ARCHIVES AND MEMORIALS AS SILENT TESTIMONIES
National states rely on memories of victories, heroes and their leaders. In order to register a specific event, memorials are often cast in bronze, poured concrete or carved in marble. Texts are inscribed in bold letters commemorating a loss, a success or a major national event. They are placed in prominent spaces and protected by their beautiful surrounding landscape. Memorials do not just sit in place and wait to be appreciated, to the contrary, states regularly organize people to view these memorials together in order to teach them who they are while reminding them of their duties as citizens. States write their histories in a specific way; and historiography becomes a discursive instrument that aims to unify a nation, religious group or community through common interests. These official histories can only be constructed by selecting, organizing, and including some people while excluding and ignoring many. This is not accomplished through vulgar mechanisms, but by sophisticated historical tools that characterize how archives are constructed and transformed into memorials.
How can one deal with silent traces that are not captured by these official histories? What are the critical tools that one has to employ in order to counteract the urgent historical task of writing our own histories –not the ones that are initated by states – and how one can escape from the discursive domination set by institutional structures?
San Francisco-based artist Emily Prince’s American Servicemen and Women Who Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan (but not Including the Wounded, nor the Iraqis nor the Afghanis) from 2004-07, documents over 5,000 American soldiers who died in recent wars. Thousands of hand drawn portraits of passport photos are color-coded based on the skin tone of the soldiers and organized according to the states where the soldiers were originally from. The work is presented in two sections: a large map composed of drawings that connect dead soldiers to their home cities and an archive of individual files in boxes containing the rest of the soldiers. The public is encouraged to go through these files and their encounter with thousands of dead faces becomes an intimate account of the artist’s engagement with the grim reality of war [i]. Prince’s work calls attention to her meticulous production of thousands of individual depictions of faces and is analogous to Maya Lin’s the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Lin’s similarly well-designed installation addresses the war by engraving 58,261 dead soldiers’ names onto granite surfaces. Both works employ a meditative – rather than a celebratory– approach, and provide a very personal encounter with the idea of death by placing each soldier’s identity on the memorial.
While Lin’s Vietnam memorial dimly implies millions of dead Vietnamese civilians by providing a humbling experience to its visitors, Price chose a rather direct approach; in a small caption at the entrance of the space, the public is informed that “Neither the Iraqis nor the Afghanis are pictured”. This disproportionate representation functions as a disclaimer and creates an immediate strain and discomfort with the work, as we are all well aware of the fact that there are thousands, maybe millions of Iraqis affected during the recent wars. Prince’s conceptual framework of the work does not allow this gap to exist. This main shortcoming of the work is similar to the approach of mainstream news coverage. The news pans from individually identified western subjects to the “global south” population; the numbers of deaths are simply rounded in decimals and pronounced as hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions. The terrible conditions in which war victims are forced to live are usually covered as a side stories. While in Iraq and Afghanistan the number of deaths accumulates at an unaccountable rate, the US public is informed about the actual numbers of soldier casualties every evening. Proper burial ceremonies are conducted by the military to honor the “serviceman”, TV stations pause “in silence” –i.e. with no background music or voice over– and show pictures of dead soldiers in dedicated time slots, one after the other.
Emily Prince addresses her position in detail on the project’s website:
“As an investigation it is little, and it is incomplete. It addresses only the Americans who have died. Neither the Iraqis nor the Afghanis are pictured. However, this gap in my own representation does not symbolize any deliberate or meaningful exclusion. I am sorry for this absence [ii].”
How do we tackle with this definite absence in representation? Would it even be possible to start such a task of identifying this lack? We understand that the Iraqis and the Afghanis are not pictured in the work; however this is not the real problem; it would be simply impossible to depict them. They cannot be represented as individual subjects but has to be bundled as bunch of people. No names, no pictures, no stories but just rounded numbers. Their body counts are placed on military spreadsheets as collateral damage. The US soldiers on the other hand, those who intentionally signed up for an unjust war, took weapons, fought with an unknown, unrepresentable enemy (and who knew the risks of being a soldier) are now deemed as heroes, by the state, media and political parties. Although I am very sorry about any human loss, I cannot forget the fact that these people have signed up for the job of invading, killing and colonizing. Should I simply ignore their personal accountability as free “Western” subjects? Should I honestly believe that they bear no ethical duties against an unjust war? Should I simply subscribe to the US state’s discursive domination in depicting US soldiers as war victims? On the other hand, millions of people, all civilians who had nothing to do with the politics of war, are the ones suffering the harsh consequences of conflict[iii]. Their future is permanently altered and their cultures are ruptured. Yet a deliberate deception of the actual conditions of a war characterized by the victimization and commemoration of soldiers is a fallacy characterized by a moral attitude.
How can we deal with such disparities without falling into traps of monumentality? Any memorial project is inevitably characterized by a certain sense of religious and nationalist articulation and/or an alignment with state ideology. Memorial highlights, registers and sometimes archives imbue a certain sense of loss by ignoring, eliminating and overriding a wide range of voices of the ‘other’. What is the ground for analyzing and expressing something that does not appear in our vision as a concrete image? The state can not deal with such an uncertainty, its statistical tools and modes of clear binary operations does not allow them to construct a narrative for loss. Even the recently leaked documents from military communications in Iraq, shows only the grim facts from the point of view of the dominant side.
All these questions need to be addressed in terms of an artist’s intellectual responsibility with respect to war. In this regard, silence can be posed as a productive question in relationship to the possibility of speech, hearing and listening. Artistic strategies that deal with such silence are an alternative monumental task. In silence, voices are yet to be recorded, faces are yet to be drawn, conversations are yet to be produced. Silence inherits a multiplicity that is yet to be revealed.SILENT TRACES
Can silence solely be considered in terms of the absence of sound, similar to darkness, which is understood in terms of the absence of light? Contrary to our understanding of total darkness, silence appears to be a subjective generalization. It can be achieved through the subtraction of prevailing audio frequencies rather than the elimination of all sound proper. Absolute silence, which would require vacuum conditions [absence of air], is an impossible condition to experience, as we cannot actually listen with our bare ears. An objective comprehension of various degrees of silence would require sensitive measurement devices. Even in vacuum conditions [of space], there are waves of subatomic particles traveling, penetrating anything in front of their routes and generating electro-magnetic noise affecting the amplification tools. In other words, it is practically impossible to test an absolute silence. One can claim that the only condition in which there is absolute silence, would be within absolute nothingness, where there are no atoms, no subatomic particles, no anti-matter, and no known experience can be collected as such.Today radio astronomers are “listening” to the universe, looking billions of lights years back into space via their large radio telescopes, which are more like microphones capturing signals from the remnants of the origin of our universe. So called “cosmic microwave background radiation”, a faint signal, which is like an environmental/atmospheric sound fills the entire universe and tells stories about various possible beginnings of reality as we know it. Silence is listening. In other words, the only way to transform a silence into a meaningful expression is an active form of listening, through which one recognizes voices, sounds, reflections, reflections of reflections and all those signals travelling in time.Would it be possible to separate one sound from the other, if all is immersed into one omnipresent noise? It seems that, just like cosmologists, one has to distance themselves from all unwanted distractions. A careful reposition would be necessary to describe the minute details of what is heard. One has to start without any prejudgments, to comprehend and depict the complexities within silence. If silence is a multiplicity of sound waves passing through each other, an active enunciation of overlapping conditions allows us to devise a political strategy to uncover potentialities by allowing them to simply appear. However, listening requires holding one’s breath to be able to distinguish a diversity of voices, which is a very difficult task indeed.
[i] I have seen Prince’s work in Venice Biennial, 2007, organized by US curator Robert Storr, who deliberately highlighted war as a reoccurring theme through-out the biennial —an unavoidable political attitude considering the backlash against the US at the time from the people around the world.
[ii] American Servicemen and Women Who Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan(but not Including the Wounded, nor the Iraqis nor the Afghanis) Website; http://www.alloftheamericanservicemenandwomen.com/asmw/about.php
[iii] As I was finalizing this introduction text for the ArteEast journal, Wikileaks published over 400.000 war military documents exposed details of Iraq war. For a salient position in response to these documents, please check: “Robert Fisk: The shaming of America”: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-the-shaming-of-america-2115111.html