Iraq war veterans create art to protest
By Nan Levinson
Globe Correspondent / April 22, 2008
"Hi ho, rock 'n' roll, grab your weapon, get ready to roll," sings
Drew Cameron, a 26-year-old artist and Iraq veteran, as he loosens
the tie on his Army dress uniform.
" 'Cause you will be going to war," he continues in a steady tenor,
pulling dog tags from under his shirt.
"So early, too early, too early in the morning." He jerks the chain
from his neck, holds the tags at arm's length, and drops them to the
floor. They clink as he walks off stage.
"Cadence," Cameron's brief performance, follows "I am who survived
forgive me," a bruising spoken-word piece delivered by Aaron Hughes,
26, another artist-activist-veteran, at the Green Door Studio in
Cameron and Hughes, members of the antiwar organization Iraq Veterans
Against the War, are among a small but growing number of American
vets who are using their experiences in Iraq to explore the
interrelation of art and political resistance. Their performances
last April, captured in a video by Justin Francese, are on view in
"Experiencing the War in Iraq," a multimedia exhibit of artwork from
both military and civilian perspectives that will be at the Narrows
Center for the Arts in Fall River through May 3.
While soldiers have long written about - and against - war, these
young men have found their own approach. Vivid, unsettling, and
YouTube-anointed, their work is also mostly unpolemical, a surprise,
given the charged subject matter.
Hughes and Cameron are documenting their transition from soldiers to
resisters. Their intent, they say, is to reimagine the myths, images,
and assumptions that brought them and their cohorts to this point;
their method is to pose questions, not supply ready-made answers.
"I'm using creative processes to break down the walls that allow us
to dehumanize one another," says Hughes.
Papermaking as catharsis
One of Cameron's projects, "Combat Paper," literally involves
breaking down material used in wartime.
Cameron learned papermaking from his father when he was a teenager in
Iowa and returned to it a few years ago after he moved to Vermont and
took a workshop with Drew Matott, a performance artist and papermaker
at the Green Door Studio. In the years between, Cameron joined the
Army, spent eight months with the 75th artillery in Iraq (where he
made sergeant), returned to the States, enlisted in the National
Guard, and enrolled at the University of Vermont to study forestry.
Meanwhile, his belief in the rightness of the military's mission in
Iraq turned sour, while the appeal of papermaking soared.
"I obsessively made blank paper. It was cathartic," Cameron says by
phone from Burlington, where he now lives.
One day, Cameron put on his Army uniform for the first time since he
left the military and began to cut it off his body. "My heart started
beating fast," he reports. "It felt both wrong and liberating. I
started ripping it off. The purpose was to make a complete transformation."
A friend took photographs, which Cameron and Matott, his
collaborator, later used for a series of prints. One print is in the
exhibit at the Narrows Center; a portfolio of six can be found in the
collection of the Boston Athenaeum.
Somewhere along the way, it occurred to Cameron and Matott to turn
the uniform into paper, so on Veterans Day last year, Cameron
gathered seven young veterans at St. Lawrence University in Canton,
N.Y., where they cut a uniform (donated by a Marine who had worn it
in Iraq) into small pieces, cooked it, beat it into pulp, and formed
it into sheets of artist-quality paper.
Since then, there have been nine Combat Paper workshops around the
country for veterans of all wars. And the result, in addition to
YouTube videos of the workshops, are piles of paper - some creamy,
some speckled, some used for printmaking, others for books or
scrapbooks, and all meant to honor the men and women fighting a war
these veterans no longer believe in.
Turning a discarded battle uniform into pristine sheets of paper is a
kind of reclamation, Cameron says. "It's a chance for individuals to
remake their relationship with their stories, their history, their
experiences," he explains. "For me it definitely has been an
empowering and healing experience, but it also is very much my method
of sharing my sentiment as a veteran that's against the war."
Reality vs. spectacle
Hughes, now a graduate student at Northeastern University, creates
drawings, paintings, and simple but arresting events that he stages
in public places and categorizes as "spectacle." All relate to what
he did and saw in Iraq. "I qualify everything in the States as a
spectacle and everything in Iraq as real," he says by phone from Chicago.
In the fall of 2006, two years after he returned home, Hughes walked
to the middle of a busy intersection in Champaign, Ill., to prop up a
signboard that read: "I am an Iraq War Veteran. I am guilty. I am
alone. I am drawing for peace." Moving crablike over the road, he
chalked a picture of a bird perched on barbed wire, while pedestrians
and vehicles were forced to navigate around him.
In a video, viewable on his website, aarhughes.org, people walk past,
giving at most a glance over their shoulders, as if unsure what - or
whether - they should be noticing. That seems right to Hughes, who
says his goal is to jar people out of the everyday. The typical tools
of activism, such as antiwar marches, are predictable efforts that
fit neatly into a category in our minds labeled "protest," he says:
We know what to make of them, so they're easy to dismiss. He is after
something more surprising, something that creates a kind of mental
itch. "That's exactly what I'd like people to do," he says. "Simply
stop - for a moment of thought, of reflection."
Tall and rangy, his face a map of sincerity, Hughes joined the
Illinois National Guard out of high school in 2000 and rose to the
rank of sergeant. He could not have imagined when he enlisted that he
would spend more than a year hauling supplies all over Iraq. "At
first it seemed like liberation, then occupation," he reports. "I'm
generalizing, but I think most people don't go there to kill people,
but that ends up being what you do."
As with Cameron, Hughes's rejection of the US intervention in Iraq
and his role in it was a gradual and painful process. "I went to
college set to be a designer. I wanted to design the coolest stuff
and make lots of money," he says. "Then I got deployed and I lived
with my sleeping bag and rucksack and a couple of books." Now
studying art theory and practice, he continues to grapple with his actions.
"Maybe I can find ways to . . . forgive myself," he says, his voice
faltering for the first time.
Last summer, Hughes did a monthlong project in New York City, in
which he made drawings linking the geometric designs that appear in
Manhattan's pavement and have roots in ancient Babylon with the
destruction of contemporary Babylon - that is, Iraq. Alongside, he
chalked the message, "Beware of poetic terrorism. It may make you
think." The project was designed to be temporary, but photographs can
be seen at drawingforpeace.org/public. Hughes and Cameron's work also
appears in "Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense," a collection of
writing and art by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Like much of Hughes's work, "Poetic Terrorism" required a fair amount
of explication, which the artist willingly supplies. "We're
disconnected not only from the war; we're disconnected from each
other," he says. "We've built up all these cultural barriers and
somehow we've got to poke through them. That's what I'm trying to do."
"Experiencing the War in Iraq" is at the Narrows Center for the Arts,
16 Anawam St., Fall River, through May 3. 508-324-1926, ncfta.org
Drew Cameron's "Combat Paper" work is at Boston Athenaeum, viewable
by appointment (617-227-0270) and at the Green Door Studio, 18 Howard
St., Burlington, Vt., greendoorstudio.net.