MEDIA + WAR = War Room
University of Sharjah, UAE
An installation of digital prints titled War Room by artists Tarek Al-Ghoussein and Chris Kienke is compelling both as a voluminous and illumined statement on the intertwined nature of contemporary media and war. The viewer, surrounded by banks of backlit TV screen images digitally recorded during the Iraq war, is drawn into an encapsulated space. The panoptic experience transfixes and mesmerizes the spectator. The initial feeling of being enveloped and overwhelmed by flickering images gradually gives way to exploring the individual elements that comprise this TV mosaic. The sheer quantity of visual data –an intuitive recognition of the historical import of the documented event – and the sense of mystification that arises from contemplating the intervention of cartoon frames among graphic scenes of war, all grip the observer. The installation is well crafted and, despite the nature of the subject—war—it is, more inviting and accessible to the average person than much of the contemporary technology-based art created today. Viewers may approach the work in a hushed silence more appropriate to a mausoleum, yet there is a tendency for this silence to morph into serious dialogue with fellow visitors as they begin to reflect upon their interaction with the images.
Figure 1. The War Room , Tarek Al-Ghoussein and Chris Kienke.
Installation view, May 2006, Sharjah Biennial 7.
Al-Ghoussein and Kienke wrote in their artists’ statement, “(t)he work at once underlines the ultimate subjectivity of experience and highlights some of the limits within which individual opinions are formed.” The artists specifically refer to the numerous levels of filtration to which the exhibited images have been subjected. The initial stage of filtration occurs at the media level—what embedded journalists captured and the pre-selection of footage for production, editing and broadcasting. Another level of filtration relates to the banal aspects of the artists’ daily routines. Over 1500 images were shot from the TV screen throughout the duration of the war, but questions arise about what transpired while they were sleeping, working, watching a different channel, or deciding which images were worth recording. The random selection of images to be included in the installation was done mechanically, adding yet another level of filtration. 1 A final layer of filtration, not specifically addressed in the artists’ statement, occurs between the exhibited images and the viewer. The space between the observed and the observer is the site of constructed meaning. The dialogue is personal and subjective, and as varied as the individual who encounters the images. Responses might range from the trite and banal recognition of various media personalities or familiar TV stations to more profound existential reflections about inhumane actions and cultural extinction.
People recall when some traumatic event occurs (e.g. 9/11, war, earthquake, or tsunami) by connecting it to where they were at the time they heard the news. War Room invites this type of dialogue. Who doesn’t remember the moment when the “Shock and Awe” invasion of Iraq was staged with embedded journalists riding sidesaddle on an M1A2 Abrams tank? In War Room, screens with text like BREAKING NEWS / Day 1 / Day 2 / Soldiers in Baghdad in 3-4 days serve as cues for temporal events and subjective reflections. The viewer is also enticed to consider the importance of the unfamiliar as well as the familiar. Some images from the Iraq War—such as the politically sensitive action of the U.S. soldier placing the American flag on the statue of Saddam Hussein before it was pulled down by American tanks, the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos, and the so-called precision night bombings of Baghdad--are ubiquitous. Other selections in this installation invite contemplation on the role of journalistic protocol, agency, and agenda. For example, would the disturbing image of a young boy with the top of his head blown off while his face remained intact air on both CNN and Al Jazeera networks? And, when the same images do appear in both contexts, is the reporting of the event slanted toward different ideologies?
The exhibition of War Room in the Sharjah Biennial 7 in 2005 was a modified and expanded version of a previous installation. The number of panels doubled and the images were superimposed on black wall-sized light boxes to provide backlighting. This effectively evokes the feeling that one’s field of vision is filled with TV screens. A stack of monitors with looping images was an experimental addition that solidified the relationship between the cultures of media and spectatorship. Clearly, the emphasis in War Room is on the ‘visual’ experience. Sound is not included, as is often the case within the genre of new art practices where artists seek to engage viewers through multiple sensorial means. The visual language is left to speak for itself, and the viewer is responsible for interpreting meaning. The experience of observing is similar to watching multiple TV displays through an invisible sound barrier. The mute images envelope viewers in silence transporting them into an inner world of reflection and contemplation. The observer looks for patterns or some sense of logic or structure, where none exists, although there are the occasional, random sequences of frames that encourage us to think otherwise. Narratives, stories, logical associations are fundamental to human thought. Responding to the desire for connectedness, the mind struggles to assemble the scenes displayed into some kind of grand meta-narrative.
Figure 2. The War Room, Tarek Al-Ghoussein and Chris Kienke.
People in the installation, May 2006, Sharjah Biennial 7.
. . . Saddam holding his rifle, chemical and biological missile fears in France, photos of a lion and lioness with cubs, images of Arafat in youth and old age, clips from Fahrenheit 9/11 and Hollywood’s Just a Kiss, cartoons of fighting pigs, images of Rod Stewart, scenes from a beauty pageant, pumpkin spice cookie recipes, information on an endangered language in Guatemala spoken by only 150 people, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush and Tony Blair, Nighthawk helicopter crash, and coffins draped with US flags, a Star Movie image of a man behind bars, an oil plant with human skulls laying in the foreground, bloodied victims of violence, Walt Disney pictures, 2004 Olympics, anti-war protests, blank TV screens . . .
Figure 3. The War Room, Tarek Al-Ghoussein and Chris Kienke.
Detail of the installation, May 2006, Sharjah Biennial 7.
What could they all mean? How can we make sense of these pieces of a puzzle? Are there specific visual hooks designed to lure the viewer? Nicholas Mirzoeff’s recent publication of Watching Babylon—The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture foregrounds a number of relevant points that provide an entrée into understanding an installation like War Room. Neither Mirzoeff nor the artists Al-Ghoussein and Kienke attempt to expose the veracity of the media images or the fallacies that underpin political and military policies. Instead, they prefer, as Mirzoeff phrased it, to enable “people as agents of sight” to respond according to individual subjectivities. 2 The artists are more interested in eliciting responses from the audience than in advancing a specific political position. This Post-Modernist concern with using art as a catalyst for audience response accounts for the lack of an internal cohesive narrative among the TV media images displayed in War Room. At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive to have serialized images detached from a narrative thread. However, Mirzoeff, drawing upon Foucault’s concept of the event, explains the need for repetition of non-narrative forms. The event itself must be framed within a series to be intelligible. 3 The event in this case is the Iraq war in all its complexity. The multiplicity of images in War Room not only makes it intelligible as an event, but also allows for an infinite number of viewpoints to arise from the subjective position of each observer.
Mirzoeff also stresses the importance of the place of viewing because, he reasons, in our modern world every locality is part of the global. 4 Locality was certainly a matter of significance and coincidence for the artists themselves. Their backgrounds are quite different. Tarek Al-Ghoussein is a Palestinian with Kuwaiti nationality who completed undergraduate and graduate studies in the United States. Chris Kienke was born in upstate New York and was educated in the American Midwest. Although at first glance they appear to have little in common, these artists do share similar tastes in art and music. Both are living as expatriates in the United Arab Emirates and teaching art at the American University in Sharjah. Initially unaware of what the other was doing, each artist began a digital documentation of the TV media images they were watching in their homes at the onset of the Iraq War. Neither had any idea what they would do with the visual data they collected, but ultimately discovered their mutual interests and concerns. Through the paradox of locality, War Room was the outcome of a collaborative effort between these expatriate artists. Their decision to present the Iraq war in a museum context through an installation of temporal, serial images appropriated from different TV channels foregrounds three important points for consideration. First, the viewers essentially bring their location with them. Second, museum visitors, like TV watchers, are not a homogenous group. The third and final point is that the artwork itself will travel from one location to another, encountering different types of viewers—what might be termed cultural clusters—along the way. Recording and collecting the thoughts of viewers in these different locales would enable War Room to achieve a kind of post-event afterlife. In effect, War Room has the potential to become the catalyst for creating an archive of situational views that trace the changes within humanities’ formation of historical memory.
Overall, War Room is a microcosm of the larger macrocosm in which we live. It raises our awareness of how impossible it is to achieve any degree of objectivity and how altered realities arise from media’s mediation of events. Silent images from the era of the Iraq War are projected back to us like a dream, or perhaps more correctly a nightmare. Some images are colorful and vivid while others remain only as gossamer-like traces in our memories, and when we awake, we are never quite certain how it all was suppose to fit together.
1. For the artists’ statement in English and Arabic and photo documentation of the War Room installation see Boullata, Kamal ed. Sharjah Biennial 7 Belonging, exh.cat. ( Sharjah, United Arab Emirates: Sharjah Biennial, 2005) p.302-6
2 Mirzoeff, Nicholas Watching Babylon—The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture, ( USA and Canada: Routledge, 2005) p.3
3 Mirzoeff p.11