My Mother, My Brother and I, Migdal HaEmek, 1991HLS-F71

Felix Kalmenson

January 10 to February 22, 2014

Image: My Mother, My Brother, and I, Migdal HaEmek, Israel, 1991

HLS-F71 is an immersive installation project, which seeks to explore and translate the experience of trauma associated with military conflict, and representations of trauma, as it is being mediated by images, sounds and stories. Drawing a parallel between the Gulf War and the currently ongoing Civil War in Syria, HLS-F71 investigates how new methods of communication have re-shaped the way conflict is understood through mass media and how the trauma of these conflicts is then collectively reconciled.

HLS-F71 uses the Twitter feed of the pro-rebel group “The Local Coordination Committees of Syria” from the period of January 10 to February 22, 2012 as a score to activate fifteen loudspeakers blaring the recorded sounds of the HLS-F71 air raid siren used in Israel during the gulf war. This is underscored by an FM transmission of audio from videos of demonstrations, clashes, and other scenes culled from the YouTube channels of individual activists and journalists within Syria. The sounds of traumatic conflict uploaded by pro-FSA Syrian citizens will linger silently in the invisible transmissions of the space and surrounding area. These unheard sounds will be accessible by locating the radio frequency.

The Syrian Civil War is unprecedented in the sheer volume, scope, and decentralization of information, images, storytelling, and the readiness with which one can consume the conflict from anywhere in the world. However, the very mediation of that conflict through manipulated historical narratives is central to the way we experience this particular cultural trauma, providing us with frames of reference. As remote viewers, we can only absorb these images with an abstract empathy: an abstract notion of trauma, announced by the wail of air raid sirens.

The use of pro-FSA and pro-rebel media outlets in this installation is not partial to either side of the conflict in Syria. It aims to examine the mediation of military action by individuals and non-state and non-institutional actors. A historical perspective is used to focus on a particular time in the Assad regime.

The Silence of Sirens

In a brief chronicle on earnest moralistic solutions to complicated issues in Homer’s Odyssey, Franz Kafka wrote:

“Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.”

According to Kafka’s analysis of the myth,[1] while the siren call was an invitation to certain death, it is silence that catalyzes their murderous activity: where call ends and action begins. In Felix Kalmenson’s project, HLS-F71, one encounters fifteen active air raid siren towers activated by a score of Syrian resistance tweets from the group Local Coordination Committees of Syria between January 10 and February 22, 2012. Though the two groups of sirens seemingly share little but an etymological base, a common gulf is breached with the reminder of the implications of silence: in Syria, the air raid sirens that are silenced by the government involved in a civil conflict with its citizens are deadlier than ever as symbols of civic failure. This paradoxical situation is of personal interest to Kalmenson; an artist who had lived in Israel and encountered cultural trauma on a national scale. Constantly defined by a traumatic past that is both oppressive and empowering to its people, Israel is a nation whose economy is driven by military industry and maintained by conflict and foreign aid. Furthermore, in Israel, air raid sirens are used whenever a commemorative minute of silence is in order – such as on Veteran’s Day, or Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah). In those moments, the wail of the siren fills the air while people must stand still. The sirens are also present when an important military figure dies: a reminder of the collective trauma of militarization, filtered through the experience of individual suffering, and vice versa. The sound device becomes a powerful tool of re-traumatization, a reminder of military struggle and victimhood. In Kalmenson’s project, the siren sounds to the track of the Syrian conflict as it unfolded on twitter between January and February of 2012. “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was,” said Walter Benjamin, in reference to historical perspective.[2] The silence between alarms is punctuated by the soundtracks to unseen videos of demonstrations, crackdowns, and martyred Syrians. These sounds fill the silent spaces between air raid sirens to reflect the individualized suffering endured by victims of war and mediate the space under and between the sounds of the HLS-F71 alarms. This tension between individual and collective global experiences is perhaps one of the keys to enter this work.

Kalmenson’s installation is as much about the role of social media as a catalyst, an archive, a witness, and a decentralized mediator in military conflict as it is an attempt to bring the formal elements of a contemporary traumatic event from a reality foreign to most Canadians onto a platform open to both aesthetic and humanitarian critique in Western society. In the age of fast moving technology, the time elapsed between a real-time event and its exposure to the masses is minute. Historically, there has been a lag between a traumatic event and worldwide response for trauma to properly form within a cultural construct – a necessary delay before the appearance of the memory trace (in a group) or the neurotic symptom in the individual. Prevalent individual web reportage in Syria has been a defining practical feature of the Syrian resistance movement: swift abundance of information raised the traumatic potential of Arab Spring events to significant cultural and historical crescendo, suggesting a real new cultural axis outside of the monolith of the West, one that reports overarching issues without trivializing the realities of traumatic events. The use of 2012’s attack and detainment records as a score is an attempt to properly archive reportage activity that is then reenacted on dramatic terms, allowing for the aforementioned delay, exported from its origin.

The cultural export of trauma is not a new subject. According to Summerfield’s controversial document, The invention of post-traumatic stress disorder and the social usefulness of the psychiatric category in The BMJ,[3] PTSD is essentially a Western construct that imposed a medical model on the suffering of people in war situations, thus encouraging the emergence of a trauma industry that can be exported to any culture. Two radical axis pull at the traumatic paradox – the aforementioned individual/collective experience is mirrored by the heroic human survival versus the inhuman element – activity which tends to be political, organized, resource-driven, and inevitably violent. In psychoanalysis, the analogy between what is happening at the collective level and what is going on at the individual level establishes a connection between the culture and the psyche, a connection which today lies at the heart of the politics of trauma: the collective event supplies the substance of the trauma which will be articulated in individual experience; in return, individual suffering bears witness to the traumatic aspect of the collective drama. Simultaneously: trauma in itself is a testimony to what happened to the human. But it is also a testimony that bears witness to the persistence of the human, even in those extreme situations that threaten to dehumanize the victims. At the core of this system, the individual sufferer and survivor are identified as a symbol of spirit. The victim, oppressor, and witness are all given the equalizing definition of “traumatized” on an individual level, while a collective needing force eventually concedes to the search for power, once again collapsing into the realm of anti-individual oppression.

The technological aspects of the Arab Spring movement made it so any ordinary citizen can report on the realities of the war with or without the interference of larger mediators. This caused the decentralization of the journalistic act, which both highlighted agendaed thinking in government and state reportage and obscured the larger humanistic cause of social revolution. The result is nation-wide cultural trauma upheld by a myriad of footage reflecting widely diverse personal and collective instances of oppression. Since the boundaries between individual oppression and the oppressed have been lost, one could say that Syria is boiling with trauma, thus betraying the historical narrative of “functional” trauma and its use for life and being. Because of these tensions, as a cog subject in both contemporary politics and art, trauma and its study sits at the centre of the constant redefinition of a new theory of humanism; a field between historicization and psychoanalysis, activated by resistance and survival in face of atrocity. With the traumatic experience as a cultural and visual tool available to us in this work, one should ask themselves if the footage from Syria is in fact serving a humanistic purpose of upholding a global outrage, of reminding us of survival, and of convincing us of the power of the human spirit, and if that is done in the interest of furthering the historicization of the human as both creator and destroyer, radically and endlessly re-establishing new global centres.

– Xenia Benivolski

Notes

[1] “The Silence of the Sirens” (“Das Schweigen der Sirenen”) is a short story by Franz Kafka published after his death. The story reasserts the dynamic between the sirens and Odysseus as paradoxical: while Odysseus had chosen to experience the sirens by blocking his ears, the sirens had stopped singing. However, he was not able to “hear” the deadly silence due to his blocked ears.  The story is summarized as a comment on the futility of complicated approaches. In Kafka’s words: “Inadequate, even childish measures, may rescue one from peril.”

[2] The twelve paragraph essay, Benjamin’s last before his suicide in 1940 – ironically in response to imminent capture by the Nazi forces – contains an apt reference to Angelus Novus, Paul Klee’s 1920 painting The Angel of History. Here, the eponymous figure turns his back turned to the future as a metaphor for historicism and progress. “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet, that which we call progress, is this storm.” The essay rejects the Marxist notion that Historical Materialism will bring revolution, saying it does nothing but “save the past”.

[3] The controversial document by Summerfield, an international expert on trauma, is critical of the overabundance of medical diagnoses relating post traumatic stress disorder, making of example of Freetown, Sierra Leone, where a survey of 245 randomly selected individuals resulted in a diagnosis of over 99% of participants with post traumatic stress disorder: rendering PTSD clinically irrelevant, seeking to convert human suffering and misery into technical terms.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter, (1940). On the Concept of History. Gesammelten Schriften I:2. Suhrkamp Verlag. Frankfurt am Main, 1974.

Kafka, Franz, (1931). The Complete Stories. Schocken Books; Reprint edition, 1995.

Rechtman, Richard, Fassin, Didier, (2009). The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood. Princeton University Press; 1st edition (July 6, 2009).

Summerfield, D. (2001). The invention of post-traumatic stress disorder and the social usefulness of a psychiatric category. British Medical Journal 322(7278): 95-98.

HLS-F71 - Felix Kalmenson

Biographies

Felix Kalmenson is a Toronto-based artist who works in installation, film, photography, books, and performance within public space as well as in gallery settings. His work engages in conversations surrounding publicness, memory, mediation, and how these topics are activated by complex socio-economic landscapes. Kalmenson completed his Bachelors of Architecture and Urban Studies at the University of Toronto in 2011. Kalmenson has exhibited in solo and curated group exhibitions in Canada and internationally.

felixkalmenson.com

Xenia Benivolski is an artist and curator living and working in Toronto, Canada. She has graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design with multiple scholarships and awards in 2008. Xenia  is the founder of The Whitehouse: a 26 artist studio residency space in Toronto, and a third of the contemporary art platform LUFF.  Recently she has completed two fully funded residencies in Alberta, Canada. In 2011, she curated the exhibition Mistica Canadiese in Museo de Ciudad in Queretaro, Mexico. The second volume of her project publication Rearviews will be available at Printed Matter, NY in 2014.

This exhibition is supported in part by the Ontario Arts Council. Technical assistance by Brady Bothwell.

We produced a 28-page catalogue in conjunction with this exhibition. Available in our online store or as a free PDF.