Eric Dickson’s current exhibition at Seed Space, War and Rumors of War, may be the experimental art lab’s most impressive yet. Dickson, an installation artist and political science professor at New York University, created a piece that rewards inquiry by offering more questions. He set up a network of motion detectors that visitors trip as they travel though the gallery. These activate audio clips of congressional hearings, presidential addresses, and military intelligence briefings, all piped from 14 small speakers encased in individual cages that hang from the ceiling by chains.
War and Rumors of War is site-specific. The motion detectors are set strategically along the gallery’s perimeter, creating a network of possible trips as visitors move. One minute, I found myself chasing a single voice that moved from speaker to speaker, only to elude me when I thought I’d caught up with it. The next minute, I tripped lines at an intersection that set off many voices, and I found myself a bit paralyzed, daunted by the cacophony but unable to extricate myself from it.
The voices are a maze of history lessons about American foreign policy over the past 30 years: General Norman Schwarzkopf gives a Gulf War military briefing; George W. Bush’s lawyer describes the Patriot Act; Hillary Clinton justifies her Senate vote to enter the Iraq war; President Obama announces the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Visitors also hear from Gore, Rumsfeld, Clinton, Reagan, LBJ and FDR, miscellaneous politicians from the left and right, NSA directors and deputies. I found myself jumping from speaker to speaker in a desperate attempt to quiet Michelle Bachmann, whose voice repeats the phrase “And as of today” from her speech about Obama allegedly sending arms to terrorist organizations in the Middle East, which according to Bachmann and other evangelicals, is a sure sign of the End of Times.
Since bodily movements direct the audio, visitors can enjoy the illusion of controlling the voices, while in actuality, they do not. Dickson created over 150 algorithms that are all controlled by a laptop hidden out of site, so while I thought I was exercising some agency, which voices pipe out of which speakers is completely unpredictable.
War and Rumors of War presents a metaphor for our political involvement, which made me feel frighteningly small. The gallery itself only adds to this: its stone interior, railroad support beams, and black walls (painted for this exhibition) give the space the look of a bunker where history makers decide policies that have global consequences. Although I may feel immersed in their narratives, world leaders are far removed from my experience. As any political science expert will tell you, even highly educated citizens have only a cursory understanding of politics.
The question of involvement is still key. Although the exhibition is itself apolitical—visitors are invited to bring their biases and prejudices—an added bonus is observing the level of audience interaction. During the monthly neighborhood art crawl, some people came into the complicated space and were instantly curious, exploring the speakers and motion detectors, listening to the voices carefully and trying to figure it out. Others drifted in and were immediately turned off. I was in the former group, yet I felt uneasy, like I was being watched not only by the curator and other visitors, but by something else, something connected to the trip beams and the computer backstage. It’s that sense of surveillance with which we are all too familiar.
The title itself comes from the New Testament: “And you will hear of war and rumors of war. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:6-7). At home, I jumped down the rabbit-hole of evangelical theory and learned that many believers see all manner of natural disasters and domestic and foreign conflicts as signs of the coming Rapture. The exhibition is a study in human ambiguity: for many people, wars, earthquakes, famine, poverty—the whole kit and caboodle of earthly tragedy—can be overwhelming, causing us to throw up our hands and distance ourselves even more from power. For others, conflict in the Middle East is a necessity for the Rapture to occur; the belief that we are near the End of Times can absolve us from responsibility to our world.
To interact with the space is to prod at political structures more than politicians themselves. It addresses not only what is disseminated to the people, but how it is disseminated. It makes us reflect on the distance between average citizens and lawmakers and about competing versions of history. We are asked to deal with issues of trust: To what versions of history do we adhere? How does our compliance empower us? How does it absolve us? Each visitor may ascribe a political message that aligns with his or her personal leaning. Or, we may examine the structures from where power derives: From whom do we get our news? What voices do we trust? What voices make us scowl? And finally, surprisingly, what is it like to be people in power who make history, who know that every direct action they take will have repercussions for many?
War and Rumors of War is required viewing for anyone concerned about the policies that govern us, the wars fought in our names, and the ways we make sense of our present circumstances. Most of all, it helps to clarify what we should pay attention to and what we should ignore, for it challenges our political agency with advanced technological art-making that manages to somehow remain subtle and restrained. Hats off to Rachel Bubis, Seed Space’s curator, for bringing a killer exhibition to an otherwise politically shy art scene.
“War and Rumors of War” is on view through November 16. Eric Dickson will be present at Seed Space during Arts and Music @ Wedgewood-Houston on November 7 from 6 to 9pm.
Erica Ciccarone is a writer living in Nashville. She blogs at www.nycnash.com.