Greetings! Grand Arts is pleased to post our first text entry on our blog with which we hope to invite dialog and excite response from our audience both local and remote. Grand Arts Business Manager, Summer Farrar and Assistant Director, Lacey Wozny share their personal responses to this recent traveling project.
It Is What It Is
Standing outside in public and talking about the military conflict in Iraq feels like it would be a common occurrence, but it really isn’t, at least not for me. Gathering in circles with the Deller project experts or around the Creative Time table with flyers and brochures, people talked all day. I have to admit that I’ve never been sure if we’re at war with Iraq, occupying their country, or if we’re at war with Terror, or what. I was afraid a visitor would approach me and I wouldn’t know something crucial like that. This project brings these sorts of thoughts to mind – a vague sense of guilt that we should know more and do more and should be more aware of the “true cost” (human life, billions of dollars, the respect of the rest of the world, etc) for the Conflict (?) in Iraq. That might be why not very many people came, and those who made the biggest showing were die-hard anti-war types, the elder hippies who won’t give up, taking up the slack the rest of us have created by becoming extremely distracted. They devoured this project, some dedicating their whole day to it. But I think they felt a little alienated by the seemingly aloof British instigator’s refusal to designate the project as anti-war. During his talk at Grand Arts, he explained that It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq is about conversation, and Iraq happens to be the topic.
Mr. Deller said he felt neutrality provided everyone, regardless of his or her personal politics, an open invitation to participate. But clearly, the car, a former taxi completely destroyed by a bombing, is not objective. Reading about the car in the press release does not do it justice. As an object, it is visually engaging and quite tragic. I’m glad it was there, though – it gave visitors something to go on, a means of understanding the difference between art-as-social intervention and traditional protest. It’s quite spooky to imagine who used to drive the taxi and who used to ride in it.
It made me wonder: how can I be so saturated with (bad) news from Iraq – saturated to the point that I just stop listening to it – and still know so little about what’s going on there?
It Is What It Is: In response to SF
I always wonder how Kansas City looks and feels for first-time visiting artists. Is it similar to other cities – which ones? Does KC possess a more Southern, Western or Mid-western feel? When the RV carrying Jeremy Deller, Esam and Harvey, the bombed-out car, and the other intrepid travelers from Creative Time arrived at our 3 Kansas City stops, I expected a larger turnout, a greater response. At the park around lunchtime, I expected the anti-war die-hards to have a presence, but I also expected the passing foot traffic to take a moment with the “distraction” provided by the project set-up. Few if any business people or park-exercisers gave us more than a glance-I guess they were on track to something else. At Mill Creek Park people typically do one of three things: exercise on or around the track, protest war(s), or encourage some sort of free love and/or the legalization of marijuana. In a way, this gave us an opportunity to talk more intensely to the maintenance man working on the big Plaza fountain with the horses, the small bands of kids probably skipping school, and our eager anti-war group. Our rockstar Kansas City Art Institute student intern for the day, John, a veteran of Iraq, did two tours in a submarine in the Red Sea before enrolling at KCAI and had much to bring to the project’s Kansas City stop. Tasha, our gallery assistant spoke with him the following week at a local brew/pub about his experience with It Is What It Is,
It’s amazing that one day of talking changed six years of thinking, but it did. I think I’ll be able to let those issues influence my art, because I have been reluctant to do that…
Going through art school you are told over and over that you have to survey and interview your audience…I have never connected to the arts and veterans communities, but seeing this exhibit has allowed me to make that connection in my own work.
-J.H., Junior in Interdisciplinary Studies at KCAI
For myself, I feel humbled, whelmed-on-the-verge-of-feeling-too-ignorant-to-try, and ultimately humbled again by the variation and magnitude of relative effect just this war, of many contemporary wars, has on our global society and late capitalism, in framing our democracy as will of the people vs. the will of others, and then back around to contemporary social intervention through art practice. The project takes about one minute to understand – if you give it that.
Our second stop at the KCAI campus was even quieter. None of us, several art school alums among us, could figure it out. The overwhelming lack of curiosity, let alone response, critique, or ANYTHING was disheartening. I was embarrassed for my college self who probably would have been plagued by the same tunnel vision of school/studio life, too caught up in minutia of academia to be bothered by a famous artist and a timely, contemporary and much-acclaimed project. The students that did attend seemed distant -willing to listen but not wholly engage. One of the instructors, who came over to table, as we were about to leave, wanted to talk about the car’s aesthetic beauty. Art piece it is not; could the project title be more clear?
Skepticism for contemporary art is one thing, but the seeming lack of interest that surfaced here in KC, as it likely did in many other places across the country, hits me like a sucker-punch and was especially breath-taking at an art college where one would hope to find the most reception. I tried my best to explain/ rationalize the chill response to Jeremy by talking about the Mid-Western work ethic that is deeply seated in Kansas City arts and art appreciation. I reminded him and myself that the KC Art Institute historically tends to value craft and materials over conceptual art and contemporary issues.
My own whirling head recalls a song lyric by Beat Happening that I can only paraphrase: “It’s a burden that’s hard to bear. It’s so easy to not even care.”
I admit I’ve been trying to care more about my country’s sovereignty, foreign sanctions, and about the absence of daily reminders of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on American soil, which the bombed car from Al Mutanabi market does so poignantly. Suicide or roadside bombs did not make the potholes in our roads; we have no occupying forces patrolling the streets; no death debris on the sidewalks; no longer any ration stamps or metal drives. Of course we have the news, but its talk seems tired and largely one-sided. The local news sounds increasingly like a talk show – if not game show – and all the topics sound like sporting events. Most mainstream media generally fails to sensitize us anything more than abstract notions of fighting terrorism and democratic supremacy: at what cost?
What critical agency and circumstance would need to realize before American soldiers and civilians could together invite regular It Is What It Is-type public discussion? What would it take to renew public discourse or to rebuild platforms outside of the State and outside the church? What do we pay for our freedom?
I’ve been avidly reading the road diary of their continued cross-country journey, so maybe I’m becoming a bit obsessed too. I think this is a healthy reflection, but I feel unsettled. Esam’s words continue to echo through my thoughts since the project came through:
“You cannot grant freedom or democracy to a nation, it must come from them, from their own people.”