This video appeared on the website http://www.jillianvarani.co.nz/rememberingabughraib, which no longer exists. The following essay describes some of the motivations behind the site and the video.
I have chosen to reconstruct the memory of the Abu Ghraib torture committed by U.S. soldiers under the direction of their government: my reconstruction consists of ‘drawings’. The idea of a drawing is useful for a discussion of memory, and is not limited to pencil sketches but also can include the images on my website—photos, video, sound, and a written reflection on the topic of the Iraq war from my (American) perspective. Primarily, this reconstruction sits within a hypertextual framework: as a website with links to content (rather than a single blog post), I wanted to foreground the role of the internet as itself a medium of memory.
Through the relation between drawings and memory, the definition of drawing broadens to include an activity of recognition and translation, roughly considered schematization. In Memoirs of the Blind, Derrida attributes “the origin of drawing to memory rather than to perception” (49). This relationship highlights how both are abstract processes. “Memory itself schematizes. In proceeding by abstraction, it operates like drawing” (Agacinski, 94). What’s interesting about these claims is that they suggest, in defining drawing beyond simply looking, that drawing can be a broad process of recognition and translation, or schematization. My photographic images are drawings because I have taken them or appropriated them from the internet (recognition), and changed them on a picture editing software (translation)—which highlights both my action and the composition of the 2d image (the shema). I consider all of the media on this website drawings, because they are also to a certain extent incomplete by themselves, in the same way a drawing is defined in relation to something else—the recognition of another, or a plan for something in the future.
Through researching the Abu Ghraib prison abuse, I realized that a straightforward reconstruction of events would not only be redundant, reiterating thousands of accounts already in the news and on the internet, but also it would be a negative repetition of exposure for the victims: it would be a repetition of display which was a central characteristic of their torture in the first place. The ambiguity of drawing, heightened by the attention to the image’s changed ‘surface’, “attempts to undermine a certain kind of spectacularization of memory” (Krauss, 35). Photographic images of the tortured prisoners were instrumental in bringing the torture to an end, but they are not necessary to a personal reconstruction of events. My choice of more ambiguous images attempts to highlight the personal associations within memory, while at the same time affording the victims a mode of privacy in a website dedicated to them. This is also why I have ‘reenacted’ their visibility/invisibility in the last video (/supre) using my own face.
The written piece plays a similar role to drawing. Derrida describes “the origin of drawing” as “the thought of drawing,” or “a memory of the trait” (3), linking drawing, thought, and memory. From thought, traditionally, comes language and writing. Derrida links drawing and writing again later, when he suggests that both are blind (4), and that both acknowledge something else (either a subject of a later image, or a subject for language): “Whether it be in writing or in drawing…the thanksgiving grace of the trait suggests that at the origin of the graphein there is debt or gift rather than representational fidelity” (30). Like the drawings, my non-explicit written piece retains some ambiguity. It asks the question: how much do we know and see of a war which is fought elsewhere? In fact we are blind, like the draftsman, to what is right there in front of us, a war in every picture and every supermarket.
The website framework is a central feature of the reconstruction of this memory. “The major characteristic of digital media is memory. Its ontology is defined by memory, from content to purpose, from hardware to software, from CD-ROMs to memory sticks, from RAM to ROM” (Chun, 154). This computerized memory is actually a false metaphor, because it equates memory and storage. “Crucially, memory is an active process, not static…Memory does not equal storage” (Chun, 164). Hypertext is a useful device for enacting memory, because it requires action from a willing participant. My work is not a memory, but depends on the viewer’s associations and links, the activity of clicking from one to another, to make connections. Both processes—memory and hypertext linking—also happen in the present: “digital media is truly a time-based medium, which, given a screen’s refresh cycle and the dynamic flow of information in cyberspace, turns images, sounds, and text into discrete moments in time” (Chun, 166). Hypertext helps create new memories through constantly new experiences.
Overall, this project brings together drawings and hypertext to reflect on a terrible memory of torture. Drawings and hypertext both have a place in memory theory, but they also have a strange relationship with this “non-personal” memory. Drawings usually seem intensely personal, indexes of the hand-made, whereas hypertext’s mechanized system appears the opposite, and worse than non-personal, extremely public. On the other hand, by personalizing a public memory through drawings, and by your attention to this through actively engaging with links to get here, I hope to foreground how this memory can be visible within everyday culture, and how it can still be important to me and to you.
–Jillian Varani, September 2011
Agacinski, Sylviane. Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia. Trans Gladding, Jody. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory.” Critical Inquiry 35.1(Autumn 2008) pp. 148-171. JSTOR. Web. 25 September 2011.
Derrida, Jacques. Memoirs of the Blind: the Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. Trans. Brault, Pascale-Ann, and Michael Nass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Print.
Krauss, Rosalind. “The Rock”: William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection.” October 92 (Spring, 2000) pp. 3-35. JSTOR. Web. 25 September 2011.