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David London

Mobile Aesthetics & Social Movements: Thinkspace

1 – 3 p.m. Polycentric sessions and screenings, San Francisco Art Institute, Lecture hall and classrooms

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WTF: The Exhibition

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: Word from Iraq” was an audio/visual exhibition of the images and stories of soldiers serving in Iraq. It sought total transparency. The visual aspect of the exhibition came in the form of 12 floor-to-ceiling murals that, when viewed from a distance, presented benign or, at least, familiar images of war. As visitors approached the murals, they realized they were actually looking at photo mosaics composed of over 5,000 individual images from soldiers, media and government sources. The only criteria imposed on their selection involved achieving balance between negative and positive, triumph and tragedy, human and hardware, soldiers and civilians. They were randomly assigned according to shape, tone and color. They were presented without spin, interpretation, judgment or politics. The exhibition celebrated the courage and acknowledged the sacrifices made by the men and women serving in Iraq, but did not offer any observations, opinions or judgments about the war. Instead, it forced visitors to form their own conclusions about the realities the soldiers experienced. The audio portion of the exhibition featured readings of soldiers’ letters, stories and online journals (milblogs). Again, the object was to gain a better understanding of what soldiers are experiencing in Iraq.

Soldiers have always been reluctant to share their experiences – either for security reasons or because they have no desire to relive the experience. Many argue: “If you haven’t been there, you couldn’t possibly understand”. Of course, they’re right. Stripped of the racism, romanticism and sectarianism, what happens in war is violent, ugly and generally incomprehensable. However, if those who have been there refuse to talk about it, how can the rest of us possibly understand? Some wars may be necessary, but all wars result in death and destruction. Speaking of a distant and too often forgotten war, Wilfred Owen put it this way:

If in smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro Patria mori.[4]

Soldiers also complain that the media misinterprets, misrepresents or distorts what is happening in its coverage of wars. Again, how can we hope to avoid war if the news media sanitizes it and the entertainment media romanticizes it? If our only impressions of war come second hand from sources that have ulterior motives (whether commercial or political), how can we understand?

For a short time in the current war, this seemed to change. Milblogs were created to address soldiers’ complaints about mass media coverage of the war. In effect, they eliminated the media and gave soldiers direct access to those who get their news online. With direct access, milblogs also threatened the military’s ability to control information about the war. Ironically, what began as an effort to present a more balanced or “positive” view was considered a threat to security. In a series of operational security directives, severe restrictions were placed on milbloggers.[5] According to Matthew Burden, one of the earliest and best known milbloggers:

This is the final nail in the coffin for combat blogging. No more military bloggers writing about their experiences in the combat zone. This is the best PR the military has – its most honest voice out of the war zone. And it’s being silenced.[6]

Of course, the military insists it's a question of security.

The internet provides no limit on access to information. Thus, in theory, a soldier posting a milblog could inadvertently supply the enemy with details that could compromise an operation. However, in practice, there is no question that the security measures take the form of censorship; more intriguing, but difficult to prove, is the possibility of political motivation. Because soldiers are now required to clear their postings, the directives have stifled criticism of the war.

As indicated, the exhibition did not make any overt statement about the war. Visitors were left to form their own opinions. We deliberately avoided offering personal opinions - out of respect for the soldiers and visitors to the exhibition. We hoped to avoid misrepresenting the former or misleading the latter. Instead, we sought to confront visitors with an image that, when viewed from a distance, offered comforting familiarity or suggestions of tragedy: an American flag waving in a breeze (Old Glory), a soldier kissing a letter (Letter), a soldier kissing his girlfriend (Kiss), a father embracing his two daughters (Homecoming), a soldier with a tear running down his face (Tear), Canadian soldiers carrying the flag-draped coffin (Canada), a soldier carrying a dead baby (Baby), a soldier posing with a group of children (Smiles), a group of Iraqi boys “mugging” for the camera (Boys), a group of Iraqi girls posing shyly (Girls), Saddam Hussein gesturing at his trial (Saddam), George Bush giving his “victory wave” (Airbush).

These images served as the masters for the large photo mosaics. They were taken by photojournalists or military photographers and posted on the Internet. The selection was random – other than that we were looking for images that worked aesthetically and represented the media’s portrayal of the war. Obviously, the selections were subjective and familiar to the point of being visual clichés. They served as visual shorthand to help the “folks back home” understand what is going on or, more importantly, to accept a particular view of what is going on. They served to establish and reinforce what Sun Tzu described as one of the five constants that govern the art of war: “The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with the ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger”. As such, they are propaganda.

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