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Reviews / February 10, 2011

MyWar: Computerized Combats

Joseph DeLappe Dead in Iraq 2006–11 Courtesy the artist

The Agnes Etherington Art Centre has started the year with “MyWar: Participation in an Age of Conflict,” a powerful and explosive travelling group show that considers the ways in which digital technologies like social networking and virtual reality mediate our collective experience of contemporary warfare. Central to the curatorial thesis is technology’s paradoxical ability to both separate us from and connect us to the front lines of global conflicts.

English duo Thomson & Craighead’s A Short film about War is essentially a slide show of found images: airplanes, tourist snapshots and corpses flash one after the other onto the gallery wall. A booming voice-over infuses the slide show with narrative and drama; but its authority is undercut by a scrolling stream of web addresses and blog excerpts that expose the disparate Internet origins of the projected photographs. The viewer both laments the obscuring, manipulative powers of contemporary news media and marvels at the phenomenon of DIY photojournalism.

Manufactured truth and e-rebellion also butt heads in Berlin-based artist Oliver Laric‘s Versions. For this piece, Laric commissioned an airbrush artist to illustrate a number of spoof images that appeared online in 2008 after it was revealed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had artificially added missiles to a widely circulated photograph of its latest weapons test. The absurd and frightening variations on the doctored original include a single warhead launching in defense against a storm of incoming missiles. We’re left questioning our blind trust of authority and the meaning of viral protest.

The digital (dis)connect is thrown into high relief by American artist Joseph DeLappe, who stages interventions inside America’s Army—“the official US Army Game”—using the screen name dead-in-iraq. True to its name, this violent, multi-player computer game was developed by the US Army and has been promoted as an online recruiting tool since its release in 2002. The artist began logging onto AA (as the game is also known) in 2006 with the express purpose of entering the name of every American soldier killed in Iraq into the game’s text messaging system. Gallery visitors watch recorded interventions that all play out the same way: a passive avatar stands motionless in a chaotic landscape, bearing witness to the scrolling names of fallen soldiers, until he is killed and the screen fades to black. AA obscures harsh realities and promotes the myth of war as intrepid adventure. While DeLappe’s project stresses the wildly dangerous combination of violence and sterility in gaming culture, it also underlines the democratic and subversive possibilities of the Internet.

Interestingly, virtual reality is being used to both recruit and heal American soldiers. At the Union Gallery, which is participating as an offsite venue until February 12, Harun Farocki’s Immersion relays the happenings at a Virtual Iraq workshop that took place near Seattle. (Virtual Iraq is a new therapy tool that has soldiers relive traumatic wartime memories in virtual reality.) The split-screen projection at the Union Gallery shows a soldier in Virtual Iraq headgear as well as the computer animation of the soldier’s traumatic memory. Whether or not this experimental therapy method is effective, the artist’s footage is disturbing within the exhibition’s context because it shows that authorities take pains to bookend a soldier’s experience with numbing digital tools. This project poses the exhibition’s definitive question: Does the digital realm heal and neutralize? Or does it paralyze and polarize?