Since April 2016, I have been working on the subject of violence mostly pertaining to the topic of terrorism and the War on Terror. I began working on the subject as a response to my own experiences and traumas. Video became a form of artworking1 where I took certain experiences from my own life and set them in dialogue with theory, humor, and histories. But before I talk about this I should rewind to the personal.
I was injured in the 2015 Paris attacks that took place on November the 13th and spent some months in and out of the hospital going through recovery afterwards. At the time, I was really inspired by a good friend of mine, Hiba Ali’s work, and she agreed to make a really simple CGI rendering of a bullet for me. It became emblematic of my experience and of making sense of what happened to me in Paris.
CGI aesthetics are nothing new to the art world and also interestingly enough are used in a lot in works that deal with war and violence if you think about Forensic Architecture, but even before in the work of Harun Farocki and Hito Steyerl. However, they make sense because violence today is inflicted through various technologies, with virtual reality being a means by which it is deployed2. However, maybe unlike these formerly mentioned artworks and artists, I grafted my own experiences onto this, for lack of a better word, uncanny aesthetics as epitomizing my own post traumatic state. I think generally this inverted experience is not represented in most artworks, and rather, PTSD and trauma are represented often through cinematic flashbacks. CGI for me works because, though it often tries to mimic cinema, it can only aspire. It is ultimately a medium that invokes plasticity and artificiality.
This CGI bullet became part of a worked entitled Me/My Bullet. The video is about three and a half minutes, and it is accompanied by an altered form of Simon and Garfunkel’s hit The Sound of Silence. The video narrates simply the events on the 13th from my own perspective through subtitled text. The disjunction between the traumatic text and the generic, or nostalgic song creates a strange dissonance. However, the video departs a lot from the personal and talks about the flow of arms: the Kalashnikov rifles used that night originated from the Balkans and were trafficked via Slovakia through Vienna.
After making this video, I was still interested in the idea of the flow of arms and narrating the event of terrorism in the West from another perspective that moved beyond typical binaries and characterizations of evil. I also namely became interested in Manual Delanda’s assemblage theory, which builds from Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of the assemblage, but Delanda has also applied this way of networked thinking to the army and intelligent machines, as in his 1991 book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines.3 Influenced by this thinking, I wanted to research other instances of violence that are produced by illegal flow of arms taken from past wars and then end up perpetrating present crimes. After some research, I realized that most covert wars and post-war countries use arms from former wars. Weapons don’t sit still but are in constant flux. I have an unpublished essay about this that specifically talks about a tweet President Trump made at an NRA rally in May, 2018, where he says the Paris victims should have been armed to prevent the attack. The essay also presents a lot of research on the Iran Contra Scandal, which was a covert arms deal that really illustrates this idea of arms traveling between intermediaries and are transferred from one covert war zone to another. For me, the idea is an unlikely tie between network theory and trauma theory presented by Bracha Ettinger. Ettinger also uses rather Deleuzian language of web like spaces to describe traumas. Her terms instead are carry-ance and transferals.
This brings me to another notion I’ve thought a lot about, which is the boomerang effect of violence (post-colonial term from Aime Cesaire and Fanon), and how artworking can ultimately be a tool to make visible these eternal returns – which in my work is not just metaphorical but making visible the actual, material traces of past traumas in the present. I was thinking a lot about this before and during production of This Weapon Drags Like a Boomerang (2018), which was made to accompany Me/My Bullet. I wanted to question the notion of what a “launching point” for trauma and violence could be in relation to terrorism in the West. The video raises a lot of parallel histories, such as the US backed Afghani-Saudi-Pakistani proxy war in the 80s and the launch of the Columbia aircraft shuttle that President Ronald Reagan dedicated to the US-Saudi backed mujahedeen army.
Right now, I’m working on a performance lecture that is about the linguistic line of fire in the War on Terror where I also take into account my own words that I had to learn in German during therapy sessions in Berlin in 2016. In preparation for some sessions I underwent, I made a simple list of words I should learn in order to be able to communicate in German with the therapist (who was always clad in military garb because of his profession as a military therapist). The situation was somewhat absurd, sad, and humorous. One year later, I made another short video about the experience called Learning German with Trauma Words (2017).
For the lecture, I’m doing a lot of research on propaganda like vocabulary lists and literacy books that were made in the 80s in Peshawar, Pakistan with funding from the US government. It is an ongoing project where I am commissioning and working with translators who are translating the materials from Dari and Pashtun.
1 Artworking, here is a term taken from Griselda Pollock’s After-affects, After-images, where she talks about feminist art practices that become a tool to work through traumas experienced or traced by the artist.
Pollock, Griselda, After-affects, 2013. After-images: Trauma and aesthetic transformation in the virtual feminist museum. Manchester: Manchester UP.
2 See Lenoir, Timothy and Caldwell, Luke, ( 2017). “Image operations: refracting control from virtual reality to the digital battlefield”. in Image Operations: Visual Media Political Conflict. Ed. Eder, Jens and Klonk, Charlotte. Manchester UP. pp. 89-100.
3 Delanda, Manuel, 2016, Assemblage Theory, Edinburgh UP