In the summer of 1990, footage from the resistance at Kanesatake, near Oka, Québec, permeated our television screens across the country as quickly as it was subsequently made invisible.
This is one of my first memories.
It looked as though the call for Indigenous sovereignty was finally resounding; however, the countless individuals who blocked the Mercier bridge that summer in defence and honour of their land were portrayed as violent Mohawk warriors, a stereotype that strategically allowed the Canadian government to respond with mass militarization.
The Gulf War, simultaneous to this event, was the first war to be live-televised in real time, showing unprecedented video footage of missiles fired into Iraq, all the while being carefully controlled and “moralized” by the American government and media.
Screened in the fall of 2014 as part of Pleasuredome’s New Toronto Works program, Felix Kalmenson’s single channel video Highway 80 (2014) remaps the landscape of the Gulf War, focusing on Kuwait’s infamous “Highway of Death” as a site not of war, but more importantly, of atrocity. The video features a flattened and featureless landscape mined from Google Streetview, which continues to be censored by virtue of ongoing hostilities. However, the represented landscape’s banality plays into its affect, as viewers are left to imagine what atrocity actually looks like, both on the land and on the bodies that move through it.
Kalmenson complicates the notion of landscape as witness within the work, highlighting different human experiences of war by combining multiple and seemingly disparate perspectives¾Western versus non-Western. For instance, the video is overlain with subtitles from an intimate interview with an Iraqi Republican Guard soldier, as well as white noise from the cockpit of an American A-10 jet over Highway 80. A plethora of critical questions underlie Kalmenson’s work; however, it is his use of sound, or more precisely, non-sound, that I am most interested in. The white noise forces viewers to read the Iraqi soldier’s subtitled reflections aloud as moving through the highway’s landscape, creating a human narrative for a site that has for so long been described as “inhuman.”
This dynamic of visibility versus invisibility (or sound versus non-sound) in mediations of war relates to Rehab Nazzal’s audio work Drones Over Gaza (2014), as seen in this year’s Images Festival at Prefix ICA. In it, Nazzal plays aloud field recordings from Isreali military drones that fly over occupied Palestine, documented over the summer of 2014 through assisted field recording. Notably, the track does not sound hostile or aggressive in its playback; rather, it sounds like the everyday noise of life. This is where the crux of Nazzal’s work lies: this is everyday life for Palestinians. While those of us in the West often imagine drones to be noisy, piercing aircrafts, they sound almost trivial in Nazzal’s work, and often operate in the air invisibly. Unlike the frightening pitch of the Canadian National Exhibition’s aircrafts that screech over downtown Toronto every summer, the drones in Nazzal’s work operate more banally, which is precisely what unsettles me.
My sense of safety is so skewed that I imagine war as some grand performance.
Kalmenson and Nazzal’s works challenge notions of war, occupation and, in turn, their representation. They do so in order to challenge viewers, as well, to consider how one responds to such histories as they continue to unfold before us, be it in the media or in contemporary art.
Ellyn Walker is a writer and curator based between Toronto (Tkaronto) and Kingston (Cataraqui), on Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Wendat land. Her work is informed by critical art history, decolonial theory and anti-racist methodologies, and focuses on modes of cross-cultural engagement within the arts as potential sites for resistance, re-imagination and (re)conciliation between Indigenous peoples and diverse settler communities. Her writing has been published in such venues as Prefix Photo, PUBLIC Journal, Fuse Magazine, the Journal of Curatorial Studies, BlackFlash and C Magazine, among others. Ellyn is currently a PhD student in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University where she looks at the politics of alliance in contemporary curatorial and artistic practices.