A call by the Hayward gallery has been circulating regarding a second installment of the Jeremy Deller piece, It Is What It Is. The call, an excerpt of which follows, was sent out to look for participants in the gallery show opening this month (February 22) in London:
“I work as Assistant Curator at the Hayward Gallery and am currently carrying out research for our forthcoming exhibition on Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller which takes place at the Hayward Gallery from 22 February - 13 May 2012. The exhibition will feature a number of works, including an installation of ‘It Is What It Is’ - a work which explores the recent history and current circumstances of Iraq through the presentation of a destroyed car, maps, a banner, a film work, as well as a participatory element…The work ‘It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq’ has been successfully presented at the New Museum, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles in 2009. A list of the guest experts who have participated in the Hammer Museum exhibition is included in the attached document for your information. . .”
Because this exhibition is being resurrected in yet another major contemporary art space, it begs consideration of its first iteration. In Feb of 2009, the New Museum and Creative Time in New York inaugurated this high profile exhibition, which subsequently went on to the other museums mentioned above. The nearly year long initiative was part of the “Three M Project”, a collaborative museum program to commission, organize and co-present new works of art. The
In an effort to encourage the public to discuss the present circumstances in Iraq, a revolving cast of participants including veterans, journalists, scholars, and Iraqi nationals who have expertise in a particular aspect of the region and/or first-hand experience of Iraq have been invited to take up residence in the New Museum’s gallery space with the express purpose of encouraging discussion with visitors to the Museum.1
This project then toured the US on a three-week road trip in an RV. Conversation stops along the way took place at homes, town halls, and public meeting places (not unlike the trips US politicians make stumping before elections).
The “objects” in the exhibit consisted of a bombed out car, juxtaposed maps of Iraq and the US, and a banner bearing the title of the program in English and Arabic. These materials, to be used as prompts, serve as a starting point for the project and signal some of the problems that are both initially apparent and those that emerge.
These objects were meant to “ground and stimulate discussion.” However, the use of a bombed out car and Arabic script as a starting point for a conversation in America about the complexity and tragedy of the war in Iraq begins the conversation with stereotyped images found on the evening news for the last ten years. Isn’t the grounding of the conversation with the same tired props used in nearly every US media report on Iraq exactly the wrong place to begin an open and exploratory dialogue?
The curatorial literature states that the bombed out car was a remnant of a car destroyed in the bombing of Mutanabbi Street on March 5, 2007. This bombing, which claimed 26 lives, was a searing blow to Iraqis because of its history as a main Baghdadi thoroughfare famous for centuries as a booksellers market and hub of intellectual activity. In Deller’s project, the bombed out car is the only signifier needed, apparently, to make a link to Iraqi culture. Speaking to Art in America, Deller explains that the bombed out car was important because, “Its very difficult to even hold or see something that’s actually come from Iraq. Its very rare that you get that opportunity so here we have this huge car –it’s a massive, ugly, mangled wreck from Iraq. Its almost like a piece of evidence has been dropped down in the museum.”2
But why is it so “rare” to see or hold something from Iraq? What could Deller possibly mean by this? Iraqis have produced a vast canon of artistic work, literature, and cultural objects, from ancient works that are very visible in museums in Britain and the US, to modern and contemporary works in a variety of disciplines. Deller’s comment speaks to either an ignorance of this work existing (which hardly seems possible), or a problematic insistence on Iraq as a site that can only be made visible as a map of mangled objects. This is especially disturbing when considering the very concrete losses that took place under the occupying forces, who famously allowed Iraq’s museums, cultural institutions, and other critical sites to be looted and irreversibly damaged at the start (and during the course of), the war; deeming Iraqi cultural production at best insignificant.
By relying on the use of a blown up car, Deller chooses to replicate narrow British and American media portrayals of the conflict and this bombing in particular. Deller explicitly acknowledges this in another interview:
The car will be very familiar though, because whenever you watch the news and there’s been a bombing, you don’t see the bodies, you see a car. It becomes a replacement for the body; they would never show a dead body on the news in Britain or America. So in that respect, our car is a body as well, effectively.3
If, as Deller says, his interest is in focusing on the impact of the war by “those who have first hand experience,” why did he decide to utilize the same dehumanizing strategies of using objects to replace people? Not only did Deller decide to only use the bombed out car as a reference to the Mutanabbi event, he and the New Museum decided not to include any of the artistic and creative responses of those directly affected by the bombing, which had sparked a near-immediate outpouring of literature, artistic work, and films by booksellers, artists, and citizens commemorating the disaster.
The objects in the exhibition seem to be of secondary importance to the conversations that serve as the main participatory component of the program. These conversations, notes from the curators explain, are not to provide a simple “for” or “against” view of the war. It is to be “open-ended,” “messy,” and that, the (Museum) literature assures participants, is ok. It is even “good, as black-and-white readings of this situation have been of little use up to now."4 This all sounds very encouraging, except for the fact that the four people steering this conversation and taking it on the road were: Jeremy Deller, a British artist who has spent no time in Iraq; Essam Pasha, an Iraqi artist and former employee of the US Army who may or may not feel comfortable speaking freely in the US; Sergeant Jonathan Harvey, an American veteran of the Iraq War; and Nato Thompson, a Creative Time administrator and curator who has never spent any time in Iraq. Four men, two of whom worked for the US Army, have been chosen and sanctioned by some of the most prominent cultural institutions in the world (and certainly within the US), to “encourage conversation about our world” through “a project that strives to present a broad, informational, nonpartisan perspective of Iraq.”
The title and content of the exhibition conflates a conversation about Iraq with a highly guided perspective of the Occupation dressed up as a neutral museum space offering. Deller and his commissioning partners felt it appropriate to define “Iraq” through US military involvement, rather than as an independent site of experiences, histories, and narratives particular to its real and imagined borders. The war in Iraq “is as it is” to whom, exactly? This construct (of the project’s title) leads one to think that perhaps this is not an open forum about Iraq –or its long and varied history and people. In fact, the selection of “experts”, not to mention Deller and Thompson, and the choice of objects in the exhibition ensure that this “conversation” falls squarely on a US military grid.
The pervasiveness of the military’s imprint on the exhibit, and how information was presented, is most pronounced in the employment of Jonathan Harvey as one half of the “Expert” team who took this exhibit on the road.
Jonathan Harvey, who currently serves in the U.S. Army Reserve, is described in the New Museum’s biographical literature as having been a Platoon Sergeant in the US Army since 1997, and as a “specialist in the psychological effects of warfare…assisting in projects that include progressive teaching and, leadership and management roles in the academic and military environments.”5
While Harvey may have assisted in teaching projects in various environments, this description paints Harvey as a passive actor in an active war. In fact, Harvey was a PSYOP specialist actively serving in the US occupation, and says himself that he “worked closely with the Brigade’s Information Operations Officer.”6
In an interview published on the New Museum website, Harvey glosses over the specifics of his work, noting that PSYOP sounds “more mysterious than it really is. Without resorting to the boring army manual definitions to describe what (we) do, in a nutshell it involves communicating with Iraqis.”7 Harvey goes on to describe his role as a distributor of printed materials and newspapers, warnings and other such “helpful” means to “reach the people of Baghdad.” Harvey also describes his platoon’s role in assisting in “nighttime raids” in civilian homes. He goes so far as to claim that by approaching families “with a smile, my rifle at my side,” he was able to “transform their experience.”8
It is unclear how Harvey is able to surmise that he was able to “transform” the experiences of Iraqi families faced with soldiers breaking into their homes in the middle of the night for surprise interrogations. With or without a smile, it seems unlikely that these were “transformative” experiences, at least in the positive ways insinuated. Moreover, one would imagine an Iraqi family faced with armed units in the middle of the night to not respond in a way that might communicate anger, trauma, or offense, lest they be viewed as ‘suspect.’ More significantly however, is the way that Harvey describes (and the museums involved lend passive agreement to) his role as a PSYOP specialist with the US Army. As an Information Specialist, it comes as no surprise that he is able to narrate his role as a peacemaker, making order out of chaos, distributing helpful information as though he were a volunteer member of a neutral public awareness campaign.
While Harvey may find the army definition of PSYOP “boring,” it is anything but that. According to US Army recruitment material:
PSYOP Soldiers use information to influence the behavior of foreign audiences in support of U.S. policy and national objectives. Used during peacetime, contingencies, and declared war, these activities are non-lethal…The ultimate objective of U.S. military Psychological Operations is to convince enemy, neutral, and friendly governments, forces and populations to take actions favorable to the United States and its allies…Strategic psychological operations advance broad or long-term objectives; global in nature, they may be directed toward large audiences or at key communicators.9
This role of PSYOP’s is far from neutral during war, and the use of a seasoned PSYOP officer, trained to provide information to domestic and foreign audiences that will shape opinions in support of US military action, provides a clear use of the military narrative in a contemporary art setting, a compelling site if targets include “key communicators.” That his central involvement in creating a framework for discourse was approved by staff at four separate, highly regarded institutions is disturbing to say the least.
Nato Thompson, a co-curator of the project from Creative Time, participated in the road trip and produced an online diary of his experiences. While much of Thompson’s diary was composed of fairly benign encounters and conversations that took place on the trip (interspersed with various dinners and social interactions with curators and organizers along the way) his comments regarding co-participant Essam Pasha exemplify the mistrust of a non-mitigated Arab voice and person.
During a stop in Santa Fe, Thompson describes a heated discussion between a man who “came at Essam with some aggression,” accusing religious extremists of being the problem in Iraq. Essam replies that money is at the root of the issue, and that members of the US Army are “actually mercenaries.” Thompson states that the man “lost it,” and instead of focusing on the man’s misplaced reaction Thompson goes on to observe:
Essam’s opinions are coming to the surface more frequently as the days wear on. I am sure that he knew that calling the US troops mercenaries would upset that man, and I think he enjoyed that idea. There’s no point trying to stop him. His temperament, whichever way it goes, is part of the project.10
It seems that as Essam’s role continued, he began to maneuver away from his initial, more placid remarks on the war and the US army. The negative effect of his “opinions,” (which might upset some because they are removed from the dominant American narrative) is for some reason seen by Thompson as something Pasha derives pleasure from. Perhaps he does find pleasure in stating his opinion. Wouldn’t anyone?
Thompson makes the assumption that this pleasure is simply the result of making an American upset, rather than from voicing one’s own beliefs. Thompson’s next reaction, that there is “no point in trying to stop him,” is equally demeaning. Why would he, or anyone else, try to “stop him” from allowing his “opinions to come to the surface?” Is this not the point of the project? According to Thompson, it may not actually be his opinion that is the point of the project, but “his temperament, whichever way it goes.” Is the temperament of “our Iraqi giant,"11 as Thompson describes Pasha elsewhere in the diary, the point of the project, or is it an open platform for conversation?
The description of Pasha as both “our Iraqi giant” and as possessing of a temperament that takes pleasure in the negative reactions of Americans effectively turns Pasha into a caricature of the volatile Arab. “Our Iraqi giant,”11 is a domesticated kind of beast, taken cross-country for exhibition. As is inevitable in the tired “other” construct, the true, volatile nature of the beast rises to the surface (here in the form of an independent opinion), and when this happens, “there is no point in trying to stop him.”
Thompson seems to be unaware of the gravity of his remarks regarding Pasha, nor the fundamental issues with the way the project was constructed. Responding to a critique of the project in Art Lies: A Contemporary Art Quarterly, Thompson states that,
Trying to not sound too pro- or antiwar was important in producing a peculiarly tense area for focusing on people who have been there…There is also the strange accusation that the project is somehow a tour of apathy. Surely, producing dialogue with a blown-up car, a soldier and an Iraqi on hand certainly evades what one might describe as apathetic. How strange it is that the most damning of political accusations tend to fall on the few –and there are so very few –political projects that actually try to address complex phenomena such as audience, points of legibility and political urgency. Compared to what kind of project is this project “apathetic.”12
Thompson is absolutely right when he states that the project is not “apathetic,” though he seems to be surprisingly unconscious that naming two US military personnel (regardless of whether or not one is Iraqi) as “experts” is precisely why the project could never be seen as apathetic. While there were additional participants involved in the series of conversations that took place at the New Museum in New York (which included a more diverse group of speakers outside of the military and male sphere), these two individuals (“a soldier, an Iraqi”) formed the centerpiece of the talks, and were the only “experts” present at each point of the cross-country trip. Not only are these central individuals devoid of expertise regarding Iraq, but their involvement in the war produces a narrative that cannot be neutral. “Producing dialogue with a blown-up car, a soldier and an Iraqi” is the same sort of controlled dialogue that has been produced over and over again for US consumption by the US military and media. And it is the same imagery that has served as a central part of the war effort. Thompson identifies the critical need for “political projects that actually try to address complex phenomena,” but fails to realize that the points of legibility needed are in complete opposition to those he has assisted in curating and presenting.
This program was, in all earnestness, touted as an opportunity to converse with “experts” that might address the “gaps in information” about Iraq in a nonpartisan setting. As a work of conceptual art subject to critique, one can ask whether it has accomplished its goal. Perhaps the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery will be handled in a different way during its four-month run, though it seems there has been no shift from “a destroyed car, maps, a banner, a film work, as well as a participatory element.” As such, the “gaps in information” would be more effectively addressed if their investigation were not relegated solely to participants, but on the artist himself and the institutions privileged with the opportunity –and power- to frame these discussions.
1 "Exhibitions: Past, "New Commissions: Jeremy Deller: It Is What Is: Conversations About Iraq," (2009).
2 Sarah Hromack, "What It Is: A Conversation with Jeremey Deller," Art in America (2009).
3 "Laura Hoptman, Nato Thompson, and Amy Mackie, in Conversation with Jeremy Deller," (2008).
4 Amy Mackie Laura Hoptman, and Nato Thompson, "Project Description "It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq: A Project by Jeremy Deller"," (2008).
5 "Experts on the Road," (2008).
6 Jonathan Harvey, "Essay by Jonathan Harvey," (2008).
9 "Psychological Operations ", http://www.bragg.army.mil/sorb/SORB_PSYOPSHOME.html.
10 Nato Thompson, "Sante Fe Plaza, Santa Fe, New Mexico," (2009).
11 Nato Thompson, "University of Houston, Houston, Texas," (2009).
12 Nato Thompson, "In Response," Art Lies: A Contemporary Art Quarterly 63 (2010).