The harsh realities of realtime conflict

A new exhibition attempts to locate the moral implications of war in our digital era of global unrest

MyWar: Participation in an Age of Conflict incorporates the work of 12 international artists like Dunne & Raby’s work pictured above.
Image by: Christine Blais
MyWar: Participation in an Age of Conflict incorporates the work of 12 international artists like Dunne & Raby’s work pictured above.

In a sea of iPads, hashtags and the latest web video going viral, it’s impossible not to question how new communication tools change the way we experience and interact with the world. 12 artists are addressing this issue with the narrowed scope of examining war in the digital age with MyWar: Participation in an Age of Conflict.

The exhibition grapples with themes of war in an era when reality is almost equally lived and conveyed by the media. It’s an era of “realtime” war, where media, conflict and the Internet braid together and become intertwined. Four of the artists have work currently on display in the main space of Union Gallery (with an extension of the exhibit at Agnes Etherington) prompting viewers with questions of investigating identity, participation and the harsh reality of conflict in our world.

Radically personal and provocative, MyWar touches on events of war, either as they happened or as how they were portrayed in the media.

It’s difficult to imagine a world without war. The sheer volume of creative production stemming from wartorn thoughts and experiences is overwhelming. It makes sense due to the number of lives war and conflicts have touched. The artists of MyWar clearly have a connection to war in some respect and their art provides an opportunity to be directly involved in our globalized world where war is an everyday occurrence.

Dunne and Raby’s “Huggable Mushroom Cloud” provides a soft and cuddly version of a dangerous weapon (though I couldn’t touch them to confirm). Sitting side-by-side, one red and one white, the clouds are the first piece encountered in the Union segment of the gallery.

The miniatures are intended to be a reminder of the ongoing possibility of atomic war and subsequently the complete destruction of Earth. In a polyester-soft Western world it can be far too easy to remain blissfully unaware of global unrest lived out by so many each day, especially if cushioned by media and reference sources alike. Dunne and Raby’s piece aims to promote individual paranoia and awareness surrounding nuclear war—an uneasiness I undoubtedly felt after realizing the small cloud interpretations weren’t as cutesy as initially supposed.

Milicia Tomić’s work is the culmination of a two-month period in autumn where she visited sites of anti-facist actions carried out by the People’s Liberation Movement and ordinary citizens of Belgrade. At first glance, my eyes skimmed across the nine photos of Tomić’s intervention of public space, “One Day,” and by missing the most key aspect—a machine gun casually resting in her arm—I proved her point. A fragment of an Oskar Davico poem accompanies the piece, “One day, instead of night, a burst of machine-gun fire will flash, if light cannot come otherwise.” As Tomić strolls and stands on street corners among the crowd she blends in, but also creates new territory made up of politics and actions. It’s an attempt, as she states, to “proceed from the position of a rebel, assuming an active position… moving from the position of a victim onto the streets … distanced from the politics of terror and anti-terror, without resentment, with a machine gun in hand, carrying it simply and necessarily. As if it were a supermarket carrier bag or an umbrella.”

Engaging with web and game technologies, several of MyWar’s artists examine the way such science may infiltrate and influence global wars. Martens’ Episode I is a fascinating look at narcissistic aspects of news media when the artist, in the heart of a war torn environment, turns the camera’s focus onto himself asking the war’s victims and participants for their opinions on him.

In an entirely different video installation computer-aided trauma therapy for war veterans is taken on by Harun Farocki’s Immersion when he asks, “Can the mental effects of warfare be ameliorated through game technologies?” The piece was moving and marked the most challenging aspect of the show for me to take in. Peppered with screams and minute-by-minute explosions, Farocki’s two channel video installation “Virtual Iraq” shows the treatment of war trauma through the use of virtual reality scenarios, i.e. seeing if computer software can be used to enable traumatized soldiers to retell key experiences. Juxtaposing the virtual game with the documentation of the workshop, two screens depict what the soldiers see in their head mounted displays as they visit digital mock-ups of their sites of trauma on the right, as well as a therapist prompting and triggering events for which the subject is being treated on the left. Farocki gives viewers a glimpse into the pain and anguish soldiers face by watching a horrifying simulation and the extreme emotional and physical reactions that come with reliving their traumatic events. Sound bites like, “I’m not feeling any safer with them here than I was out there,” shed light on the complex and multi-faceted identity politics that come into play in such scenarios.

MyWar will undoubtedly engage and disturb with thoughts and experiences relating to war in a world where the word no longer only refers to a conflict between hostile states, but a scattered and widespread permanent war and part of the mass culture of the 21st century.

MyWar: Participation in an Age of Conflict is at Union Gallery until Feb. 12 and at Agnes Etherington Art Centre until April 10. The reception is this Sunday, Jan. 23 at 3 p.m.

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