A Secret Memorial and Other Subversive Art
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because body counts can be done in many ways.
By Pooja Bhatia
Back when radio announcers ended their shows by listing the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq — not so very long ago, was it? — artist Matt Kenyon got it in his head to make an IED. The only person it would hurt was himself.
To make his Improvised Empathetic Device, Kenyon got techy. He wrote a program to scrape websites that reported the killings of American soldiers in Iraq. He rigged an armband up to his computer, and when bad news came, the IED “would stab me with a needle once for every person who died,” he says. The pain was tolerable, like a wasp or bee sting, and though he developed bruises, Kenyon figured that was nothing compared with the sufferings of others; his father and stepfather both served in Vietnam. Yet over time he grew to dread Friday afternoons, when he was teaching in the studio at the State University of New York, Fredonia. It took him a while to realize his anxiety was related to the deluge of casualty reports released at the end of the week.
As many Americans as were killed fighting in Iraq, Kenyon knew the Iraqi civilian death toll was higher. There was no easy way to embody that pain, even a simulacrum of it. “[W]e don’t do body counts on other people,” former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, in 2002. But some nongovernmental organizations and public health researchers did, and Kenyon decided to make a memorial to civilian casualties on the other side — to count the dead, to name their names.
It wouldn’t be like other memorials, he knew. Kenyon didn’t want a sculpture languishing off in some corner where people could choose to visit or not. He wanted the memorial to get right under our noses. He wanted the names of the forgotten to be recorded for history. And so, as he describes in his TED Talk, he settled on the humblest of office products: the legal notepad.
Kenyon had some experience with printing. He had trained as a printmaker and painter before attending grad school, where he opened to the possibilities of more experimental, conceptual and data-driven art. What better place to print the names of the all-but-forgotten than in the lines of a legal pad? “The civilians were a subtext, a line no one was paying attention to,” Kenyon says. And legal pads, “the stationery of lawyers and politicians,” could circulate in the halls of power.
And they did. Kenyon won’t describe the methods by which he smuggled the pads in and “infiltrated the office supplies” of the Capitol. “That took a while,” he admits. “It’s a very nervous thing, to case Capitol Hill.” Since he didn’t want the memorials to be treated like scrap paper and thrown away, he made a preservation plan. He would distribute sheets of paper, for free, to citizens who promised to write letters to members of government. “We know that those letters are kept” in archives and libraries, he says, and so they would be treated with care and chemicals and stored for as long as the U.S. is powerful.
The legal pad is now in its fourth edition, and yes, you can procure a couple of sheets of that subversive paper on Kenyon’s website. Or you can see a pad at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, where it’s on permanent display. (The IED, by the way, can be found at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona.)
As for Kenyon, now 38 and a professor at the University of Michigan, he’s at work on a bunch of other projects. He won’t say much about the work related to drone strikes. He’s happy, though, to talk about Giant Pool of Money, a sculpture related to the 2008 financial crisis. At its center is an 8-foot-tall pyramid of Champagne glasses next to a conveyor belt rigged up to a change machine. A viewer can insert a dollar, and thus start a process: Quarters made from gallium, a metal with a low melting point, begin to drop into the glass at the top of the pyramid. The quarters melt, and ooze, and turn the color of mercury. They take on the aspect of toxicity, spreading.