Still Counting

Minneapolis based writer Tami Mohamed Brown provides personal reflections prompted by the 10 year anniversary of our nation at war in this story for the Minnesota Women’s Press:

Sept. 11, 2011-Oct. 7, 2011 marks the 10-year anniversary of our nation continuously at war. This hadn’t even occurred to me until a friend sent me an emailed call to action for artists at: www.10yearsandcounting.com.

10 Years + Counting invites artists and others to take this time as inspiration to use the power of creativity, to use the weeks of this anniversary of devastation to advocate against war and for peace via the arts and community engagement, a commitment to expose the true costs of war and work towards peace.

I’ve taken this charge seriously, thinking beyond my everyday routine and my own comfortable life. As a writer, I’ve been considering the costs of war and realizing just how removed I’ve been-how removed many of us, perhaps, have been lucky enough to be.

And I’ve been considering war over not just the last 10 years, but over the course of my own life, how it’s shaped my own thoughts and attitudes and actions.

I was friends with a boy in high school. One warm, May evening before graduation, he told me he had enlisted in the military-signed on to see the world. I was disappointed; he was so smart, so talented, I expected that he would go on to college. I never really comprehended that financially he had no opportunity to do so. He left in June and wrote me letters later that year from a base in California, and then, later yet, from the Persian Gulf and the heart of Operation Desert Storm.

He wrote to other former classmates, too, I recall, each of our young selves already having gone our own respective and separate ways.

One friend was incensed by his letters and involvement in the military. She sounded self-righteous, amazed that he would even keep writing.

Another friend simply never acknowledged the war, but answered the letters with jokes, a much more appropriate response, but I believe probably still lacking in what he was looking for-a connection with his life back home.

I myself am ashamed to say I did not answer his letters.

And when that boy came back from Iraq and sought me out, I couldn’t help but notice that he spoke differently, he moved differently. “The things I seen,” he drawled to me in his new voice, which sounded much more Mississippi than Minnesota. “I tell ya, the things I seen …”

He started to tell me of the ringing in his ears that never went away and the fact that he couldn’t get a good night’s sleep to save his life. I am even more ashamed to say that I stopped listening, that I found him as annoying as the lazy, late-autumn mosquitoes that buzzed around us. Instead, I made a lame excuse to get home, away from him and his rambling. I climbed into my car and promptly drove into a telephone pole, which led me to cry inconsolably for hours, although neither the vehicle nor I were physically damaged.

I thought I’d seen enough on TV that year to understand war, watching it, across time zones, live, like some crazy video game and never fully realizing that so many people-that whole nations-were aching.

It’s far more than 10 years later and I’m still counting. I’m still ashamed that I never asked him about the things he’d seen.

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Self Organizing in the Name of the Powerless

 

 

 

Mourning Troy Davis, Union Square, September 22, 2011

Debra Sweet is the Director of World Can’t Wait, an organization that has focused on a range of issues related to the wars of the past decade. She’s based in NYC, where many groups are mobilizing around issues of both state-sponsored violence and Wall Street’s economic violence. Read her piece Occupying Wall Street & Resisting State Execution here

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STEPPING OUTSIDE FOR PEACE

This spring, twelve months after 10 Years + Counting was imagined at lunch during the Costs of War Residency at Blue Mountain Center, BMC hosted a conference to make 10YAC real and make it count: How could we use art and its vast audience—during the tenth anniversary season between the attacks on 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan on October 7—to wake up our fellow Americans to the costs—the monetary, physical, spiritual, social, environmental, and political costs—of our current wars?

A palpable current of excitement and determination and possibility charged through the BMC living room. It steadily powered the conference for four days, as artists and activists from some of the most influential and committed anti-war/pro-peace movements, groups, and institutions in the United States threw all their expertise, passion, and creativity into the project of raising our collective consciousness to stop the wars.

Image by Robert Spahr. Find more work by this and other artists in the Galleries at 10yearsandcounting.com.

Often enough, street protests were mentioned, and uncertainty and near despair followed as our thoughts moved from the influential anti–Viet Nam War protests of the 1960s and early 70s to the subsequent protests against other unbidden and undeclared wars, which fell on deaf legislative and fellow-citizen ears; from the 1990s era of police brutality against citizens protesting war and the social ills caused by corporate control of world resources to the creation and enforcement of Bush-era regulations that relocate crowds so far away from their political targets as to corral their legitimate protests into self-referential circles rather than allow pointed, peaceful actions to change the status quo.

Despite the current climate, a simple, elegant idea emerged in the BMC living room. It had a hopeful tinge of difference. Thinking about it, on top of all the ideas and connections and strategies that had formed in that room made me feel that my head was going to explode.

Good. Better my head explode metaphorically than more people than the 225,000 and counting meet their real deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The idea requires no organization, only dissemination. It requires individual commitment, which might organically expand into group commitment. It’s an exhortation and an invitation, a hope and a call. A dream to make come true.

What if on October 7, everyone who wants to end the undeclared US wars against Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan steps outside and says so?

What if people who want to protest peacefully on their own stoop or lawn, meet peacefully in a public park or on a neighbor’s lawn—in small groups or large, in pairs, or trios, with silence, signs, or candles—step outside and make it known that we are part of a nationwide peaceful protest to bring war and its costs, costs that reverberate through time, to an end?

I will be in the Adirondack Mountains, holding my sign, my candle, my vigil, on a country road. I will wait for company. Please join me, wherever you are.

Alice Gordon is a writer and editor, and has been the program director of Blue Mountain Center since 2009.


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Poetry of Provocation and Witness from Split This Rock: Poem # 14

Greetings from the War
  
I will greet you with flowers
no matter how many
bullets you bring.
  
I will greet you with bullets
because the flowers you greet me with
are from my garden.
  
I will greet you with song
though you curse me
and raise arms against me.
  
I will greet you with curses
because the wounded child at your feet
is my only son.
  
I will greet you with embraces
though the knife you carry
cuts away at my arms.
  
I will greet you with knives
they are made from the shrapnel
I pulled from my leg.
  
– Sami Miranda

Sami Miranda is an educator, poet and visual artist who makes his home in Washington, DC. His work has been published in Full Moon on K St, the Chiron Review, D.C Poets Against the War Anthology,  MiPoesias.com
and Beltway among others. He has performed at the Kennedy Center, The Smithsonian Museum of American Art, The Arts Club of Washington, GALA Theatre, and other venues. Sami curated the Sabor Sunday reading series in Washington DC, bringing two poets, a trio of musicians and two visual artists into conversation, and is currently working with DC based artists and musicians to create collaborations between the arts. He develops and facilitates interactive poetry workshops for youth and adults and holds an MFA from The Bennington Writing Seminars.

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Looking at War: An Essay on Why Art Matters

Minneapolis curator and arts writer Tricia Khutoretsky on why art matters:

I’m not an army veteran. I’m not a politician. I’m not an activist or a lobbyist. I’ve never been to Afghanistan or Iraq. And yet, I can picture what it is like to be there.  I can tell you stories about the horror soldiers in battle experience, and the daily trauma a person in Iraq faces. I can talk about what this war means and the damage it has caused. And none of this knowledge is from anything I’ve seen on TV or read in newspapers.

Navigating the Aftermath, photograph by Sharolyn B. Hagen.

For over a year, I’ve worked as a curator for a non-profit organization called the Iraqi American Reconciliation Project (IARP), which develops programs and collaborations to help heal the relationship between Iraqis and Americans in response to the devastation caused by the Iraq war. It is an imaginary relationship that we, as Americans, have with Iraqis. Some of us might have actually met an Iraqi, but my general assumption is that the majority of the American public has not. The perception that we can’t relate to them as the victims of this war comes from an uninformed place. Assuming that Americans are not also victims of this unending war is severely delusional, though our pain is intrinsically and proportionally different. While Iraqis face a destroyed infrastructure, severely injured, maimed and disabled civilians, lack of electricity, lack of clean water and a dissipated middle class, Americans are saddled with an epidemic suicide rate of veterans, undiagnosed PTSD and a growing national deficit that trickles into every aspect of our quality of life.

As a curator for IARP, I’ve created exhibits of both Iraqi and American art reflecting from a variety of perspectives the Iraq war and its consequences. The most recent exhibit, Navigating the Aftermath, debuted at the University of Minnesota Regis Center for the Arts in February of this year and is since touring six locations in rural Minnesota. Despite my belief that I curated a worthwhile and informative collection of visual art, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to an often-troubling question crossing my mind, specifically: “What’s the point?” When you consider something as all encompassing, as tragic and as massive as war, how can artwork displayed on the walls of a gallery matter in the larger scheme of life?

Navigating the Aftermath, photograph by Sharolyn B. Hagen.

Exploration into the answer can start by asking yourself, as you stand in a gallery gazing at the exhibit that encourages you to think about war, “Why am I looking at this? What does this offer me?” I’ve thought about how to answer this question many times and concluded that the only way to respond is not to speak for you, but to speak for myself. This is what art has offered me.

Recently, for research purposes I viewed two local exhibits in one evening. The first, No Glory, at Form + Content Gallery in Minneapolis featured 13 international artists whose work examines the destructive nature of war, while resisting any glorification of it. As I spent time with the artwork, I was struck by the overarching feeling of emptiness that existed despite the intricate detail of each artwork. The gallery presented beautiful interpretations of devastation, as contradictory as that may seem. I stood and stared at the walls of art, watching as it begged me to look closer and feel something. The imagination and skill within each artwork encouraged awareness, regardless of the bubble of apathy and detachment that daily life encapsulated around me.

Navigating the Aftermath, photograph by Sharolyn B. Hagen.

Later that night, the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul held the opening reception for Deceptive Distance.  The exhibit brought together six Twin Cities artists who imagine the consequences of 9/11, both from their own perspective and that of others. The attempt is made by the artists to feel a deeper connection to the war, and to express it in an artistic manner. Notably all of the artists in this exhibit were women, the curator also a woman. Whether or not this was intentional, I felt a sympathetic softness within the collection, a feminine approach to the usual masculine edge in harsh war stories. I also found fascination in a contrast of artworks that were either immensely colorful or void of color altogether. It was as if the emotions presented were either intense or flat, without much middle ground. A true reflection of how we to react to discussion of 9/11, often passionately engaged or distantly numb.

It’s no surprise that we experience polarized reactions depending on the day. The politics of this war are complicated. Conspiracy theories along with overwhelming iconic moments are delivered to us in a meditated fashion ranging from the sentimental coverage of the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, backtracking to the capture of Saddam Hussein and his disheveled appearance, and then fast forwarding to the recent climatic and dangerous killing of Osama Bin Laden. Along the lines of packaged experiences, I once caught a show on television hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus where he helped soldiers surprise their loved ones with an unexpected homecoming. As I watched the stories of worry and separation followed by emotional reunions, I naturally shed tears, but at the same time I felt anger. I was angry that a television program led me to connect the effects of the war on American families at such a surface level and neatly wrapped up in a happy ending. I realized that not everyone spends their days as consumed with the subject as I do, and a television show like that one might be as close as they get. The media tells us what to feel and how to feel it, as if the moments of emotion about the war can be turned on and off by a switch.

Navigating the Aftermath, photograph by Sharolyn B. Hagen.

When you work with art as a tool for awareness, war is inescapable and consuming, regardless of the fact that the media are already moved on to next over-hyped, short-lived topic of the day.  While the media is tirelessly working to distract us, those affected by the war are yearning to share with us through so many artistic outlets, what they are going through. There is amazing art out there that people have taken the time to create and contextualize, to feel the healing effect of your attention and understanding.

Inside my world of daily experiences, I’ve had the opportunity to listen first hand to a young woman from Iraq talk about the difficulties she faces since losing her legs to an American missile in 2004.  I anticipated the personalization of her story into a book by Monica Haller and Clare Beer through the Veteran’s Book Project, a book that was later presented as an installation in our Navigating the Aftermath exhibit. Working with “10 Years and Counting” (10YAC), a national artist-led project marking the 10-year anniversary of our nation at war, I interviewed Sara Nesson, the director behind Poster Girl, a documentary about a female Iraq war veteran battling with PTSD.  For another article I learned about The Graffiti War Project, an effort by veteran Jaeson Parsons, to compile a book presenting an unconventional war record through the graffiti found in Iraq and Afghanistan by soldiers and locals.  One of my most profound experiences was a conversation with Michael Sheridan, a filmmaker who executed a film-training program in Afghanistan. The stories he told me in a short hour, of the traumatized people and the suffering country within which he was immersed, were eye-opening.

As I reflect on all my experiences understanding this war through art there is one word that comes to mind: powerful. This is how I feel about every story, painting, photograph, and exhibit. This is the reoccurring descriptor used by so many people who experience them as well. Art is emotional, it is stimulating, it is revealing and in that, it is ultimately powerful. So much so, that my personal perception of the war is not shaped by what I have heard in the media, but what I have learned, listened and seen first-hand in galleries, through film, photography, books and paintings. And as a result, I feel personally affected, I feel connected and I feel troubled. But above all, I feel informed.

What then, is the point of art as a way to understand this war? The point is that it allows you to find your own truth, to create your own reality and to see as many perspectives as possible. Within the art are contained real emotions, the first-hand reports, the memories and the sacrifices that you will never see on television or read in a news story.  This is about the energy contained in a work of art that can transfer to the viewer who can then share their experience with it. Indeed, art is powerful but it is sadly useless if it remains unshared. So as you stand in a gallery space looking at art about war, wondering how the experience could possibly mean anything to something immeasurable and unimaginable as war– know that standing right there and having that thought, means something. What you are able to experience is an account of history that becomes part of your memory of that history. The ability to tell it and share it in an informed way now and in the future will make all the difference.

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What Am I/you/…what are WE…/ Waiting for, America?

Blue Mountain Center executive director Harriet Barlow reflects upon the mounting costs of 10 years of war, and where we stand today:

In the midst of the consequence and sorrow of this 10th anniversary of the period between 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, I ask myself….”What am I waiting for?”

It is not an innocent question.  I am not innocent.  Knowing what I know of the myriad costs of the wars, calculable and incalculable, how is it that I am continuing to live as if those costs were bearable?

Nassum Nicholas Taleb is the author of “The Black Swan”.  Taleb’s book brilliantly explains the disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history. Recently, he was asked if the popular uprisings in Egypt, Greece and Tunisia represent a “black swan” event.  He responded that the actual black swan event is the failure of Americans to fill the streets in protest.

A decade ago, we did protest, along with millions across the world, but to no avail.  The planes bombed, the soldiers invaded, the wars began.  I knew that they would fail to right the wrong of 9/11, nor the wrongs that created the context for that tragedy. We easily name the attendant disasters of global impoverishment, ecological breakdown and the failure of democracy.   I live inside what I name; the awareness lives inside of me.  But my daily life, like yours, America, goes on as if the disasters were a backdrop rather than essence of our lives.  What am I, what are you, what are we waiting for?

The poet June Jordan wrote “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Alice Walker said in a book titled from Jordan’s cry,

“Sweet Honey in the Rock turned those words into a song. Hearing this song, I have witnessed thousands of people rise to their feet in joyful recognition and affirmation. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for because we are able to see what is happening with a much greater awareness than our parents or grandparents, our ancestors, could see. This does not mean we believe, having seen the greater truth of how all oppression is connected, how pervasive and unrelenting, that we can “fix” things. But some of us are not content to have a gap in opportunity and income that drives a wedge between rich and poor, causing the rich to become ever more callous and complacent and the poor to become ever more wretched and humiliated. Not willing to ignore starving and brutalized children. Not willing to let women be stoned or mutilated without protest. Not willing to stand quietly by as farmers are destroyed by people who have never farmed, and plants are engineered to self-destruct. Not willing to disappear into our flower gardens, Mercedes Benzes or sylvan lawns. We have wanted all our lives to know that Earth, who has somehow obtained human beings as her custodians, was also capable of creating humans who could minister to her needs, and the needs of her creation. We are the ones.”

In these weeks of memory and reflection, let us recover our commitment to action.  Let us make art, voice and witness: that throughout these terrible ten years, we have been counting the cost of war. We know these costs have intolerable and mounting consequence.  That promise of “change” upon which our President rode to victory must actually come. Not ‘some day’, but now.

Let’s face our frozen and complacent ways, accepting with compassion for ourselves that we simply have not known what to do.  Let us address that shared failing by imagining peace together, with artists and activists, with children and grandparents, with neighbors and with the mailman, whose very livelihood is endangered because of the costs of war and corporate greed.

We are the ones, because we MUST be.

Talk.  Plan.  Act.

We owe it to ourselves and one another.

Thank you.

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Poetry of Provocation and Witness from Split This Rock: Poem #13

The Bomb That Fell On Abdu’s Farm

The Phantoms approached, we were told,
like warps in the sky, like gossip
gone real, aimed in steel
at the eyes of the village.

All the farmers and farmers’ boys ran
to the rooftops and watched,
for it was terrifying
and beautiful to see a wedge
of silver up from the South.

And they began to fall with a
vengeance, under the anti-air-
craft that ringed Damascus and the
villagers whooped for there seemed
a magic field around their fields.

Until a cow-shed flew in red to the sky.
And a mother milking collapsed
in her milk. The milk ran pink.

Nextdoor, in my great-uncle’s newly-
irrigated fields, a bomb fell.
The mud smothered it. The mud
talked to it. The mud wrapped
its death like a mother. And
the bomb with American lettering
did not go off.
Water your gardens always. Always.

– Gregory Orfalea

Used by permission.

Gregory Orfalea is the author of eight books, including. Angeleno Days, which won the 2010 Arab American Book Award and was named a Finalist for the PEN USA Award in nonfiction. The Arab Americans: A History is the definitive study of that community in the United States and Messengers of the Lost Battalion treats his father’s ill-fated paratrooper unit in World War II. Orfalea directed the Writing Program at Pitzer College of the Claremont Colleges and has taught Middle Eastern and Eurasian Emigre Literature at Georgetown University.  Currently, he is teaching Fiction at the Claremont Graduate University, and undergraduate writing  at Westmont College and Cal Lutheran University. His work has been widely anthologized and appears in several textbooks, including the Norton Introduction to Poetry.

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The Pausing City: The Met Museum’s 9/11 Commemorative Concert

Cheyenna Weber is the National Organizer for 10 Years + Counting. She wrote this reflection of her experience at a 9/11 concert. She lives in Brooklyn.

I woke uneasy on the 10th anniversary, slid my toes into new and stiffly solemn black flats, and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in view of the rising 1 World Trade Center, the building formerly known as the Freedom Tower. I was on my way to a 9/11 commemorative concert – a strange act for a New Yorker who hadn’t even lived in the city 10 years ago but had spent the day under observance within the safety of a college town curled against Appalachian hillsides. Like everyone else in America, I had tucked into a ball on an apartment floor and cried, and ignored classes and assignments to watch the endless loop of the towers’ collapse.  Now a New Yorker, I bristled when others marked the day, feeling protective of people I’d never known.

On the bridge I passed an endless line of tourists, many with pale blue ribbons safety-pinned at their chests. At the Manhattan side tower a flag corps milled about with the fire departments of small California towns. I approached, uncertain why survivors would be on the bridge and wary of disrespecting ceremony, only to feel uncertainty become the hollow and hock of revulsion upon realizing they were disaster tourists. Perhaps others come to pay homage to the heroes of that day, but is our city’s grief just another commodity, another site to see or image to record, an anecdote to relate over a dinner hundreds of miles from here, or an experience lived vicariously through those endless collapsing loops reappearing onscreen? I walked on, silent and confused.

Uptown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the only outside markers of the day were the refrains of “America the Beautiful” courtesy of a local, street-experienced saxophonist. There were no pale blue ribbons here, only sisters sharing cupcakes from a street cart, men punching keys on smartphones, and a cool breeze sweeping us all with reminders of summer’s collapse. One had to go inside to touch the remains of the day.

Photograph taken by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times.

There were several pieces to be performed that day.  Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae, Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes II, and Alfred Schnittke’s Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled with Grief made up the first half of the program, and William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, in an arrangement for orchestra by Maxim Moston, who used to write for Antony and the Johnsons, made up the last. Chairs were arranged in rows around the Met’s ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur and the musicians set up in the midst of the relics, a resonant space flooded with sunlight. It was cold, too crisp for anything but entombment, and the awaiting crowd was quiet.

I was there early, sprawled on a couch in a green room with my partner, Ryan, who was conducting The Disintegration Loops that day. We’d listened to the piece before and were both touched by the story — William’s efforts to preserve his own compositions on disintegrating tapes, looped as they slowly fell apart and captured on four discs over many hours, now arranged in the score before us for a 30-minute orchestration. The story goes that William was working on these loops on a Brooklyn rooftop 10 years ago, and the day the towers fell they played in the background while he and grief-stricken friends watched the fires end an era. Like me, Ryan’s origins are elsewhere and he was not here on 9/11, but for the Loops he was tasked with interpreting the experience of others, with creating and holding space with his gestures, and thus producing beauty and peace from trauma. It’s a lot to ask of any young artist, and we curled up on a sofa to nap as a line of hundreds formed outside the hall.

Inside the Temple hall people lined the walls and sat or lay on floors. (NPR Music covered the concert, and you can hear the whole thing here.) While the first half was warm, contemplative, and moving, it was William’s sweet and playful loop meeting its demise that held our attention. Just as I had experienced in meditation, listening to the same phrase over and over was at times so lovely that its beauty was all I could measure, and at other times my body begged for the sound to cease. Whenever the latter emerged, I would look at the faces of those around me: the elderly woman crying just to my right, or the young man in work boots with his hands still covered in paint, lying peacefully on the floor, listening. Muscles flexed and pulled as I saw others resist the droning, but as the loop fell apart we were all left waiting for each other.

For nearly two minutes after Ryan folded his hands, we still sat in companionable silence, hundreds of us, not a breath shaking our shared contemplation. I thought of all that had ceased that day 10 years ago: the lives and well-being of so many New Yorkers, the peace soon broken by violence and war that echoes even until now, and my own naive notions of safety and peace. It is uncomfortable to reflect on such things, and I was surprised to find relief in marking and honoring what we lost. The result, of course, was gratitude for what is, which in that moment was my city and its people, especially those in that sunny and silent room.  As a whole, we are perfection, whatever disintegration may come.

A full review of the performance can be read here.

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A Citizen Artist in a Country at War

Artist and organizer Camille Gage writes about art, activism, and the story of 10 Years + Counting: 

“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look…To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

–Henry David Thoreau

IN OCTOBER, 2011 I WILL COMPLETE AN 18-MONTH COLLABORATIVE public art project — an ambitious, some might say crazy, nation-wide public work to which I will end up giving over 1,000 hours and for which I and my artist partners will receive no compensation. I will work on this project long into the night, on weekends, and on sunny, summer evenings when I’d rather be out playing. To paraphrase the Talking Heads, “How did I get here?”

“Public artists”, “new genre public artists”, “cultural workers” — in the 20+ years I’ve been at this, none of these labels ever really sticks.  Why would I, and others like me, choose to devote a good portion of my creative output to such work?  It’s a genre that falls in and out of favor with the academy, with funders and critics, and which almost always requires collaboration, cajoling, and lots of time spent on projects whose outcome are often largely outside our control. It’s an artistic path that, while getting occasional critical props, often defies even post-Greenbergian notions of what art is or should be — one that, despite major strides towards recognition, still too often requires that its practitioners answer the familiar question, “But is thisart?”

Like Duchamp’s R Mutt in its day, what we do is indeed art: a contemporary practice pushing the boundaries of form and content. I and a growing number of artists find the line between art-making, community involvement, and personal activism to be non-existent, or at least blurred beyond recognition, and our work reflects this reality. Our creative output is a seamless amalgam of topical art-making, community organizing, and the unwavering belief that art has a role to play in shaping both civic consciousness and the health and happiness of our communities.

We are citizen artists working in support of the common joy and public good.

I’m not sure why some artists choose the studio while others choose the street. I can only tell my story, and it begins with war.

I came to the age of cultural awareness, of life outside my family, during the nightmare of the Vietnam War, the sobering debacle of Watergate, and subsequent impeachment of the President. Like so many others my age, I developed a strong aversion to war and its black hole of violence, witnessed by news photographs of innocent children burned by napalm and critically wounded soldiers being air-lifted out of fetid fields.  I distrusted what seemed to me a feckless and deceitful administration that could neither articulate a meaningful, rational reason for continuing the war and its entanglements nor a way out.

I listened to the radio and read Rolling Stone cover to cover. Alone in my room, in a Rust Belt town I devoured journalistic accounts of creative rebellion and listened to music night and day. I watched the emergence of a significant community of artists, whose music, theatre, and art met the intensity of the cultural moment head on; alt-radio and press brought their work into the heartland.  John and Yoko’s Bed-In, Melanie singing “Lay Down“; the Jefferson Airplane’s brash “Volunteers of America“; the play HAIR, Neil Young’s searing “Ohio“, and Marvin Gaye’s visionary and musically spectacular What’s Going On are just a few of the works that had a huge impact on me.

To me, art, theatre and music offered universal truths, powerfully articulated, that provided an antidote to the lies and half-truths underpinning the violence of war.

I was hooked on the idea that art could articulate a new vision and make a difference in the world. I’d found my path.

In the years since the 1960s and ’70s, the role of activist artists and creatives engaged in public or community-based work has grown, morphed, and evolved in myriad ways. In my formative years, politically-oriented public artists were, for the most part, firmly planted on the fringe.  Things have changed. Contemporary public artists often work in subtler ways now, sometimes in their own neighborhoods; they are, as eco-artist Christine Baeumler puts it, firmly “embedded in their communities.”

Artists now have the opportunity to work not only as makers but as facilitator/catalysts of change, or some hybrid of the two. The artists who choose public work continue to push those genre boundaries and explore new ways of working in community. Many such explorations involve knocking down the long-standing hierarchy of artist as creative expert and public as consumer. Many public practices require the participation of all involved, whether they self-identify as artists or not. Indeed, central to my public practice is the encouragement and recognition of the innate creativity in all people — and further, my work acknowledges that this powerful force needs and deserves an outlet, and that the provision of such can and will change communities and our world for the better.

When the war in Iraq began, the first thing I noticed was the absence of images of the war dead. No images of civilian casualties or fallen U.S. troops. No images of the somber honor guard ceremonies that await each flag-draped transfer case.

As an artist I fully understand the reason for this absence. I understand the power of these images and why they were missing for so long from the coverage of the wars and our cultural dialogue about it. But war is not the antiseptic event we’ve been sold in the last decade, with its “surgical strikes” and “collateral damage”.  War is brutal and people die. Our young enlisted men and women, innocent bystanders, and thousands upon thousands of children die horrible, often excruciatingly painful deaths.  Seeing gruesome evidence of the war we’ve engaged in pierces the heart. Seeing these grave images might soften the forces of anger and righteous patriotism that fuel it. As a nation, we did not want to look. And so, we have not looked. And 10 years have passed.

In an essay titled “Where Are We?,” written for Harper’s shortly after the start of the wars, John Berger writes of the cost of willful ignorance:

“I write in the night, although it is daytime…I write in a night of shame.

By shame I do not mean individual guilt. Shame as I’m coming to understand it, is a species feeling which, in the long run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far ahead. We look down at our feet, thinking only of the next small step.”

My current project, the aforementioned 1,000 hour project, is an attempt to raise our collective gaze, to shed the shame and guilt that surround our nation’s ongoing military engagements and use the power of creative energy to spark a fresh dialogue about becoming purveyors of peace, not war.

10 Years + Counting grew out of a focused residency at Blue Mountain Center in New York. Twenty-four artists, writers, filmmakers, academics, and activists convened to discuss one thing: the cost of war. It was a sobering week, and a handful of us left the residency determined to stay in touch and figure out a way to do something. We knew that the ten-year anniversary of the war would provide an unusual opportunity to re-capture the dialogue.

Collaborators on the project are scattered across the country. Through email and conference calls we hammered out the details: What is the appropriate medium given that we are few but want to create something with national impact? We decided to exploit the internet as a public space, to create a cultural commons that would encourage creative responses to the ten-year anniversary of war. Ours would be a project that would not prescribe action, but rather challenge individuals to work within their own homes and communities and bring their own interests and passions to bear.  As it says on the 10YAC site, we aim to turn the “anniversary of devastation into an unstoppable, irrepressible explosion of imagining the possible: a new beginning.”

It’s a lofty goal, but the multi-disciplinary team that is directing 10YAC believes that creativity is necessary for change. There is no way to devise a better future, or an end to the war, if we cannot first imagine it. Socially engaged public artists are well-equipped to lead the way, to tap into that collective creative impulse. What might happen if we entice hundreds, or even thousands, to make something? What magic might begin?  What conversations might start?

In an essay for the online art zine Quodlibetica“Project to Practice: Imagining Communities,”essayist and critic Christina Schmid wrote the following on the evolution of public art-making, and it reflects our hopes for this process:

“The goal is not a revolution but an evolution: a slow-moving suggestion of change, of possibilities for a ‘new normal,’ a different set of social facts, rather than a possibly painful collision.”

10 Years + Counting is decentralized, non-prescriptive, and encourages the innate creativity in all people without hierarchy or judgment. And although projects will be spread across the country, each individual, ad-hoc group, or institution will be connected to the project and to each other through interactive mapping on the website. 10YAC hopes to illuminate one of this most important and contentious issue by connecting people via the related practices of reflection and creation.

I call it seed planting.

We don’t know yet what we will harvest. Ours is a practice built on faith and the belief that the process is as, or even more important than the outcome. We will be out there — encouraging, cajoling, and then letting go. We are called to action, to play a part, however modest, in creating a new day. We hope to stoke the collective imagination and then stand back and watch sparks fly.

I’ll end with an excerpted passage from John Berger’s brief and poignant essay “Miners.”  Written in response to the cause of striking miners in England, facing violent repression, he brilliantly articulates my conviction about the power of creative practice:

“I would shield such a hero (miner) to my fullest capacity. Yet, if, during the time I was sheltering him, he told me he liked drawing…or always wanted to paint…if this happened I think I’d say: Look, if you want to, it’s possible you may achieve what you are setting out to do another way…I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered… it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us.”

My story began and, at least for now, ends with war. But within this gentle, bold, and inclusive practice, I am hopeful.

This article was originally published by mnartists.org

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The Impact of War : Guest Post from High School Blogger Stanley Kirshner Breen

Stanley Breen is a high school blogger for 10YAC from Southwest High School in Minneapolis, MN who ifeatured on Mike’s High School News.

Since the beginning of time, art has been used to express thoughts on war. From cave paintings to modern day street art, war has been a large topic.

Today, one of the foremost street artists is the elusive Banksy, who makes quirky and clever war art in a most creative way. One of his works that stands out to me is an image of kids running around in a circle; in the center of the circle is a large mushroom cloud of smoke.

This powerful piece of work really moves me. It shows how war forces its way into the lives of young people. The mushroom cloud represents death and destruction. Kids are forced to adapt their lives to it. It makes me wonder, how does experiencing war as a child affect that person as an adult? I think that kids are affected the most by war. Children are not capable of taking care of themselves.  Because of this, they are more vulnerable. When a family member dies, it can affect a child in a very different way than it does an adult. This can be even more damaging if that death is caused by war.

The only statistics we hear from the war are numbers of U.S. troops wounded and killed in action. We don’t track civilian casualties. Why don’t we have a statistic for families who have lost a family member?  Why don’t we have a number for how many children will not go to school because of war?  When a war begins, people are mainly focused on the objective, the goal of the war.  If we, as a nation, spent more time considering the lasting impacts of war, we might make different decisions about going to war.

It’s no surprise that many people who experience war create art that is very powerful and moving. For those of us who have never been in a war, it can be extremely difficult to imagine what that experience is like.  That’s why art is so important. Art can communicate the experience like nothing else can.  A great example of this is a digital image by Sam Durant.  In this piece, Durant shows what war might look like if it was in Washington D.C.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition between the people who have the power to enable destruction and the destruction itself.

It can be hard to know where and how to get involved in political activism. Art is a great starting point. You don’t have to be a professional artist to make art, and you shouldn’t feel intimidated if you have never done it before. If making art isn’t your thing, enjoying and seeing art made by others is equally important. Being an observer and appreciator of art is as essential as creating it. 10 Years and Counting is an organization that is focused on bringing attention to the cost of war through art. 10 YAC is a great way to get involved.  Check out the web-site: the galleries, the toolkits and the blog. There is a lot of inspiration there.  Find out how you can get involved.


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