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It Is What It Is

Coming out of Bowery rain into downtown New York’s New Museum last Friday, I didn’t expect more than to spend an an hour or so with some installations and some video art, — I’d just come off a long bus ride and was hoping the video rooms might have pillows on the floor. I didn’t expect a change in the way I think about the world and I didn’t expect to be be emotionally moved, but if you can make it to the Bowery show in the next three weeks, or to any of the dozen spots across America where It Is What It Is travels this year, you can safely expect to leave feeling fascinated, bent out of shape, and grateful.
The physical space of It Is What It Is doesn’t carry the viewer away. Two maps take up one corner of the wall — one of the maps is an outline of Iraq with the names of American cities inside it, the other vice-versa. Across the room sits the husk of an exploded car, which a little card explains was destroyed in an explosion on Al-Mutanabbi, a street of bookshops. There are some before and after pictures of the street there too.

But these things are mostly on hand to begin conversations with the attendant Iraqi citizens, academics, and soldiers, name-tagged participants who have had real experience of the country and who will appear throughout the next few weeks on the gallery’s couches in shifts. They are the installation, and they are not only fascinating but welcoming and solicitous. Although I haven’t asked, I suspect that the artist and organizer, Jeremy Deller, coached some of the participants on how to begin conversations with potentially unadventurous gallery goers. I talked with artist and Lieutenant Colonel Peter Buotte about my life and my family’s military history and it turned out that we had a surprising amount in common. I asked him what he’d done in Iraq (infrastructure repair) and what Iraq’s most pressing problems were (massive corruption, among others, and no one knows what’s up with the electricity).

Shortly, a woman, also wearing a name tag, arrived and sat down next to us. Her name was Zainab Saleh and she and Peter were as anxious to talk to each other as I was to talk to both of them. He and I both listened to stories about her life growing up in Iraq (her family had been murdered there and she escaped shortly afterward by “knowing the right people to bribe”). She told us that sectarian violence has increased enormously in her lifetime, that much of the unemployment and despondency now chronic there began as a result of the embargo in the 90′s, that normal people had turned to radical religion when they felt hemmed in. She said she never wanted to go back.

I can report these facts and more, but we have all read plenty of articles about Iraq and most of this has been observed by others and is somewhere in print. But the genius of the exhibition is its humanity, how normal and strange it is at once. The effect isn’t at all that of going to a lecture, since you’re just sitting around talking. But it isn’t exactly like a dinner party conversation either: there was no pressure to be amusing or to entertain. Even though I paid ten dollars to have the conversation (gallery admission, student rate), I felt privileged to be a part of it. As new people walked into the gallery — one or two every few minutes — we waved them in.

Later that day, I told a number of friends how much It Is What It Is had moved me, and a few were more than suspicious: What corporation had funded it? Were antiwar activists represented? In what ways had they tried to change my mind? I was against the war from the start and I still am, and no one tried to change my mind. (I asked a soldier how he felt about the decision to go and recent decision to leave, but he responded in the way soldiers have to: “we were ordered in and so we went, now we’re being ordered out, so we’ll go”). No, you probably won’t have your mind changed about whether or not the invasion was a good idea, but you may find yourself feeling differently about other aspects of the last six years; you may even find yourself finally knowing why something you’ve always suspected to be true really is true. But the one thing I can promise you is that both the war and the history of Iraq and the Americans who are over there now or who have been there in recent years will feel more real to you.

You owe it to yourself to go, and to ask questions, no matter how foolish they may seem (and plenty of mine were plenty foolish). Talk with everyone who’s there and shake their hands. A better world would have more art like this.

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John Cotter
‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010 and his short fiction is forthcoming from Redivider and New Genre. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly and lives in Denver, Colorado.

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