Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Revisiting The House of Osama bin Laden

Robert Rath | 20 Feb 2014 12:00
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Back safe in the UK, they rebuilt the house, pairing it with two other works - a dual-screen projection called NGO and a film Zardad's Dog to create a trilogy of works, also called The House of Osama bin Laden.

The resulting work, first exhibited in 2003, is fascinating. What initially strikes you is how sparse the environment feels. Working with the Quake engine and (what today are) fairly rudimentary textures, the not-quite-realistic aesthetic emphasizes the physical placement of objects rather than fine detail - a metal spring bedframe with a steel bowl in the center, crooked wood boards in place of window glass, the river, the hills, a truck with antiaircraft defenses. It's impossible to wander amongst the sparse surroundings without thinking how improbable it seems that this rather pitiful compound had military, financial and logistical links to an attack on a modern American city. "The house ... seemed to symbolise to us the extreme contrasts in the whole series of events leading up to and following 9/11," say Langlands & Bell. "Nowhere could have been further from the gleaming glass and steel of the twin towers in New York than this simple compound in the mountains of Afghanistan."

But the piece doesn't wholly exist on the screen. The control scheme also makes a statement - this time about the emotional distance most people have when they experience war from the home front. To explore The House of Osama bin Laden, the player - viewer is possibly a more appropriate term - stands at a podium with a flight simulator-style joystick, while the exhibit is projected on the wall several feet away. (The flight simulator joystick is particularly inspired, since several of the 9/11 hijackers trained with Microsoft Flight Simulator.) While the exhibit leverages games' interactivity, letting us participate in the environment and virtually visit where the infamous bin Laden walked, it also keeps us separate. "This medium also reminds us that most people's experience of war these days is vicarious, from a safe distance and very detached from the painful reality existing on the ground," say Langlands & Bell. "We watch these events on the web or the TV unfolding almost as if they are a video game." Even Osama bin Laden himself, the artists argue, was a quasi-virtual figure at the time, one that would pop up in the media and make pronouncements, but no one really knew where he was or even if he was even alive.

In the decade since the exhibit debuted, this statement has become even more powerful given concerns about drone warfare, and whether detachment from the battlefield affects our sense of humanity towards enemies. Now the distanced flight simulator joystick not only references how we experience war as civilians, but also points to how we increasingly fight wars from computer consoles.

The fact that perceptions of the piece have changed is part of its appeal. At one time a look forward, the piece is now just as much a look back. The House of Osama bin Laden is currently being exhibited as part of the Imperial War Museum's exhibit Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War at IWM North in Manchester. The exhibit, which runs until February 23rd, includes artwork cataloguing various aspects of modern war, from photos of force-feeding equipment at Guantanamo Bay to a PhotoShop picture with Tony Blair taking a selfie in front of an explosion. For Sara Bevan, the Curator of IWM's Art Section, the re-exhibiting of Langlands & Bell's piece emphasizes how public reaction to it has changed. "When the work was first shown there was interest in it as a game 'with the adrenalin taken out', as Langlands & Bell describe it," she says. "There was very much a sense that it reflected the idea of fighting a hidden or unseen enemy, a sort of quasi-mythical figure. I think that since then we have become much more familiar with the several ideas encompassed in the work - firstly the close links between contemporary weapons and computer games and the visual images that those weapons have generated." In addition, she adds, the piece strikes a balance in its audience, drawing in both traditional art aficionados and those more interested in video installations and new media. "Its language clearly works logically and poetically for the subject matter."

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