Karina Aguilera-Skvirsky
Stephanie Andrews
Bernard J. Canniffe
Matthew Fisher
Rainer Ganahl
Joy Garnett
Ilona Granet
Marc Lepson
Max Liboiron
David Luke
Pamela Matsuda-Dunn
Robin Michaels
Lina Pallotta
Michael A. Rippens
Dread Scott
Natacha Seideneck
Therese Stowell
 
 

 

This is for Real: War while you watch

Keith Miller

 

"You don't understand the humiliation of it – to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable –that somebody is watching..."
-Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, 1967

 

In the past few decades it has been common to speak of war and its representation as spectacle. The consumers of this theater are also the players and the distinction between the two is clearly blurred. If all is theater, how do know what, if anything, is real? When we can see the reports of civilian and military casualties, collateral damage and 'friendly fire,' one must get the sense that if this is a theater then it has most certainly passed the limits of taste. The act of watching, through which the viewer feels participant, transformed from inactive to active agent, is in a sense the defining gesture of our time. We need not look far for something to watch and with everyday life so stubbornly quotidian, the idea that at least a Reality on TV might be more active and interesting, apparently gives us hope (or at least something to watch). The consequences of this theater are, of course, tragic. It is not spectacular popcorn that spills, but blood, buildings and people.

 

With the velocity of contemporary life, the images of a distant and occasionally all too close war is brought too us at break-neck speed. The onslaught of images is seductive. We are made rapt by its sheer overwhelming beauty. Of those who saw it, who does not remember the technological joy and glowing ecstasy of the night bombings in the Persian Gulf War in 1991? And this regardless of your support or opposition to the conflict. The beauty and seduction of these images is an attack that leaves the viewer almost defenseless. The choreography and elegant composition make it undeniable in its force. We are left silenced. Mutes, we answer with a tacit awe.

 

"We cannot approach this spectacle head on; it assails us with a superabundance of impressions, each richer than the last, but in a language which it seems that we no longer possess...
"What is most impressive about this spectacle... is the admirable intellectuality that one feels sparkling throughout... From a gesture to a cry to a sound there is no transition: everything corresponds, as if through mysterious passageways etched right in to the brain!"
–Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, 1931

 

It is this overwhelming onslaught that the individual confronts.

 

While images of war are present since the beginnings of the history of art, the introduction of immediate media – camera, television and the internet- have transformed [war's] representation and its reception. Matthew Brady's photos, so influential on the psyche of the American people during the civil war, offered concrete proof that atrocities were occurring, even if, as is now known, those photos were often staged. The dubious origin of what we see does not call into question its veracity as we see it. It is this immediacy that is so troubling. The very truth of what we may know or believe strongly top be a lie, confronts us with one of the great paradoxes of our time. How can we contradict a lie that looks truer than the truth? The production of the truth, or of the Real, can be paralyzing blow to the critical faculties of a people or an individual. The first casualty of war may be truth (Senator Hiram Johnson, 1917), but the first victor in the representation of war is a newer truth, however unrelated to that lost in warıs first casualty. While the representation of war may seem inevitable, its truths so well constructed as to be undeniable, it is the glory of this production that entices us. We are drawn to it, if indeed we are, because it gives us the opportunity to participate. Each of us buys the lottery ticket that grants us rights to participate. Our moments of fame, so often and so long denied, that come to us as we watch the glow of the conquest, the neatness of the coverage and the completeness of the briefings. Told what is transparently dubious, doubt is stifled as we are first overwhelmed by its complete assault on our senses (we are in shock, we are awed) and then we are titillated by the possibility that we are not idle viewers of a distant drama but instead patriotic participants of a national campaign to save our identities.

 

"...The lines between real entertainment and political entertainment blur and finally vanish. The world as we see it in wartime, becomes high drama. It is romanticized. A moral purpose is infused into the trivial and the commonplace. And we, who yesterday felt maligned, alienated, and ignored, are part of a nation of self-appointed agents of the divine will. We await our chance to walk on stage."
-Chris Hedges, War is a force that gives us meaning, 2002

 

 

The transformation of the audience that occurs within the glow of war's representation also occurs within the subjects and objects of representation. While the viewer is transformed into potential player on a stage beyond her/his world, the actors are reconfigured into monumental characters in a drama of great proportions (of a Biblical or Koranic nature even). While we may attempt to understand Œthe enemyı, we do not see through their eyes. "At no moment in the spectacle of slaughter does the camera eye ever waver from our point of view to theirs. We always look outward at the outrage of their savage aggression." (Tom Englehardt, The end of victory culture) It is precisely the black and white nature of this representation, seeming as if made of a world of nuance, backed by myriad facts hidden behind the seen, that makes it so complex. While it is made simple, it is also made complex. It is understood as definite and inevitable, our determination unshakable, yet our intentions desires and fears are always less so.

 

According to Susan Sontag "When we are afraid we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures." ("In Plato's Cave," from On Photography, 1973) In reference to the photographic still camera, this may be true. In reference to the post 9/11 America, the oppositional nature of fear and nostalgia have been merged and instead both guide our TV cameras and our missiles. We shoot because we are nostalgic –for a pre-attack paradise, before the fall from our idyllic moment when, sure, we repeat, things may have been bad, but not like now. We photograph, and videotape because we are afraid. Our fear gives justification to the countless cameras that capture us every day. The TV assures that the tragedy we hear about is real, is distant. The loss of life, apparently more or less meaningful according to country of origin, is made concrete as we see images of its aftermath on TV. It is also kept safely away. While we await our turn to enter the stage of this heroic drama, if given the choice, we choose not to enter into the scene of our own mortality's aria.

 

...

 

Against the backdrop of this overwhelming drama, artists respond. The gnawing silence that takes over a society, made up by the indignant shouts of the rabid, the mouths agape of the incredulous, and the dry and factual voice of the news conference grows until a creative response is demanded. Within the radiance of the spectacular, the fear is any voice, any image lends only to the spectacle. It is within this rubric that the work of these 17 artists stands. It does not naively deny the overwhelming dominance of the televised image, nor does it deny the distorting effect media representation has on truth. Neither does it cry vacuously into the night, mourning its loss for none to hear. Instead, it works within the framework of the contemporary, challenges its mores, its desires and its fears. What remains between these two poles, is the human and its absence. While we can concede that all is spectacle, that the real is simulation, we can never deny that we are human, and finally, that is what is Real.

 

 

 

"We pledged our identities, secure in the conventions of our trade, that someone would be watching. And then, gradually, no one was. We were caught high and dry. It was not until the murderer's long soliloquy that we were able to look aroundŠand all the while the murderous King addressed the horizon..."
- Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead