“Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project” is a 3D narrative experience made for the affective sensory environment of the EVL’s CAVE2 that gives voice to stories of this violence and the post-traumatic stress experienced by ordinary American soldiers who became torturers in the course of serving their country. During the American-led counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns in Iraq in the years after September 11, 2001, the torture and abuse of detainees was a commonplace tactic. “Hearts and Minds: the Interrogations Project” is based on interviews of American soldiers conducted by Dr. John Tsukayama. Viewers travel through the domestic spaces and surreal interior landscapes of soldiers who have come home transformed by these experiences, triggering their testimonies by interacting with objects laden with loss. The production team includes filmmaker Dr. Roderick Coover, writer Dr. Scott Rettberg, artist and visualization research scientist Dr. Daria Tsoupikova, computer scientist Arthur Nishimoto, sound designer Mark Partridge, production assistant Mark Baratta, and senior research programmer Lance Long. Dr. Jeffrey Stevenson Murer of St. Andrews University, Scotland also contributed as a consultant on the project. Made with support from the Electronic Visualization Lab (EVL) at the University of Illinois Chicago, the UIC Department of Art and Design, Temple University, and the Norwegian Research Council.
Pat Badani: “Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project” is a narrative piece designed for the 3D immersive CAVE2 TM  display system at the University of Illinois Chicago. The work’s script creatively integrates data from a Detainee Interaction Study that examined the lived experiences of American military and intelligence veterans. Can you describe how you came to the material, and how you structured research made in the social sciences into an immersive art-piece?
Roderick Coover: The project is based on the research of a political scientist, John Tsukayama. John had had a full career as a private investigator, well trained as an interrogator. He wanted to try to understand the post-traumatic stress that soldiers live with, as well as the horrors that were inflicted during interrogations of detainees during the American-led counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns in Iraq in the years after September 11, 2001. What he found were gross patterns of violence – horrible violence: killings, mass graves and so forth, essentially war crimes. I believe that he wanted to find a way of talking about how such patterns of violence come about without blaming individual soldiers. His work draws attention to the failings of a system that asked these soldiers to do things that they should never have been asked to do with the training they had (if at all). Generally the soldiers were untrained to perform acts of interrogation and unprepared for what such acts might do to others or themselves. Not knowing what to do, they invented many of these acts out of things they has seen in movies, heard on television, and so on. For example, when one group of soldiers heard about waterboarding, a sergeant decided, “Oh, we’d better learn how to do this,” and they agreed to try it out on the first person they saw, just to practice. It is unimaginable how we asked soldiers to perform acts with little or no training, and to throw them in these situations. So, John undertook interview-based research; it is the basis of a doctoral thesis project that was completed in June 2014,  and I am sure it will come out in book form soon. It is an important and challenging work.
John shared this material with others and myself in our production team. We tried to find a way to engage the interviews and treat them in a non-sensationalist way. It was very clear in our initial Skype conversations that he did not want to have the work dramatized using the storytelling conventions of much contemporary documentary or narrative film. He wanted something that would open up the text and allow people the space to connect to these stories, and to see that the situations are complex. It is too easy to lay blame in just one place; the conditions are distributed.
We therefore developed a multimedia approach, one that would be highly immersive; on the one hand to try and draw users into the emotional experiences of the soldiers and on the other hand to offer a flexibility of space, a listening space. We wanted to create spaces where the user would not be pushed forward by the story as one is in a movie, but rather spaces that would offer users the time to digest the stories and move on when they were ready. That was a challenge – but the CAVE2 environment is particularly good for the latter because it is immersive. The user experiences the stories at her own pace by moving between these worlds. The spaces are suggestive both of those that the soldiers came from and those that they went into. This allows for the comparison of cultures and of psychological states – psychogeography essentially – the psychogeography of inhabiting a suburban home placed against being in the desert, where the soldiers were facing threats and violence, witnessing the death of friends and being asked to get intelligence through any means possible. While the project necessarily uses actors to conceal the identities of soldiers who were willing to speak out, the work closely follows their words. Most didn’t imagine, in signing up to serve in the military, that they would be expected to become torturers and they show great courage in speaking about what happened.
PB: Which takes me to the next question. In “Hearts and Minds” you created layered meanings via juxtapositions and connections that point to a variety of architectures and landscapes. Can you talk about how you help the performer construct a sense of ‘locality.’
RC: The version that we showed during special screenings in June and July 2014 in the CAVE2 at the University of Illinois Chicago is a dedicated performance event. We asked a performance artist, Mark Jeffrey, take on the role of the user in order to carry the audience through the project, because the CAVE is essentially a one-person experience: one person drives the movement, wandering through these environments and engaging with objects. The CAVE2 at UIC – which is absolutely fabulous – is much larger than the first generation CAVE, with room for about 30 people.
Under such conditions, it was very helpful that one person lead the audience on the journey. Having Mark perform the role of user also allowed for some minor elaboration. For example, he carried with him a folding chair. Not only was the chair tied to navigation in the work, enabling automatic links, it also served as a powerful physical reminder of a resonant object – such chairs were used in the field during interrogations in various and violent ways that are described in the anecdotes. So, for the specific screenings at UIC we guided visitors via the performer, otherwise people can guide themselves through the immersive environment by using the gear provided, and forthcoming there will be a more portable version that can be viewed on smaller 3D devices.
PB: You used a number of visual and aural inscriptions in the work’s constructed landscapes in order to create a sense of place. I am really interested in your use of metaphors and symbols that help the user interpret the material and emotionally connect to it.
RC: The way the project is set up is that the user enters a large hall like a mosque, and in this hall, one hears the voices, almost in whisper form, of soldiers speaking about why they signed up to go to Iraq – many voice patriotic and admirable reasons for having signed up. There are four doors each leading to luminous, ordinary American domestic spaces. These are modeled 3D spaces and include a children’s room, a living room, a kitchen and a back yard. Users may engage with objects in these rooms, such as posters of Cubs Scouts, or toy models, or video games. Engaging with the objects triggers the walls to disappear and stories to begin. The suburban home dissolves into some strange desert landscape – a constructed and somewhat surreal landscape, and soon one hears the voice of one of the soldiers beginning to recall a story or experience.
In this way, the piece juxtaposes the landscape of “home” that is left and later come back to, with this gap in the middle that in some sense transforms or discolors the original sense of place. These intermediary spaces are suggestive of interior, psychological states rather than identifiable locations. The source materials was rather pointedly selected however. I shot some of the imagery in deserts of the American southwest near where soldiers trained for the Iraq campaigns and some of the others I recorded around prisons and work camps built by Pinochet during his rule in Chile. The tremendous horror and violence I felt built into those structures in Chile resonated with the stories I was reading from these soldiers’ testimonies.
PB: The use of the notion of ‘home’ and the objects that touch on remembrances associated with comfort are powerful…
RC: We know that one has a strong relationship to the notion of home through personal objects, so we took this idea for the project. We identified objects that would trigger relationships between spaces at home and in the field. Those triggers usually have some resonance with what was happening. For example, there is one particular character that was inspired to become a soldier because his father had been a soldier in Vietnam, and as a kid he had played with his father’s clothes and rummaged through his father’s diaries, so we include a diary and military garb. The son had built up a mystique around his Dad. So, when the son was thrown into an interrogation situation, he drew upon horrific methods he’d read about in his father’s diary – methods the father has used in Vietnam: electrocuting people with lamp wires, and things like that…and then back home, one discovers that these are things that his father had deeply blocked and when his soldier son began talking about what he was doing in Iraq it caused all these traumas in the father, and the father almost committed suicide. Home is filled with these catalysts. Objects are used to provoke memories and imagine how memories reconfigure or distort lives in the present. The people involved had to face some traumas that are not always reachable directly, they become manifest in objects; they become repressed, distorted.
PB: Can you describe the objects themselves? I gather that the performer navigates by selecting these objects. Can you name these objects?
RC: The performer navigates through a space that is a constructed model of a mosque-like room, which in turn dissolves into constructed 3D models of domestic spaces: a living room, a kitchen, a children’s room and a shed. In these rooms one can find modeled 3D objects, so in the children’s room, for example, there is a Boy Scout poster, a family photo, an alarm clock, and a tonker truck, as well as other objects like badges, toy soldiers and model airplanes. In the kitchen, for example, there is a knife, a bottle of wine, a towel and a fridge. Outdoors in the yard, there are tools such as wire cutters, a dartboard, a tricycle and a watering can. These are the kinds of objects that are found in the spaces that then trigger movement into these panoramic, photographic spaces, so there is this angle of the artificial and the natural being shown. There is documentary representation of spaces and 3D modeled spaces; spaces that are constructed digitally.
PB: What motivated you to combine documentary material with constructed, 3D modeled material – what were your aesthetic and your conceptual criteria for doing this?
RC: So, these spaces and their objects are a little strange because they are artificially recreated, and this establishes a distance – you, as audience member, know that you are in an art space that is not meant to be hyper realistic in all elements – yet you are engaging with texts that are powerful, clear and truthful. I feel that this affords a useful amount of distance to talk about violence or terror, about personal disruptions. There is an interesting passage at the beginning Michael Taussig’s book, The Nervous System.  Taussig is trying to find the right distance by which to talk about terror and violence. How to present horrors at home with enough distance to gain some understanding but not so far as to be alienated to the unfathomable stress surrounding conditions of violence – how not to turn the emotional experience, the psychogeography of terror, into an academic exercise through discourse. And I think that this is how the CAVE environment is helpful, because it pulls the viewer into this psychological space.
The combination of documentary materials with modeled spaces and objects imparts a strangeness that I hope will allow people to enter into the soldier’s stories. The aim has been to create conditions that will help users receive the stories, to hear them. It tries to offer another way to understand the implications of US military practices, given the intransigent ideas about what’s going on that people develop from the loud political discourse in American culture. The project aims to break away from this discourse by creating a space to hear the words of those who were in Iraq – to engage with the veterans’ experiences about what they were and were not being told to do; their journey and learning experience. By giving voice to those who were there, and focusing on patterns rather than blaming individuals for where things went wrong, the goal of the art project – and I believe this might also by part of John’s thesis work – has been to help transform a culture from within rather than remain stuck in what has become a dumb political discourse in the media.
PB: I also felt that the soldiers’ monologues in the piece are powerful testimonies that reflect lived experience. Can you describe the four soldiers in the piece? And then, how and why did you compress and combine the original interviews into four characters.
RC: The characters include three male soldiers and one female soldier, each with distinct motivations for having joined the army and diverse backgrounds. In the piece, they talk about why they signed-up, their experiences in the military, their family relationships and their sense of home – of where they come from, and the home they come back to – and this is very important because each of these individuals comes back to a home that is in a sense transformed. We convey the sense that ‘home’ has been ripped apart, that it is never quite the same after what they have gone through.
Because we needed to protect the soldiers’ identities we needed to have actors play the role of the soldiers. John went to great lengths to conceal their identities because he wants to tackle systemic problems not blame individuals and to do so he must project them – they talk about issues that are difficult, at times very violent, and perhaps even at times, war crimes. He needed to steer away from legal issues for himself and his subjects. We wanted to highlight these patterns; patterns that in some ways follow those that occurred in Vietnam and other wars that the USA has been involved with. For the same reason, we did not show actors on screen, but rather we had actors read these roles and set the sound segments against distorted landscapes.
Scott Rettberg is the scriptwriter for the piece as well as an artistic participant in developing its latter stages. Scott’s writing for the project began in February when we met for a week-long residency at Brown University’s Digital Scholarship Lab. The first goal was to condense this large research project into something that would carry over into an art experience – to make at least a small portion of the material accessible. His first solution to this was to find common threads, maybe two or three characters that would be condensed into a single figure, while staying true to the original language. The benefits were clear, a single actor reading three or four anecdotes of a common type together would add coherence, illuminate broader differences, and better protect identities.
One character believes that torture works although he carries an inner torment – a constant desire for violence that he must hide from his children for fear they would reject him. Another character goes to Iraq with great belief in the system that is telling him to do these things, and is transformed as he sees it unravel. A third learns to intervene. A fourth is devastated by the experience. So this is how we worked toward creating a coherent art experience for the viewer with limited time – something very different from the time expectations given to the reader of a scholarly work containing hundreds of pages of text. So, one of our creative challenges – a common challenge for artists – was to expand upon just a small part of the evidence in a way that might make the material accessible, meaningful and resonant to viewers. And of course, hopefully, some would be inspired to go to that longer text or other research on this issue after engaging with this project.