Never to repeat
Hopefully. Art inspired by prejudice
By Zara Houshmand
December 12, 2000
I'm driving the highway that runs like a narrow boundary between snow-topped peaks
and the flat, scraggy valley. In the far distance, another mountain range, the edge
of a salt desert... If it wasn't for the names of the towns -- Lone Pine, Independence,
Big Pine -- and the smell of sagebrush, I could be almost anywhere in Iran.
I haven't spoken a word in a week, in any language, and the sheer light and hundred
mile views match the clear calm of my mind after seven days of meditation and solitude
in the Eastern Sierra. But now I'm headed home and the old train of logic and associations
is gathering steam again.
My last contact with the "real" world was in the first shock of the
breaking news about the Oklahoma bombing. I'd left behind the horror of the television
images, a war zone in middle America, the knee-jerk accusations, "middle-eastern
terrorists," a wave of hate crimes. I don't know yet that the picture has changed,
but it doesn't really matter. Facts don't change the feelings that quickly.
I pass a small signpost for a historical monument, like a footnote on the highway.
Something makes me slow down, back up, and get out of the car, stepping back into
the silence of the landscape.
There doesn't seem to be much there -- a couple of sentry huts built of stone,
what looks like an abandoned warehouse but was once an auditorium, a few tall trees
and a patch of green that says there's water out there somewhere. Beyond the green,
a small white monument stands dwarfed in the shadow of the mountains.
This is all that remains of the Manzanar internment camp, where thousands of Japanese-American
families were forcibly "relocated" during World War II-- the drab outlines
of an archeological site that isn't even old, odd chunks of concrete slab, rusting
bits of steel rod. The rows of barracks that housed the prisonners are long gone,
dismantled for scrap at the end of the war.
I had read accounts of this particularly ignominious chapter of American history,
of lives disrupted, property seized, and the undeserved shame that comes of wearing
the face of what America calls the enemy. I had a sense of how the poison still lingered,
had listened one night to sake-fuelled stories in a bar in Japantown in L.A., and
had seen how those stories, and the silence that surrounded them, shaped the lives
of Japanese-Americans too young to remember the camps themselves.
It was coming home to me now in a new way, with the recent news of Oklahoma and
the way it dredged up the stale old stories of the hostage crisis in Tehran. There's
more than just bad luck involved in being the wrong race, in the wrong place, at
the wrong time. There's a moral failure in how casually our media fuels hatred, how
eagerly prejudice partners with opportunism. There's more than bad luck in the way
that history repeats itself, not inevitably, but with the force of a stubborn habit.
I spent a few hours walking slowly around the site. I felt the presence of ghosts,
a sadness hanging in the air that fifty years of winds had not blown away. But the
place was haunted also by other echoes with a different kind of sadness, a nostalgia
for the landscape of Iran. What the families interned here had seen as a god-forsaken
desert hell was, to my eyes, beautiful. As I listened to the wind in the trees and
watched the shadow of the mountains moving slowly across the day, I was home. Even
the old scars of the camp roads seemed to trace a chahar-bagh pattern on the land.
I imagined history repeating itself in the most literal way, on this very land,
and the irony of mapping such a prison onto the prisons that memory and longing make:
the alien looking inward on the landscape of exile, here in this desolate corner
of California where the American dream was betrayed. There's a poem here somewhere,
But I didn't get around to writing it. Instead, I did the thing that kills a poem,
whatever else it may accomplish. I talked about it.
I talked to Tamiko Thiel, a Japanese-American artist working in new media, whose
family had been interned at Topaz, another camp like Manzanar. We were both working
at the time at a company with the very por-ru name of Worlds, Inc. We did, in fact,
produce worlds-virtual ones on a computer screen, but they were surprisingly real
You could walk through architecture and landscape, manipulate a body that was
"you" within that world, meet and talk to other people in a similar form,
though in reality they were sitting at another computer halfway across the real world.
A team of engineers built the technology, while a group of artists and producers,
myself and Tamiko included, dreamt up ways to use it that would challenge the limits
and provide feedback on what needed more development.
We were supposed to sell the stuff too, of course, but a lot of creative energy
went into pondering the philosophical issues of homesteading in cyberspace and defining
conventions for a new medium. One persistent issue was realism. If you're trying
to create a virtual reality, then one measure of success is a literal-minded, life-like
reproduction of the "real" world. It's certainly a measure that makes sense
to engineers and salesmen. But we had in our hands a medium that in theory wasn't
bound by gravity or euclidean geometry. We wanted to do more with it than build shopping
malls and space stations. Naturally, we wanted to make art.
When I told Tamiko about my thoughts at Manzanar, she saw the potential for a
virtual reality art piece. Almost unconsciously, we began a process of collaboration
that would evolve over five years. We talked through many, many late nights, about
problems of structure and form and control of time-how to shape a dramatic experience
that has an emotional arc, a beginning, middle and end, and yet give viewers the
freedom to find their own way through the environment and make their own discoveries.
And of course, we talked about the experience of the camps, of being an alien-American,
and who we were talking to and what it all meant. We shared family history, old photos,
and poems, and made each other listen to "weird" music. We learned, gingerly
at first, but with growing confidence, how to trust each other on questions of "turf"
and our separate areas of expertise. How could we balance the historical weight of
the Japanese experience against the more ephemeral expression of the Iranian "what
if"? How would we honor the historical realities without being bound to documentary?
We went back to Manzanar to photograph and started to recreate the mountain panorama
on the computer screen. From old photographs we reconstructed the guardtowers and
barracks, and peopled the camp with ghost images of the families that had lived there.
Deep inside the world of the prison, we planted two gardens of the heart, one Japanese
and one Iranian, magical healing spaces like those the mind builds when reality fails.
Within the prison, also, we captured images of the American dream as it was dreamt
in innocence by our own families, and we fortified its boundaries with the images
of betrayal and hatred that accuse us from newspapers and television screens, the
aggression that plays out like a video game. We wrote poetry into the barbed wire,
and across the sky.
So yes, finally, a poem was written, and this is how the piece ends, with a panoramic
mandala of the mountains and the sky:
May the mountains witness;
Williamson, Whitney, Lone Pine, look:
.....To the East, a sea of strangers.
.....Each one wears my face.
Erase the shame, the fear, the witless hate,
Witness now, too late:
Each stranger wears my fate.
Let the winds watch:
.....To the South, a million mouths.
Each tongue speaks my own hope,
Each foreign tongue my own, one taste,
Each hunger, one I've known.
Let the earth feel:
.....To the West, a friend unfound yet.
Embrace the lover yet to be discovered.
Unmake the bed you've made; go free.
How like you is the other: simply see.
May the sky see:
.....To the North, a need so endless deep,
That only one whole heart can offer
Ever to console or feed. Then offer this one:
ever watchful never to repeat.
Long before we began actual production, Worlds, Inc. had collapsed. In new media,
evaporating technology is an occupational hazard. In the end, thanks to support from
Blaxxun Interactive, we built the program in VRML for a large screen installation.
Much of the production work was done during a residency at the Institute
of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS) in Ogaki, Japan, with help from many
of the teachers and graduate students under the direction of Prof. Itsuo Sakane.
Click on tiles to see larger images
Beyond Manzanar is a virtual reality art installation by Zara Houshmand and
Tamiko Thiel, showing December 12-25, 2000 at the Metropolitan
Museum of Photography, Tokyo, Japan.