January 18th, 2009 | Interviews

paul rodriguez

Ashley Hunt is a Los Angeles native who loves to eat Flaming Hot Cheetos while listening to the Roots and reading Jaqcues Ranciere. He is one fifth of the artist collaborative (with Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Katya Sander and David Thorne) behind the video installation 9 Scripts From A Nation at War. This interview by Drew Denny.

Ashley Hunt: 9 Scripts from a Nation at War is a multi-channel video installation that deals with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, specifically asking how we speak about the war. It considers how life changes for each of us in this context, especially outside what we consider war’s ‘theater.’ We were interested in what new roles are demanded of us and how our speech is circumscribed—both in terms of political speech and narrative authority, but also in more psychological terms, as our speech is a part of how we actively make ourselves and establish our identities. The project was originally commissioned for [the German exhibition] documenta 12, and the five of us began working on it in 2004. We began by comparing one another’s interests. They largely centered around what we considered ‘changed conditions’ since September 11th, 2001, especially as we’d been experiencing this throughout the frustrated protests against the war. About half way through we realized that the project had indeed become about the war specifically, and we centered our attention on a set of figures who explain, write, or speak about the war in ways that we found provocative to its peculiarities.
How much time did you invest? Do you consider it ‘finished’?
Three years. It is finished in terms of its production process, but we continue to develop how it lives in the world. The way it is installed at REDCAT—for example—is specific to the possibilities and limitations of that specific space.
What do you hope to accomplish? How do you imagine the experience of the viewer?
I don’t know that we hoped to ‘accomplish’ anything per se, except to complete an artwork that posed a set of provocative questions and provided a kind of thoughtful space for considering the war in ways we don’t otherwise have the opportunity for. The entire work consists of nine hours of video material spread over multiple monitors and projections—close to impossible for any one viewer to take it all in—and we imagine the experience of the viewer to be like that of an editor, moving their body from one story to another in their own time and with their own unique path through the space and its contents.
What is it like to watch people walking through the exhibit?
Mostly we see people sitting in the exhibit, more than walking through it. And if you mean ‘what does that feel like’ as the ‘artist’ or ‘creator’ of the piece, I suppose that provokes something different in each of us. Generally it’s something satisfying, because people seem to really settle into the work, suggesting that we created a welcoming and generous environment for people to be challenged and invited to think. People spend much more time with the work that we ever imagined they would, and we have had a couple of accounts of people claiming to have seen all nine hours.
Does the project require that people spend time with it in order to fulfill its purpose? Or is it enough for it to be and be seen?
I don’t think it’s enough for someone to simply see the exhibition as an image—that image would speak only to video art, or perhaps video art dealing with the war if you catch a glimpse of one of the veterans’ uniforms. I myself would find that uninteresting since the videos are not portraits but are really performances, and the different channels are not about juxtaposition of one thing against another but are about an accumulation or a kind of weaving across them. Our choice to use video—as a time-based medium—followed our sense that what this work portrayed demanded time. This certainly does not mean that one has to see all nine hours, and we presume that each viewer will spend more time with some parts and less with others, but it’s the time one spends that will really allow the complexity of the work to unfold.
Tell me about the Guantanamo tribunal reading event from January 10. How did you acquire the scripts and choose which ones to read?
This will be a public reading of transcripts from what were called ‘Combatant Status Review Tribunals,’ held at Guantanamo Bay in 2004–05, following the Supreme Court decisions Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Rasul v. Bush, stating that the Department of Defense could not hold people incommunicado indefinitely. The DOD responded with these tribunals, intended to review the classification of Guantanamo prisoners as ‘enemy combatants.’ We acquired them as PDFs from the Department of Defense website, after they were sued through the Freedom of Information Act by the Center for Constitutional Rights. After reading through most all of the approximately ten thousand pages released, we chose a section of 110 consecutive pages for the reading, making up eleven tribunals.
Did you edit the scripts at all?
We did not edit the transcripts at all—first because by themselves they read as a fully formed Kafka-esque script and second because it is important that we are not presenting a drama but a document. Through our position as artists we are simultaneously making this document more public and presenting an encounter between the document and a group of people—local citizens—who will have to negotiate their relationship to it in public. The performers sit at an arrangement of four tables, each sitting at a seat marked with their position in the script—Detainee, Tribunal President, Personal Representative and so forth. At the conclusion of each individual tribunal, the performers all stand and rotate one position to their left, speaking a different role for that tribunal, and for the next, and so on. The audience is able to come and go as they please. It’s not expected for people to come for all five hours. Though I will warn that people always say they wish they’d given themselves more time for it—having found it far more compelling to watch long stretches than they’d anticipated.
What do you want them to walk away with?
At the very least, we hope people will have thought about something going on in the world that they may not have thought about otherwise, or may not have known was a part of their world. Ideally, people will also do something with that thinking—demand something different of the world they live in, and from my personal perspective, that would take place not only as or within art.
Do you feel a responsibility to educate through your work? What is the role of art in activism?
I don’t use the word ‘educate’ as it sounds paternalistic and I don’t think a work should presume to know more than a viewer. I do often value work that is pedagogical or refers to how we learn, and as an artist who works from research I am conscious that I am presenting an engagement with knowledge. But I also don’t think there is only one purpose for art. I do feel that art is something that always already exists in relation to other things in the world, and as such is implicated in politics, institutions, the economy and within social questions, including the negotiation between individuality and collective experience and belonging. The position of an artist exists within this same field of relationships, and as such, I think it’s important to not be naive or ignorant of this, but to figure out what that means to you. And as far as art and activism, I see them as two overlapping fields—both of which have political and aesthetic dimensions, both of which rely upon one another and have a lot to learn from one another. Often it is a disciplinary border that separates them rather than separate kinds of action, which allows art to de-politicize itself and allows activism to be lazy on aesthetic levels. Therefore I do not feel one should be subordinated to the other, each offers things the other lacks and they should be worked against one another.
How does this show relate to your past work—‘I Won’t Drown’, for example? Does one project spring from another?
There are thematic overlaps between them, dealing with the question of prisoners for example and considering the stateless rights-less limbo that both Guantanamo prisoners and victims of Hurricane Katrina found themselves in. The question of speech is also very present in both, the Katrina work being based largely around the assembling of a press conference to try to speak a situation to a public who wasn’t listening, along with people trying to formulate their experience into storytelling. But the ‘I Won’t Drown’ project has a much more grassroots and less institutional life than ‘9 Scripts,’ and it was much more involved in a direct and urgent response to a moment of crisis than in creating a space for active, critical thought—which highlights some of the nuances I referred to above around the ideas of service, where two very different kinds of work seeking very different responses require different strategies.
Do you create a narrative for your body of work? Does your work follow the narratives presented to you via current events and history?
Neither. I try to work more from a methodology that traces out questions and problems—each one building upon the previous one while trying to get some place that the previous one couldn’t get. My work has always been connected to questions of identity, power and narrative authority, and while current events and the unfolding of history provide contexts in which to explore those questions, they also change the questions, alter their stakes, complicate our interpretations and open up the struggle over how history is written.
Will Obama create a new American democratic hegemony?
Is that democratic with a big ‘D’ or little ‘d’? I think something serious and hegemonic will follow, how much it sticks to the axioms of local grassroots community organizing in spirit and how much that becomes a superficial thematic of his presidency remains to be seen. Just undoing the damage that the Bush administration did and returning the U.S. to the fucked-up state it was in under Clinton would be a huge achievement, but of course we’re beyond that now. New and complicated things will happen and hopefully Obama is a leader who can help steer them in better directions, though I think little good will come of it unless regular, ordinary people keep clamoring for change in substance, not just change in appearance. For example: less war, fewer prisons, and mass rejection of people who try to make us think they’re the only ways to deal with our problems.