The camera captures beauty in the terror.
Weapons are tools not just of destruction, but also of perception.
Between apocalyptic apprehensions, and dreams of deliverance
A Conversation between Malene Dam and Heather M. O'Brien
This conversation was included in a publication in conjunction with Memories Can't Wait, a two-day symposium jointly organized by the ICP-Bard MFA program and the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College MA program. The symposium took place at International Center of Photography in New York in 2012 and investigated the different artistic strategies used to rethink ways to produce, document, and archive forgotten, ambiguous, traumatic, or marginalized memories. In the dialogue that follows, conference organizer Malene Dam speaks with Heather M. O’Brien about her work, the classroom and the archive.
Malene Dam: Maybe we could speak to the process of you developing this work. I’m curious if you engaged with some of conversations we were having over the past year, relating to art and war, while making the slide lecture piece?
Heather M. O'Brien: Yes, the project started during a class that we were both part of in the MFA program at CalArts––The Work of War in Times of Art, lead by Michelle Dizon. We were a diverse group of students who were grappling with how war is understood within the frame of art in the classroom. There were many different perspectives in the room, and we all came to the subject matter with strong cognitive dissonance. War can be difficult to speak about, particularly when you are conversing within a privileged academic frame, far removed from physical conflict. We were trying to find a shared language together. I was looking at war from a place of personal memory, while dealing with familial military inheritance. My grandfather was an airforce pilot in World War II and the Korean War.
MD: The cognitive dissonance came from a similar place for me. I entered our classroom setting with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in mind. I was engaged in demonstrations and activist work around those wars for a number of years while living in Copenhagen. When I came to CalArts I felt very removed from the immediacy of my prior work. How could I bring a larger theoretical and artistic conversation about war together with these very intimate, emotional feelings I have around Denmark's involvement in war? I was living in a new country that was spearheading wars that I was fundamentally opposed to. There was a difficulty in translating my engagements in this a new context. It was a struggle to understand where to speak from. In your work with your grandfather’s archive I also sense a notion of translation and wonder if you were working through a similar struggle to find language to talk about war. You have a hungry theory brain like I do, and it seems like we were both were trying to find a bridge between these different registers of engagement with war’s relationship to art. Does this make sense?
H'OB: Yes, I also wonder about that feeling of removal. It takes time to develop impressions of communal immediacy towards a particular subject matter. Whenever you move to a new location, the political climate and context changes. I had been living in NYC for several years before deciding to pursue my MFA at CalArts. It took me a while to adjust to the new landscape of California. In the fall I took a class about visuality and it’s relationship to globalization; I was also working on a project related to the current state of the prison industrial complex in the U.S. The dialogue I was having in the classroom related to the momentum of Occupy LA, but by the spring the protests had been pushed out of Pershing Square. When we started the Work of War course I realized that working with the physicality of a personal slide archive could be an intimate way to help me understand the new political place from which I was speaking from. I inherited my grandfather’s slides when I moved across the country, and when I found myself in a new setting (CalArts) and in dialogue about war, I had an urgent feeling to understand a particular military history that was not talked about while I was growing up. What was it about the demonstrations and activist work in Denmark that generated a sense of urgency for you?
MD: Just before I moved to Los Angeles, I co-curated a group exhibition in Copenhagen focusing on the 'war on terror.’ I was looking specifically at how I felt silenced and had difficulty formulating conversations from the perspective of living in a country that was an ally to war. We looked to art to cultivate this discourse; we sent out an open call for artworks and we spoke to artists around the world who were dealing with the subject of war in their work. Through this process we slowly started to foster a conversation. When I finished working on the show I realized we hit the seven-year mark of the war in Iraq; my engagement with political work had followed me through finishing high school to pursuing my MFA. This realization of the seven years felt like a blow to the head. The anti-war protests and my political work had still not adequately prepared me to describe how I felt at that moment. It was not sufficient to say I was opposed the wars. It was much more then that, a much deeper feeling.
H'OB:That feeling you mention reminds me of something brought up in the publication that we worked on after our class (i) ––what does it mean to not feel the effects of war? And somehow it doesn’t seem enough to simply say, “I’m against the war.” Artist and CalArts faculty member Ashley Hunt wrote an essay in our publication, which questions if the making of us to “not feel at war” is a carefully calculated tool. He writes, “is not feeling at war a way of being at war, a technique of war-making? Are feeling and affect, along with the aesthetics of presentation, representation, revealing and concealing, which we think of as tools of art making, themselves tools of warfare?” Further, Ashley encourages the asking of meaningful questions relating to one’s relationship to war; “instead of the question, ‘Are we at war?’ I prefer, ‘How are we at war?’ ‘How’ —rather than ‘if’— triggers an inquiry that will not stop at ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but demands that we continue with more questions …” (ii) Growing up in the U.S., I felt far away from physical warfare. The closest I felt to conflict were the events of the Columbine school shootings in Colorado, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, since I’ve lived in all of the cities where those events occurred. Yet my feelings towards these horrific events have always been felt at an emotional distance through fabrications of media; my memory constructed by the often-fallacious tools of representation. I wonder if the physicality of warfare felt more real for my grandfather, since he was fighting in combat. Yet he was removed from violence in a different way––as a pilot he didn’t see war from the ground, but from the sky. My work with his slides is an attempt to understand the gaps in personal history, which lie somewhere between the moments in which we live, and the moments we are taught about.
MD: You touch on a few different things. I understand the removed feeling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the illegality of them, as producing a complex silencing. This act of silencing was a structural and strategic rhetorical operation maneuvered by the government in Denmark and President Bush. The gaps of history you speak to also occur in classroom settings, where we displace speaking about the present (perhaps because there is a foreclosure of language); we turn to theory, texts, and artworks for clarity. For me your grandfather’s aerial photos and your reflections on that terrestrial perspective is linked to the footage we saw in the Western media from Iraq and Afghanistan––a very specific frame. I linked the photos you presented to other photos that felt familiar to me. What is different in your work, however, is the element of performance; you operate a slide projector and bring together your grandfathers photos with a script, a series of reflections, on what this archive might mean to you in the present. You also open up how your grandfather might have shaped how you understand war and your country. I heard a personal struggle in the script as it was read alongside the images. You seemed to be trying to understand your present self through those documents, and your inheritance.
H'OB: Yes, the quiver in the voice is an important element to the work so I'm glad you picked up on it. There is a consideration of the live performance event versus something perfectly crafted, for example if the work was an edited video piece playing on a loop. Although I memorized and rehearsed the script, the feeling is different each time I perform the lecture. What’s there is there; I can’t do a second take or edit something out. My response changes and the inflection of my voice changes as I look at the projected images on a large screen and speak the words aloud to a live audience.
MD: Your comments make me think of your work as relating to something we were trying to describe earlier––the difficulty of developing a conversation amongst us in the Work of War classroom. The quiver of your voice as you speak the script aloud––as you speak to the images you speak with intense vulnerability and courage, which relates to inner feelings of how we, as subjects, are produced in relation to war. There is something very private about it. That way of speaking is not often heard when we talk about politics.
H'OB: The difficulty of developing a conversation in the classroom was also why working on the publication felt so urgent to me. A semester-long course considering art's relationship to war was much too short of a timeframe to fully think through our different positions. We needed more time and space to reflect on our relationship to the coursework. For me the publication goes hand in hand with the slide performance. During the class I was taking a break from working on a long-term project about the Angola Prison in Louisiana, another space of conflict that, when we started the Work of War class, felt very far removed from CalArts. Thus unpacking an internal and private space in which I could consider my relationship to my grandfather's view of war made a lot of sense. The slides were physically present in my studio; Angola Prison was many miles away. I was also deeply affected by a film we watched in class, Harun Faroki's Images of the World and the Inscription of War.
MD: I was struck by how your script moves from frank descriptions of family albums, to considerations of your grandmother’s relation to the war and your grandfather being away, to more abstract considerations of photography and the aerial perspective. Could you speak a bit to how the script developed for you? And also how this performance went hand in hand with the publication? You seem to suggest that your work felt entirely linked to how our conversation was developing in the classroom. I am curious about this dynamic.
H'OB: The first iteration of the script was much more theoretical in its rhetoric. I presented an early version of the piece in the spring of 2012. My head was still very much grappling with texts we were reading in the course, along with a book I had picked up about modern air warfare––The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon. I began working on the script again in the fall after spending the summer compiling and editing works for the publication. When I came back to work on the script I was writing and editing from a place of personal narrative, instead of from an academic place. But what the course and publication helped me to work through was a clearer sense of positionality. When speaking about a subject matter as loaded as the term war, a subjective space of reflection was the way in which we began to develop a shared language as a group of artists in the class. Position is something that Michelle Dizon writes about in the publication, "there are different positions involved in war. There are those who are in the war and those who speak about the war. This understanding, of who is speaking and who is not, who is describing and who is being described, underscores the fundamental question of the place from which one speaks. It is this place from which one speaks that is so violently elided when alterity is conceived as an open relationship toward which one should gesture in the name of ethics, without a real engagement with the terms of what lies on the other side.” (iii) So it was important for me to write from a personal place but also to write with a respectful and reciprocal sentiment to and for my family narrative. I am wondering if our time together in that course also affected your work after CalArts, as you moved into a different classroom setting in a Curatorial Studies program at CCS Bard?
MD: Our class and publication asked a very important and fundamental question––what is the place we speak from as artists, and how do we communicate? I am often drawn to these moments of tension, where there is difficulty or lack of language, where we as artists must think deeply about how we choose to construct things and ideas for a public. But I think you are also asking how this relates to my transition from a studio art MFA program to now being in the setting of a curatorial studies MA program. I have turned to these moments of conversation in the classrooms as an essential location for me to think through what curating might mean to me. How can we come to hear what the work is trying to develop a language around? What assumptions are being made when we bring artworks together? How do we think about listening, collaboration, and conversation as fundamental steps in curating?
H'OB: In that sense it seems we both share a deep respect for the shared learning environment, i.e. the classroom space.
MD: Yes. And since you just graduated from CalArts yesterday, the question now becomes how you maintain the practice you developed in the context of school outside the structure of the institution.
H'OB: Well, I think we are both invested in a very particular type of classroom, where academic freedom is not reduced to pure consumerism. Paulo Freire might refer to this space as one in which the individual cultivates their own growth through situations from daily life, to produce useful learning experiences. I feel lucky to have spent the past two years working with several faculty and students who were invested in radical pedagogy within CalArts. My hope is that I can continue to participate in collective learning experiences, without the hefty tuition pricetag. For example, during the recession in 2008-2010, a collaboration with the Work Progress Collective in NYC provided me a particular educational space outside an expensive institution, during a treacherous economic timeframe. A lot of it is about timing and finding committed comrades who share the same enthusiasm, and seeking out alternative modes for conversation, such as conferences, like Memories Can’t Wait. Which actually brings me to a question about the symposium––can you share your thoughts in thinking through the theme and it's structure around the archive? I am curious about the symposium’s relation, if any, to the Archive Fever exhibition at ICP in 2008.
MD: Well to go back to my first question about practice outside of the classroom, the symposium was lead by concerns relating to this. The event was a collaboration between ICP Bard and CCS Bard, the curatorial program I'm in at the moment. Two graduate students from each program were paired to develop a symposium. We wanted to cultivate a conversation between the two programs, outside of a traditional classroom structure. We also realized a larger issue to tackle: although there are many art schools in the NY area, there are not many possibilities to come together to share and develop work. As to your question about the concept of the archive, this was initially an easy connection between the two programs––the archive ties to notions of curating and photography. While I was at CalArts I wrote about Archive Fever in terms of artistic and curating strategies. During our planning meetings for the symposium we looked at how and why certain narratives and subjects are omitted in History. How do artists and other cultural producers develop tactics to work through the complex mechanisms of power and structure? We look to the archive as a way to begin a dialogue around something that is silenced in the present; we try to understand things through past histories; we re-write histories we were not allowed to be a part of; we draw up more complex ways in which we are formed by the past in the present; we make up entirely fictitious pasts. When we started to receive submissions for the conference we realized there were a multitude of positionings and methodologies within various contexts and histories. We decided to group individuals by looking at the strategies they used. We did not want to perpetuate already stable narratives, but instead disrupt them. A specific example was the group presentation you were a part of. In some ways you were all speaking to WWII, but a more important question was how you were all working through inherited stories vis-à-vis the family album. Since there was no way of validating the stories behind your familial heirlooms, you had to speculate, make up, and trouble how and in what ways these stories had affected you.
H'OB: I appreciated the thought that went into the groupings at the conference. It was interesting for me to return to ICP after completing the one-year Creative Practices Program in 2009. My perspective had shifted quite a bit due to the CalArts experience and it was important to converse with NY-based MFA students and realize we were working through similar questions regarding inheritance and war through imagery. I also enjoyed the roundtable conversation in the room after the presentations. The dialogue included an interesting mix of students from CalArts, Parsons, and ICP. The notion of ethics and representation came up in the dialogue, which was due to the journalistic images that were up on the gallery walls of the school during the symposium. When I studied at ICP there was a very clear division between the two different one-year programs––1) Photojournalism and 2) Creative Practices (a studio art/photo program). ICP was founded by war-photographer and photojournalist Cornell Capa, who coined the phrase “concerned photographer.” At my ICP graduation ceremony there was constant praise for the Photojournalism program and preferred honoring of the “concerned” graduates. This made several of us “artists” feel inadequate to the “journalists”––in fact we were actually told by one faculty member that we weren't “helping” others since our “artwork” was coming from a different place. One statement made to us was, “Are you going to make art or are you going to care?” I didn’t understand why the choice had to be one or the other. Having the graduate experience at CalArts and thinking through the place from which I was speaking furthered my inquiries about ethics, positionality, and alterity in a productive way. Being back at ICP for the symposium years later to present a piece that touched on issues of war and it's representation offered a timely unpacking of questions around the role of art, the role of photojournalism, and one’s own position to the familial archive.
(i) Metta World Peace is a multi-artist collaboration and a response to the course by 12 artists towards the contemporary world as a site of global war, via the mediums of writing, video, photography, critical theory, and graphic design. The dialogue continued beyond The Work of War in Times of Art classroom at CalArts into the form of a printed publication, allowing the artists to position themselves within a specific political space, while also further considering deliberations and questions that occurred throughout the course.
(ii) Hunt, Ashley. We’s of War, Metta World Peace, 2012.
(iii) Dizon, Michelle. The Work of War in Times of Art, Metta World Peace, 2012.