War Is Trauma? Booklyn Helps War Veterans Make Art for Social Justice (Part 2)
Booklyn’s Marshall Weber knows the facts, and he explains them during our interview with an astounding passion. It’s rare to meet someone like him—informed and active about an issue that doesn’t get you more likes on social media, and which, instead, might be avoided by some as a social taboo. If you want to turn people off at a brunch, mention the ongoing conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan. Mention veteran suicide statistics. Mention the militarization of American society. People might silently unfollow you on Instagram after that. But, as Directing Curator of Booklyn, Weber seems to float above the Internet’s quasi-fame game. He has important projects going on, and so I find myself interviewing him and Maya Taylor, Booklyn’s Managing Director, about Booklyn’s latest portfolio work with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).
IVAW was founded in July 2004 by seven veterans at the annual convention of Veterans for Peace in Boston. The aim, says their website, is to “give a voice to the large number of active duty service people and veterans who are against this war, but are under various pressures to remain silent.” By the fall of that same year, IVAW membership had reached fifty people and IVAW had established a national office in Philadelphia. Over the past decade, IVAW has continued to mushroom, opening hundreds of chapters across all fifty states, Washington, D.C., Canada, and on numerous bases overseas, including Iraq.
“The post-traumatic shock syndrome was ubiquitous in Iraq and Afghanistan because there was so much close fighting and a lot of civilian casualties,” explains Weber as he crouches down near a cabinet to open squeaky metal drawer after squeaky metal drawer. He’s looking for Booklyn’s first project with IVAW, a portfolio of about thirty posters made by IVAW, plus Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative members and the Combat Paper Project. “This portfolio spurred a lot of the interest in sexual assault and gender inequity in the military,” he says, pulling an original portfolio from one of the drawers and gently laying it on the table next to us. “A lot of the women involved in this portfolio were doing reporting on the really bad environment in the military in regards to the amount of rape, sexual assault, and discrimination.”
As Weber shows me poster after poster from the collection, titled “War is Trauma”—posters on not only sexual assault, but also conflict resolution, veterans’ rights, the exploitation of prescription medicines—he recalls the personal histories and war stories of each veteran artist in great detail. For instance, I learn about Drew Matott and Drew Cameron of the Combat Paper Project: “Drew and Drew did this thing where soldiers would take their uniforms, shred them, and make paper, and then print their stories all on the paper of their active duty uniforms,” Weber says. He hands me a piece of Combat Paper from the portfolio, and I hold it delicately between my fingers like a holy relic. “It has a really interesting functionality, and it is an act of protest. They were taking these uniforms and shredding them. But they were also really birthing these uniforms as paper to communicate alternatives and possibilities for recovery and the real news for what happened in the field,” Weber tells me. I imagine Humvees and desert sands as I turn the paper over in my hand, and the sounds of gunfire that I’ve only heard before in movies.
Together with that first “War is Trauma” portfolio released in 2008, Booklyn has helped IVAW design, edit, publish, and distribute two major portfolios, culminating in the most recent box set created in partnership with Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and Civilian Soldier Alliance: a beautiful, comprehensive portfolio of sixty-eight silk screen prints that Weber opens before me proudly. “The idea was that we would sell the stuff for [IVAW, CivSol, and Justseeds], roll the money back to them, they would do more and more projects, then part of the money would help us keep growing and do research to get their work even further out, and to help schedule exhibitions,” he explains.
This box set took about a year of organization, was “primarily powered first by Aaron Hughes” (an artist, veteran, and active IVAW member), involved dozens of writers and artists, and comes with an accompanying catalog and reader. “This is an exhibit in a box,” says Weber. “This is an activist action box. But, it’s also a curriculum. This is something that could form the basis for a college course or a high school class.” So far, 116 of these portfolios have been printed, of which twenty are special edition, sponsorship sets that come with original artwork and USB drives of extra interviews, videos of some action and performances, and documentary footage (and ten of these have already been pre-sold at the time of this writing).
As Weber highlights each poster in this set—pointing out design details, recalling the veterans’ stories, and summarizing themes (“…occupying recruiting centers, occupying various bases, celebrating leadership, celebrating various resisters, celebrating the organization itself. A lot of celebrating soldiers and vets who have resisted…”)—I find myself poring over each poster along with Weber and sharing in his excitement. “I love this one!” he says, reading aloud: “They’re our brothers. They’re our sisters. We support war resisters. They’re about specific people, demonstrations, making the connection between Vietnam veterans and current war veterans.”
By now, another visitor has joined our trio and is silently following along. Maya Taylor adds that this particular portfolio is really more about veterans’ rights than any particular standpoint on the administration. Weber agrees, and points out that, “some of [the posters] are simple, general, and some of them are more text-heavy and defining very specific programs. The idea is not so much that every poster on its own stands alone, but the idea is to be able look at an entire history,” he tells us. I silently start to wonder how much I really know about that history, most of which started when I was not even halfway done with high school. How did we talk about the wars then? I try to remember.
Almost reading my mind, Weber says: “My views of the war have changed dramatically from talking to soldiers who served there, who are describing massacres and incompetence, and outright theft and just racism and sexism. I think that’s what we need to bring home because these wars are still going on. We’re still fighting in Iraq.” Ideally, Weber hopes that these portfolios will serve as an entry point to awareness and discussion, and will then prompt policy changes, at both the community level and in the highest levels of the government. The potential is surely there, I think.
Towards the end of the portfolio, we discuss posters about veterans who have later died from the injuries that they sustained in active combat, and the air seems to hang heavy around us. Weber concludes:
“If you’ve been in combat, those are singular experiences. You cannot experience anything worse. If you can come out of that and be optimistic and a peacemaker, and seek conflict resolution, and prompt programs for health and recovery, that in itself to me is the most impressive thing about the IVAW. To keep it blunt: the IVAW consists of people who have been to hell and are back, and are not satisfied and are ready to bring a bit of justice, beauty, and heaven to the world. That’s inspiring to me, and I think that that’s why these things are important. This is not a portfolio about something. It’s not about anti-war resistance, Iraq, or veterans. It is those things. This is the life and blood of those veterans. This is a little bit of the struggle of the people in Iraq, the United States, and Afghanistan. This is the thing itself, and that’s what’s interesting to me about the arts role in this. Art embodies these things. It is of them. It is not reportage. The Combat Paper is the most evocative way of putting it: this is the thing right here. I think when you have an interaction with that, it’s very strong. I think Aaron Hughes and all the people in IVAW have created something that is visceral. I’m pretty hopeful that this portfolio will have a great amount of impact, and it was and honor to work with them.”
Booklyn Artists Alliance is located at 37 Greenpoint Avenue. Booklyn has helped IVAW design, edit, publish, and distribute 2 major portfolios, has assisted Combat Paper in design and distribution of their portfolios, and has published Dust Memories, Aaron Hughes’ first limited edition artists’ book. The next opening reception at Booklyn is on Saturday, May 9th from 7pm to 10pm for Kelie Bowman‘s solo show “Rise.”