Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Revisiting The House of Osama bin Laden

Robert Rath | 20 Feb 2014 12:00
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Indeed, the range of reactions varies - and what strikes me as particularly interesting is what it says about video games and war. As Langlands & Bell point out, videogames are a component of modern war, with the development of game technology to train soldiers, as well as some crossover with visual display systems. But beyond that, they also can put us in a place that in the past was only the realm of soldiers. Games, the artists summarize, "can simulate ... access to zones where access is normally restricted or impossible in ways that other mediums can't." It's a prescient point - since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare released in 2007, games have tried to make us feel like we're on the battlefield, a part of the War on Terror. The problem is that they've been focused on combat, a part of the war that by its very nature makes introspection difficult.

The House of Osama bin Laden, by contrast, opts for exploration. There are no enemies and viewer's avatar has no gun, but is merely an observer who experiences the compound and extrapolates conclusions from his or her exploration. In this way it resembles - and presages - environmental exploration games like Gone Home, even sharing that game's eerie feeling of trespass and solitude and the sense that you're seeing the absence of a person, only the shell they leave behind. Originally this served as commentary on bin Laden's elusiveness. Back in 2003 it was becoming clear the war's most wanted man had slipped through coalition fingers during the invasion and might never be apprehended. Now, with bin Laden dead, the piece seems different - more a reflection of the unseen side of the war, where the combatants don't always carry guns and wear uniforms. This is the investigatory war, where intelligence specialists scour empty houses and pick apart photo albums to find links that may lead to a terrorist - and most often lead nowhere. While it's true that the viewer doesn't take on a specific role in the piece, in a way everyone who steps up to the controls becomes a de facto analyst, trying to make sense of bin Laden's methods and motivation through examining architecture and object placement. It's surprising, in retrospect, that games haven't explored this territory before.

Ten years on, with bin Laden dead and the War in Afghanistan drawing to a close, The House of Osama bin Laden is starting to feel more like a documentary, as if it's turning into a historical record as it ages. "In many ways the work has become more faithful to one particular aspect of the artists' ideas," says Sara Bevan, "that of exploring the house as a historical site."

And that's the rub: bin Laden, once the most feared man in America, Britain, Afghanistan and much of the world, is transforming from a flesh and blood human into a historical character. One we understand through evidence, documentation and interpretation. He is gone, leaving us to try and understand what happened. "Everyone wants to visit a place where a famous or infamous person has lived or worked," say Langlands & Bell. "To see things through their eyes, to try and can gain a sense of their motivation, or the reasons for the events that followed."

One hopes that now, twelve years and two wars since 9/11, we can finally start making sense of it all.

The House of Osama bin Laden is part of the exhibition Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War at Imperial War Museum North in Trafford, Greater Manchester. The exhibit runs until February 23rd.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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