‘Out at sea is a ship. Like everything else in the world, she is to the eye a combination of lines and angles. In which direction is she heading? North-northwest, you say. How do you know? You judge the course chiefly by the motion of the superstructure, a thing that bears a certain angular relationship to the hull. Destroy these angles, or substitute others for them. The angles by which we judge relative motion are not those to which our eyes have been accustomed; the ship seems to be heading in a direction that is not her real course.

Look at such a ship through the periscope, and you will be dazzled—dazzled not in the sense that you find it painfully difficult to see, but in the sense that you are deceived. An error of a few degrees in course, of two knots in speed, or of two hundred to three hundred yards in range is enough to throw out the aim of the man who gives the signal to launch a torpedo.’

So wrote the exquisitely named Waldemar Kaempffert in 1919, elucidating the value and mechanics of dazzle painting, a radical camouflage technique that was widely implemented in the First World War, and found some use in the Second, but was phased out as surveillance technology loosened its reliance on vision, and the understated ping of radar took over. Kaempffert illustrates step by step the way that dazzle painting progressively destroys the angles of an outline, his whole article augmented by the cut-out comb-overs of his models and their models.

The development of military technology is a history of distance. From the humble beginnings of sticks and stones, we graduated first to the cleaner kill of ballistics, an eventually to the modern-day experience of fighter pilots, whose missions are themselves mediated by a game-like interface that turns objects into images, perception into data. Dazzle painting was designed to capitalise on precisely this way in which military violence increasingly comes from above, below, from somewhere far-off, not here. It takes direction from the contemporary vorticist movement, communicating that same violence and sense of disrupted perspective. In fact the two worlds met tangibly, not only in the manifesto of Whyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, which celebrates a modern imperative to ‘BLESS the vast planetary abstraction of the OCEAN […] THIS ISLAND MUST BE CONTRASTED WITH THE BLEAK WAVES’ (subsuming it into my prose can’t do justice to the original. See here for the dynamism of its native environment in Blast), but also in the work of Edward Wadsworth, who riffed directly on the abstractions of dazzle painted ships in the forms and subjects of his own work, such as this scene of a vessel in harbour.

Most camouflage works by either crypsis (hiding the object) or mimesis (making the object resemble something else). But at sea, the problem arises of how to adequately conceal an object against the constantly changing background of the sea and sky. To disguise the object in one of these two environments is to make it undesirably conspicuous in the other. Whilst some persisted in trying to make ships ‘disappear,’ the marine painter Norman Wilkinson suggested that the task was impossible. Wilkinson’s innovation, no doubt honed by his experience as a visual artist, was to stop thinking about the problem from the perspective of the ship – how to make something vanish into its surroundings – and to approach it through the distant eyes of the aggressor – how to distort the way it is perceived. Wilkinson’s invention

rejects the challenge of disguise altogether, and aims instead for the illusory.

The aggressors in this case were the German u-boats of the First World War, as British ships were being lost to these submerged predators at an alarming rate. Because they hunted from afar, the u-boats’ torpedoes were fired in anticipation of the targeted ship’s movements, aimed ahead of its course. The operator of the periscope – a further technology, a further mediation – relied on calculations of the target’s speed, size and direction of travel. Dazzle painting sought to short-circuit this clarity by breaking up a ship’s outline. In part an extension of the ‘Helmholtz square’ illusion, which had long demonstrated stripes’ capacity to distort perceptions of size, each new line introduced a new possible outline, and in turn suggested to the onlooker an altogether different vessel. They broke up the angles that usually make obvious the distinction of a ship’s bow from its stern, and often included a false bow wave, making it hard to judge even the direction in which the ship was travelling. Moreover, the disorientating effect of these optical illusions is compounded when the object travels at high speeds, when targeting accuracy is of even greater importance.

Wilkinson headed up a newly formed ‘dazzle department’ in the navy, and by the end of the war the British fleet was interspersed with some 4000 merchant ships and 400 other vessels that had been dazzle painted. No colour photographs exist, but detailed plans and black and white images give a vivid impression of what these incredible ships must have looked like. Bizarrely, for all the investment it received (each ship had to have a unique design, to avoid the ostensibly random patterns becoming a uniform in their own right) dazzle painting was never actually proved to work. What does however seem clear is its positive effect on the crews’ morale. And who could blame them? Would you rather spend your life on this or this?

Though its military effectiveness remains in question, dazzle painting seems to have found a new outlet online, as people grow increasingly uncomfortable with the digital world’s ability to recognise them like an old, cold friend. Adam Harvey has used Wilkinson’s basic principles to develop his ‘counter technology, to protect individual privacy for everyone’. This diagram shows how patterns can be applied to the face to disrupt the regular perception of light and shade, of line and colour.

Harvey’s designs are reactions to a world in which recognition is no longer a signifier of intimacy, in which distance reaches its final, infinite stage, and ceases to matter in the face of the penetrative abundance and availability of information. The hostility between man and machine may lack the political or ideological charge of human warfare, but the impulse to obscure oneself is a shared one, as relevant today as it was in 1914.