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An account of researching for the Biennial

29.11.08 | Gabriela Cala-Lesina

My experience of interning as a research assistant for this biennial opened my mind and eyes to the sorts of images one is able to access on the internet without restriction or censorship. I was asked to find different websites which represented the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from both pro- and anti-war positions. Having a clear aim and purpose to surfing the net, I systematically sieved through the relevant sites. I found a consistent stabbing repetition of horrific images of destroyed bodies, of soldiers, protests, as well as of women and children. I also discovered websites with sympathetic and compassionate stories, for example tribute sites to US soldiers with messages from loved ones back home, in desperate hope to get read. I found that many photographs in the websites were arranged in a grid-formation, especially those in American tribute sites: a virtual graveyard. The grid layout, which worked well in the exhibition 'Iraq through the Lens of Vietnam', emphasises the massive amount of images, and it disturbingly de-personalises the portraits which selfishly call out for individual attention. See for example:
http://projects.washingtonpost.com/fallen/
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18338428/nPage/1

I saw parallels between the images I found on the internet and the experience they induced, to those images and the experience of standing in front of Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation 'The Incommensurable Banner' (2008) which was part of the Brighton Biennial. Although the banner enforced physical participation (one has to walk across the room to see long banner), as opposed to the passive exploration of the internet, I felt overwhelmed in both situations. It was the great size of the banner and horrific images in Hirschhorn’s installation, and the quantity and easy availability of the images on the internet, which was most shocking. Hirschhorn’s installation, of course, is one step further in bringing these images closer to the public than their usual home in the deep corners of the internet. The installation lacks, however, the very lonely, individual, and personal experience of sifting through hundreds of these images (which Hirschhorn no doubt did himself), and it also does not suggest the shocking quantity of such images, which are so easily available.

Many of the images were incredibly disturbing and deeply upsetting, especially as they were rooted so greatly in the reality of modern warfare, in turn eliciting a sense of hopelessness in the very system. I did feel a sense of hope, nevertheless, in the internet as a medium. It provides a site for free expression, a vehicle for mourning, and gives a voice to those realities which are cornered to certain parts of the world of which I, for example, have no way of accessing otherwise. The ethics or usefulness of displaying such images is another matter.