Art as Jujitsu

Posted January 3, 2007

Categories: Art, Articles

They look like portals that deliver people from one planet to another, as in a science fiction movie. You turn a corner in Manhattan and there they are: full-sized figures in full military uniform emblazoned on graffiti-laced walls. The faces of the U.S. soldiers appearing in these arresting images are blurred as if in great pain. They are letting go of their assault rifles. And either they, or a pair of disembodied hands, are pulling back their camouflage shirts Superman-style to reveal the message underneath: “Bring Me Back.” But the portals are not working. The soldiers are stopped just as they are about to step onto the New York sidewalks.

The French artist WK Interact has been placing these images around New York as part of his Bring Me Back series. It’s not the only recent artwork targeting the war in Iraq.

In Panic in Detroit, Shane Carroll translates body counts into startling visual representations, such as the number of U.S. casualties by state. In dead-in-Iraq, Joseph DeLappe re-engineered the Pentagon’s own video game, America’s Army, to display the names of real U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq above images of shooters and fallen bodies. If you want to download and print out posters to plaster around town, check out the copy-right-free art at Another Poster for Peace.

The imagery of war is powerful. At best, artists are engaged in a visual jujitsu, using the power of violence to convey the tragedy of violence. At the current Istanbul Biennale, as I report in The Art of Anti-War, artists around the world continue to take aim at the U.S. occupation of Iraq. But just as writers depend on military language — “targeting,” “take aim” — artists also rely on the vocabulary of war to make their points.

This dependency is nowhere clearer than the Coke bottle bomb. Half-hidden beneath a staircase inside one of the Biennale’s three main gallery spaces sit two large plastic Coke bottles, taped together and fitted with what looks like a timer, flashing ominously. “There is no nearby label to take the sting out of the intervention by giving it a name, assigning it to an artist, or otherwise enclosing it in a safe package called ‘art,’” I write. “It is anonymous, has clear links to the United States and the global economy, and might go off at any time — to destroy itself and the Biennale. In security-conscious Istanbul, where political violence is a recent memory if not a present reality, and in a world where we are constantly reminded that terrorism is no joking matter, this Coke bomb is pure effrontery.”

War grabs the headlines, and anti-war art grabs our attention. They do so with some of the same tools: guns, bombs, and body counts. Does the visual jujitsu of anti-war art expose the horrors of violence or inadvertently reinforce our collective fascination with bloodletting?

Fingering the “Winners”

The Bush administration, as several commentators have pointed out, is “losing” Iraq. So, who exactly is winning?

One answer is Saudi Arabia. As FPIF contributor Dahr Jamail argues in The Royal Treatment, nearly half of the foreigners attacking U.S. soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and Iraqi security forces are Saudi. Meanwhile, the Saudi government is rushing in to build mosques in Sunni communities and supply public services that the Iraqi authorities simply can’t provide.

A Kurdish-American doctor tells Jamail of Saudi influence in Kurdistan: “‘Islamists, from Saudi Arabia, are offering money to young Kurds, visiting their schools, marrying Kurdish girls and taking them back to the kingdom,’ Sayadi tells me, ‘Kurds have always been quite secular, none of us practiced the hijab but now Kurdish women are being forced to do this. There is segregation of men and women. People in sheer desperation and hope for aid are turning more fundamentalist. The environment is ripe for fundamentalism, and Saudi influence is increasing rapidly. They are creating a hope-filled impression amongst the people that Islamic assertion is the way to resist the West.’”

Another “winner” is Iran, which no longer faces the enemy it fought for most of the 1980s. The Bush administration has castigated the Iranian government for its “irrational” policies in the region. FPIF contributor Ryan Carr disagrees. “American policymakers must understand that Iranian behavior is not irrational just because it supports radical Islamist elements — indeed, in Afghanistan rational U.S. leaders pursued similar policies during the 1980s when it was strategically expedient to do so,” Carr writes in Iran: Irrationality in the Eye of the Beholder? “The United States must not confuse unwelcome behavior with acts of irrationality. While Iran’s actions pose a strategic challenge to the United States, they remain decidedly rational. From Iran’s perspective, efforts to frustrate U.S. aims in Iraq and Afghanistan, or divide Western opinion by exploiting the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, only serves to shift the strategic landscape in its favor.”

And then, of course, the U.S. national security state has benefited from the Iraq War. But cracks in the edifice are starting to appear, as FPIF’s military affairs analyst Dan Smith reports. At the same time that Gen. Petraeus was preparing to give his thumbs up to the surge, a U.S. district court judge ruled that “national security letters,” used to force communication companies to divulge information about private data, are unconstitutional. And then came a report from the Justice Department’s Inspector General (IG) on the U.S. terrorism list. “Created in 2004, the list now holds some 800,000 records and is expanding at a rate of 20,000 new records every month,” Smith writes in A Welcome Page in the Newspaper. “But the IG’s audit notes that the mistakes that permeate the list may actually hamper efforts to identify and capture terrorists — not to mention the inconvenience caused to innocent people trying to travel.”

Africa and History

It’s not only the military industrial complex at home that benefits from the Bush administration’s “global war on terror.” In Africa, too, militaries are leaping at the opportunity to upgrade themselves with U.S. money.

FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan describes a range of Pentagon initiatives that, taken together, represent a quantum leap in the militarization of Africa. “The U.S. base in Djibouti is just one plank in a new platform of military engagement in Africa,” she writes in The New Military Frontier: Africa. “There is also the Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), which Congress funded at $500 million over six years in 2005. There are also increased naval maneuvers in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, and establishment of a P3 Orion aerial surveillance station in Algeria. And now, as though the Pentagon does not have enough on its plate, President George W. Bush has established United States African Command (AFRICOM) as the newest U.S. military sphere of influence.”

Finally, in our second Fiesta feature this week, E. Ethelbert Miller talks with writer Anya Achtenberg about her latest novel on Cambodia. Are some histories more difficult than others, he asks?

“Perhaps all histories are difficult, although I think that some groups have identified themselves with a narrative of ‘their history’ that comforts them, gives them a sense of forward movement, of grand accomplishment, of entitlement, a narrative that might allow them to ignore the actual historical road to their current position,” Anya Achtenberg replies. “It may be that as we see the livable environment shrink and the tolls from war rise, we will all be forced to interrogate our histories. I think it is perhaps not that some histories are easy or uncomplicated, but that some people, some groups, seem to have a more uncomplicated relationship to their history, built on the sanctioned or even unconscious exclusion of the consequences on others of that history.”

And therein lies the difference between the art of war and the art of antiwar. The first denies the consequence of violence while the second exposes it.

FPIF, September 24, 2007

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