Most realms of augmented reality are designed for our enjoyment. Take Pokémon Go, for instance, or Snapchat’s recently launched collaboration with Jeff Koons. Artist Asad J. Malik, though, is creating an alternative sphere that is far from easing the mind — one that brings the traumas of distant wars into the everyday experiences of Americans.
His project, “Holograms from Syria,” uses augmented reality to insert photographs related to the Syrian war into familiar sites around the United States, accessible to viewers who wear Microsoft’s Hololens headsets. In one AR room set at Bennington college, which Malik attends, the drowned body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi lies facedown on a red couch rather than the shores of Turkey, in what could, eerily, be an everyday scene. In another scenario Malik programmed, digital versions of elite forces in Aleppo run on a school staircase, like teenagers who just heard the day’s final bell ring.
“Holograms from Syria” is intended as a reflection on how many people now experience war primarily through images that flood their newsfeeds, making present a constant sense of distress that is nonetheless removed from real suffering. As someone who grew up in Pakistan and moved to the United States for school, Malik is particularly attuned to his environment — what he described as the safe and comfortable bubble of a private liberal arts college.
“I wanted to remove these images from this [social media] context and allow them to interact with an environment the viewer was more familiar with,” Malik told Hyperallergic. “I focused on recontextualizing images that viewers are already familiar with … The project required simply making them life size and placing them in a familiar physical space.”
You could say the series is a 21st-century take on Martha Rosler’s renowned work, “Bringing the War Home,” in which she integrated images of the Vietnam War into photographs of domestic life. These collages were one of Malik’s direct inspirations, as was Jean Baudrillard’s 1991 collection of essays, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, which parsed the ways in which the war was conducted and depicted through the conceptual lens of simulation. Malik’s practice was also strongly impacted by an experience he had last year. A few months after he returned to the United States from a trip to Libya, he was interrogated by the FBI about his visit.
“I was left in a position where I couldn’t ignore how politicized my own identity was,” Malik told Hyperallergic. “So when Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk missiles on Syria, and I saw YouTube fill up with videos on how profitable defense stock was going to be, I knew my work had to look at the simulation of war.”
Holograms for Syria is not available for download by anyone with a Hololens. Malik is maintaining control over his images by temporarily placing images in particular spaces and inviting people to experience them there. Viewers receive some trigger warnings, but they are not so specific that you go in knowing exactly what to expect.
“People told me that trying the experience really affected how they looked at and felt in that space,” Malik said. “Even when you’re not wearing a Hololens anymore, your brain associates that space with those images. This just becomes a reminder that our world is incredibly interconnected and real lives being lost in one part cannot be a mere simulation in another.”