MuseumsWeekend

Scripted Wars, Towers of Power

by Thomas Micchelli on April 21, 2012

Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander, and David Thorne, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War” (2007): details: “Veteran: I am thinking I should put on my uniform” (left); “Source: I couldn’t write about it. I just couldn’t” (lower right). Video, 40 min. 2 sec./45 min. Installation view, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The United States, under the leadership of George W. Bush, launched its unprovoked, premeditated invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

On November 20, 2004, the Museum of Modern Art opened its 630,000-square-foot Yoshio Taniguchi-designed building. The new space was nearly double the size of the museum’s 1984 Cesar Pelli incarnation, which was a gut renovation of the Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone original from 1939. (At this rate of obsolescence, we should expect a new New MoMA in two years, give or take.)

Installation view detail, “Actor: And you just go on. And you just go on.” Video, 17 min. 54 sec.

The main building, which houses the permanent collection and temporary exhibition galleries, is named for David and Peggy Rockefeller, while the enormous atrium rising from the second floor honors Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron.

As masters of the universe go, the Rockefellers have the clear edge, securing an entire building — thanks to David (Chase Manhattan Bank) — and its adjoining sculpture garden — long ago named for David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (Standard Oil) — leaving the Marrons (Paine Webber, UBS, Lightyear Capital) with its hollow core.

In 2007, the artists Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander and David Thorne premiered their collaboration, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War,” at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany.

In an interview with The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, Ashley Hunt describes how the artists conceived the project, a 10-channel video installation:

We know of a lot of people that were looking critically at the policies of the war but this piece really came out of our own experiences, of figuring out how to cope with a war that is so disturbing to us but which we can do so frustratingly little about. So for us the question of what that frustration feels like, the isolation of one having dissenting views, views that you cannot give voice, how that feels, affectively — that is political. The questions of what kind of speech we do or do not have access to became of great political importance to us.

The Iraq War officially ended on Dec. 15, 2011, and six weeks later, on January 25, 2012, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War” (“recently acquired by MoMA,” according to the museum’s website) was installed in the Yoshiko and Akio Morita Media Gallery on the second floor of the David and Peggy Rockefeller Building, just off the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium.

On Tuesday, April 17, 2012, The New York Times published a graph showing a century’s worth of income trajectories for the wealthiest 10% of the U.S. population, with chart lines representing the top 1%, the next 4% and the next 5%.

The highest income levels since the Roaring Twenties for the richest 1% coincided with the Bush/Cheney wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Installation detail, “Detainee: Please tell me when it’s my turn to speak because I don’t know what’s going on here.” Video, 4 hrs. 4 min. 28 sec.

The graph illustrated a report on the work of Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez, a pair of French economists who are advocating tax increases on the rich to the tune of 50 to 90% of their income. In a paper titled “Top Incomes in the Long Run of History,” which was published in 2011 in the Journal of Economic Literature, Piketty, Saez and co-author Anthony B. Atkinson note that:

… while the bottom 99 percent of incomes grew at a solid pace of 2.7 percent per year from 1993 to 2000, these incomes grew only 1.3 percent per year from 2002 to 2007. Therefore, in the economic expansion of 2002–07, the top 1 percent captured over two-thirds (65 percent) of income growth.

This comes as no surprise to anyone who’s had a pulse for the past year or so, but what was interesting about the graph was that it showed a sharp cratering of the 1% line during the 1970s — just before it began its Reagan-era ascent (which has continued with barely a hiccup, save for 2008-2009, to this day).

That period is held dear, especially by those who didn’t live through it, as a golden age of artistic purity, in which the assiduously non-commercial forms of minimal, conceptual, performance and feminist art held sway.

Four of the five artists collaborating on “9 Scripts” were born at the beginning of that decade (the fifth, David Thorne, was born in 1960) and their project, the majority of which is presented in a darkened room outfitted with screens and earphones, is firmly within its aesthetic parameters (straight-on camerawork; interviews and reenactments; reliance on documentation and text).

Here is a sampling of the capsule descriptions of various “Scripts” offered (with video clips) on the project’s website:

Correspondent: But I have to tell it in a way that doesn’t lose you your credibility:

Interviews with foreign correspondents based in New York. Each discusses the ways in which they mediate information, the challenges of reporting from America out to foreign audiences, and the difficulty of removing or suppressing personal beliefs and feelings from their coverage of events.

Detainee: Please tell me when it’s my turn to speak because I don’t know what’s going on here:

A group of 8 persons reads the transcripts of 18 of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, held at the U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, between July 2004 and March 2005. The reading enacts the tribunals through their documentation — volumes of transcripts available for download from the U.S. Department of Defense website — as a way of speaking and making audible a record of quasi-legal proceedings that had been closed to public scrutiny.

Lawyer: We are the good guys, at least in the storyline we like to stick to:

A lawyer, played by an actress, gives a presentation to an audience about her relationship to law and the extra-legal crisis of the Guantanamo detentions.

“9 Scripts” isn’t much to look at, which seems to be the point. In this regard it’s akin to Jenny Holzer’s Archive, a 2006 exhibition at Cheim & Read of large paintings derived from declassified government documents.

Installation details of “Correspondent: But you have to tell it in a way that doesn’t lose you your credibility” (foreground); “Actor: And you just go on. And you just go on” (background). Video, 19 min. 6 sec. / 17 min. 54 sec.

The flat and impersonal style of Holzer’s paintings, which were mostly unembellished enlargements of heavily redacted texts (ranging from Papa Bush’s first foray against Saddam Hussein in 1991 through a 2003 email exchange between military personnel discussing the use of “alternative interrogation techniques”) was a pointed attempt to distance the viewer from material that could easily be sensationalized.

The use of actors, reenactments and utilitarian sets in 9 Scripts is another way of removing the surface emotion from an emotionally fraught context. Like Archive, it is an effort to look at the issues squarely. As the project description from the “9 Scripts” website states:

This work is structured around a central question: How does war construct specific positions for individuals to fill, enact, speak from, or resist?

There wouldn’t be room for that kind of clarity if, as in the installations of Thomas Hirschhorn, we were picking our way through badly printed photographs of spattered human brains.

However, to encounter this work after the alleged conclusion of hostilities in Iraq is to deal with a patently transformed context. It takes a leap to imagine its impact during its first showing in Kassel in 2007; at MoMA it already feels permeated with the scent of history.

This also comes as no surprise, given the hyper-drive of current events. But the project’s unadorned installation, cocooned within the realm of nine-figure naming rights, gives it the feel of an austere pocket of penitence stranded in a corner of the Hall of Kings.

The presentation of “9 Scripts from a Nation at War” adds another episode to the museum’s long tradition of political cognitive dissonance.

While MoMA has aligned its profile with the progressive politics implicit in the bedrock principle of freedom of expression, it has also named its shiny new building after David Rockefeller, brother of Nelson (Governor of New York, 1959-1973; Vice-President of the United States, 1974-1977), confidante of Henry Kissinger (National Security Advisor, 1969-1975; Secretary of State, 1973-1975) and standard-bearer of “moderate Republicanism” — the kind that brought about the siege of Attica (1971) and the secret bombing of Cambodia (1969-1970).

Political cognitive dissonance goes back virtually to the founding of the museum, as documented by the wonderful Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art, which continues at MoMA through May 14.

Rivera (1886-1957), a Communist firebrand, was one of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s favorite artists, and that relationship reaped Rivera a solo show at the museum (the second in its history), the MoMA-commissioned frescos on display in the current exhibition (which feature anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist imagery), and the lobby murals for Rockefeller Center (which were destroyed, on Nelson’s order, when Rivera refused to alter a portrait of Lenin, among other details).

The intricacies of this kind of political-social-artistic complexity are endless, but they boil down to who controls the platforms and who can use them to speak truth to power. No single strategy exists — all are equally valid and equally suspect. The point is to get it done.

Burrowed within its darkened room hard against the Hall of Kings, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War” carries moral weight and, in its rigor, a measure of plainspoken poetry. Unlike the purism of the 1970s, it is not about dogma, but rather the forcefulness of indirection and of bearing witness.

Its astringent review of a government’s remorseless power grab may not be what most museum-goers, or what most museum-builders, come to see, but it’s as timeless as Matisse’s “Dance (I)” (1909).

Its roundelay, however, is not a string of graceful nudes but a nation-state’s cycle of violence. Despite the baldness of its lies, the Iraq War was hardly the country’s first outbreak of trumped-up aggression, and it won’t be the last. Not with the masters of the universe in charge.

9 Scripts from a Nation at War continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through August 6.

On Monday, April 30, 2012, at 7pm, the museum will present An Evening with Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander and David Thorne. The artists will discuss “9 Scripts” and their collaborative practice. 

 

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