Posted on 4 May 2020 in aesthetics, art, objects, war

Gifts From Arms Fairs

At arms fairs, many companies give away complimentary gifts – stress balls in the shape of bombs and grenades, rubber tanks, condoms, and sweets with slogans. What might these objects tell us about the way weapons are regarded in the arms industry?


ISRF Early Career Fellow 2017-18

At the far end of the DLR line, below Canary Wharf where the latest stock prices flicker around electronic screens on the South Colonnade, lies the ExCel centre. A concrete, windowless edifice, it is designed to act as a fortress when necessary.[1] It is owned by the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, a private development and management company based in the United Arab Emirates. Every two years, it is filled with weapons—tanks, missiles, bombs, armed drones, military bulldozers, helicopters, grenades, guns, bullets, and the euphemistically named ‘less lethal weaponry’: tear gas, rubber bullets, and protective clothing for the security services administering it. This is DSEI, the Defence Security Exhibition International, the world’s largest arms fair. It was established in 1998, and now hosts over 1,600 exhibitors and 36,000 visitors from 50 countries.[2] But, despite its scale, the event is exclusive. It is closed to the general public and surrounded by police and security guards. Guests include repressive regimes and countries involved in aggressive wars. Hostesses welcome clients with drinks, snacks, and gifts—stress balls in the shape of bombs and grenades, rubber tanks and military vehicles, a facsimile armament shell, jellied fighter jets, sweets and pens stamped with arms company names, condoms promising ‘the ultimate protection’, and toffees with the slogan ‘welcome to hell’. 

I have collected gifts from DSEI and similar arms fairs for over ten years. They horrify and intrigue me. They give a visceral jolt. They beguile with humour, seduce with sugar, and flatter with the promise of sexual liaisons and career prowess. They give a snapshot of the culture of an arms fair—its hospitality, alliances, camaraderie, and casual commodification of weaponry. 

In the introduction to The Global Arms Trade Handbook Andrew Tan suggests there is surprisingly little research into the arms industry. He attributes this to a shift to post-positivist approaches in security studies and argues that ‘a more positivist analysis’ is needed to ‘provide a better description of the current phenomenon that is the arms trade’.[3] But perhaps the opposite is the case. Perhaps, the arms trade is under-researched because it slips out of view of academic methods, both positivist and post-positivist. The Global Arms Trade Handbook contains invaluable analysis of the arms industry, but whether this fully describes the ‘current phenomenon that is the arms trade’ is another matter.[4]

The arms trade defies reason. At the end of the Cold War, there was a widespread expectation that military production would convert to civilian purposes as part of a ‘peace dividend’.[5] Instead, arms companies merged into multinationals, expanded beyond national boundaries, and focussed on international sales. Yet, governments continued to give the arms industry an unusual degree of support in comparison to other sectors, despite the international emphasis of production and sales. The UK government pays for weapons research and development, brokers deals, lobbies clients, and subsidises exports.[6] This makes little strategic or economic sense. When the UK goes to war it is sometimes fighting the same weapons it has helped to develop and sell. In the 2011 Libyan conflict, the UK, France, Colonel Gaddafi, and the Libyan rebels were all using missiles manufactured by the European multinational MBDA. Tony Blair helped to broker a deal between MBDA and Gaddafi in 2007.[7] Meanwhile, the arms industry creates relatively few jobs in comparison to the subsidies it receives.[8]

At arms fairs, many companies give away complimentary gifts – stress balls in the shape of bombs and grenades, rubber tanks, condoms, and sweets with slogans. What might these objects tell us about the way weapons are regarded in the arms industry?

Sam Perlo-Freeman links government support of the arms industry to the ‘military industrial complex’, a network of arms manufacturers, politicians and the military with a vested interest in weapons production.[9] These networks are sensuous rather than reasoned. They are felt as the seductions and threats of power, bonds of loyalty, a desire for profit and status. They are acknowledged with a handshake, authorised with a suit, sealed with a drink and gift. These practices are aesthetic in the Greek sense of aesthesis: felt, sensed and enacted. 

My research is influenced by Dada, an art movement that emerged in opposition to WW1. Dada artists rejected the idea that art should be detached from society and used aesthetic methods to strip back the polite veneer of the culture that had justified the war. As the Dada poet Hugo Ball wrote, ‘It can probably be said that for us art is not an end in itself—more pure naïveté is necessary for that—but it is an opportunity for true perception and criticism of the times we are living in’.[10] Dada was a diverse movement, but characterised by an emphasis on performance, satire, and absurdity. George Grosz walked through Berlin dressed as Dada Death with a formal coat, cane, and skull mask; Hugo Ball recited poetry while wearing exaggerated outfits and waving flags. The use of performance implied that politics is played out through the body, gestures, and props as much through words, while the element of absurdity suggests politics is far from logical.

I visit DSEI and similar arms fairs by dressing up as an arms trader with a suit, heels, and fake pearls; then wander up and down the aisles gazing at weapons. Separated from the defence needs of any one country, missiles and tanks are treated as commodities, part of the stock prices that flicker across the South Colonnade screens. Marx argued when an object becomes a commodity, its use value is eclipsed by exchange value, and it becomes a focus for fantasies. He described this in relation to a table: ‘But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.’[11]

At arms fairs, many companies give away complimentary gifts – stress balls in the shape of bombs and grenades, rubber tanks, condoms, and sweets with slogans. What might these objects tell us about the way weapons are regarded in the arms industry?

At DSEI, weapons are presented as transcendent. A Brimstone missile is suspended under changing coloured lights in front of a photograph of the London skyline. The promotional literature describes it as ‘the most accurate precision strike missile on the market. When you have to hit a target, stay within budget and don’t have time to waste, Brimstone is your answer.’[12] The Brimstone missile is currently being used by Saudi Arabia in airstrikes on Yemen. Yet, here, it is presented as the key to business efficiency. A gas mask manufacturer hands out condoms with the slogan ‘the ultimate protection’. On a neighbouring stand, ‘Team UK’ offers advice on export licenses with ‘government and industry working together’ and ‘international co-operation and partnerships’. Nearby, a recruitment company promises new jobs and contacts in the industry. Weapons are presented as facilitating success, virility, collaboration, and career progression.

As I walk past, I am offered a bomb-shaped stress ball. It does not look like a contemporary bomb. A black sphere with a string fuse, it is a symbol for a bomb, a sign. Camus suggested, ‘The society of merchants can be defined as a society in which things disappear in favour of signs’.[13] We know from Saussure that signs have shifting meanings.[14] Soft and pliable, the stress ball embodies the shifting meanings of bombs in an arms fair. It is, first and foremost, a gift, an object of exchange. The round shape evokes cartoon bombs, and shared cultural jokes and memories. Its secondary function as a stress ball flatters the recipient that they have a high-pressured career. The bomb shape is simply a vessel for these allusions and fantasies.

The stress ball epitomises the industry’s disavowal of the material impact of weapons on lives, homes, and communities when used. Yet, I accept it with a smile. A gift demands a polite response. Lewis Hyde suggests, ‘gifts tend to be an economy of small groups, of extended families, small villages, close-knit communities, brotherhoods and, of course, of tribes.’[15] The stress ball confirms my membership of the industry. Security cameras scan the crowd for adverse reactions. Whatever misgivings lurk beneath the surface, no one shows them, including me. 

In the centre of DSEI, the BAE Systems subsidiary Bofors holds an extravagant promotion. A video screen is linked live to a weapons testing facility in Sweden. There is a countdown, then an armoured vehicle explodes in a spectacle of light and flames. A banner over the stand says, ‘hell for your product, heaven for your investment’. The test centre promises to give weapons ‘hell’ to insure their success as products. Here, weapons are significant primarily as ‘your investment’. Around the stand, hostesses hand out toffees with the slogan ‘welcome to hell’. The typeface evokes the stenciled lettering used on boxes of explosives. 

Outside DSEI, the toffees take another meaning. Walter Benjamin suggested that advertisements, viewed slightly out of context, give a more accurate picture of capitalism than criticism. ‘What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving red neon says—but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.’[16] Viewed in a puddle, an advertisement shows the tawdry lights of capitalism without the seductive detail of its promises. Encountered without the promotional video, the Bofors sweets offers the hell of war as a confection.

At arms fairs, many companies give away complimentary gifts – stress balls in the shape of bombs and grenades, rubber tanks, condoms, and sweets with slogans. What might these objects tell us about the way weapons are regarded in the arms industry?

Dr Jill Gibbon

Senior Lecturer, Leeds School Of Arts, Leeds Beckett University

Jill Gibbon is a politically engaged artist with research interests in war, art, and aesthetics.


[1] A. Minton, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City (London: Penguin, 2009), 13.

[2] See DSEI, Welcome to Defence and Security Equipment International (2020), accessible at

[3] A.T.H. Tan (ed.), The Global Arms Trade Handbook (London: Routledge, 2010), 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] E. Sköns, ‘The US Defence Industry After the Cold War’, in: A.T.H. Tan (ed.), The Global Arms Trade Handbook(London: Routledge, 2010): 235-249, 237.

[6] S. Perlo-Freeman, Special Treatment: UK Government Support for the Arms Industry and Trade (Stockholm: SIPRI and CAAT, 2016), 4, 28.

[7] CAAT, BAE and Libya (2010), accessible at

[8] P. Holden, Indefensible: Seven Myths That Sustain the Global Arms Trade (London: Zed Books, 2016), 84–89; Perlo-Freeman, Special Treatment, 7–13.

[9] S. Perlo-Freeman, ‘The United Kingdom Arms Industry in a Globalized World’, in: A.T.H. Tan (ed.), The Global Arms Trade Handbook (London: Routledge, 2010): 250–265, 261.

[10] H. Ball, Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary by Hugo Ball (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 58.

[11] K. Marx, Capital, Vol 1, transl. S. Moore & E. Aveling (1867), accessible at, 47. 

[12] MBDA Brimstone: Air to Ground Missile (2017), accessible at 

[13] A. Camus, Create Dangerously (Milton Keynes: Penguin, 2018), 7.

[14] F. Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[15] L. Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (New York: Vintage, 2007), xxi.

[16] W. Benjamin, Reflections (New York: Schocken, 2007), 86.