مقدمة هكذا هو الحال

A daily road diary with text by Nato Thompson, video by Benjamin Brown, and images by various photographers.

April 8, 2009
New Orleans Mission and KK Projects, New Orleans, Louisiana

I woke up a bit rough around the edges. Last night I got a great tip from a woman named Emily who, with my friend Jordan Flaherty, runs the Human Rights Film Festival in New Orleans. She had given me the address of a mission that would have some interesting folks to chat with. She was right. We parked on the street, where we could see homeless folks hanging out in the shade along the side of a building. When we got out of the RV and walked toward the mission, I noticed the kid from yesterday, who still had a bulging duffel on his back. Upon seeing us, he walked briskly in the opposite direction—probably embarrassed about staying at the shelter.

The car attracted people immediately. A large Christian group with high school and college kids from Orange County gathered around it. They had written phrases like “Jesus rocks” and “I love Jesus” in marker on their arms. When they got into a conversation with Esam, for the first time he seemed a tad defensive. Their questions revolved around the rational for the war in Iraq. “Are Iraqis better off now then they were under Saddam Hussein?” one asked. “No. Not at all.” Esam replied. “Saddam ruled for thirty years, but the US has managed to kill hundreds of thousands more than Saddam ever did. Invasion is never good.”

“But there was good evidence of weapons of mass destruction,” another kid pointed out. “Let me tell you,” Esam said, sounding a little exasperated. “I worked with the troops and they had no interest in finding weapons of mass destruction. That’s because there weren’t any.” Jeremy asked them what they thought about Bush’s use of religion in the war. They pretty much agreed that Bush hadn’t really used God when discussing the war in Iraq. I felt a perverse relief in meeting this group, as so far, a Bush-era Republican party line has been hard to find on the road. It might be an endangered ideology in America. Who knows?

We chatted with a soft-spoken homeless veteran who talked about coming back to the US after Vietnam. “You can see a thousand psychologists but no one will know you until they’ve walked a mile in your shoes,” he said. A thin African American man talking with Harvey referenced Shakespeare and the Bible, drugs in Columbia, Colonialism, and a smattering of a thousand other subjects. He glided over words in a dazzling way. If you listened carefully, you realized that he was saying some amazing things. I spoke with a guy named Emmanuel Yusef. He had just been robbed of $1,100 in Baton Rouge, and was now looking for work. His regular job was as a rigger on oil freighters out in the Gulf of Mexico. I asked if he noticed a dip in the amount of work due to the economy. “Oil work did better under Bush,” he told me. He told us about a friend of his that passed away from Gulf War Syndrome. It took her seven years to die after she returned from service.

We could have stayed all day there, but we were starving. We headed two blocks over to a corner store called Danny’s, at Simon Bolivar and Clio Streets. They were out of shrimp so half of us got hot sausage Po-boys and the other half got catfish. The cook told us to get some bread pudding for $1.99, and as soon as it landed in my hands, the guys dove in with their plastic forks. We made a last stop at KK projects on North Villere Street in the Eighth Ward. Brian Bailey, a friend of Creative Time, stopped by. Our RV was pretty tight on that street and we had a long drive ahead toward Houston, so after a short while we moseyed on out of wonderful New Orleans.

April 7, 2009
Lafayette Square; Robert Green’s semi-built home, Lower Ninth Ward; Ron Lewis’s House of Dance and Feathers; Colton School; New Orleans, Louisiana

As many people know and more are finding out, New Orleans is a fascinating city. After working on Paul Chan’s project for Creative Time, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, I have returned again and again, always gaining a deeper sense of the texture of life here. Waking up in New Orleans, you can almost feel the curious electricity that makes this city hum. Food, music, and dancing dominate daily life here, but the devastation of Katrina still haunts the neighborhoods most worth visiting. Away from the alcoholic Disneyland of Bourbon St. you can make your way to the Third and Ninth Wards, the Biwater and Tremaine. These predominately black neighborhoods—though Biwater has many white squatters and hipsters—are full of people ready to talk, eat, and shoot the breeze with you.

We started off in the financial section of the city, at a park called Lafayette Square. A statue of Benjamin Franklin adorned with Mardis Gras beads towered over us as we set up shop. The pace was slow. A cold wind howled through the city and men and women in suits hurried past us to work. A young kid with a chipped front tooth and a duffel bag full of clothes stopped by, and told us he was going to be shipped off to Iraq in two days. His eyes darted around, and it seemed there was something wrong with him. Jeremy and I thought he might be lying. He told us his “daddy’s daddy” had been in World War I and his daddy had been in World War II. After a brief, awkward discussion with him, we headed over to Robert Greene’s trailer in the Lower Ninth Ward.

I met Robert Green working on the Godot project. He was an important community liaison in the Ninth Ward for us. He had lost his mother and granddaughter during the storm, and subsequently became a political advocate for returning the families of the Ninth Ward to their homes. We parked outside his FEMA trailer, where he has memorials to his family and a sign telling Bush to get out of Iraq and help people in New Orleans. There were a few houses being built nearby by Brad Pitt’s group Make it Right. Turns out they were building a house for Robert too: Esam and Harvey put on construction hats and toured the four-bedroom home. Pretty impressive.

We talked with some migrant workers who were hanging around looking for work. One Hispanic kid named David had come from San Diego by way of Houston. He had been in town for two days and said that finding work was difficult. He was even considering enlisting, he said. He just needed to find a job. We met a visiting African American high school group who were using their spring break to help out in the Ninth Ward. They all wore shirts that said “I Heart NO.” One of them told Harvey that a relative of his was in Iraq, but, “You don’t hear what soldiers do over there. I just think that if you join the military then you’ll probably die.” As we spoke, disaster tour busses drove by, construction workers pounded on nails, and two Mormons in bicycle helmets circled us like vultures. I suppose this project was yet another part of the spectacular philanthropic disaster relief circus that is the Lower Ninth Ward.

Robert jumped on board the RV and directed our bus to Ronald Lewis’ backyard museum, The House of Dance and Feathers. Ronald is another great guy we worked with on Godot: a thoughtful, good-natured man with a limp and a broad smile. In addition to having the museum, he’s also the head of the Big Nines, a social aid and pleasure club. The House of Dance and Feathers was renovated by architectural students at Kansas State after Katrina, and now holds ephemera from the Ninth Ward including Mardis Gras outfits, photo albums, books, and African sculptures. Ron talked to Esam about the need to spend money on rebuilding and not on destroying.

The final stop was the Colton School, a converted school house that houses artist studios. We were approached by two scrappy guys who talked about Iraq, but rapidly switched to police brutality in New Orleans. “You need to take this to the 7th Ward to remind people of the problems of violence,” they said. The people we talked to in New Orleans weren’t dismissive, and they were legitimately interested. But the problems of their home city dominated our conversations today. It felt like it was hard for folks here to be too concerned with Iraq.

April 6, 2009
The Farm to New Orleans, Louisiana

I woke up on the floor next to the bathroom in the RV. Lonnie, always the first to get up, pushed past me on his way to the exit, and cold air swept in when he opened the door. We made our way toward the Farm’s market, and I bought some goat milk yogurt and an extremely large banana from a woman named Louise. She was a morning giggler—I’m more of a morning zombie. But the snack helped to get me ready to greet the Farm school kids, who were meeting us at 9:30.

When they showed up, their parents told us that we should meet back inside the market, because it was just too cold outside. There were six kids, who ranged in age from 8 to 17. They sat nervously in their chairs as Jeremy explained, “We’re going around the country talking about Iraq.” Esam and Harvey introduced themselves and asked for questions. Dead silence. One mom asked about Harvey’s position on the war, and about Blackwater. In regards to Blackwater, Harvey said, he thought that they ran more efficiently than the Army because they don’t charge for overruns. They just get the job done. I cringed at the thought of a super-efficient capitalist killing machine, but then again, that’s the project.

One of the kids’ told us his older brother was gone because he was protesting the Wall Street bailout. The Farm parents regularly took their kids to demonstrations, like those against the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, GA; and against the Nuclear Plant in Oak Ridge. Some of the kids had a band (without a name) that had made an anti-recruitment song. We asked for a recording and they said they’d be happy to supply one. Harvey asked the parents if any of the Farm kids rebel and join the army. “Some,” said the mom. “But most come back to the Farm.” I thought about the idea of indoctrinating kids by dragging them along to protests. Is the same as indoctrination of the opposite kind? But these kids seemed sharp, and I got the feeling they would all prove to be very interesting adults.

The Farm is an incredible place: a culture and world all its own. Every member has a vibrant personality and shared complex thinking about the world, politics, food, family, and spirituality. It was all one picture for them. The wind was freezing and I didn’t want to leave. We had to get to New Orleans by midnight, though: Lonnie was dying to see the NCAA championship between Michigan State and North Carolina in the evening.

April 5, 2009
Nashville to the Farm, Summertown, Tennessee

We drove out of Nashville eager to get to the Farm. Located on 1,700 acres of farmland outside of Summertown (not to be confused with yesterday’s Somerville), the farm is a cooperative that was established in 1972. During the height of Haight-Ashbury, Diggers excitement, and psychedelic jamborees, a guy named Stephen Gasken, an English professor at San Francisco State, started teaching open classes on spirituality and social change. He rapidly gathered a large following with his casual, clever way of embodying the spiritual and hip mood of the counterculture. Taking a fleet of school busses on a tour across the US, he and his followers eventually settled this farmland as a commune with 1,300 drug-filled, dreamy hippies.

Stephen Gaskins became a formidable spiritual leader. I own his book This Season’s People, which is a great combination of religious philosophy and self-help. It has gems like, “Your brain thinks in gestalt flashes,” filling its pages. In 1982, the Farm’s community had reached 1,500 people, half of which were children, and its economy was rapidly crumbling. In response, they switched to a cooperative system and members had to pay dues. This shift radically altered the ethos and spirit of the collective, disillusionment set in, and many moved out. The Farm is currently home to 175 people.

As we headed over, we all sensationalized what we might experience. We shared visions of naïve hippies who loved bongos and sage, talking to us about peace and harmony. Many of our visions materialized, but the folks we met were far from naïve. In fact they were sharp and compelling. I can’t help but respect people who manage to live off the grid with intentionality and challenge status quo assumptions about living.

Everyone we passed waved at us as we drove in. We set up shop near a pagoda at the center of town, near their market. They have an elaborate infrastructure there, including a school, a media center, a mid-wifery school and facility, and a community center.

Harvey and Esam got into a long discussion with Tom, a fit 60-something who had once been almost scalped when his hair caught in some farming machine in the early days of the Farm. As it was, all his hair and some of the skin of his scalp had been ripped off. He was very against the military and believed ardently in non-violence. He shared a deep skepticism about the US media (a feeling shared by every Farmie we met) and didn’t quite believe Harvey’s claims that Iran funded insurgent militias in Iraq. Things got a bit heated, but it was good to see them wrestling with truth. How does one know what is really happening?

Another guy, Neil, offered to show us around the property. He’d moved here in 1978, so he’d seen a lot of changes. He drove us to the cemetery that held the graves of many Farm members. “I had to learn how to build coffins,” he told us, and pointed out family and friends whose coffins he had built. The graves were all different. “We don’t have a common religion here, so people honor the dead in many different ways.”

We discussed nonviolence, a tendency that most here share. We wondered aloud if nonviolent resistance would have worked under Saddam Hussein, and everyone laughed at such a ludicrous proposition. “Gandhi and MLK used nonviolence with an adept understanding of the media,” Neil told us. But what if nonviolence isn’t strategic?

Neil then drove us to a swimming hole that Tom (he is basically a one-man infrastructure department) had made. It was drained when we saw it, but later in the season they divert a spring to fill it up. It was wonderfully idyllic: I could probably move here when I retire. We headed back to the RV and talked with people as clouds gathered ominously. With our wide view across the farmland, we heard and saw the wall of rain barrel toward us as the sun set. At first there was a sheet of hail, which gave way to a cold rain that dissipated rapidly into an enveloping pink mist. The air around us acquired an insane luminosity, and suddenly a full rainbow emerged across the prairie. We could see the entire arc from end to end and I couldn’t help but think that the psychedelic spirits of the Farm were sending some good juju our way. When we left the Farm, we all hunkered down for yet another collective attempt at sleep on the RV.

April 4, 2009
Memphis to Nashville, Tennessee

Today we were without hosts. We went guerrilla and decided to stop when inspiration moved us. Fittingly for today, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, we decided our first stop was the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot. We couldn’t get very close, so we parked a few blocks out and walked over. A protestor with banners accusing the civil rights museum of not living up to MLK’s dream was there when we arrived. A woman had lived in the Lorraine Motel for 13 years, and was suddenly evicted to make way for the museum.

We headed out into the parking lot where African American families were getting out of their cars, and their kids screaming and playing around. We talked to a large church group that had driven from Arkansas. The camera made the children lose their minds, and they jumped and danced trying to get their faces in front of the lens. We introduced the project and the kids asked Harvey and Esam wonderful questions. “Do you get tired?” “What type of gun do you use?” “Do you have a gun with an infinite bullet that never runs out?” “What do you paint?” Their curiosity was endless, peculiar, and thoroughly enjoyable. So far, this project has shown me that the younger you are (and I usually am semi-suspicious of praise for children), the more unafraid you are to ask pertinent questions.

We regrouped at the RV and decided to head out on a smaller freeway toward Nashville. About twenty miles out, our road manager Lonnie rear-ended a car with our RV. We all got out and tried to find things to do while we waited for the police to come and fill out an accident report. A grizzled guy with stringy hair came up and told us that he had just become homeless, as he approached his fiftieth birthday. He worked in construction. He asked us for money and taught Ben a magic trick with his ring and some string. He was reluctant to talk about Iraq. The police arrived, and thankfully they were quite interested in the project. One cop told us that he served in the marines in Vietnam and was spit on when he returned from service to Oakland. I can only imagine Oakland at that time: Black Panthers, rage over COINTELPRO, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, and so many others. He told us we were doing a good thing and shared stories with Harvey and Esam as another cop fussed with their report. The car’s bumper had a big crack but the RV was perfectly fine.

We took a disastrous back road some ways outside of Nashville, hoping to find a spot to park and talk to people, but ended up driving for an hour and a half with nowhere to turn around. We finally parked near a fire station in the downtown area of Somerville, TN: a depressing community where most of the businesses have been vacated. The town newspaper, an accountant’s office, and a hand gun training center were all that was left. We sat down for lunch and a high school–aged waitress with braces told us that since there was nothing to do here, most kids just did drugs. “What kind of drugs?” Jeremy asked. She didn’t reply. “They’re bringing a bar downtown soon.” she said. “I mean, I’m not racist or anything but this town has guys here. Real gangster-looking guys. And I’m sure a bar will attract them and bring them downtown. That won’t be no good.” On the anniversary of the assassination of MLK, our waitress had just told us that she didn’t like the idea of black people in downtown, nobody is around, Somerville.

We headed into Nashville at 8pm. It turned out our hotel had been booked for the wrong night at the Howard Johnsons. The pool outside was a black swamp, the parking lot held only two cars, and they told us they didn’t have any rooms for us. We headed next door to the Regency Suites, and a black cat slipped past me.

April 3, 2009
Parking lot of the First Congregational Church, Memphis, Tennessee

We headed over to the First Congregational Church with the sun shining overhead. Our hosts, John Weeden and Elizabeth Eggleston (daughter-in-law of the mighty Memphis photographer William Eggleston) of the Urban Art Commission had welcomed us in true southern style. John drove us through wisteria-lined neighborhoods and pointed out Sun Studios, home of rock and roll.

We set up camp in a socially progressive church’s parking lot. A long-haired guy in his fifties with a blue Final Four hat on rode up on his bicycle and asked if anyone was repaiting bikes at the church today. We talked to him about what we were doing, and asked questions about Memphis. He told us that despite loving the town, he had butted up against some conservative Christian fundamentalists. During the 2004 election, his daughter had been threatened with arrest for having a Kerry/Edwards flag on her lawn. He had an amazing drawl but surprised Esam by inverting so many other Southern stereotypes. “I hate guns,” he said. “That’s why I wasn’t in the military. I wouldn’t hurt a bird or an animal, let alone a human.” He talked about the night Obama was elected, and how it was the most magical night of his life. He had never seen Memphis as elated and ecstatic. Who doesn’t remember that night? It was amazing everywhere.

I met an African American artist named Tobbaco. Yes, that was her name. She had been living in Memphis for three years to take care of her ailing mother. Before moving there, she lived in Berlin and did contemporary art projects. She showed me some artwork and we discussed art in Tennessee. A pale, thoughtful Episcopalian priest came by and talked with Esam about the cultural history of Iraq. In particular he wanted to know about the looting of the Iraqi Museum.

A veteran named Shannon sat down at our folding table and shared war stories with Harvey. He had been in Iraq during the beginning of the war as a corporal, and told us how soldiers were first greeted as heroes. But as time went by, public opinion slid from congratulatory to suspicious to hostile. “I remember when the police were disbanded and they showed up to get their paychecks,” he recalled. “They were on salary but no money was coming in for them. A huge crowd of ex-police gathered and they were all told they wouldn’t be getting paid anymore. The next day, a bomb went off right across the street.” “I wonder who that was?” Harvey laughed. Harvey, Esam, and Shannon talk about how bad cell phone service was in Iraq. How the company called Iraq Now had the worst customer service. Esam told us that Rumsfeld is on the board. “They got all their money up front and then the service was terrible.”

I can’t help but think about jobs. Shannon went to Iraq because it was his job. Bombs went off in Al Kut because the police had been summarily fired. Esam and Harvey are on the road with us because, well, it’s a job. You have to consider this war in terms of jobs: people getting paid and are hence able to support themselves. Behind many forms of aggression, it would appear that you’ll find a simple need for survival.

That evening, after a post-event soirée at Biggs Powell’s luxurious home, we took a tour with Elizabeth and John to some amazing dive bars. We stared off at the smoke-filled Lamp Lighter, the oldest bar in Memphis, where we met a Creek Indian woman who was sick of living on a reservation. “It’s boring,” she told us. “The Indians, feathers not dots I mean, are a horribly quiet people. They don’t talk much and aren’t much fun.” She told us she sells stuff on eBay: “whatever I can get my hands on.” We took this as somewhat of a challenge, and Jeremy told her that he would make one of his “terrible drawings” for her to sell. He whipped up a drawing of our route across the United States, signed it, and handed it over. If she actually tries to sell it, you can find if by searching her name on ebay: lisagoeppinger.

We ended the night at a Blues bar called Wild Bill’s, where old African American men hunkered down with bottles of whiskey they had brought in themselves. The air was smoky, and a singer wearing a cowboy hat belted out jams. Memphis will be hard to leave.

April 2, 2009
Kansas City to Memphis, Tennessee

Today was a travel day. Lonnie got the rig serviced after accidentally scraping the side of the RV awning while parking, so I got a chance to poke around the Spurse exhibition at our Kansas City host GrandArts. It was a laboratory demonstration on the confluence of deep time and rapid time—geologic transformation and electronic communication finding mutual temporalities. It’s difficult for me to consider the world in terms of deep time, as I tend to focus on eras within which humans exist. But it’s an interesting exercise. Our fingernails move at the same rate as tectonic plates you know.

We hit the road at one in the afternoon with rain, again, pouring down on us. The guys were well rested, but this job is exhausting. We quibble over nomenclature: Harvey says “insurgent” is better than terrorist, but Esam argues that it’s still a problematic descriptor. It started when someone brought up the battle of Falluja. Harvey talks about the insurgent resistance and Esam calls them the residents of Falluja.

Within the RV and out in public, it’s not just our conversations that have proven interesting, but also an increasing awareness that people have a palpable desire for a civic society. We haven’t been met with an angry populace: we’ve been bowled over by kindness. Across an impressive spectrum of ages and racial categories, we have chatted with folks in an open manner. They tend to be more curious than not, and aren’t the slightest bit worried about whether the project is art or not. Isn’t that hilarious? Back in New York, critics stumbled all over that question. On the road, our street-level intervention has neatly sidestepped that issue and produced an open platform. This project is working because the questions posed, or more appropriately the subjects raised, move past genre categorization by dint of their urgency. People want to discuss Iraq. People want to talk to each other in a public environment.

At 12:30am, we pull into Memphis, where we’re met by John Weeden from Urban Arts Commission. He checked us into our rooms and took us to a bar for some early appreciation of the fabulous city of Memphis.

April 1, 2009
Mill Creek Park, Kansas Art Institute, YJ’s Snack Shop, Kansas City, Missouri

We found a group of anti-war activists awaiting us when we pulled into Mill Creek Park. Pins that read, “No nukes” and “Bush must go” adorned the lapels and baseball hats of the motley assemblage of elderly activists. A sparkly-eyed, grey-haired woman told us she had been coming to the park to protest since the Vietnam War. “I’m tired of people realizing I’m right so late,” she said. “We knew Rumsfeld and Cheney were horrible during Reagan. It’s terrible that it took the eight years of the Bush administration for other people to realize that.”

A strikingly handsome young art student named John Hilger, who had piercing eyes and a ponytail under his baseball hat, told us about his experience in the Navy in 2003. He had sent Tomahawk missiles from his submarine that landed on Baghdad at the start of the war. “So you’re the ones that sent the gifts from the sea,” Esam joked. A kid in a large camouflage jacket who had also served in the Navy added tidbits to the narrative. They talked about how one couldn’t protest or even say anything against the war for fear of being punished by standing at attention for 12 hours at a stretch. John showed his notebooks of drawings upon drawings that had been his coping mechanism while submerged in the Persian Gulf. Images of skulls, sex, rockets, and guns piled up on page after page.

We had an unusual day, in that we stopped in three different locations. The second was the Kansas Art Institute, where students gathered to ask Harvey and Esam questions. Our guys tend to like talking to the younger folks, because they tend to be the visitors most comfortable with curiosity. They asked many questions and were loquacious in their responses. The final location was YJ’s Snack Bar, a hipster coffee house. Tattoos, piercing, and general artiness were on display as we sipped coffee and talked about Iraq with the locals.

At the talk in the evening, the question of our position on the war again dominated the discussion. Harvey got a bit aggressive with the anti-war folks. He said he gets tired of people not listening, only touting their position. It’s not interesting to him. Esam agreed. I felt bad for the anti-war contingent, because I understood their frustration with our supposedly not taking a position. But Jeremy pointed out that surely dragging a bombed car from Iraq across America has an inherent position.

A concerned woman who looked sort of like Laura Bush, and whose son had served in Iraq, asked if we believed in democracy. Harvey said that actually, we live in a republic: but maybe that’s an academic distinction. “Democracy is a government getting its people to feel like they decided to do what the government wants to do,” Esam said. “Just show a movie of some babies getting hurt and a people will rally to go to war.” He continued with the idea that the war in Iraq was going to happen irrespective of 9/11. I couldn’t help but think that his cynicism was justified, and that it must have come as a blow to the liberal, anti-war activists in the room.

But these are strange times. As we travel from city to city, we have begun to realize that we’re putting our finger in the water, feeling for the psychological temperature of a country in a peculiar historic moment. It is hard to say what people are thinking today, because, from what we can tell, people are unsure. The mood is quixotic: peppered with unrealistic aspirations for Obama succeeding against all odds in an apocalyptic economy. There is an inevitable let-down coming; you can feel it already bubbling to the surface. Afghanistan looms large and troop build-ups have many Obama supporters concerned. Harvey jokes that during the run-up to the elections, active-duty soldiers said it was really just a question of whether Iran or Pakistan would be invaded next. As G20 protests heat up the streets of London, Obama must face a world unhappy not just with the war, but with the economy and American capitalism in general. I heard on NPR that unemployment has reached levels not seen since 1982. If art and activism will also have any corollary with that year, then things in this country are about to get very interesting.

March 31, 2009
6610 Delmar Boulevard Saint Louis, Missouri

Sleep was scarce last night: we rolled out of Cincinnati at 4:30am, traveling to St. Louis where Paul Ha and Laura Fried from the Contemporary Art Museum were waiting for us. We rocked in the RV to Foreigner and Queen, jamming along, a bit tired but somehow enjoying it. “Conversations about Iraq” was printed in bright red letters on the marquis of Vintage Vinyl, the shop we parked outside. Lou the shop owner likened the exterior of his store to a free speech zone.

The project began at its usual, gentle pace. In our fifth day, we have begun to get a feel for the rhythm of this thing. I think it would appear uneventful to the untrained eye. A couple of volunteers are posted at either end of the RV, Esam and Harvey are off talking with someone, and that’s about it. But in every minute experience, whether it’s a passerby pausing to look at the car, or Harvey sharing his thoughts on the term “insurgent,” there are intense connections with the content of the project. That is to say, there is a complication of one’s relationship to Iraq. And as you get used to this, you begin to realize that this project is producing countless moments throughout the day, and you scramble to take them all in. In doing so, we have begun to zero in on some simple strategies for producing conversations. It feels a bit like fishing, with Esam and Harvey working as chatty, mobile bait. The car, of course, is a critical element. It’s hard to ignore: it’s an immense object, with a hulking sense of materiality. When a passerby experiences that moment of recognition, the “that’s what I’m looking at” moment, we try to get a flyer into their hand. Surprisingly, so far people have been immensely receptive.

We encountered two super rocker guys with dreads from Enigma tattoos. They talked about the tattoos they had given soldiers. Crosses with helmets hanging from them, or a symbol representing a friend who died in combat. Esam and Harvey also spoke to a woman named Charlene who said she had dreamt of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq before they happened. She had been discharged from the military and has gotten to the point of hating to read the news because no one cares about the war. Harvey asked her what she liked about the project, but she returned to how hundreds of veterans are coming home and to live with mental scars, and that will shape the country for a long time. She also worried out loud about Afghanistan. The growing prospect of a prolonged war in Afghanistan comes up a lot; from what I can tell, many folks see it as another Iraq.

A small, erudite man named Michael Berg sporting a grey Oberlin sweatshirt spent over an hour talking with Harvey about his position as a soldier in the war. He asked how Harvey could participate in something that is so clearly wrong. Harvey countered that he had gone to Baghdad in 2008, far from the morally questionable invasion. They discussed conscientious objectors, and whether Harvey would ever consider being one. Harvey said that it’s every soldier’s responsibility to object if an order is illegal. “But this war is illegal,” Michael said. “Not by the time I got there,” Harvey replied. Michael brought up the geopolitical effects of the Cold War, and how the United States not only crushed emerging socialist states, but more importantly, and detrimentally, independent economies. Harvey sat by and listened intently while Michael shared his thoughts and critiques. For the most part, Harvey agreed with him.

A young woman with a star nose ring approached. “I hear you talking about Iraq with all your stuff laid out,” she said to Harvey, “so what do you think this project will accomplish?” “Well, it’s about promoting dialogue; about promoting a place to think,” Harvey replied. “No, I mean what’s the point?” Harvey stammered, unsure if he should just tell her, “I’m getting paid for this.” Later Esam said, “you should have told her that this is a very old question. From the very beginning, people have asked what the point is. It’s a natural human question that has no answer.”

Later that evening we headed over to the CAC, where we watched a great performance piece by Tris Vonna-Michell. Juan from Boots gallery and Matt Strauss from White Flag Gallery came by. We had an BBQ dinner at Matt’s posh pad in a renovated firehouse, but truth be told, we were exhausted.

March 30, 2009
Fountain Square, Cincinnati, Ohio

Woke up early on a lazy boy in the RV at Wolfies campground. I had a crazy dream about the Iraq war, during which my ex-girlfriend had been captured by confusing military police in a place that was a combination of Iraq and North Dakota. This project is getting into my brain. The sun was out and Jeremy was taking pictures of the playground. One was of a red, white, and blue slide with steps that read, “American.” Harvey jogged his morning two miles and Esam told Ben strange jokes from Iraq.

We got into Cincinnati around noon. It’s a swing state, if you will. After a brief wrangling with a poorly-placed City construction vehicle, we parked alongside Fountain Square, across the street from Macys. The square was a pedestrian area, with a smattering of businessmen, hospital workers, and a fair share of homeless and mentally ill residents out and about. A man wearing a floppy grey hat and baggy jeans who was clearly imbalanced yelled at young African American kids that they should respect the park. As sympathetic to mental illness as I am, that racist crazy man got on my nerves.

It was a Monday, so midday was a bit slow; but once again the conversations were incredible. A young veteran with a shaved head refused to appear on camera but talked to Harvey and Esam. He was staying in a hostel and had come to Cincinnati from New Orleans. He said his life was in shambles since getting back from serving in Basra. He was “haunted,” in his words. He thanked us for doing the project and left.

A young activist in a black hoodie with stringy blonde hair who called himself Peacewalker hung around for a while. He was a sweet, starry-eyed kid who asked Esam a lot of questions about Iraq, and was surprised to hear Harvey complicating the military’s position. “I didn’t give him what he wanted,” Harvey laughed later in the day. A young art student and her friend walked straight up to Esam, put out her hand, and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Her voice trembled when she talked as though she was on the verge of tears, but she managed to push through. She spoke to him at length and Ben took them aside to video their dialogue. She was genuinely curious and impressively unafraid to learn amidst the confusion of the talks.

Meanwhile I found myself caught in a particularly strange moment when a woman in a Dropkick Murphys t-shirt pushing two kids in a stroller showed me the cache of paintings she was carrying. “These are painted by my daughter,” she told me. The paintings weren’t all that bad. In fact, they were too good for the girl that looked at me and gurgled. “She has only been painting for a month.” The woman asked if the Contemporary Arts Center would be willing to show them. Could this be a scam? What is the point of this? Cincinnati was blessing us with a touch of weirdness.

The day ended with a lecture at the Contemporary Art Center. Our hosts at the CAC—Raphaela Platow, Maiza Hixson, and Justine Ludwig—introduced us and we settled into a discussion. Esam dominated it to some degree, with stories about corruption within the Iraqi police. He talked about the sky going black during the first few days of the Gulf War, and seeing black streaks coming out of his nose from the soot in the air. A belligerent elderly man from Canada asked, or more accurately stated, that Iraqis were anti-American because their expectations were too high. “It’s like they wanted air conditioning and an infrastructure over night. Only now are they waking up.” Esam replied that every Iraqi has been awake for a long time. “What do you want a person with their hands tied behind their back to do?” he asked the Canadian.

After the talk we went out to dinner for Jeremy’s birthday with Andy Stillpass (a sweet guy who collects Jeremy’s work). We munched on scallion pancakes and made a toast when Jeremy’s cake showed up. The night continued with a visit to an art deco bar called Orchid’s inside a Hilton and then, finally, into the belly of a bar called Subway. We washed the day away with some late dancing to Depeche Mode, Blondie, David Bowie, and Nirvana unplugged. After days like these, the nights come upon us with a real demand to decompress.

Hear the conversation with Peacewalker exclusively at Bomb Magazine's blog

March 29, 2009
Philadelphia to Wolfies Campground, Zanesville, Ohio

Today we had a free day in Philly, until our departure at 5pm. Aside from a midday sojourn in a hamburger place, I hid in my hotel room. Last night we went to dinner with many of the participants in the art and activism conference and then made our way to Bob and Barbara’s, a bar on South Street. The special there is a can of Pabst and a shot of Jim Beam, and its delights weren’t wasted on Harvey, myself, Ben, Creative Time’s Nick Weist (who was in for the day), and Aaron Levy from Slought. I seem to recall Harvey telling Ben to punch his beer can and then offering his services, and companionship, to an extremely inebriated man on the street.

Jeremy made the most of his day in Philly, and had a souvenir photograph taken of himself being sworn in as President of the United States over at the Constitution Center. Esam and Harvey went to a fundraiser at Harvey’s parents’ church, where they ate beans and rice with carrot salad. We gathered ourselves at five and headed out along the Schuylkill River, looking out enviously at riverfront homes as storm clouds gathered on the horizon. As a torrential rain began, Esam told us about his family heritage, and that he can trace his line back to Adam himself. Sure you’re incredulous, but consider this: he knows the history of his tribe, the Al-Azzawy, back 1,400 years when they came to Iraq from Yemen. I, on the other hand, struggled to recall five generations back. I could only make a list of homesteaders, preachers, and horse ranchers of mysterious lineage in Wales, Germany, and Ireland.

Our talk dipped into cultural differences, and how the United States was radically unprepared for Iraq. The three typical Iraqi idiosyncrasies that topped the charts were a popular disdain for dogs, the offensiveness of shaking with your left hand, and the rudeness of showing the bottom of your feet. In Richmond, we had all seen Esam uncomfortably shake a man’s left hand with his right. But this thing about the bottom of feet bothers me. I hear about it repeatedly as a clear example of cultural difference. Harvey tells me that it’s the equivalent of someone answering a cell phone during a job interview. I can imagine some moments where that could be a problem, but how often does one see the bottom of someone’s feet? I wonder how often easy signifiers of difference actually obscure a radical difference in cultural subjectivity.

We pulled into a truck stop where Jeremy spent time digging through various bumper stickers. “I don’t skinny dip, I chunky dunk,” “Run Hillary Run,” “Truck you!” The bumper sticker lingo phenomenon expands with every stage of this trip. Their basic ideological posturing seems to speak to the underlying political strategies of this project itself. We sat down for yet another big truck stop dinner with a frizzy-haired waitress named Susan. She possessed a distinctive drawl that we couldn’t place, and she tore into Ben for spilling a vanilla milkshake. She also dubbed me Mr. Slurpy after I took only six bites of my chicken fried steak dinner.

The rest of the trip that night was difficult. The wind howled and the snow fell. We got into our campground at 2:30 AM. Lonnie was clearly fatigued as we pulled out the air mattresses, and I snuggled up on the lazy boy. Before going to sleep we raised red plastic cups of McClellan’s scotch to Jeremy, whose birthday had begun at the stroke of twelve.

March 28, 2009
National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

We walked over from the Club Quarters hotel on Chestnut down Fifth Street toward Arch Street. Heading across the central plaza, Jeremy and I passed some Falun Gong practitioners getting prepared for a protest. They had laid out posters on the large lawn that depicted members of their discipline being tortured in China. The numerous grainy photographs of bruises, scars, and missing limbs reminded me of a PETA campaign, with visceral images taking on injustice. In some ways, the destroyed car we’re towing does the same thing. It is a body in a sense; a stand-in for the dead that we are no longer able to know or meet. The Falun Gongs’ audience was growing as we crested a slight hill and saw our RV parked perfectly in front of the National Constitution Center.

We were smack dab in the middle of a tourist hot spot, yielding Philly-specific juxtapositions like a horse-drawn carriage crossing behind our bombed car. I tried to get a man in colonial dress—he worked across the street at the Independence Visitors Center—to come to the project. He told me it was impossible because his image was owned by his employer. One of our first guests was Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia. A straightforward, bald, African American man, he shook hands briskly and made his way directly to Jeremy, Esam, and Harvey to ask them about the car. He listened intently, shook their hands again, took some photos, and was gone.

We are in our third day, and a few patterns are emerging. One is that veterans sometimes hover around the project. They seem to want to talk, but aren’t sure how to engage. Today it was a tank gunner named Mark Lachance. Harvey is good at being relaxed and convivial, and putting vets at ease. He approached Mark, and their conversation became animated quickly, as Mark told horror story after horror story. “I made a car look like the one you’re towing,” said Mark. He had served in 2004 and seen a lot of combat. It clearly haunted him. When Esam came over, Mark shook his hand and said, “I’m so sorry about your people.”

At lunchtime we were flooded by artists and thinkers in town for a conference on curating art and activism: Carin Kuoni, Michael Rakowitz, Steve Kurtz, Lucia Sommer, Sharon Hayes, Adam Pendleton, Larissa Harris, Hope Ginsburg, Janet Kaplan, and on and on. We all caught up and some watched Harvey and Esam converse. It was a full day of friends and family, as Harvey’s father Paul and his mother Paula stopped by the project to listen and witness what their son—he is one of eight children—was up to.

There was a pro-war nun worth mentioning briefly, and a grizzled, elderly man who demanded Esam take a position on Israel. But the day overall was incredibly busy, with too many conversations to cover in any detail. After this thoroughly intense day, we headed over to Slought Foundation with Aaron Levy (our host) for a presentation with Jeremy, myself, Esam, and Harvey. Many of the participants from the art and activism conference attended, so the questions were tougher than usual. The ambivalence of the title “It is what it is” bothered a few folks, and the non-partisan positioning bothered a few others. Two comments in the Q&A section stood out for me. Artist Sharon Hayes ruminated that as opposed to the project not taking a position, which a few in the audience had commented on, it actually took many: each of us on the road and all the people we encounter have differing thoughts on the project and Iraq itself. She said that she saw this as an experiment in collective living and art-making, and that it was brave. We hadn’t thought of it that way before but it resonated with all of us. Lucia Sommer, a true activist and deep thinker, said that the activist community could benefit from thinking the way this project does. That organizing during Civil Rights was about going out of your comfort zone and talking to people. Tomorrow we have a day off, and then it is off to Cincinnati.

Photos by Jeremy Deller and Tasha Doremus/Slought Foundation

March 27, 2009
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia

We parked on the Park Plaza at VCU, home to a student body population of about 25,000 students. At a panel discussion this morning, I heard for the first time about Jeremy’s affinity for the Baroque period in art, and how it influences him. “It was a time where art was trying to draw people in,” he said. The panel discussion was a get-to-know-you not just for the audience, but for Esam, Harvey, Jeremy, and myself as well. A girl with dreads in the third row challenged Jeremy’s stance that his project is post-protest. I don’t think it will be the last time he hears that.

Without rain and amidst the hubbub of inter-classroom traffic, the project was bustling. A rather long dialogue unfolded with a young student and veteran named Corey Collins. He had served as a gunner in a combat engineer platoon doing what he called “route clearance missions” (looking for bombs). Harvey told me that engineers are incredibly in demand across the military and thus they get to see a lot of action. Their job is primarily to clear roads, so at times they’re positioned right at the front of the line. Corey’s girlfriend stood silently with him as he shared stories from the war with Esam and Harvey. It couldn’t be called a conversation really, although Harvey did make playful rejoinders and Esam occasionally felt compelled to put an Iraqi face on the abstract bombings being described. Mostly, however, Corey Collins had stories to tell.

He told us about the attack on Sadr, which he described as “fireworks”. Harvey called it March Madness (it happened a year ago in March). Before and after that battle, Corey had only had to use his gun for warning shots. Not so in Sadr, once named Saddam City, where the battle raged for two months with little movement on either side. The Mahdi army had dug in and US soldiers bombed buildings to clear them out. Harvey and Corey joked about how Iraqis loved 80s music because the embargo had stopped 90s music from coming into their country. Esam disagreed, saying that Iraqis had 90s music on the radio, but they just never liked it.

A hipster art student on a bicycle told us how he was planning to join the Air Force in order to pay his tuition. He was going to become a combat photojournalist and then secretly release incriminating images to the New York Times. Alla Yaseen, an Iraqi medical student, recounted his experiences as an ER doctor in Najaf. One evening he was alone at the hospital when a massive bomb killed numerous people. They were sent to him, and he had virtually no supplies. As unconnected to the war as the US population appears, the project continued to attract those closest to the trauma. Two students got into an argument about whether or not the blown-up car could be considered an artwork. “An atrocity like this could never be art,” one said. His convictions resonated with the ideas of Theadore Adorno, who lamented that art would no longer be possible after the Holocaust.

A blonde art student told us that her father was in the CIA and that she supported the war. She wasn’t sure what her father did, but she was determined to support him nonetheless. “There is a difference between supporting the troops and supporting the war,” Harvey said. She thought about this. “I support both.” Unsure of our motivations, she opined that, “They don’t portray the good things soldiers are doing in Iraq.” “Rebuilding schools just doesn’t qualify as breaking news,” said Harvey. I couldn’t help myself, and mentioned that there had been a ban on photographs of coffins coming back to the States, and the fact that we no longer see bloodied US bodies in newspapers as one could during the Vietnam War. She countered that this, of course, would lead to a lack of support for the war, so it made sense not to show this material. The conversation came to an abrupt end and we wished it had continued. On to Philly, as the rain picks up and Lonnie’s Michigan State Spartans take on the Kansas University Jayhawks.

March 26, 2009
The Mall, Washington DC

First day on the road and the rain welcomed us onto the Mall in DC. Sidling up on to a walkway in the shadow of the Washington memorial, we assembled our pop-up tent in the drizzling rain. It’s an experiment in general to see how willing people will be to discuss Iraq in a public space—and more so on a cold, wet Thursday.

Anticipation had crept over the six of us (Esam, Harvey, Jeremy, Ben, Lonnie, and myself) as we settled into the RV for our three-week road trip yesterday after departing from Liberty Harbor along the Jersey City waterfront. Our drive illuminated a few points about the project as Lonnie weaved in and out of traffic. Cars along the highway occasionally honked in recognition of the blown-up car being towed by our 39-foot RV. We received thumbs-up signs from passing cars along the New Jersey turnpike. It’s a confusing signal when you think about— what exactly were they communicating? Alongside the car, we had posted a large sign that reads, “This car was blown up in a bomb attack in a Baghdad marketplace on March 5, 2007.” The side of the RV also sports large, black vinyl letters: “It is What it Is.” In general the tone is ambivalent, or “in bumper sticker lingo” as Jeremy describes it. As such, the enthusiasm of people on the highway gave us something to think about. Most probably, they think that this project is a road trip against the war, and their thumbs-up is meant as an encouragement. But then again, it could go the other way as well.

DC proved to live up to its reputation as a hotbed of politically-invested NGOs, military personnel, political insiders, journalists and, of course, tourists. Crowds of rain-soaked teenagers moved past, giggling and shouting at the sight of the rusted car wreck. “I’ll give you three dollars for that,” one jibed as he scooted back to the comfort of his tour group friends. A politically-concerned, liberal left woman arrived with a hand-sewn depiction of the bombing at Al Mutannabi Street. Her handiwork depicted pages of books flying up in the air as a bomb explodes on a central street. Tears welled up in her eyes as she told Esam that she had painted it for the children. A Somali park ranger at the Mall’s visitor center came by and talked about a friend of hers whose personality and political opinions had been radically altered by joining the military. “It completely changed him,” she told us. Turns out she had gone to the Skowhegan residency program and is a huge fan of Kara Walker and William Pope.L.

The conversation that truly stood out was that with an Iraqi anti-war activist named Raed Jarrar, who really put Esam and Harvey’s feet to the fire. And the project itself for that matter. He was an incredibly articulate speaker equipped with a pointed critique. “Why present a car that was blown up by Iraqis?” he asked. His point was that the presentation of this specific car could encourage vilification and fear of Iraqis in general. “Why not present a school bus blown up by the US military?” he asked. His critique continued as he pushed Esam to take a position, as opposed to distancing himself from the condition of Iraqis. Esam’s eyes lit up and he launched into a discussion of the historic turmoil of Iraq, and equally of the idea that how one asks questions is just as important as what one asks. All in all, it was an important initial moment in the tour. We got back into the RV and headed in snail-pace traffic to Richmond, Virginia; talking briskly about what we had learned, and what will be brought to the table tomorrow.

See a photograph from DC by Jeremy Deller exclusively at VMan.com

All photos: David B. Smith