by Cecilia Araneda 

In 1973, shortly before his death, Pablo Neruda, one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed poets, declared poetry to be an act of peace. Perhaps this was not an unanticipated declaration, given that Neruda’s life had been filled as much with diplomatic service as it had with poetry, gradually clarifying his commitment to human rights and political action at the same time as he was developing himself as a world-renowned poet. The execution of his friend, playwright Federico García Lorca, by Franco loyalists in Spain in 1936 while Neruda was serving as Chile’s consul to Madrid was a defining moment in his life. While at first his life in world politics was intended to serve his life as a poet, this notion flipped itself 180 degrees as Neruda came to see his art as a servant to moving forward the cause of human dignity and peace.

Within this context, it is easy to understand the art of Iraqi-born Wafaa Bilal as being essential to our notion of humanity as he asks us to explore what it is that makes us human. Bilal’s work spokes directly out of the same aesthesia that gave rise to Neruda as an artist – that it is impossible to disconnect art from life and life from art. Deliberately provocative in his art practice as a tool by which he rouses his audiences to a state of greater consciousness, Bilal at the same time inserts himself far deeper within the artist-audience relationship than is customary; it is not possible to come to understand Bilal’s work without coming to know him more intimately as a person.

While much of Bilal’s evolving body of work is an intervention on the world around him, it is also an intervention on himself as a human, as he often pierces his flesh and allows himself to be injured in his work in a Sundance-like sacrifice. This includes tattooing his body in And counting… to count the number of US military casualties in visible ink on his body, while counting Iraqi deaths in invisible ink, and making himself the target of an almost non-stop paintball gun in Domestic Tension, triggered by shooters made anonymous through the Internet. Bilal continues in this vein with The 3rdi, where he has surgically implanted a camera on the back of his head, becoming a literal cyborg in the process – an experience he has described as immensely painful.

Having grown up in Iraq under the Hussein regime, Bilal fled the country in 1991 and spent a year in a refugee camp on the border with Saudi Arabia before eventually immigrating to the USA. But in that one ending, there was another beginning with the US-led invasion of Iraq. In 2004, an unmanned drone killed his brother, and a few weeks later his father died from grief.

In his most recent work, The 3rdi, Bilal uses the mechanisms of surveillance to make a statement on the collection of personal and public memory in the absence of recorded mementos. Bilal states, “During my journey from Iraq… I left many people and places behind. The images I have of this journey are inevitably ephemeral, held as they are in my own memory. Many times while I was in transit and chaos the images failed to fully register, I did not have the time to absorb them. Now, in hindsight, I wish I could have recorded these images so that I could look back on them, to have them serve as a reminder and record of all the places I was forced to leave behind and may never see again.”

The developing body of work of Winnipeg artist Andrew Milne, while distinctly non-confrontational, seeks to examine the connection between technology and the physical and the personal. In Media for Solo Performer, Milne considers the role of technology within mechanisms of memory-keeping; place, he posits, is distinctly connected to memory. In this response to Music for Solo Performer by Alvin Lucier, Milne uses an EEG machine to mechanize his brain reactions on seeing images of personal memory and listening to his father’s recorded stories of migration to control a voyage through Internet-based maps. The artist uses layer upon layer of recorded memory and human interpretations to transform a personal narrative into a public one.

As Bilal and Milne engage with technology as memory-keeping mechanisms, questions of the nature of our own humanity arise. If our own human-ness is connected to our personal and collective memory, have we come to define ourselves through the interface of technology such as photographs and videos? What do we become when we use the machine as an act of peace, to heal ourselves? What exists of us without the machine?