Artists put war into words
“9 Scripts From a Nation at War” is an austere, open-ended video-art installation at REDCAT. Today its creators are expanding the palette to encompass a live, five-hour performance in which a crew of fellow artists and others who are mainly nonactors will read from transcripts of a military court hearing for suspected Islamic terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The installation premiered in 2007 in Kassell, Germany, and last year moved on to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and London’s Tate Modern before coming to REDCAT’s gallery, where its run ends Jan. 18.
The artists -- Angelenos Ashley Hunt and David Thorne, New Yorkers Sharon Hayes and Andrea Geyer, and Katya Sander, a Dane living in Berlin -- share a passion for work propelled by political activism and previously had collaborated with each other in smaller combinations. But with “9 Scripts,” they decided to take a more dispassionate approach. Even in the live reading, the aim isn’t to make viewers lose themselves in the courtroom drama but to consider how easy this era of war on terrorism has made it to fall unthinkingly into playing a role.
The seeds for “9 Scripts” were sewn in 2003, Hunt said, as he and the others became involved in antiwar rallies.
“We were going to a lot of protests, and we would often feel so scripted,” he said this week from his home in Van Nuys. “You would always have John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ played and chant the same chants. We didn’t have problems with that, per se, but we would feel: Are we just performing a role that’s already laid out?”
Armed with a commission from Documenta, a contemporary art festival that takes place every five years in Germany, the team of artists in their 30s and 40s started trying to identify, then to capture on video, how unwritten wartime scripts were being insinuated into people’s lives. They came up with nine categories of folks whose responses to the war would be worth examining, including bloggers, two U.S. correspondents for Arabic news outlets and two Iraq war veterans. But in most cases, what’s seen is not spontaneous speech but processed speech -- written language or spoken words turned into scripts and played by actors or, in the case of the soldiers, turned into speeches they deliver in an empty auditorium.
The creators of “9 Scripts” are no strangers to art as advocacy. But this time the idea, said Hunt, whose past work has leveled a critical eye at U.S. prisons, was not to express their points of view but to let viewers ponder how they have arrived at their responses amid “this nebulous, very hard to describe condition of living” that has enveloped society since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“How do we learn to speak as ourselves? Who has the authority to describe the war? It’s much more complicated than we think,” Hunt said.
The low-key approach displeased a Boston Phoenix reviewer, Greg Cook, who wrote last February that the work “mostly talks around the subject [of the war] without getting to the hot, messy, emotional core of the matter.”
That may be so, said Thorne, the other L.A.-based collaborator, but the goal was to give viewers a chance to meditate on something more internal. “It’s not polemical, it’s not saying, ‘Down with war,’ or ‘Pull the troops out now.’ It aspires to make a sort of space, providing a place to think.”
Even in the performance of courtroom proceedings, the artists wanted to downplay dramatics.
To include the voices of suspected terrorists held in Guantanamo, they sifted through thousands of pages of transcripts posted on the Department of Defense’s website. The tribunals were held to establish that the prisoners were “unlawful enemy combatants” who could continue to be imprisoned without a trial. For Hunt, the fact that the evidence against them was often kept secret for national security reasons made the transcripts read like something out of Kafka.
The artists chose a 110-page section that takes five hours to read, including breaks. First they videotaped it for the installation, making sure that most of the readers were not performers and asking them to resist creating roles or injecting stagecraft -- instead, just read. The performers shifted positions periodically, moving from chair to chair on a sparse, utilitarian set of folding tables with nameplates, so that someone who had been reading lines from the interrogator would quickly become the accused.
The 2006 live taping at a New York performance space went well, and the “9 Scripts” partners decided to take the show on the road, after a fashion, by offering a single live reading of the 110 pages at each venue that shows the video installation.
“The drama kind of winds up happening anyway,” Hunt says. “People wind up being quite passionate, despite our directions. One of our performers in New York added her own dramatic flourish by storming off and slamming her hand on the desk, which was totally unscripted, but brilliant. Anything we would have tried to rehearse like that would have been disastrous, but there was something about her occupying this position, something being stirred in her.”
Hunt’s romantic partner, dancer-choreographer Taisha Paggett, stepped out of her customary nonspeaking performance mode to read in New York and will be part of the REDCAT cast that includes artist Sam Durant. “To me it was, ‘Thank God we don’t have to add anything,’ because I had so little experience,” she recalled of her previous go at the Guantanamo text. “Reading the words as you would read a textbook is how I took it -- analyzing, observing and speaking it at the same time.”
“The big thing for me was, how am I going to get through five hours of this?” she confessed with a laugh.
Artist Thorne says it would take 10 hours to experience every bit of the video installation, never mind the live reading on top of it. But both are meant to be experienced piecemeal: Drop in and see what you glean.
“I think in an hour you can come out with something of interest,” he said.
‘Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading’
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., downtown Los Angeles
When: 1 to 6 p.m. today
Contact: (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org
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