"Hillary Mushkin: Collectively Drawing Conflict," by Rebecca McGrew, Senior Curator at the Pomona College Museum of Art
This publication accompanies “Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces,” the first museum exhibition of Hillary Mushkin’s Incendiary Traces, which she describes as a “conceptually driven, collectively generated art and research project that explores political facets of representing landscape.” Over the last two decades, Mushkin has examined contemporary and historical intersections of visual culture and socio-political consciousness, investigating the ways virtual and physical landscapes are imagined, represented, and ideologically invested. Blurring fact and fiction to question the role technology plays in mediating subjectivity, she works in studio and post-studio forms, including drawing, video, new media, and public practice. In earlier work, she focused on how American utopian ideals of comfort and security shape a militarized society and addressed how technology and cultural fantasies of landscape influence perceptions of our everyday surroundings.
Mushkin’s newest project, Incendiary Traces, is an experimental art, research, and media initiative that investigates the role of landscape imagery in international conflict through on-site public “draw-in” events, ongoing research and public scholar- ship, and publication of related materials by diverse contributors. She frequently collaborates with other artists, architects, poets, scholars, and technologists. The research contributions from scholars, scientists, art historians, and other experts, who “focus on historical and contemporary visual materials related to the sites we visit and technologies found there,” are a critical component of the project. Their contributions ground the events “in historical and cultural context beyond the militarized frames of reference represented at the sites.” As she explains the process, “On the day of the drawing event, invited experts and scholars give informal presentations to the Incendiary Traces group. In tandem, the work of these and additional researchers is published, along with a report on the event, primarily on KCET’s Artbound.” In addition to these publications, the project website archives each event, corresponding scholarship, and related thematic images and source material.
Landscapes—the spaces we live in—are framed pictorially. These images produce compelling narratives and wield political power. Artists, explorers, speculators, even military strategists have used landscape imagery to voice and define our relationship to national identity, security, and war. Incendiary Traces aims to demonstrate—counter to the mediated experience of war— that battlespace is both dispersed and local, immaterial and physical, and that the public inhabits and witnesses international conflict in our own backyards. Incendiary Traces offers a fresh view of national security, identity, and territorial delineation as physical, grounded American public experience. The project aims to use our real and symbolic affiliations with landscape to help the public to connect firsthand to foreign conflict.
To help accomplish these goals, Mushkin brings groups of artists, scholars, and students to local militarized zones to trace the sites through observation and drawing. Subjects have included the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, in Twentynine Palms, California; Mexico City’s C4i4; Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, in Redondo Beach, California; the San Clemente Island Range Complex; the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, in Los Angeles; and the US-Mexico border. These events have provided opportunities for the participants to explore satellite technologies, national boundaries, and simulated urban combat environments.
“Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces” is presented concur- rently with the Pomona College Museum of Art’s exhibition “Goya’s War.” Francisco Goya’s etchings Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War) focus on the 1808–13 Spanish Warof Independence from France. From 1808 until about 1820, Goya worked on the eighty prints in the series. Rather than depicting scenes of epic battles and heroic soldiers, Goya produced stark, sobering images of brutality and corruption. Goya’s images of the barbarity and futility of war have been a source of inspi- ration for Mushkin for over a decade. Susan Sontag’s eloquent discussion of the Goya prints Yo lo vi (I saw this) and Esto eslo verdadero (This is the truth) profoundly influenced Mushkin. For Sontag, these and other artworks illustrate the challenges of representing an authentic experience of war. Sontag’s book, Regarding the Pain of Others, ponders whether images and texts help connect viewers to or re-inscribe viewers’ distance from war (or both).
Taking Goya’s series and Sontag’s critique as a starting point, “Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces” explores contemporary human and technological visualizations of conflict zones. Incendiary Traces’ collaborators and participants leverage the act of drawing to better understand power and the act of bearing witness in our contemporary, post-photographic world. By organizing drawing events at locations where authorities and defense contractors use technology to envision conflict, Mushkin positions drawing as a collective visual practice parallel to the military’s, while highlighting human observation, interpretation, and gesture. In contrast to technological imaging, drawing is a slow, meditative process that involves the artists being present, on site for hours at a time. Each drawing event or artist-coordinated site visit becomes a performance of art, research, and collective action.
Incendiary Traces stems from Mushkin’s early investigations into the complex relationships with visual propaganda in everyday environments and the ramifications of the overt militarization of Western culture. Her 2003 video The Sleep of Reason, which was influenced by Edmund Burke’s writings on the sublime, conflates CNN’s iconic nightscope footage of the bombing of Baghdad, in 1991, with time-reversed Fourth of July fireworks. The combination of hand-drawn, computer-generated, and live-action imagery highlights the often unsettlingly abstract experience of war, in which viewers watch from places far removed from the actual sites of violence. In a series of drawings and animated video drawings entitled As We Go On (2005–8), Mushkin investigated “symbols of our national mythology of sugary plenty and sanitized security” and their relationship to landscape imagery. The compositions reflect American battlefield photographs and pastoral landscape genre painting of the nineteenth century and the more current, pop landscape paintings of Ed Ruscha. The Girl with Lions series (2008–9) was inspired by the connections among decorative arts, architectural ornament, and visual languages of nationalistic power. Made entirely with digital tools, the works contrast hand-drawn, delicate images of children with graphic, stylized symbols of mythic animal rulers. Incendiary Traces grew out of these prior investigations and Mushkin’s desire for a more thoughtful dialog that would reach beyond her studio. Knowing there were people who were professionally engaged in addressing these issues, she determined to create a forum for collective research, practice, and discussion centered on tracing landscapes of war as a conceptual practice.
“Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces” highlights the history and the collaborative investigative quality of Incendiary Traces, which grapples with fundamental themes of humanity, politics, and war in the twenty-first century. Simply by asking if picturing landscapes can be a political intervention, Mushkin proposes that collective action and public engagement reveal truths about the ways we interpret images and offer reflections on how conflict is understood in our time.
1. Hillary Mushkin, Incendiary Traces website, http://www.incendiarytraces.org/about/.
2. Mushkin, correspondence with the author,July 10, 2016.
5. This material is currently published on Los Angeles’ KCET program Artbound and available at their articles' website.
6. Mushkin, http://www.incendiarytraces.org/about/.
7. The exhibition, “Goya’s War: Los Desastres dela Guerra,” was organized by the Pomona College Museum of Art and the University Museums, University of Delaware. The accompanying publication includes essays by Museum Director Kathleen Stewart Howe and exhibition curator Janis A. Tomlinson (University of Delaware Press/ Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).
8. See Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).