I keep trying to figure out where bin Laden slept.
None of the beds look comfortable. There’s no standout that might belong to a leader. One is inside the house, in a room with a rug and a mortar tube. Another – perhaps meant for a sentry, or for lying in the breeze during stifling Afghan nights – sits out on the patio. Tugs and sleeping mats fill a nearby bunker, where shopping bags hang on the wall for storage. An oscillating fan is the only nod toward comfort. This is one of the houses bin Laden used to plan the 9/11 attacks, but the man himself isn’t at home. Even if he was, I couldn’t shoot him because, despite the fact that the designers rendered this environment in the Quake engine, I have no gun. This isn’t a game, but the BAFTA-winning interactive art installation The House of Osama bin Laden, currently part of an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, and it’s less about combat than it is about war, media and memory.
But before the house was an interactive display, it was a real building – one that the artists had to visit. After the outbreak of the War in Afghanistan, the British Imperial War Museum’s Art Commissions Committee selected artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell, of artistic team Langlands & Bell, to create art that would access the emotional dimensions of the War on Terror. Already accomplished artists in 2002, the team had exhibited at the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art, and in cities across Europe and Asia – their art also explored aviation as a theme, making them especially suited to create work about the 9/11 Attacks. But despite that pedigree, their research trip to Afghanistan created a doubt they’d never encountered. “When we arrived in Afghanistan we were so shocked by what we saw it took us a moment to make sense of our priorities,” said Langlands & Bell, in an email interview with The Escapist. “At first we wondered if it would be possible to make art.”
However, ever drawn to architectural forms, the team soon became interested in a compound they learned about through local contacts – high in the Afghan mountains near Jalalabad was a house bin Laden occupied in the late nineties. It was where he’d established his first training camp and lived when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed first pitched the plan that would topple the World Trade Center and provoke the U.S. invasion. The idea to map the compound took hold, but access proved a problem, since at the time a paramilitary group called the Hizb-i-Islami was using the site as a base. A major mujahedeen group during the Soviet War in Afghanistan, Hizb-i-Islami broke into various factions during and after the war, some of which allied with the Taliban. Today, some factions are a legitimate political party in the Afghan government, while others are considered terrorist groups by coalition forces. Both factions are Islamist and anti-western. Eventually, Langlands & Bell negotiated access to the site – but only for two and a half hours.
“We had to work very fast to take hundreds of photos, make notes, and pace out the distances within the compound,” recall Langlands & Bell. But things turned sour as the paramilitaries became increasingly paranoid about the artists’ activities. “As soon as we took out a tape measure the fighters in the house became agitated and we had to leave.”
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.”
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 RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.