What did you leave us with?
A conversation between Andrew Freeman and Heather M. O’Brien
Downtown Los Angeles, February 2014. This text was included in I, a publication printed in conjunction with I scarcely have the right to use this ghostly verb, an exhibition at The New School, NYC.
Andrew Freeman: Are those slides from your grandfather’s collection?
Heather M. O’Brien: Yes, the whole archive is here in my studio. I’m also interested in the meticulous flying records my grandfather made and the pilot manuals he saved. The drawings of the takeoff and landing pads are really beautiful. I suppose I have been asking the question “What does it mean to mine histories of war that we didn’t experience ourselves?” This is particularly interesting to me in the present moment here in the U.S. as we live through a different war. I’m fascinated by your recent work and your ability to get to some ideas around air war––was it your father’s experience?
AF: Yeah, but he was an experimental pilot in the 60s, not a combat pilot. He was somebody who got into planes to see if he could break them––sort of. I suspect this job developed greatly in the wake of WWII. There is a dangerous history from WWII where bomber pilots went out knowing they were going in to get shot down, and they still did it over and over again. That stuff is true. But then there are the mythologies of war and heroism, and that’s partly what you seem to be interested in. Which says something about what you think an art practice could include or address. So, I imagine that part of going through your grandfather’s archive is a kind of sleuthing. It’s only an archive now, because you’ve named it that. Before it was just a box of slides. That’s the mark of the artist at work. It’s your family stuff, but then it becomes an archive when it’s a resource for your work and articulated as such. So by calling it an archive you’re making a conceptual link. The idea is not passive. I also notice that you just referred to things in your grandfather’s flight manuals and personal flight logs as “drawings,” which I find interesting. They’re certainly not sketches as they’re done with rulers, but artists have a tendency to look at them and go, “Wow, look at this drawing.” When it’s really a very nicely done diagram––and then it all shifts. Once it goes through the mind of somebody who has other ideas for it, the intention shifts. The box of slides becomes an archive. It is a source for thinking through effects.
H’OB: That makes me think about usefulness. My grandfather used the manual to get up in the sky. It becomes very different when it’s considered as an artifact; something that someone’s going to look at and derive information about this time, our time.
AF: The difficult thing about your archive is negotiating the personal realm. Once you do something that refers to what a parent did, or in your case a grandparent did, you can feel uncomfortable in terms of paternal authorities. You ask yourself: is this representation unduly honorific in some way? We face certain familial or cultural expectations or categories. It’s built into our culture: “respect your elders.” Or, it’s another version of the psychological, a deep construction of a parent, that’s perhaps Freudian or Lacanian. It’s about trying to construct your own origin and sometimes it’s an origin myth, or maybe it’s: “How the fuck did we get here?” What did the parent, or grandparent, participate in and how does it affect me now? And to some degree with somebody like a grandparent, and one who worked as an aviator, a bomber pilot, in WWII, there’s also the specter of that somewhat despicable phrase, “Was that the last honest war?”––if you could say such a thing. We’ve been caught up in so many conflicts and wars since WWII––all of them feel less righteous. There’s something complex about the question, “What did you leave us with?”
H’OB: That point has come up a lot with this work. When I started working on the project I was super critical of WWII. I was talking about imperialism and other terms like it that were coming up for me in the research I was doing about the current state of war and globalization. I was projecting those feelings onto the slides, for example my thoughts about the war on terror, 9/11, Katrina, Seattle 1999––all the moments I’ve lived through. I remember Judy Fiskin, while looking at my work said to me, “WWII was a different war.” I remember being startled by that comment. I grew up a liberal town in the 90s. I was conditioned to be very suspicious of war. Yet I’m also a daughter to the generation that tends to craft the WWII experience into myth, because, as you said, we feel the need to honor those who came before us. But for me the best history restores complexity to our sense of the past.
AF: There are people that will talk about WWII in purely mythological ways. There are many kinds of coping. Kurt Vonnegut wrote beautifully about war. He talks about psychology, and of the blue 88s, the giant blue pills given to people who were battle torn in their minds. They were essentially downers, which soldiers would have to take before being sent back to the frontline. Every war has its barbarisms, and then our perspective shifts with time and it becomes barbaric at a larger cultural scale.
H’OB: Do you feel a sense of origin in your work; was there a notion of going into the past to figure out the present? Or was it a different methodology?
AF: I was thinking, what part of all this is mine? What does people’s participation in giant things, like war, or the military, do to their minds? And what do we not speak about? For me, working on this project was a continuation of looking at what kind of effects the military had on the family. It's a collision between ideology and ideas of expressed patriotism, an individual who has a certain kind of drive. Perhaps there’s a difference between laying this all out on the invisible cultural doorstep of, as you said, imperialism. Those big terms often disenfranchise us. While they are really important to think through, they can sometimes keep us from seeing our own participation, and as soon as we do that we magically let ourselves off the hook. Often times “political art” has a way of seeing itself as self-justified. I have a very serious question about that. Which is not to say that your cynicism about WWII isn’t crucial, it’s just not born from that. It’s born from the collision. It’s born of the understanding and recognition––like saying, “wait a minute I’m pretty sure there are a lot of half-truths in here.” Some half-truths are self-generated. Some we inherit. Some we adopt through a lack of knowledge.
H’OB: Perhaps the personal is a way in which we can think about those big terms and actually get somewhere? If you realize we are all implicated in the larger machine?
AF: We’re all participating in the meaning-system in one fashion or another. It’s our congress, not someone else’s, for example. I suppose in both of our projects there is a sense we are the children of our times. Or where did our parents and grandparents lay themselves on our doorstep? I once made a photograph of my father in his camper, where it looks like he’s in the cockpit of an airplane, and he’s holding my video camera. This was in 1988 or 89, and it was this great moment where I thought, “Wow I made a photograph of him just like one I saw of him as a pilot.” I repeated something visually that I had not intended. So we were trading ways of communicating. I felt uncomfortable.
H’OB: There’s a strong relationship between photography and flight. It’s a genuine human impulse take a photo from a plane. My grandfather took photographs of the island of Iwo Jima from overhead as well as a bunch of aerials of the Chicago stockyards, where he worked after the war. It made me wonder how his perception, molded by the war, filtered into his life afterwards; what did it do to the family? My Dad said he never spoke about the war when he was growing up. The only reason my father has seen his WWII images is because I decided to take them out of the box.
AF: I can understand that. How could you want your family connected to something that’s almost impossible to understand? And how do you see your own self in relationship to the things you’ve been told? When I was looking at the airplane bone-yard I realized I didn’t need to see the whole plane in my photographs, I needed to see ideas. I started getting really close to things that felt were of that era specifically, but they could only be photographed now. I wanted to make a corroded metallic poem. Those images look like they fell out of 1969, but there’s no way it could have happened until now. I like that contradiction.
H’OB: Were you also thinking about the contemporary state of war?
AF: Oh sure, and the complete abstraction of it. There have been lots of studies about dematerializing conflict, the lack of physical connection, and that it allows for larger acts of violence. So then there’s something really important about the physicality of the archive. It’s there in a slide, and in your case you have a slide in the back of your book, you can touch it. It’s your 21st century “drawing.” It’s the real. It’s the evidence of your attention, or how it affects you. The archive is a baseline, it’s the, “I get this.” It doesn’t give a shit if you agree or don’t agree.
H’OB: Do you feel you got a closer understanding of your father’s experience through taking those photographs?
AF: I think I understood it already. Wait, let me rephrase that: I understand my understanding of his experience.
H’OB: (Laughs) Yeah.
AF: That’s as good as you’re ever going to get. I wasn’t as conflicted. But I don’t expect any of those photographs to solve a problem. They might engage someone in an experience of standing and looking at prints in a room, which then allows for an ocean of experiences to wash over them. They’re not faithful images. They’re faithful photographs but they’re not faithful representations.
H’OB: I’ve been thinking about your photographs in terms of aerial perception. Planes distort your field of vision, which is why I find flying so closely related to photography.
AF: You’re looking through a little box. You’re saying, “I want to look at that,” or “I’ve been told to look at that.”
H’OB: An interesting thing happened last November with my slide lecture piece in relation to perception. I performed the piece outside in New York City, on a pier overlooking the Intrepid Air, Sea and Space Museum. It was freezing, so we all had to huddle close together, we were intensely surrounded by the wind and the sea.
AF: That sounds and looks like it felt really good, and it wasn’t a giant number of people. It feels connected to some of the ideas you have about art––delivering something is some way that is performative, but not performative as in “let me perform for you.” Rather, it’s the notion of, “lets sit and look at something together.” The fact that it was cold seems like something that really mattered; there was a time, a space. It looks like you cut a little window out of the night; a new reality made from experiencing something in a communal way. I wish I had been there.