation” is to the current run of wars what
“night vision” was to Gulf War I—the stylistic keynote.
The art of camo, the camo of art
Despite its functionalist status, camo has always had style—and art.
Camouflage attracts modernists raised to believe that ornament is crime.
Camo ornaments legally, you might say—its pattern has a job to do.
Artists and fashion designers have long played off camouflage. Many used
bright fluorescent colors instead of dull natural ones. Andy Warhol’s
camouflage portraits, done late in his life, employed this strategy.
(One recurrent fashion joke about camouflage is the perennial camo
bikini, a play on concealment and revelation.)
Camo’s history became a parable of a wider truth: that the design of
even the most functional object—and camo would seem to live and die by
its function—inevitably becomes artistic and stylistic. Camouflage was
associated from its beginnings with art and artists. Artists were put
into service in World War I to camouflage equipment and installations.
Gertrude Stein famously reported the remarks of Picasso and Braque,
viewing camouflaged military equipment on parade in Paris at the
beginning World War I. “We did that,” Picasso said. “That is Cubism.”
That may have been Cubism, which would have made the lovely lavender and
pink lozenges of German Albatross fighter planes, fitted together like
cells of a honeycomb, “hexagonalist.”
Dazzle ship camouflage was futurist, or vorticist, with its slashes
and jags. That an apparently functionalist thing had so many stylistic
and cultural variants was a lesson modernism would have to learn again
There is realist camouflage, too, as there is realist painting. The most
powerful figure in the world of camouflage may be Bill Jordan of
Realtree, a camo realist. Jordan has licensed his patterns to some 800
companies. He has formed a business alliance with NASCAR, which allows
him to hang out with top stock car race drivers and produces items that
show leafy patterns topped with dramatically shaded race car numbers.
An athletic young man who grew up hunting and fishing for bass in
Georgia, Jordan according to his website, “decided to try his hand at
making a camo pattern. For hours, he sat in his parents’ front yard
sketching and coloring an exact replica of the bark of a giant oak
tree.” His mother still lives in the house and “the tree that started it
all still stands guard over the front yard.”
Camouflage also reflects national and regional differences. Camouflage
is always specific to the area of its use, and the Realtree family is
down home camo. Camo is costume appropriate to the stage and show. We
speak after all of “theaters” of war. The patterns favored by hunters
are extremely specific to terrain and season: winter branch or autumn
Another southern camo maker, Mossy Oak (also established in 1986 and
based in Mississippi), offers a similarly sentimental account of its
local origins. Mossy Oak’s original patterns, with their “realistic
limbs and ghostly shadows,” (which could be a line of Wallace Stevens)
were drawn by a local artist based on “a very large and special tree in
South Alabama.” Mossy Oak has now been joined by one called Obsession,
like a certain perfume, which Toxey Haas, the founder, developed using
Stein understood there were national styles of camouflage as well as
artistic ones. “Another thing that interested us enormously,” she noted
about camo, “was how different the camouflage of the French looked from
the camouflage of the Germans, and then once we came across some very
neat camouflage and it was American. The idea was the same, but as after
all it was different nationalities who did it the difference was
inevitable. The color schemes were different, the way of placing them
was different, it made plain the whole theory of art and its
inevitability.” The national differences of camo are evident in the
German flecktarn (Fig. 1), redolent of picnics in the Alps, and the
jungley tiger stripe (Fig. 2) so beloved of Central American and African
dictators—think Manuel Noriega.
The camo gurus at Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corp take a very different
approach. Instead of realism, they employ the mathematics of fractals to
design patterns. They might be seen as conceptualists beside the
realists of Realtree or Mossy Oak.
Computers are also key to the camo patterns developed by
Hyperstealth, which recently sold one of its patterns to the Kingdom of
Jordan. The principals of the company, its president Guy Cramer and
consultant Lt. Col. Timothy R. O’Neill, Ph.D., United States Army
(Ret.), developed their patterns by running multiple fractals (graphics
with feed back loops) and advanced algorithms through computers in a
process they call Camouflage Designated Enhanced Fractal Geometry.
The algorithms that generate the patterns developed by Hyperstealth
belong to the mathematics of emergent patterns—the stuff of evolution
and fractals, very popular these days with designers. They are not just
shapes abstracted from nature, but processes abstracted from nature.
Selecting from the results of this process is an activity like that
of Jhane Barnes, choosing from computer-designed patterns for her
fabrics. It is a reminder that because all design involves choice it
inevitably also involves style.
Should designers recapture terminology that has become muddled in controversy? Heller argues a good design phrase is too important to waste.
Section: Inspiration -
design thinking, critique, Voice
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