Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here
Gianluigi Ricuperati, a journalist and writer, gave us a presentation which was disturbing, enlightening, complex and fascinating in equal measure. Based around his book, 'Fucked Up', it concerned graphic, uncensored imagery of the current Gulf War. Ricuperati was Interested in the effects of war on those who don't make war; and of seeing war through the eyes of those that do make war. It's the story of, in his words, one of the "most effective mimetic presentations of war in recent memory". For Postopolis!, as with Krulwich's talk, it relates to the media's space, and the landscape of a place as altered through representation.
He tells the story of his encounters with the website nowthatsfuckedup.com, and its producer, Christopher Wilson. It was a moderately successful amateur porn site, before Wilson decided to contact servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ask for images of daily life during wartime, in return for free access to the porn. It's not quite clear why he decided to do this – Wilson never agreed to meet Ricuperati – but Ricuperati feels that it was out of sheer curiosity. That he, like millions of other young men in America, "wanted to desperately know how it feels". At same time, they wouldn't go there. For Ricuperati, "This is the difference on a moral plane ... (saying) I want to know everything about what it's like to be there, but I wouldn't go."
Over the next 6 months, the amount of porn stayed consistent, but it increasingly offered a rising amount of war images, images that covered all shades of what is representable in war. Of what war is. Uncensored, and direct from the front line.
Ricuperati's book was an attempt at "a democratic tool". It sold a couple of thousand copies in Italy, and he feels that the fact it didn't sell many is "totally due to fact that images are beyond limit of what is representable in mainstream media." We see examples of these images, with Joseph Grima translating the captions, sent in by the servicemen, in real time, from the translated Italian. The captions are amongst most interesting things as they present the raw voices of American servicemen, struggling to deal with the reality of their situation. In some senses, you hear their bewilderment – they can barely try to work out what's going on in Iraqi or Afghani minds. Indeed, there is much scorn as to the motives of locals. It sounds hateful. But perhaps they are trying to figure out it, in a way, through their sheer frustration, manufactured hate and ennui. Ricuperati also studied the interesting community visiting the site. He reckons the captions, and responses to them, was also part of some kind of mass query: "What's the story behind the picture?"
The images are of dead bodies torn apart, prisoners humiliated, photos through the sights of guns and rocket launchers, focused on people, places. The landscape of Iraq and Afghanistan is immediately recognisable; what's not familiar is that these images are inhabited, full of civilians or insurgents about to get shot. We're over-familiar with videos shot from the nose cone of missiles, but the targets are always buildings. An abstraction. Here, they're people. We also see the end result. They're fairly shocking, but the more affecting images to me are those through the sights.
What we see here – "digital images daily life in Iraq traded for images of sex life in America" – soon came to the attention of the Pentagon, who investigated Christopher WIlson's servers, but couldn't prosecute. They blocked access to soldiers in Iraq, but soldiers still found access numerous other sources. Eventually, a judge invoked a 19th century decency law, and Wilson was jailed for 2 months and fined $100k. The site got shut down, effectively, so Ricuperati decided to ensure that the material, and the story, was preserved in book form. Christopher Wilson disappeared from public eye, although not before becoming a cause celebré of the anti-war movement, despite being "somewhat totally conservative, someone pro-war, that becomes, by paradox, about freedom of expression". He didn't want to shame the American army at all. Rather, it was kind of a tribute. A totally militaristic act. Ricuperati's greatest regret is that Wilson never accepted a meeting.
He notes that these kind of photographs are totally different to professional war photography. It's war as seen through eyes of those who make war. None of the images have the quality to win a Pullitzer, but for Ricuperati they do show the essential qualities of war, particularly those of "shame and boredom", and the everyday idiocy that results (e.g. Abu Ghraib.) He wanted to create an anthropological dark fable of our time. Everyone who submitted pictures, dead people in pictures, people who commented, even Ricuperati himself, he says – all contributed to something that is really disquieting from a moral plane.
In questions, Ricuperati notes that you can find same pictures in soldiers' wallets from WWI, WWII etc. And it's not exclusive to American soldiers either; soldiers all over the world do this. Ricuperati says, "If I were there, probably I would shoot these pictures. I take pictures of daily life, and the daily life of soldiers is fucked up." So what's different with these pictures is the velocity; the shortened, almost non-existent time in which photographs are made and then displayed.
Ricuperati's talk gave us another angle from which to consider place, landscape, the space of war, and representation through photography and new media. If I say it provided a sober, sharp, disquieting point of difference within Postopolis!, I mean that as a compliment. He's working on a form of revisioning of Arbitare later in the year, so watch that space.