Monday, October 17, 2011

Art for that other ten-year anniversary

Damian Cote,  Notice: There will be no parade for this war
It was somehow culturally telling that the tenth anniversary of 9/11 became a national obsession - while the same anniversary passed for the launch of the war in Afghanistan almost without comment, at least in the United States.  (Meanwhile, in-country, the Taliban marked the date by attacking four NATO bases.)

But several local artists, coordinated by Greg Cook of the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, felt attention must be paid.  The resulting project - a set of banners hung from overpasses and bridges on October 7 - offered homage to those who gave their lives in the war while quietly subverting the attitudes that often come bundled with the yellow ribbons we tie around our oak trees.

Or was the project a comment on the fact that this time Americans weren't tying those ribbons around those oaks - that while nursing its 9/11 wounds, the nation was ignoring the wars it had launched in response to its injuries?  Cook is a new kind of activist-critic (he recently coordinated a small, funny insurrection at the MFA), as well as a self-confessed "yokelist," a reviewer of high art who's almost more deeply concerned with popular cultural expression (he's a dedicated and talented photographer of local festivals, parades and events).  So this kind of aesthetic Trojan Horse - a political critique couched in a populist cultural trope - seemed right up his alley.

Recently I asked him about the intriguing double meaning of the work.  Were the banners meant to whisper a hint of accusation as well as respect?

"The project was just a small assertion that we need to remember and pay attention to these continuing wars," Greg replied. "After weeks of reports and reminiscences around 9/11, look at the news: No mention of the 10th anniversary of the war. The front pages offer basically no mention of war at all."  [Indeed, President Obama marked the anniversary with merely a written statement, sans any public speech or appearance.]  "I think for Americans, 9/11 symbolizes how we spontaneously, heroically rose up in the face of a sudden, monumental tragedy. But the beginning of the Afghanistan War symbolizes the government's official response to that ambush and the record is so depressing, so unheroic that we want to forget it."

Ah, but there's the rub, and perhaps one reason why people want to forget the war - can you be a hero if your war was unheroic?   But Cook sees the honor going to the fallen, while the critique should go - well, somewhere else, probably further up the chain of command.  "After the quick routing of the Taliban, bin Laden escaped - and the Bush Administration turned its attention to Iraq - even as the Taliban regrouped," he explained.  "And so the war dragged on, and thousands more Americans died or were injured. Somewhere in there we also began to torture people. And so on.  The whole effort went so badly and became so morally suspect that now Americans just want it to disappear."

Damian Cote, Sgt. White We Missed You
Damian Cote was one of the artists participating in the project, hanging several banners (at left and top) from overpasses in the Boston area.  A veteran himself, Cote has been doing work like this for the past three years, hanging memorial banners across New England as well as points further south.  Until now he has worked almost anonymously, however - and he maintains little connection to the work once it is installed; indeed, Cote has never returned to most of the banners he has hung.  But he imagines they last a while, as they usually include a tribute to a fallen soldier.  "It is sort of a taboo to take down a welcome home banner for some one that is dead . . .  it's like vandalizing a grave," he notes.

And for Cote, his own anonymity reinforces the questioning intent of the banner.  "All my work is largely about propinquity - the nearness of space, time, family, religion, etc., all wrapped up in one experience.  Our lack of propinquity to terrible events is why we don't care about them. A starving kid dies every minute, but no one cares unless there is a strong connection to the event.  I don't want to make 'a statement,' I simply want to bring such a connection closer to home - just as if I were to take a starving kid and place him or her in your living room."

Yet he's realistic about the impact of the banners.  "In the end they quickly become noise or highway wallpaper to those that have already seen them," Cote sighs. "People forget them as soon as the next text message comes in."

"In fact, the person driving the car on the highway is likely to care more about the price of gas than the war in Afghanistan," he continues grimly. "They don't care about the people that have to be hurt or die in order to shave 65 cents off that price-per-gallon. They are mostly unaware.  As a future project, I would love to take the bodies of the dead from this war and hang them from the overpasses instead of banners," he adds with dark sarcasm.  "And the ones that have been only injured - I'd love to have them pump gas.  Now that would be propinquity."

And in the end, that might be what it takes to change the status quo, for the war grinds on, even if it's winding down; President Obama's current withdrawal plan - always under revision - means American troops will remain in harm's way till 2014. Which only exasperates Cook. "If our goal was to defeat Al Qaeda," he says, "that seems to have been mostly accomplished with the killing of Bin Laden [which occurred in a different country, of course - an ally, in fact]. But it seems now we also want at some level to stabilize Afghanistan. And if that's the goal, how will we ever be able to leave completely?"

Jill Slosburg-Ackerman and Marilyn Pappas, War is Over if You Want It

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