Exhibition – War at a Distance and Tall Man

By Vince Chadwick

Tasked with clearing a town of insurgents during the second Iraq war, a soldier and his partner defy their training and split up. Suddenly explosions and gunfire erupt from everywhere. The more inexperienced soldier panics, cowering with his head between his knees. Eventually he returns to the spot where he left his partner, Jones, though now he can find him only in pieces.

The soldier hunches over his rifle. “I think I’m going to be sick”, he says. “You’re doing great” replies a commanding voice, “This is what we have to do. Now tell me again, what happened to Jones?” The soldier takes off his virtual reality goggles and the audience erupts in applause.

Part of the War at a Distance exhibition, Harun Farocki’s piece Serious Games 3: Immersion depicts a recreation of an actual ambush, designed to help sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to confront and thereby control their most oppressive memory. Using 360-degree virtual environments, psychologists practise what is known as exposure therapy, using machines to help trauma victims re-find their humanity.

The analogy is drawn between a surgeon’s knife, illuminated and observed by a camera inside a foreign body.

It contrasts with the previous room where Eye/Machine tracks a series of missiles slamming into targets on granular film. The analogy is drawn between a surgeon’s knife, illuminated and observed by a camera inside a foreign body. Farocki argues that we are increasingly disconnected from our own actions, and hence ourselves.

The US unmanned drone program in Afghanistan came under renewed scrutiny recently following the assassination of American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in Yemen. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John O Brennan defended the legal basis for the Obama Administration’s policies at Harvard Law School in September. However, these “surgical strikes” have also claimed an untold number of civilian lives and done serious damage to already wary hearts and minds.

By interspersing his piece with images of industrial production lines, Farocki alludes to the Military-Industrial Complex and posits technology as both protector and oppressor. Cameras installed in factories allow us “to monitor the predetermined”. The same seemingly now applies in war as well.

Vernon Ah Kee’s four-screen film Tall Man is also in some ways a study of disconnection.

On 19 November 2004, Cameron Doomadgee (Mulrunji) died on the floor of his cell at the Palm Island Watchhouse. He became the 147th Aboriginal person to die in custody since 1990. The Coroner found Doomadgee’s death was the result of a fall, despite the injuries being consistent with those of a car crash victim. At the subsequent manslaughter trial of Sergeant Chris Hurley (he was acquitted), it emerged Doomadgee’s liver was “virtually cleaved in two across his spine”.

… we get a visceral sense of frustration with years of oppressive and fruitless policies boiling over in the tropical heat.

On the video, one week after the event, Lex Wotton – a respected Palm Island Aboriginal leader – can be seen shouting to a small crowd in front of the dilapidated general store: “That’s not an accident!” In the film we get a visceral sense of frustration with years of oppressive and fruitless policies boiling over in the tropical heat. Fires and rioting began as the police barricaded themselves inside their own barracks, loaded their guns and called family members to say goodbye.

Lex Wotton was later jailed for his role in the protests. Right Now recently wrote on the gag order that was part of his parole in July 2010.

In Tall Man, as we watch news, police recordings and mobile phone videos of the unrest, we simultaneously see footage taken from a plane high above this beautiful island. A single plume of coal-coloured smoke wafts into the sky to signal that all is not well in paradise. Yet for many Australians this is how they experienced events on Palm Island, fleetingly and from afar.

As Vernon Ah Kee said in a recent interview:

Tall Man asks questions, questions that compel. What of Lex Wotton? And why don’t we talk about Palm Island? When we say ‘Palm Island’, there are connotations that fix us, that give us pause, and send our emotions racing toward tipping points. Like when we say ‘Cronulla’.

The camcorder date in the bottom left-hand corner poses a stubborn question to the viewer: where were you on 26 November 2004? This was a day when the myth of one “lucky” Australia was torn and split asunder. Doomadgee’s death was tragically not the last Indigenous death in custody – as Mr Ward’s case in 2008 and many others have demonstrated – but what followed was proof that Australia is still yet to outgrow its troubled past. This free exhibition is tremendously important viewing.

Harun Farocki’s War at a Distance and Vernon Ah Kee’s Tall Man remain on exhibit at Gertrude Contemporary Gallery until 5 November. The exhibitions are part of the Melbourne Festival.

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