I want to thank the Lily foundation for this award and the opportunity to say a few words. I would also like to thank my students Ashley Zapata, Ben Jasmer, and Heidi Kao for their contributions to this artwork.
The images on the screen are installation shots of the work Under the Rose at Circa Gallery in Minneapolis, exhibited last September. The principal image in the work is a full scale MQ-1 Predator drone cut into cotton muslin fabric with a C02 laser. There are more than 10,000 patterns individually cut into the fabric, leaving a lace-like web of cloth in which each individual pattern is outlined with a blackened seared edge. It is a full size silhouette, about 27’ long with a 66’ wingspan. The patterning on the work is laid out according to the interior and exterior schematics of the Predator drone.
Under the Rose is a term that dates to the Greek and Roman era, and is used to denote a private room such as a confessional or chamber where decisions of state were made in secret. Historically, such rooms were designated with the image of the rose over the door or on the ceiling. It is a term that is still used today by covert security operations.
The patterned imagery in the work is drawn from several sources. Much of it was taken directly from patterns documented during visits to Islamic architectural sites in India and southern Spain. The prominent fuselage rose pattern was taken from European confessionals dating to the Middle Ages. The work also uses patterns from the headscarves of Somali school girls in Minneapolis and fragments of contemporary desert camouflage patterns used by US forces in Afghanistan.
A principle interest for me in the work is how the development and design of these drone technologies align with some of our core values as Americans. In our love of machines and a trust in technology and our can-do spirit, in the moral superiority of ingenuity and a belief in the progress these technologies bring. All of these the products of one nation under God.
These machines also feel strangely deistic to me. The drones are silent and unassailable. They target individuals precisely. They are invisible, undetectable, known only by inference. This work explores the ways in which these qualities align with concepts of deity, an alignment that can make it easy for us to assume the sanctions and righteousness of deity as well. All of this feeding a mythology of bloodless warfare that surrounds these machines, a mythology that influences our decisions, making our collective actions a bit easier to bear. Making the questions a bit easier to brush off.
To be clear, the work is not attempting an easy critique of these machines or of current policy in those regions, but instead asks questions about the degree to which the technology and its iconography comfort us in these conflicts, and whether this phenomenon is unique to our current perspective.
In thinking about one of the themes of this conference, I am reminded of the Cedar Riverside area of Minneapolis, a place about 20 minutes from where I live. It is home to one of the largest populations of Somalis in the US. Ashley Zapata, one of the students who worked on this project with me, found patterns for the work in the headscarves of Somali schoolgirls she was working with in this community. Over the past several years, more than 20 Somali men from Minneapolis have traveled to Mogadishu to join jihad under a brutal religious leader. More have left in recent months to join ISIS. Most of these young men have been killed.
In this immigrant community, I wonder how many degrees of separation there are between some of those young men and the girls that Ashley worked with? My guess is that most of the girls had some connection to at least one of them. I wonder what those girls think of American ingenuity. I wonder how easy it is for them to make fine distinctions between an American god and an American military, a distinction that comforts me.
One of the curious axioms about making art is that those directions that fill us with anxiety are usually the ones that are the most rewarding. I frequently tell my students that they should listen to their anxiety. It is a beacon telling them where to go. I believe that this is true because those subjects that cause anxiety are ultimately those that are closer to us, closer to the bone. They are pointing toward unresolved conflict, or perhaps more often, unresolvable conflict.
I think that this is also true in matters of faith, and by extension, matters of the church. As I said, I don’t have easy answers for the problems I just described. But I believe that questions that are the most problematic for us as a community, the ones that cause us the most anxiety, are likely pointing us somewhere important.
In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann asserts that the Messianic voices of prophecy in the Bible have traditionally been used to engage static systems of belief and power. Those voices speak in counterpoise by offering symbols of alternative opinions and fears, and facilitating the reorganization of values according to the freedoms found in Christian faith. Under the Rose attempts to speak within that tradition, not offering simplistic analysis and solutions, but asking questions about the character of these conflicts and the nature of the power we bring to bear on them.