What We Can Not See

This interview is excerpted from Bomb After Bomb: a Violent Cartography, a collection of drawings illustrating the history of bombing by elin o’Hara slavick. o’Hara slavick is a professor of art at the University of North Carolina. More of her visionary work can be viewed on her website. AC / JSC

Lutz: Could you describe your drawings in Bomb After Bomb: a Violent Cartography,and the process of making them and could you speak about why you chose abstraction and the aerial view?

Slavick: One common formal element of the drawings is that each one begins with ink or watercolor dropped onto wet paper like bloodstains on damp clothing. When it dries this becomes the foundation upon which to tell a violent story. I use this ground of abstract swirling or bleeding to depict the manner in which bombs do not stay within their intended borders. Depleted uranium and chemical agents contaminate the soil, traveling in water and currents of air for decades. Mines and unexploded bombs lay in wait for unsuspecting victims who were not even alive during the war. Bombs lay the groundwork for genocide, cancer, more war, terrorism, widows, orphans and a vengeful populace on all sides of conflict.

The drawings are relatively abstract – and I say relatively because there are some recognizable cartographic, geographic and realistic details like arrows, borders and airplanes – and as in war, civilians are rendered invisible. I employ abstraction to reach people who might otherwise turn away from realistic depictions. People approach abstraction with fewer expectations and defenses. I want to reach people who have not made up their minds, who long for more information, the people who vote and want to believe that we are living in a democracy but are filled with fear and doubt.

The drawings are also beautifully aerial to seduce and trap the potentially apathetic viewer so that she will take a closer look, slow down, and contemplate the accompanying information that may implicate her. I also chose the aerial view to align myself, as an American, with the pilots dropping the bombs, even though I would not drop them. As a photographer aware of the military’s use of the aerial view that flight and photography provide, using the aerial view seems like the natural choice. I utilize surveillance imagery, military sources and battle plans, photography and maps, much of which is from an aerial perspective.

Lutz: Given that you have already used photography in a powerful way to comment on militarization in Homefront: a Military City and the American 20th Century, what made you choose a different medium for this project?

Slavick: Making the documentary photographs for Homefront was done to illustrate your text. Some of the photographs are strong enough to stand on their own, but most of them are only meaningful alongside your words. The bomb drawings rely on the lengthy titles as well to convey their meaning. However, each one was finished as a painting first and then titled.

I chose drawing because of my ongoing struggle with the problematic nature of photography. While the drawings are not photographs, they are photographic. Many of them are drawn from photographic sources and most of them are from an aerial perspective that is inherently photographic. But I can not make photographs of these damaged places. I did not survive the bombings as a victim but as a war-tax-paying citizen of the bombing nation. Even if I could make photographs, I would not because there are already too many photographs–too immediate, too true, too real and too brief – countries and lives reduced to singular images. I hope that if I labor on a series of drawings in which the artist’s hand is visible, that people will work to understand them on a deeper and more complicated level than they might when seeing a photograph. Inspired and informed by documentary photographs and violent maps, I want to convey the unsignifiable, to offer a protest against meaningless, to do something in the face of so much destruction. John Berger’s ceaseless calls for hope and art challenge me while being fully aware of the impossible reconciliation between art and the reality of such horrific events that W.G. Sebald and Kyo Maclear write so eloquently about. Making these drawings is just one aspect of my life as an activist. I have a similar hope when I organize and march against war–that people will reconsider the present through history to affect the future.

However, I do worry about the use of abstraction to address such a magnitude of destruction. W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction – a book about the ceaseless allied bombing of German cities and the subsequent little space it occupies in Germany’s cultural memory and the failure of the German people to represent it – both challenges and paralyzes me. Sebald writes, “the construction of aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects from the ruins of an annihilated world is a process depriving literature of its right to exist.” What then is an artist to do? Should I put these drawings away? Should I display images of shriveled and burned corpses, photographs of the guilty military generals, pictures of the ruins next to the drawings? I am troubled by these very serious questions but I think I have reached many people who may have otherwise walked away from realistic depictions of war. As Sebald also writes, “The issue, then, is not to resolve but to reveal the conflict.”

Lutz: Perhaps you are responding, too, to what Paul Virilio has identified as the intensifying speed of warfare over the 20th century. If bombing, like other war technologies, is a primary engine of history, as he claims, and if “history progresses at the speed of its weapons systems,” how can your art or how has other art responded to this problem?

Slavick: I feel defeated by this idea even though I think it’s true. I am more interested in Virilio’s claim that the “true enemy” becomes “less external than internal: our own weaponry, our own scientific might which in fact might promote the end of our own society.” We are racing against ourselves, bombing ourselves. I am more afraid of my own government than I am of “terrorists”. And as John Armitage writes in the introduction to Virilio’s Art and Fear, “When Virilio considers the aesthetics of disappearance, he assumes that the responsibility of artists is to recover rather than discard the material that is absent and bring to light those secret codes that hide from view inside the silent circuits of digital and genetic technologies.” Indeed, Virilio’s book, Art and Fear, is a chilling book for an artist to read. Like Sebald, Virilio makes me feel as is there is no manner in which to properly, effectively or truthfully represent or respond to the horrors of war, genocide, and the holocaust. Yet, they both attempt to do just that and they do it very well.

Drawings function differently than words in a book and the endless stream of information on the web. Not necessarily narrative or full of facts and figures, drawings are a visual interpretation or depiction of, reaction against, reflection on and emotional response to the world around us. While some artists–mostly those working with electronic media –attempt to keep up with the “intensifying speed” of everything around us–warfare, information and communication systems –many artists, like me, are responding by trying to slow down, not only ourselves but viewers. I want to slow people down and offer a different approach to seeing and thinking about war. As Kyo Maclear writes in her book, Beclouded Visions: Hiroshima-Nagasaki and the Art of Witness,

“When one considers how our contemporary image culture is evolving amid real-time suffering, the question of witnessing takes on a renewed importance. Our death-saturated world continues to produce numerous collective traumas, traumas demanding historical awareness yet often defying our usual modes of access. These collective traumas suggest the need for a prolonged gaze. The televisual gaze, however intense, is all too brief.”

Specifically, I have responded by completing over forty-five of these drawings and when they are all exhibited together, it is a dizzying experience: history comes all mixed up together, Korea beside Germany, Hiroshima next to Kosovo; utter disbelief and shame that “we” have bombed so many places and, yet, the series can never be completed. There is always another war. Alfredo Jaar employs various means to interrupt the impossible speed of warfare. In one installation Jaar displays photographs of a war torn country in black boxes with bare burning light bulbs dangling above them. Viewers are not allowed to open the boxes, depriving us of the all-too-familiar voyeuristic experience of horror. It is an installation of darkness, death, and mourning–one that implicates us as blind participants. Colombian artist Doris Salcedo is another artist who works slowly and who slows us down as viewers. She sews hair into tables and buries shoes belonging to “the Disappeared” in walls. It is as if she is making work from the grave.

Lutz: The other change in how war comes to be known by the general public is the result of an intensifying use of massive public relations or propaganda tools by the Pentagon for recruitment and for retaining popular support for its activities. It invests, by some estimates, several billion dollars annually on this, and its images, too, are often beautiful. How do your paintings enter this difficult, some might even say impossible, arena of war making as public relations?

Slavick: I do not kid myself. My drawings function primarily in the art world. That said, you might be surprised by the art world’s easy patriotism. I am not convinced that I am “preaching to the converted”. In this realm, my drawings are anti-recruitment posters; protests against bombing; a propaganda campaign against war; a blatant critique of U.S. foreign policy and activities. I think all art enters the arena of public relations or propaganda to some extent. All art wants to persuade us to enter into the world the artist presents.

While most of my drawings are done from military sources, they are very different than their sources. I delete most of the revealing information–names of cities and geographical markers–and try to disengage these places from authority’s clenched fist.

As a university professor, I can attest to the power of art to educate. I believe that education may be the most powerful form of public relations and if we can interject a discussion of peacemaking and an understanding of U.S. involvement in war after war after war into the deafening noise of patriotism and the chaotic speed of information and communication systems, then we have begun to challenge the status quo.

Lutz: Your drawings are deeply historical. Like critical historiography, they tell a very different kind of story about American military history and global history. What other more accepting fields of war art do these drawings enter into? In other words, what other art do these paintings protest?

Slavick: I decided to call the series Protesting Cartography: Places the United States has Bombed precisely because I think they are more than just anti-war drawings. They protest the age-old power of maps; power utilized by governments and individuals in the name of private ownership, border control, and imperialism.

They are also in protest of and in reaction to the tired arguments against political art and for the purity of form, as if form and content are not ultimately married. “Good art is not political” or “political art is usually bad art” or “art does not change the world” is how the arguments go. What about Goya’s timeless Disasters of War, Picasso’s sensational Guernica, Lewis Hine’s haunting photographs of child laborers that brought about child labor laws and Sue Coe’s gripping and graphic drawings of slaughterhouses, war, AIDS and poverty? I watch art change students’ lives every semester.

In hindsight, perhaps it is exactly those conservative arguments made against and out of fear of such powerful art that drove me to choose a more abstract and painterly form. While one could argue that American Abstract Expressionism was covertly about big, bad, Post-World War II, militaristic America, Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings are primarily still discussed as action paintings. They are all about the energy and motion of the artist, the paint on the canvas. They are in reaction to and about art itself. My drawings react against this “art for art’s sake” while utilizing one of its forms.

Lutz: Your paintings bring many places to view that will be familiar to people who have learned from their school textbooks that American history is the history of war in places like Europe and Korea and Iraq. But you have as many or more paintings that depict places that have suffered their bombing in silence and invisibility–places like Enewetak atoll, the Sudan, or Mississippi. Did you find different challenges in drawing these two kinds of places?

Slavick: Not formally. I tried to keep them somewhat similar visually. I am troubled by having only one drawing of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Hiroshima just as there is only one drawing of Mississippi, Alaska and, the Sudan. Some countries were bombed relentlessly and ruthlessly for decades. Other places we tested nuclear weapons. Other places were accidents. I do not mean to equalize these bombings. Each one has its own history.

And it is important to show places relatively unknown, like Enewetak Atoll, alongside infamous sites like Iwo Jima. It is imperative that I not only draw the places familiar to everyone but include the lesser known locations so that people can make connections and begin to have a sense of the unimaginable scope of our violence against civilians, even against ourselves.

Lutz: Yes, the places the U.S. has bombed include domestic spaces as well: your maps include Mississippi, Nevada, and Amchitka, Alaska, among other domestic sites. We generally do not think of ourselves as the victim of ourselves, or see the immense costs of war preparation at home. How have people who view your exhibits responded to what is likely the shocking news that America has bombed itself?

Slavick: It certainly is important that I include domestic places and in some ways, these have proved to be the most persuasive. People start to question the very foundation and purpose of war and begin to feel some solidarity with those under the bombs.

One of the domestic drawings, Philadelphia, the Firebombing of M.O.V.E., was included in the traveling exhibition Toxic Landscapes: Artists Examine the Environment. The exhibition traveled throughout the U.S. and to the Jose Marti National Library in Havana, Cuba. Not surprisingly, more Cubans appear to know about this recent firebombing of American citizens by American police than Americans do.

I must admit to having been shocked myself when I discovered that we had bombed ourselves repeatedly and in so many different places: Mississippi, Nevada, Utah, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Philadelphia, New Mexico, Colorado and North Carolina, to name the sites for which there are drawings. I knew about the Nevada test sites but had no idea that we detonated huge nuclear test bombs in Alaska. As Howard Zinn and others have written, bombs are dropped because they have been made and it would be a waste of expended resources and investments not to test and use them.

Lutz: Earlier you spoke about the need for a more prolonged view of the impact of bombing: your drawings suggest both the moment of bombing or trauma itself and, as you’ve noted, your techniques suggest the longer term impacts of things like the toxins that remain behind. Those represent another form of bombing, at the cellular level, that have left the people of Vietnam and Guam, and Vieques, for example, with graveyards filled with victims of the resulting cancers and other diseases. Do your drawings or could other drawings look more closely at this other ongoing result of bombing?

Slavick: I do hope that the cellular references that appear in many of the drawings–replicated stains in the background, connected tissue in the foreground, concentric targets like microscopic views of damaged cells–conjure up the buried dead and deadly diseases as a result of warfare.

Some of the drawings are accompanied by titles with information about the illnesses and deaths as a result of the bombings. While the drawings do not literally contain this information, it is implied. We know that more civilians die in war than combatants. We know that uranium tipped missiles cause radiation-related diseases like cancer and that landmines remove limbs from innocent children years after the conflict.

Carole Gallagher’s book American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War uses photographic portraits of and essays on communities living within and downwind of America’s test sites in the Southwest to reveal the duplicity of the U.S. government in creating one of the most carcinogenic landscapes in the world. Perhaps, in this instance, photography and the written word are more effective.

Lutz: You have worked tirelessly to find and draw each of these places of horror, but in the end, there are many more left undrawn and, unfortunately, more such places being made everyday around the globe. Can you say more about the places you have not drawn? If you or another group of artists were to continue this project, where would you go?

Slavick: I keep the written list going. I still want to do one of Cuba and the Philippines. I have not made a new bomb drawing for a few years now, ever since the birth of my first child. I just had to stop. The last one I made was a map of the world with flag pins at every place for which there is a corresponding drawing. I did it for the exhibition Violent Violence that I organized of American artists dealing with violence in their work at Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam. Maybe someday I will work on a separate but related series on individual countries–a hundred drawings of Iraq, a thousand of Vietnam. I have a feeling I’ll be working on this series for years to come.

I want to work on something utopic. What would the opposite of a ruined city look like? Where is that? In Greifswald, Germany, as I write this, I am struck by the camouflage of history. I want to photograph this odd transitional place – a transition from East Germany to Germany, from the east to the west, from socialism to capitalism, from the past to the present, from failure and defeat to reconstruction and resignation. Old drab buildings are boarded up, torn down, renovated or painted pale orange. How can people be riding their bikes over land that once was drenched with civilian blood as if nothing happened? The erasure of history and the constant denial of the ongoing trauma beg for representation. I will continue to try to make visible the traces of war and peace, history and resistance to it, the state of the world as we know it and destroy it.

CATHERINE LUTZ is a professor of anthropology at Brown University. She is the author of Homefront: a Military City and the American 20th Century (with photographs by elin o’Hara slavick); Unnatural Emotions and Reading National Geographic (with Jane Collins).