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Mail Away: War Correspondence at Home and Online

Lindsay Kelley
University of California Santa Cruz
lkelleyucscedu

Abstract

This article documents the contributions of Wafaa Bilal, Joseph DeLappe, Elizabeth Losh, and Krista Geneviève Lynes to the New Media Caucus special session panel at the College Art Association annual meeting in Los Angeles, CA, on February 27, 2009. The panel was designed to encourage artists, activists, and historians concerned with the politics of patriotic information to reflect on how new media changes our perception of war and soldiers. How are artists and cultural producers critically engaged with current conditions of war? The panel was chaired by Lindsay Kelley, who provides an introduction to this excerpt from an ongoing conversation consisting of video, images, and text.


Introduction

Lindsay Kelley

On February 26, 2009, one day before this panel convened at the College Art Association Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, CA, the Pentagon reversed an 18-year long ban on media depictions of the coffins of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Earlier that same week, I read a brief narrative from a parent asking his son to honor the Geneva Convention while playing the video game “Call of Duty.”[1] Meanwhile, the US military continues to park its "cinema vans" outside schools, offering students immersive digital environments, sometimes first person shooter games, in exchange for their contact information. Engagements with media, whether in the news, in games, or in recruitment efforts, drive our perception of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Responding to a questionnaire about the war in Iraq in the winter 2008 issue of the journal October, Coco Fusco writes that “the only area of the visual arts with a substantial output relating to the war is new media and graphic design.”[2] The projects presented in this panel participate in a larger conversation that includes the Radical Software Group's manifestation of Guy DeBord's “Kriegspiel,”[3] the Institute for Applied Autonomy and Trevor Paglen's “Terminal Air,” [4] tracking private flights transporting prisoners in the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, and Fusco's “Operation Atropos,” [5] documenting her experience in a private sector interrogation course. All of these projects create a complex correspondence between war zones and domestic interiors, as if the letters my grandparents wrote one another during World War II have accelerated and exploded into pixels, satellite imagery, and immersive visual worlds. Correspondence means both equivalence and communication. How does communication produce equivalence, and what is the character of that equivalence? How does new media art bring the war home?

1. Cory Doctorow, “Parent of gamer asks his son to honor the Geneva Conventions,” Boing Boing, February 22, 2009. Retrieved April 11, 2009 from boingboing.net/2009/02/22/parent-of-gamer-asks.html.
2. Coco Fusco, “In what ways have artists, academics, and cultural institutions responded to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq?” October (Winter 2008), No. 123: 53–62, 55.
3. Available for download from r-s-g.org/kriegspiel/.
4. Trevor Paglen and the Institute for Applied Autonomy, “Terminal Air” (2007) Retrieved April 11, 2009 from www.appliedautonomy.com/terminalair/index.html
5. Coco Fusco, “Operation Atropos” (2006). Retrieved April 11, 2009 from www.thing.net/~cocofusco/subpages/videos/subpages/oprerationatropos/operationatropos.html.


Wafaa Bilal

New York University
wwafaagmailedu

Wafaa Bilal introduced the idea of Dynamic Encounters and strategies of engagement. His long time concern is with the disconnection of people who lives in the comfort zone; that has led him to the use of internet and video games as a virtual platform to bring the realities of the conflict zone to the comfort zone and to connect people physically and psychologically to political issues by attempting democratization of the making and the democratization of the viewing.

He introduced many of his projects during the panel, including “Domestic Tension”, a 31-day endurance project where Bilal shared space with a paintball gun that could be triggered remotely over the Internet. Bilal also showed documentation from “Al-Dar Al-Iraqi” (the Iraqi house project), a mud brick house created at the Montalvo Art Center, “Dog or Iraqi: Who Gets Waterboarded?”, an online vote to determine who would suffer waterboarding, and Bilal's videogame “The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi.”

Fig 1: Wafaa Bilal, The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi, 2008.

Fig 2: Wafaa Bilal, still from the video game The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi, 2008

Below are excerpts from Bilal's video diary for Domestic Tension:

mewaffa: youtube
The PaintBall project day 14: youtube
The PaintBall project day 30: youtube
Dog or Iraqi: youtube

Wafaa Bilal website: www.wafaabilal.com.


Joseph DeLappe

University of Nevada, Reno
delappeunredu

Joseph DeLappe focused on three projects relating to new media and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He showed documentation from dead-in-iraq, which takes the America's Army recruitment game as a platform for memorializing US casualities in Iraq, as well as his related Iraqi memorial project, which solicits proposals for memorial structures and actions. In conjunction with Steve Lambert and the Yes Men's recent fake New York Times edition, DeLappe proposed a game to replace America's Army, America's Diplomat.

Fig 3: Joseph DeLappe, dead-in-iraq, video game intervention, 2006-ongoing.

Below are links to DeLappe's work and documentation of dead-in-iraq.

www.iraquimemorial.org
Fake New York Times article.
www.americasdiplomat.com
dead-in-iraq video documentation

DeLappe's website: delappe.net


War Media: Military Digital Art and Political Dissent

Elizabeth Losh

University of California, Irvine
lizloshuciedu

As discourses of protest, new media artists have appropriated software and digital files created by the military during the current Iraq War in order to mount gallery installations and launch Internet artworks that express opposition to the forced occupation of the country by the United States and the geopolitical hegemony represented by the two-term administration of former president George W. Bush.  Critics of the war such as Wafaa Bilal, Joseph DeLappe, and Jennifer Terry have created interactive online digital artworks that emphasize the role of persuasive technologies, videogame interfaces, targeting scopes, wearable cameras, and networked battle communication to question the legitimacy of a moral order that recruits the participation of citizens and soldiers alike in acts of one-sided political violence and terror.  Works such as Domestic Tension (2007), Virtual Jihadi (2008), dead-in-iraq (2006), and Killer Entertainments (2007) play with the conflation of the visual and the haptic to place what Lev Manovich has called the “potential aggression of looking” into context with the “actual aggression of electronically enabled touch” (175). 

Of course, digital artists often also participate in creating digital assets for the very state-sanctioned videogames and virtual reality simulations that may be later remixed and remediated by other artists in protest.  Artists trained in using tools for computer modeling and simulation have been hired to create digital art for “serious games” and virtual reality simulations that have been funded by the U.S. military to address a range of operational shortcomings that include soldiers’ inability to communicate in foreign languages, the threat of roadside attacks by improvised explosive devices, unsuccessful negotiations with Iraqi locals, the exacerbation of existing religious or tribal rivalries, confusion of insurgents and civilians, physical immobility from dismemberment or spinal cord damage, inadequate preparedness for real-life triage situations, and combat related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Figure 4).

Fig 4 Screenshot of Virtual Iraq, a virtual reality simulation developed to combat related post-traumatic stress disorder.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the American government has coordinated several efforts to create computer-generated environments in games and simulations designed specifically for military personnel that recreate the embattled nation’s physical geography, built environment, and even what many military strategists are now calling the country’s “human terrain.”   University laboratories, centers, and institutes have also decided to appeal to this potentially lucrative specialized market by incorporating production techniques associated with film, computer science, or game studies programs into their requests for defense funding.

Game development, even for military projects, necessarily represents an iterative, collaborative, and interdisciplinary series of related processes in which philosophical disagreement, political debate, mutual deliberation, partisan conflict, and high-stakes gamesmanship all invariably take place.  As Manuel Castells has observed, the culture of software development is actually composed of a number of potentially divisive networked subcultures that include “the techno-meritocratic culture,” “the hacker culture,” “the virtual communitarian culture,” and “the entrepreneurial culture” (37) in a sometimes volatile “intersection of big science, military research, and libertarian culture” (17).  In these conflicts, digital artists may find themselves pursuing unexpected alliances.  Given the role that military funding has played in the promoting the careers of many digital artists, including Char Davies, it is important for critics to come to terms with the sometimes disturbing legacy of what could be called “public military art” in its digital form. 

Because many military-subsidized artists were opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, their acts of content-creation are frequently also associated with rhetorics of rationalization that justify their participation by arguing that they are representating positive values that are being slowly learned in the conflict such as the importance of cultural exchange, trust-building, and problem solving through mutual engagement .  However, in describing their work processes in interviews, some of these artists report anxiety, sleeplessness, and oppressive feelings of responsibility in connection with their time on these projects.

The same digital artists and media designers who have worked on military projects may also participate in public acts of political resistance to the policies of the federal government for which they work. In recent years, even leads on military video game projects, including principal investigators, have come out in opposition to the “Global War on Terror” by commenting on policy issues by using public genres for electronic discourse.  For example, one virtual reality developer displayed a photomosaic of U.S. President George W. Bush composed entirely of images of dead soldiers and showed it during his PowerPoint lectures to professional groups and conference audiences.  Another posted comments on a heavily trafficked game blog in which he self-identified as a “peace activist” and chuckled about turning players’ attention from warfare to “playing house.”  As Ian Bogost has observed, “Among the more pacifist folks I know, one of the ‘strategies’ for dealing with the ethical issues DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and other military funding raise is to think of such research as subversive: they'll take the military funding and use the resulting research for initiatives that undermine the military” (Frasca). 

In fact, many military game developers have used their skills in digital rhetoric to create games, simulations, and other media experiences that spur users to interrogate jingoistic, xenophobic, and repressively uncritical ideologies of patriotism, nationalism, exceptionalism, imperial order, and manifest destiny.   Some may argue that games themselves encourage both acquisition and interrogation or subversion of a given rule set.  For example, in Persuasive Games, Bogost argues that even the comic-book morality of the recruiting game America’s Army (2002), in which artist Joseph DeLappe has famously intervened, can be read against the grain of its dominant narrative of military obedience, so that there can be a double narrative at work in the mechanics of play, because “the game encourages players to consider the logic of duty, honor, and singular global political truth as a desirable worldview” (79).

With funding from the Institute for Creative Technologies, Jacquelyn Ford Morie created space in Second Life for the Adaptive Training System, a digital simulation with computer rendered spaces designed to train soldiers to manage their attention and emotions during “knock-and-talk missions,” but she later retasked the assets of the Iraqi village that she created for military use as a site for cathartic art for veterans and others who understand such areas as sites of trauma rather than military conquest.  Although the space includes a checkpoint, a market, a mosque, and a variety of other public and private spaces associated with logics of urban command and control, coming into the space in Second Life there is a "healing wall" where Iraq war veterans can post images that they associate with the conflict, its physical and psychic aftermath, and their fraternity with their fellow soldiers.  The village has an extremely articulated soundscape as well. Auditory details include a radio in a market that plays music popular on Iraqi stations and the burbling cadences of a fountain.  A piece entitled Remains in her Second Life installation features ghostly groups of children who seem oddly two-dimensional, as if they exist now only as photographs (Figure 5).

Fig 5 Jacquelyn Ford Morie, Remains, Second Life installation, 2009.

Remains can be read as a continuation of her other works on memory and memorialization, such as her earlier Memory Stairs (2003), which incorporates vintage photographs, old catalogues, and antiques into an environment modeled in MAYA that is designed to evoke disquieting as well as comforting forms of co-temporality.  However, Morie artist’s statement explains the Remains project without explicitly referencing her appropriation of military-funded content and thus the politically subversive possibilities of this form of remixing.

This project creates a space of remembrance, contemplation and renewal for those affected by the Iraqi war (which is all of us). It serves as a gathering place where people can explore an Iraqi village in Second Life that is full of memories, sounds and images of the people who might have lived there. The wall around the village serves as a remembrance wall where people can post photos, write about experiences, and tell their stories.  This artwork, through sounds, videos and evocative imagery, imparts a sensibility of the ordinary lives that underscore the experiences of wartime.

The Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, which funded the initial work in Morie’s Second Life installation, has been understandably labeled with the term “military-entertainment complex,” which obviously suggests many of the same hegemonic tendencies as the “military-industrial complex” that was described by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961 and further theorized by Paul Virilio.  According to Tim Lenoir, this newer complex, in which the word “entertainment” substitutes for “industrial,” points to some of the ironies of our current “post-human state” and the “fundamental shift in our notions of material reality” associated with it in which digital artists play a key role (290). 

In other words, not all of the cultural conflicts between parties working in these new digital media are necessarily directly related to specific geopolitical catalysts like the invasion and occupation of Iraq, or to the deepening of a civilian/noncivilian divide in knowledge work.  As Stuart Moulthrop observes, the “declaration (or acclamation) of war may distract attention from preexisting conflicts inherent in information culture” (67).  Stakeholders arguing about the morality of participation in Iraq-based video games may actually have other disagreements about making meaning within a shared disciplinary field.  For example, these competing factions might disagree about the relationship of games to real experiences, or how technology works upon society in general.

During the development process the computer-based training simulation ELECT BiLAT, designers fiercely debated questions about the naturalism of the interface design, how to represent success in a negotiating process with potential allies, and what the main “status” bar should measure if it were made visible to the player.    Using the game engine that powers Unreal Tournament, game designers hoped to realize an ambitious training agenda for mastering the official procedures for conducting complex bilateral negotiations with Iraqi power brokers.  The player must decode intertwined scenarios about building civil society in an unnamed Iraqi town that involve improving local markets, shoring up the health care system, maintaining the power grid, supporting local law enforcement, and cleaning up endemic government corruption (Figure 6).

Fig 6 The Institute for Creative Technologies, ELECT BiLAT, training simulation, 2009.

To progress to the first negotiation, one must choose between four initial Iraqi characters: three men, two of whom are police officers, and one woman, who is a doctor.  Other characters can be “unlocked” if the opening negotiations are successful.  The project webpage emphasizes the inquiry-based structure of the software and the ways that language is instrumentalized as a potential form of ammunition.

Imagine you are a soldier assigned to rebuilding efforts in an Iraqi town or you're an officer tasked with keeping the peace in an unstable city. Earning the trust and respect of the citizens you are trying to help is of the utmost importance. Should you bring a gift to your meeting? Should you shake hands? Does the person with the highest title actually hold any power, and how do you find out? Cultural sensitivity and situational understanding are among the necessary tools in your arsenal.

Interactive media artist Peggy Weil was a key designer for the ELECT BiLAT project, which was directed by the Institute of Creative Technologies as well, but she has also continued to maintain a high profile as an activist artist opposed to the policies of the federal government.  Weil, along with documentary filmmaker Nonny de la Peña, used Second Life to create a virtual duplicate of the Guantánamo Bay detention facilty for enemy combatants held without traditional Constitutional protections and habeas corpus procedures (Figure 7).

Fig 7 Peggy Weil and Nonny de la Peña, Camp X-ray, Second Life installation 2007-2009.

The designers maintain a blog called Gone Gitmo, which describes their partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union and related consciousness-raising events designed to end illegal and unethical detentions.  Visitors to the site have control taken from their avatars, as they are placed in orange jumpsuits, hooded, and transported by a cargo plane against their will.  Users arrive at “Camp X-ray,” but can later also explore realistic depictions of the multi-million dollar Camp Fox and an area of contemplation that uses elements of Islamic sacred architecture, although it is furnished with poems by detainees, petitions for closing the prison, and an RSS feed with the latest news about Guantánamo scrolling on the floor.  Documentary film footage that shows inhumane conditions in the prison and the pleas of family members for justice is integrated into screens in the virtual environment, and Weil and de la Peña have also directed machinima films that use the digital assets to make their argument for human rights and due process.

The virtual objects, social puppets, built environments, physical terrain, and perceptual spaces of these computer-generated environments can take the user into the realm of public matters while also exploring the private spaces associated with individual memory, which can include traumatic spaces of violent combat and of physical constraint and torture.  Military videogames and virtual reality simulations often serve as a kind of distracting political spectacle for the superficial entertainment of the news-consuming public interested in technological innovations that are displayed by military planners in order to show representations of problem-solving.  Digital artists play a complicated role in constructing these scenarios, which they may choose to further complicate by producing activist art in opposition to the ideologies of the military that serves as patron.


Works Cited
 

Bogost, Ian.  Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007)

Castells, Manuel.  The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Shame on Tactical Iraqi.” February 20 2006, Water Cooler Games. Retrieved June 12, 2008, from http://www.watercoolergames.org/archives/000526.shtml.

Lenoir, Tim and Lowood, Henry.  “Theaters of War: The Military-Entertainment Complex.”  Collection, Laboratory, Theater: Scenes of Knowledge in the 17th Century (Walter de Gruyter, 2005).

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

McRobert, Laurie.  Char Davies’s Immersive Art and the Essence of Spatiality (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007)

Moulthrop, Stuart “From Work to Play: Molecular Culture in a Time of Deadly Games,” First Person New Media as Story, Performance, and Game  (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004).

Penny, Simon. “Representation, Enaction, and the Ethics of Simulation.”  First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game  (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004).

Virilio, Paul.  The Information Bomb.  (London: Verso, 2000)


Grounded Visions: Reflections on the Expanded Field of War's Visual Culture

Krista Geneviève Lynes

San Francisco Art Institute
kglynes@sfai.edu

What constitutes the image culture of war in the contemporary moment? Further, what role does new media play in creating new channels of correspondence between soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and in border regions, and those viewing the war from the U.S. and Europe. If the first Gulf War was paradigmatically described as the first ‘TV war’—one of 24 hour news channel coverage, the ‘liveness’ of events unfolding on television screens, and the destructive vision from the perspective of so-called ‘smart bombs’—how are the contemporary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ‘Internet wars’? How do they negotiate the proliferating perspectives of embedded journalists, soldiers, civilians within the war zones, and spectators around the world? What becomes visible through these new mediations and what remains or becomes invisible through them?

There is a sense in which the initial strategies in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq replicate the logic of the first Gulf War. With names like Operation Enduring Freedom (a revisiting of the original title, Operation Infinite Justice) and Shock and Awe the first full days of coverage of the wars revealed both the firestorm of explosions over Baghdad, Navy fighter jets and grainy night-scope images of American tanks moving across the Kuwaiti border. Robert Stam has argued—in relation to the first Gulf War—that TV news gave viewers an “exhilarating sense of visual power”, combined both by the reach of cameras deployed around the world, the direct transmission of images and sounds through satellite transmission, and the apparatus of a military simulation and surveillant gaze.[1]  Current representations of the wars inherit a great deal from the first Gulf War’s visual culture: round the clock coverage, live images from the battlefront, and a ‘mediatized reality’ that combines a hyper-visibility in the form of a spectacle of light with the utter obscurity of the effects of such bombing campaigns on the civilian population.

But in the current wars, this mode of visuality has been supplemented by images of advancing troops taken with video cell phones, embedded journalists traveling with combat units, and soldiers creating their own videos of battle scenes. Such new visions—relying on more grainy amateur production equipment, as well as alternative channels of distribution and reception—have shifted the vantage points on the war from the spectacular heights of smart bombs and aerial campaigns to the more grounded perspective of the desert road, the city street, the inside of an advancing tank, or the time off at the base camp.

This grounded perspective initially suggests a kind of democratizing of images of the war, not only because the number of actors recording their experiences has multiplied, but because these videos are channeled through traditional news media as well asblogs, email campaigns, YouTube and other viral avenues. This footage at times relies on representational conventions to indicate the immediacy of the action taking place (a shaky camera, for example, or the sudden disappearance of a recorded image), but such conventions also render certain subjects and certain forms of seeing impossible, even as they cloak themselves in the guises of a new form of objectivity.

A video recorded by a Canadian soldier serving in Afghanistan, Glen Villa, serves as an important example. Glen Villa shot footage of his base camp, the battlefield and his unit patrolling villages through a small camera attached to his helmet. The footage was picked up and edited in a longer reportage piece entitled Fighting Ghosts, which aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s evening news program The National.[2]  The footage paradigmatically exemplifies the liveness of the war from the ground. The viewer feels the camera’s moving and shaking as Villa repositions himself, sees the dust kicked up, the frenetic panning of the horizon, and the gunshots ringing out in space. The video thus participates in the diffraction of visions of the war, from the mainstream news media to amateur footage by inside sources.

What is particularly interesting about this footage, and the title Fighting Ghosts, however, is how the perils of the war against the Taliban are particularly articulated as a failure of seeing, a failure to see the enemy, and hence the figuration of a ‘shadowy enemy’. If the Shock and Awe footage can be characterized by a hyper-visibility, one which abstracts the reality of war through its surveillant gaze, here, the very vividness of the footage captured lies in what it fails to represent: the Taliban fighters, the very human contact which should ground the experience of war on the ground. In presenting a vision ‘from below’, it also presents a key failure of seeing. However, the failure of seeing is precisely what the footage represents as the vulnerability of war. Hence, the invisibility of the enemy guarantees in some ways the immediacy of this alternative media form. We might further think of the grainy aesthetic of night-video and of satellite reportage through cellphones by embedded journalists as a kind of aestheticization of grassroots imaging within the terms of the mainstream media. The form signifies a groundedness which masks the more normative channels of war’s visual culture.

At the same time, some of this so-called ‘embedded journalism’ has produced unintended results, images which do not conform to the schema of visibility and invisibility, top-down and bottom-up media I’ve just outlined. The most famous example of this is perhaps the release of the images of Abu Ghraib, images which were taken by soldiers, but whose threat lay precisely in their not remaining invisible. In the service of examining this complex field of visual representations, I would like to present a perhaps limiting schema, but one which may contribute to expanding the field of war’s visual culture:

Fig 8 The politics of visibility in the contemporary image culture of war mapped onto the semiotic square.

The schema takes as its central opposition the relation between visibility and invisibility in contemporary representations of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus far, the videos discussed have been tracing the arc of the first set of terms: the relation between the ‘frenzy of the visible’ presented by the Shock and Awe campaign, and the vividness of invisibility in the Canadian soldier’s taped footage. This opposition, however, may be expanded to include two other sets of practices: the first being those  unintended images which become visible because of the channels opened up by new media outlets and by the efforts at expanding the field of representation through ‘embedded reporting’, as is the case with the scandalous images of Abu Ghraib, or the controversial release of footage of US soldiers shooting unarmed Iraqis. The other side is represented by an example of an artistic engagement with this broader field of war-time visual culture, the experimental film by Cyrus Frisch, Why didn’t anybody tell me it would become this bad in Afghanistan?.

An example of the former may be located in footage shot by Kevin Sites, which showed a U.S. Marine shooting an unarmed Iraqi in a Fallujah mosque. [3]  Sites was on assignment for NBC on November 13th, 2004, and was following a squad into a mosque where insurgents had been firing on U.S. troops the day before. Sites’s video shows one Marine shouting to others that one man on the ground was only ‘playing dead’, and then fires at the man; another Marine comments, “Dead now”.  The footage created an international controversy, but it also stayed largely under the radar in the mainstream U.S. media. While he was working for NBC as a freelancer at the time, Sites was also keeping an independent blog for himself, which he argued gave him the opportunity to show the footage in its entirety and provide a personal viewpoint about what occurred that day, how he felt, and to comment on his role as a journalist in the conflict. He was therefore able to use the Internet to flesh out a story that didn’t get fully represented on NBC. [4]

The other side of the square schematized above is represented by a film shot by the artist and experimental filmmaker Cyrus Frisch, entitled Why Didn’t Anybody Tell me it would Become This Bad in Afghanistan? (2007).  Frisch shoots the entire film on a camera phone, and mostly from within the confines of his apartment in Amsterdam. The film is intended to represent the experience of a soldier who returns from Afghanistan in shock, and examines the increasing tensions and xenophobia in Europe upon his return.

The aesthetics of the camera phone certainly provide a fragmented vision of the scenes unfolding below Frisch’s balcony—an aesthetic which copies the liveness and authenticity of Glen Villa and Kevin Sites’s footage. But Frisch is conscious of the rocky terrain on which artistic producers travel in representing the war in artistic and documentary forms. Rather than reproduce the ‘liveliness’ of wartime footage, Frisch places the shaky footage and grainy images in the service of a kind of ‘aesthetics of boredom’.

Further, while Frisch presents the viewer with an acutely voyeuristic perspective, such voyeurism is frustrated by the lack of clarity of the medium (the use of a camera phone); and more, it is a voyeurism that doesn’t have a precise target, that doesn’t obey the rules of scopophilia. Instead, the viewer is presented with a kind of detached and wandering view of the street below. In doing so, Frisch foregrounds in the work itself a scopophilic mode of looking under threat, one that challenges both the penetrative gaze of the Shock and Awe campaign and the frustrated visions presented by Villa.

Fig 9 Cyrus Frisch, Why Didn’t Anybody Tell me it would Become This Bad in Afghanistan?, video, 2007.

Frisch thus re-examines the terms of visibility and invisibility that characterize the field of new media representations of the war. In this regard, Judith Butler has stressed that we conventionally think that gaining representation increases the likelihood that the subject will be humanized, and that those who are not represented run a greater risk of being treated as less than human, or not regarded at all. She invites us to think more complexly about the processes of humanization and dehumanization: how certain forms of representation contribute to the dehumanization of subjects, and of the multiple ways in which violence can happen in and through representation. There is the possibility of violence in both visibility and invisibility, and this is especially true in media representations in times of political conflict and war. Butler states,

The demand for a truer image, for more images, for images that convey the full horror and reality of the suffering has its place and importance. The erasure of that suffering through the prohibition of images and representations more generally circumscribes the sphere of appearance, what we can see and what we can know. But it would be a mistake to think that we only need to find the right and true images, and that a certain reality will then be conveyed. The reality is not conveyed by what is represented within the image, but through the challenge to representation that reality delivers. [5]

In charting the expanded field of representations of the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, my hope is that the schema proposed aids in opening up the questions of visibility and invisibility in relation to new media—as a way of thinking not only about the multiple articulations of mainstream media, but also their connections to new decentralized media forms emerging from soldiers, citizens, and reporters on the ground.

Thus, Wafaa Bilal’s Virtual Jihadi (2008) not only intervenes in the video game culture of Quest for Saddam on the one hand and The Night of Bush Capturing on the other. It also might be situated within the terms of a kind of ‘hyper-visibility from below’, one which uses the aggressive skin of video game culture to embody the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians (both on the ground in Iraq and in media representations which rely on caricature as a mode of dehumanization). In another strategy, Joseph DeLappe’s Dead-in-Iraq (2006), which intervenes in the US Army recruiting game America’s Army to enter data on service people killed in Iraq, challenges the military’s ‘democratizing’ media initiatives by rendering visible the human cost of war, a cost masked by the dramas enacted in such recruitment games. Within this expanded field, then, artists and activists engage not only the tensions of visibility and invisibility, but also the problem of perspective, in the specific configuration of war-time visual culture in the contemporary moment.


1. Robert Stam, “Mobilizing Fictions: The Gulf War, the Media, and the Recruitment of the Spectator.” Public Culture. Vol.4, No.2 (Spring 1992): 102.

2. The video is available on CBC's website at www.cbc.ca/national/blog/special_feature/fighting_ghosts. It has also been posted on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=BE7ANG2HS-w.

3. The footage may be viewed at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4646406.

4. I should note also that Sites was part of what was called the 'Fallujah pool'—so the footage was presented in its entirety in the international news media (on BBC, for example, and Al Jazeera), even if it was partially blacked out in the American mainstream press.

5. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004): 146.


Contributor Biographies

Iraqi born artist Wafaa Bilal has exhibited his art world wide, and traveled and lectured extensively to inform audiences of the situation of the Iraqi people, and the importance of peaceful conflict resolution. Bilal's 2007 dynamic installation Domestic Tension placed him on the receiving end of a paintball gun that was accessible online to a worldwide audience, 24 hours a day. Newsweek called the project “breathtaking” and the Chicago Tribune called the month-long piece "one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time," and named Bilal its 2007 Artist of the Year. Bilal has exhibited worldwide including in Baghdad, the Netherlands, Thailand and Croatia; as well as at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Milwaukee Art Museum and various other US galleries. His residencies have included Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California; Catwalk in New York; and Rensselaer (wren-suh-leer) Polytechnic Institute. In fall 2008 City Lights published “Shoot an Iraqi: Life, Art and Resistance Under the Gun,” about Bilal’s life and the Domestic Tension project.

Joseph DeLappe was a 2008 Commissioned Resident Artist at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York City.  He is an Associate  Professor of the Department of Art at the University of Nevada where  he directs the Digital Media program. Working with electronic and new media  since 1983, his work in online gaming performance and electromechanical  installation has been  shown throughout the United States and abroad - including exhibitions and performances in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and most recently at the Third Guangzhou Triennial at the Guangdong Museum of Art. In 2006 he began a  project “dead-in-iraq” , to type consecutively, all names of America's  military casualties from the war in Iraq into the America's Army first person shooter online recruiting game. Works documenting this project are currently being shown in New York City at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Gallery. He has been interviewed on CNN, NPR, CBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and on The Rachel Maddow Show on Air America Radio.  His works have been featured in the New York Times, The Australian Morning Herald, Artweek, Art in America and in the upcoming book from Routledge entitled Joystick Soldiers The Politics of Play in Military Video Games.

Lindsay Kelley recently completed a dissertation in the History of Consciousness Department at University of California Santa Cruz about food, biotechnology and contemporary art, focusing on artists who use biological processes or "wet ware."  She has also completed an MFA in Digital Art and New Media, which involves her in  researching fringe foods, experimental ingestion, and representations of people and plants in narratives of colonial aggression. She has exhibited and published in the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Elizabeth Losh is the Writing Director of the Humanities Core Course at U.C. Irvine and teaches courses about digital rhetoric.  She writes about institutions as digital content-creators, the discourses of the “virtual state,” the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounded regulatory attempts to limit everyday digital practices.  Her first book, Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes, was recently published by MIT Press. Her daily online column by the same name won the John Lovas Award for best academic weblog in 2007, and she is a regular contributor to Siva Vaidhyanathan's weblog about free culture and intellectual property Sivacracy and to the international blog about social advertising and non-profit campaigns Osocio.  She has published articles about videogames for the military and emergency first-responders, government websites, national digital libraries, political blogging, congressional hearings on the Internet, and state-funded online learning efforts.

Krista Geneviève Lynes is Assistant Professor in the History & Theory of Contemporary Art at the San Francisco Art Institute. She completed her doctorate, entitled "Imaging Boundaries: Video, Gender and the Politics of Visibility" (2007) in the University of California, Santa Cruz's History of Consciousness program. Her research explores the intersections of video art and documentary in transnational and feminist politics in the late twentieth century, focusing specifically on the politics of representation. Lynes is concerned with the global circulation of video, how it evidences witnessing subjects and specific modes of looking, and how it participates in the democratization of access to modes of representation. Lynes has published in New York Arts Magazine, co-edited a report entitled "From Local to Global: Making Peace Work for Women" with the NGO Working Group on Peace and Security, and published a review for the Korean artist, Mina Cheon's solo show Dizz/placement entitled "North/South Heterotopias: Mina Cheon's Half Moon Eyes." She is currently working on the role of border art in making visible national and global imaginaries.