Visual Arts etc.
The world survived a calamity one hundred years ago. Millions were killed in the four years of active warfare, and even the survivors are now all dead.
How do you visualize such an immense catastrophe as the First World War? This is the question I’ve been dwelling on during my residency at Blink Gallery this past week.
This documentary project was inspired by the centenary of the Great War. People around the world were affected by this vast event and my installation uses words, pictures and sound to capture some of the impressions left by those involved. Visitors are also welcome to add their own impressions to the collection.
The installation includes material considering the big picture of the war, and its impact, as well as material related to the war experience of one Canadian, William George Barker. Barker started his war in the trenches of the Western Front and ended it, badly wounded, as the most decorated aviator in the British Empire. He survived the conflict only to die on the ice of the Ottawa River after a flying accident at Rockcliffe aerodrome.
Given the scope of the war, I consider this installation a fragment and a work in progress. My residency at Blink Gallery has given me time to pull together material I’ve been accumulating over the past year. However, I feel this is only the beginning.
My studio project is a research-based look at impressions of the First World War on its hundredth anniversary. I’m interested in how such events are remembered and memorialized. I’m curious about how stories become history and transform into myth. This process constitutes a tension between the real and the virtual, potentially leading to the third order of reality Jean Baudrillard calls “hyperreality”.
The story of Canadian WWI flyer William Avery ‘Billy’ Bishop provides a perfect case study. Various writers, including his son, burnished the myth of Billy Bishop through the years. However, there was an undercurrent of doubt that burst open publicly in 1982 following release of the NFB film “The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss” and a hearing in the Canadian Senate. Recent books have continued the controversy into the twenty-first century.
Questions I’m concerned about are: how has Billy Bishop the hero been represented in visual and literary art? What happens when there is a challenge to someone’s status as a hero?
I’m also interested in the role technology plays in society. Aviation technology was cutting edge in 1914 and developed rapidly through the war years. I’m keen to make a link with the role aviation technology plays in contemporary society and conflict, considering what Peter Sloterdijk labels “atmoterrorism”, “thermoterrorism”, and “radioterrorism”.
My third theme relates to masculine identity. Manhood and warfare have been entwined for millennia and I want to understand the qualities adopted by young men such as Billy Bishop, especially in relation to the romantic trope of the “Knights of the Clouds”. A related area of particular interest is how hierarchies are created through the use of metrics; that is, how counting things (aerial victories, sexual conquests) is used to establish status and dominance.
Patriotism, duty, honour, glory, sacrifice: these are words we use to convince ourselves to do horrible things. Warfare is one of the most horrible and one of the most enduring. My studio work this past year has been an engagement with the First World War on its hundredth anniversary. I’m interested in how such vast and dramatic events are remembered, memorialized, and mythologized. I’m curious about how stories become history and transform into myth. In this process, I see a tension between the actual and the virtual, and the likelihood that memory is just another type of simulation.
The words and images used to promote the war play on the themes mentioned above. Nationalism represents another significant theme. Flags, uniforms, and insignia were used to identify and differentiate, to define ‘otherness’. There are no surviving participants from the First World War. We are left to deal with the shadows of the past.
I’m also interested the shadow side of technology. Just as the invention of the train meant the invention of the derailment, the corollary of the invention of flight is the invention of the crash. Aviation technology was cutting edge in 1914 and developed rapidly through the war years. However, the most familiar tropes about the air war use imagery of the medieval Knight Errant. The stories of ‘jousts in the clouds’ downplay the fact that every ‘victory’ implies a crash and potentially one or more deaths.
One of the guiding elements of modernism was faith in the idea of progress. The catastrophe of World War One dealt a blow to this faith for two paradoxical reasons. Not only did it show that human culture remained deeply atavistic, but also that industrialized warfare represented the apotheosis of the modernist project.
In my current work, I ponder the mechanisms of memory and study the power of images by appropriating and re-presenting historical media related to the First World War. Stimulated by the centenary of what was originally called “The Great War”, this work considers the conflict as a crisis of modernity, and suggests that its echoes reverberate into the present.
The products of modern industry such as the machine gun, rapid-fire artillery, armoured vehicles, and chemical weapons made World War One the first industrialized conflict and contributed to an unprecedented scale of destruction. Innovations like the use of airplanes moved the conflict into a new dimension. Aviation technology advanced rapidly during the war years and individual pilots were presented to the public as knights of the air, the heroes of a new era. This was essential to the propagandists because the meat grinder of trench warfare offered few opportunities for individual distinction. But ultimately, the invention of the airplane also implied the invention of the crash, an especially devastating development at a time when parachutes were unavailable.
I use audio-video installation in this work. These time-based media are most appropriate because they allow me to re-use still images, film, and songs from the 1914 to 1918 era and re-present them in an evocative way. Historical images and sounds help recreate the ambiance of the era and their presentation using temporal media emphasizes the passage of time and the fading of memory. Using audio-visual material in an installation provides the audience with a multi-sensory experience that implicates them physically and enhances the artwork’s affective quality. The imagery of falling touches on the casualties of war, referred to as the fallen, as well as biblical imagery of the fall, the fallen angels, and the fall from grace. The materialist religion of modernity is based on science and technology, which can contribute to the pride that leads to such a fall.
I would like the viewers of my work to consider the precarity of human life; to reflect on the hubris that leads to destructive conflict; to question the role of technology in culture; and to feel the passing of time.
My work can be interpreted as a condemnation of the glorification of war and a critique of blind-faith in progress.
December 2016 & April 2017
This research-based project had its inception in the summer of 2015 during my residency at Blink Gallery in Ottawa and continued through my years in the Masters of Fine Arts program at the University of Ottawa. Although I wasn’t entirely aware of them when I started this project focused on the Great War 1914–1918, it’s become clearer to me that I had two purposes: to remind and to reframe.
To remind has several aspects. First it means reminding people of the cataclysmic events of one hundred years ago. These things are too easily forgotten at a time of twenty-four hour news channels and social media. Not everyone is interested in the past, and even when history is taught in schools it is quickly forgotten. Second, it means reminding people that the current situation, the present, is built on the past. In this sense, the past is always present. Thirdly, it means reminding people that the problems we have today are not unique or original. The past is a source of instruction to those who are attentive, and perhaps a sense of comfort can be derived from the perspective that humanity has endured much and has survived.
To reframe refers to acknowledging that memory, even collective memory, is selective. As art historian and curator Laura Brandon points out in a newspaper article from 2005, “Selective memory is powerful especially when it is what historians and others call the dominant memory. Dominant memory is, by its nature, exclusive …”. In her book “Regarding the Pain of Others”, Susan Sontag takes this a step further by pointing out “What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.” Reframing helps remove this exclusivity by broadening the picture and by challenging the stipulated or official story.
Reframing is needed because conventional histories, or official histories, embody ideological viewpoints masquerading as objectivity. Reframing offers a broader, perhaps more balanced view. It means presenting the other side, as well as adding nuance and complexity. It means getting beyond the simplistic dichotomies that still plague us in the twenty-first century as witnessed by incidents such as President George W. Bush declaring ‘you’re either with us or with the terrorists’ or the Canadian cabinet minister trying to muster support for a piece of law and order legislation by declaring ‘you’re with us or you’re with the child pornographers.’
Given that I was born and raised in Canada, this body of work is presented in a Canadian context. An element in its origin was my reaction to what I perceived as the militarism of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, especially as manifested in the efforts to commemorate the bicentenary of the War of 1812. The attempt to recast the story of that war as something essential to the development of Canada’s national identity was a blatant example of what Benedict Anderson describes in “Imagined Communities” as the use of narrative as a replacement for memory, to create the imagined communities that are nations. The government’s attempts to define a new dominant narrative tended to push any competing narrative out of the frame, all while pretending that its efforts were neither selective nor incomplete.
Part of the process of reminding has been presenting a flavour of the times as they were one hundred years ago. I’ve approached this by using images and songs from the period, along with quotes from participants. My method has been to research broadly, and deeply, and then present my response to what I have experienced. This is based on my understanding of a contemporary practice referred to as Research Based Art.
I’ve often been asked why I chose World War One as a topic for my project. Aside from the political elements mentioned above, I see it as an exploration of my personal story, both in connection with family history as well as the workings of memory and the activities of memorialization. I hate conflict and abhor war, I see it as a mark of failure if a war breaks out, and a war is something no one really wins. However, I also see there is an attractiveness to war, no doubt related to issues of masculinity and the notion of proving oneself as a man. War is entwined with culture as evidenced by artefacts dating back thousands of years. Some of humanity’s earliest literature, both Eastern (The Mahabharata, The Ramayana) and Western (The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Bible), concerns war. War imagery occurs in sculpture from ancient Mesopotamia and continues to be a concern for artists to the present day. If fact, the first chapter in Laura Brandon’s book Art & War is entitled “Ten Thousand Years of War Art to 1600”.
Another common question has been asked about my work during the MFA program: Why is it art? This question emerged most frequently in the early stages of my exploration when I was immersed in archival material and groping for a way to present it in a visual art context. Setting aside the glibness of Warhol’s ‘because I say so,’ the answer lies in my efforts to move beyond the specifically documentary and historical to the universal. It means using media to expose themes that have wider relevance and resonance than the literal. To quote Susan Sontag again, “Transforming is what art does …”. My job is to transform the raw material of the archive into something more. One of the key themes I’ve used to achieve this is that of The Fall.
The installation included numerous quotations from participants in The Great War. Click here to read the quotes