One genre of “outsider art” I’m most interested in is the unit patches and other emblems that military special operations groups and “black” units wear on their uniforms. These can be rare glimpses into some of the niches of military culture. One of the sculptures in my new body of work is inspired by designs made by PSYOP units…

Because Physical Wounds Heal…, 2023
Mixed Media
50 × 50 in.

The latin inscription on the sculpture is a translation of a slogan widely used in PSYOP units: “You’ve just been fucked by PSYOP. Because physical wounds heal.” A second message on the sculpture’s outer ring is available for viewers to attempt to decode.

Throughout their history, PSYOP units have conducted missions such as Operation Wandering Soul, which involved making audio recordings of “ancestral ghosts” that were played from loudspeakers in patrol boats and helicopters during the Vietnam war. In the 1980s, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations worked with Richard Doty to generate deception campaigns intending to manipulate and monitor UFO investigators.

Here’s the basic “generic” PSYOP crest. The figure of the horse is common in PSYOPS iconography. It has two meanings. The “knight” chess piece moves in a circuitous fashion and can attack from behind enemy lines. The second is a reference to the myth of the Trojan horse. The lightning swords are represent the ability to strike quickly.

Another figure commonly associated with PSYOP is the ghost. This references the “Ghost Army” of World War II, a group that conducted large-scale deception operations using inflatable tanks and materiel, loudspeakers and radio broadcasts, fake “generals,” and other ruses designed to make things appear that weren’t there. The “Ghost Army” was staffed by painters, designers, and architects including artist Ellsworth Kelly and fashion designer Bill Blass.

The ghost logo is still very much in use, sometimes in connection with the figure of the horse.

Things get lively pretty quickly when you start looking at PSYOP iconography… Here’s the logo for the 304th PSYOP company based out of Sacramento, CA.

Here’s a patch for the 609th Air Operations Center, based at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, and Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. The slogan here is along the lines of “to sweat, to change, to destroy…” The artwork is taken from a popular youtube meme.

And of course we find the usual grim reapers and other D&D imagery:

In 2011, the Army tried to change the name PSYOP to MISO (Military Information Support Operations). SecDef Robert Gates said “the term PSYOP tends to connote propaganda, brainwashing, manipulation, and deceit” and thought it was a bad look. The rank-and-file revolted – they didn’t like having the same name as a bowl of soup. In 2017, the Army changed it back to PSYOP.

People have had a lot of fun making meme designs around PSYOP…

Of course, the art of PSYOP isn’t primarily about making patches, and it’s not a coincidence that artists have been involved in it from the beginning.

In the past decade, online psychological operations have become ubiquitous. The documents leaked by Edward Snowden included information about a British unit called the “Joint Threat Research Group,” which hired prominent psychologists to aid its online efforts to destroy their target’s reputations and to manipulate online communities and discourse.

The JTRIG slide deck describes the dynamics that contribute to sociality, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and explains how to weaponize those dynamics in order to fracture targeted individuals and communities. It also goes into the relationship between the physiological, psychological, and cultural dimensions of perception and shows how those too can be weaponized. The deck describes techniques utilizing everything from magic tricks to a belief in UFOs in order to persuade targets to believe or act in one way or another.

For more recent examples of the relationship between PSYOPS and aesthetics, consider the infamous “Ghost in the Machine” video produced by the 4th PSYOP Group:

And for a critical reading of how the aesthetics and politics of PSYOPS is all-too-real, check out these essays by @gunseli_yal and and  @ja_ak_rtgr

And for a deeper dive into the wheels-within-wheels logic of possible PSYOP media, see perhaps an example of where the logic of PSYOP is going…

This post is part of a series of posts supporting works from the exhibition You’ve Just Been Fucked by PSYOPS at Pace Gallery, New York.

You can find more information about this project and other posts in the series here.