"Project Series 51: Incendiary Traces" with artist Hillary Mushkin featured on KCET by Liz Ohanesian

"Artists Unite for 'Draw-in' Events, Draw Attention to Sites of Conflict," by Liz Ohanesian, KCET Artbound


"Incendiary Traces" is a conceptually driven, community generated art project conceived by artist Hillary Mushkin. Since 2012, Artbound has followed "Incendiary Traces," publishing related articles as the initiative continues to develop.

There isn't much art inside Hillary Mushkin's Silver Lake studio. The multidisciplinary artist is preparing for the opening of "Incendiary Traces" at Pomona College Museum of Art. The show is based on her project of the same name, a years-long endeavor that has involved multiple artists, writers and researchers in an effort to explore perceptions of the landscape in relation to war. 

The project began in 2010, when Mushkin was invited to create works for the L.A. Forum of Architecture and Urban Design's online gallery. Since then, it has resulted in a number of artworks based on Southern California locations like San Clemente Island Range Complex at San Clemente Island and Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach. Collaborators have produced articles like "Harem Girls and Camel Races: Middle Eastern Fantasies in the Deserts of California." Their work has appeared in publications like Artbound. Now, "Incendiary Traces" will be shown alongside exhibition "Goya's War: Los Desastres de la Guerra," which Mushkin considers particularly poignant since her work was inspired in part by Susan Sontag's study of the Spanish artist's work. 

Mushkin goes to her computer and pulls up a video made years before "Incendiary Traces" began. Back in 2003, as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, the artist thought about the earlier Gulf War. She recalled CNN footage from 1991 that showed Baghdad under bombs. It was a vague image, night vision green with lights bursting against the sky. She considered the visuals of war transmitted to places far removed from the battles. She wondered if the impending new war would bring about the same sort of imagery.

All that lead to "The Sleep of Reason," which recasts Los Angeles in a state of shock and awe and vulnerability. Mushkin, who was living in Cypress Park at the time, shot the footage from a hill above her home facing Dodger Stadium as a string of holiday fireworks shot up in the sky. In "The Sleep of Reason," recordings of the explosions run backwards as they mix with tracings of the original CNN footage from 1991. Mushkin scored the clip with various sounds that she captured. There's a drone with the faint chatter of people underneath it that she taped on an airplane at take-off. There are also rhythmic poundings that came from banging on surfaces like tables — "Low-tech foley effects," she calls them.

That project lead to "As We Go On" (2005-08), a work that includes an animation bringing war to the face of a dreamer and drawings that further explore the U.S. and war. Mushkin worked on other projects, not all of which shared the themes of "Sleep of Reason" and "As We Go On." By the time she was invited to create a project for L.A. Forum, she was ready to continue with the ideas put forward in those early videos.

Then, Mushkin had moved away from Cypress Park, but she returned to the neighborhood to take photographs that could look like news footage from Iraq. Her first attempt didn't work out quite as she wanted, so she tried watercolor drawings, the results of which were hung in her studio wall. The images had some similarities, particularly in the trees that lined both cities, but Mushkin still searched for alternate ways to view war.

She put out a call for photos from people in conflict areas. "I got nothing," Mushkin says. She revised the idea again. This time around, Mushkin would get a group of artists together and they would draw at places like the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo. But the public affairs department wasn't so into the idea — "They were not convinced that there was a reason we should be on the base," Mushkin says — so she and the others sat on a public street and proceeded to draw. There wasn't any action to see, but that was part of the point.

"The idea was, we're in a war zone," she says. "It's not the kind of war zone that you think of, but these people, they're doing something."

Mushkin and her group kept drawing. Eventually, she included more people into the project. "Incendiary Traces" isn't just about visual artists. It connects art with journalism and academic research to build a multi-faceted collection of works that dissect how we see war. 

Now, seven years later, "Incendiary Traces" continues in its various forms. "At this point, I don't see an end," Mushkin says. 

And, as the project has evolved, it has impacted Mushkin's own views on conflict. "I see how difficult it is to resolve conflicts because I see how different peoples' views are and how deeply-held beliefs are that are really radically opposed to each other," she says. "It seems even more insurmountable than when I started."