The Veterans Book Project: A Conversation with Monica Haller
Pederson, Claudia Costa, Afterimage
The ability to catalog objects and capture exacting detail aligns photography with the archive. Together the photograph and the archive exude the moral authority required to create "the condition of validity of judgments." (1) As the curator and theorist Okwui Enwezor writes, the archive was fundamental for the justification of the Iraq War. Enwezor reminds us that the search for "evidence" of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) included "a search through the Iraqi archives for documents containing evidence of a weapons system's many components: designs, bills of procurement, building plans, site maps, photographs of laboratories." (2) Notwithstanding evidence gathered by inspectors that showed that the building of a weapons program was abandoned, the sought-after justification was produced through the retention of "hermeneutic authority" over "intelligence"--in this case, the Iraqi archive. (3) If the materials confirmed the Hush administration's claims, then they fulfilled the US view; if not, the burden of proof to the negative was placed on the Iraqi regime ("the United Nations team lead by Hans Blix and the International Atomic Energy Agency officials were all accused of being Iraqi agents of misinformation" (4)).
As Enwezor notes, the relationship between the archive and empire building is not new: the Derridean "science of the archive" in the form of the monopoly on gathering and interpreting data was central to British imperial power, and continues today to be fundamental to the nation-state. It is ironic that the legitimacy of the Iraq War began unraveling with documents obtained by British intelligence, which included unclear surveillance photographs presented by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell as evidence at the United Nations. These documents were later shown to be faulty, figments of intelligent agents' imaginations. Against the enduring power of the archive as a regulatory system, and the challenges to the self-evidential claims of the archive, it is not surprising that artists continue today to explore the archive as form and medium.
The Veterans Book Project (2009-12), a library of fifty books authored by US veterans and Iraqi refugees with direct experience of American-led wars, focuses on the relationship between the archive and trauma. The books in this archive were created in fourteen workshops led by artist Monica Haller across the country over the past five years. The ground materials are the photographs and the memories of the authors. Haller provided the "container" in which to arrange these materials, a software template constructed by graphic designer Matthew Rezac. Conceived against the grain of the discursive order of "comprehensive totality" of the official archive, the Veterans Book Project undercuts this normally static and "objective" form, by pointing to the database as a dynamic and subjective system (Lev Manovich). (5) The nonlinear characteristic of the resulting books, and their sum as an archive, force the reader to focus on the potential of the photographic medium to activate new forms of "collectivization," which is the actual aim of this project. Haller's response to the Iraq War is part of a larger engagement with this event by contemporary artists, though the project is unique in that it significantly involves cities in the Midwest that are underrepresented in the national arts discourse. The work has been shown at various venues, the most recent being the Nomas Foundation in Rome (December 2011-February 2012) and the Milwaukee Art Museum, where it will be on display until September 2, 2013. Haller now lives and works in New York City. The following interview was conducted in person and by email between April 2011 and March 2013 at various stages of the project, which came to a close this April.
CLAUDIA COSTA PEDERSON: Talk about the background of the Veterans Book Project. What is your interest in framing your artistic work around war over the past five years? …