9 Scripts From a Nation at War
Ashley Hunt respondent
1. Your name, names of collaborators or collective name (aliases are fine).
Ashley Hunt, as a member of a collaborative of artists including Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Katya Sander and David Thorne. I’m speaking as a member of the group but not representing it, each of us would answer these questions differently.
2. Name of activity, campaign, project etc…
9 Scripts From a Nation At War
3: Is this activity affiliated with any other groups?
The piece was commissioned for Documenta 12. Andrea Geyer had worked with the curators, they asked her about the possibility of a collaborative piece. We had all been going to protest together, and we had all been making work and writing and having conversation, and talking about the unique conditions that had come about since Sept 11th. We were more concerned broadly about issues of the state of exception and questions of language and it’s use politically.
Vera List Center For Art and Politics, Swing Space, Americas Foundation, the Danish Arts Council and the Judson Church also supported the project.
4. Dates of activity (month, year, duration, is it ongoing?).
We started the piece in the summer of 2004 and we officially finished its first realization in 2007. But it’s still ongoing right now. Each time we install the piece we develop it a little more. There is a performance component to it that is different each time.
5. Location(s) of activity (city, street, store, gallery, web site, be specific).
The life of the piece is so far limited to institutions; Documenta, Mass Art, Tate Modern, Red Cat. But we are also working to make a version that can have a more grassroots realization.
6. Type of activity (please attempt to classify the tactic).
Art, a performance based video installation and a public reading.
7. Target and goal of activity.
To stimulate thought around how individuals are positioned by the war and are able to speak in the context of the war. To think about how war conditions language, including how we are allowed to speak out against the war or narrate our circumstance within the war or against the war.
What I mean by “the war conditioning language” is that we typically understand political speech as something that takes place in civic space; in that it takes place in civic life, where “the civic” defines the rules, politics and possibilities of that space. What then happens when we are in a space of war? When things like rights and questions of rule are called into question by war, do our capacities for speech and political speech have the same meaning and same possibilities? We weren’t only interested in free speech, but also in a more subjective level in terms of power and subjectivity. Where possibilities for agency come together through speech, or maybe not at all.
8 Please describe the activity in a paragraph.
It’s a video installation that has ten multi-channel components, each of which pictures a person speaking, or in one, the written transcription of a person speaking. Each person is a figure that we have drawn from the war (One video is of a veteran returned from Iraq, one is a foreign correspondent, one is a citizen, one is a blogger, one is a interviewer, one is an interview source, one is a student, one is an actor, one is a lawyer and one is a detainee). Some of the characters are actually that figure (the vet and correspondent), they are playing themselves; in others actors are standing in for that figure. Each is speaking a text that is somehow drawn from the war. The vets for example are re-speaking a transcript taken from an earlier interview done with them. We formed it into a lecture and had them re-speak it. With the lawyer, we turned her interview into a scene where she was giving a lecture to a group of people who ask her some of our interview questions. The detainee is also based off a performance, a reading by 8 people reading transcripts from combatant status revue tribunals held at Gitmo. That channel was performed at Judson Church as a gesture to make the transcripts more public. We shot it with three cameras and it now exists as a three-channel video. Each time we install it somewhere, we try to restage the detainee performance. Each time we install it we figure out a new formal configuration for it based off of the particular site, taking into account how the viewer can see the videos and be in a bodily relationship to them, as well as in relation to other viewers. There are over 9 hours of footage in the whole thing.
9. What was the outcome of activity?
It’s hard to say because the piece doesn’t ask for action so much as it asks for a kind of contemplation. If the piece is successful it doesn’t end when you leave the exhibition but if it stays with you for a few days and works its way into how you think about the narrating of the war and your relationship to it.
The piece asks you to consider less of what the war itself is, and more about how we are typically confronted by artworks that address the war. For example we weren’t interested in talking about the physical violence or giving screen time to the architects of the war. We know of a lot of people that were looking critically at the policies of the war but this piece really came out of our own experiences, of figuring out how to cope with a war that is so disturbing to us but which we can do so frustratingly little about. So for us the question of what that frustration feels like, the isolation of one having dissenting views, views that you cannot give voice, how that feels, affectively- that is political. The questions of what kind of speech we do or do not have access to became of great political importance to us.
10. What did you learn from this activity?
I can only speak for myself, but I think we learned a lot form each other. Part of our process included a very conscious decision to not collapse each of our individual positions into one collective identity, but to work as five individuals’ artists in collaboration. And there was something very interesting about that, politically. Because there wasn’t a default placeholder we could turn to and say that this is one place we can go to as a group to say ”this is more important than you or me”. We had to learn to be very democratic and very respectful towards one another. And that somehow had a real connection to these questions of a war that is so undemocratic and so authoritarian. Not that how we decided to make art was any kind of solution to the war. But we were making a space for ourselves, where we were governing ourselves differently than how we are being governed as citizens.
11. What influenced the decisions you made in creating this activity? (be specific)
The context of the larger changes in political life since Sept 11th as they expressed themselves in the war.
12. How do you measure success for this activity?
We don’t know. We do know that we weren’t satisfied with most of the types of results that other people were seeking, or many of the ways that culture was being used to oppose the war. It’s not a piece that‘s about a concrete goal or a campaign. It’s more about helping to initiate a set of conversations. So far we’ve been able to track a couple of those conversations as they go out into the world. There have been publications were its been talked about. We’ve been hearing back from people who have heard about the work and who want to see it. But it’s a hard thing to track.
We were out using propaganda at the demonstrations against the war and we think that is important. But when we were going to these demonstrations, we all felt that we were made to follow a script that wasn’t our own and wasn’t even historically recent or contextually specific to this moment. Our investigation with this project really began with a question of what it meant to be scripted in that way, having our dissent channeled into clichés
13. In order to continue and be successful with this or other related activities, what would you do or need? (Be specific: is it a question of tools, more people, concepts, lock boxes, training, cultural change.)
We were very fortunate with this project to have everything we needed and that was really great. But I think we, “we” in the sense of a larger part of the artist and activists communities we are a part of, need to make sure that its not only well funded work that becomes legible as an art practice when it deals with politics. What I mean to say is that we should be sure that the political artworks that are recognized by the art world as “proper art” and the political artworks that get marginalized as merely being “activism” are distinguished by their discourses and functions, not by what kind of funding and production values it gets.