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Page 37
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<< 36. Inspiration and Tips to Stay in the Struggle38. Celebrating 30 Years of Art Created by Veterans >>

Operation Exposure: IVAW and Justseeds Collaborate on a Street Art Campaign

By Nicolas Lampert

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On November 15, 2010 in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago a dozen or so artists from the Justseeds Artists' Cooperative met up with an equal number of veterans and supporters from Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and split into teams. The plan was simple. Divide up posters that Justseeds had designed for IVAW and then wheat paste the city. Hit the advertising spaces with messages of GI resistance and "Operation Recovery" — the IVAW campaign meant to stop the redeployment of traumatized soldiers. Target the city landscape and it's psyche. Use street art to focus public attention towards the issues not being discussed — GI Resistance, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), sexual assault of women in the military and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Cover up the corporate ads that pollute the city and get the public talking about GI resistance, GI rights and stopping the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Photo by Nicolas Lampert.

Aaron Hughes of IVAW framed the parameters for the project. He sent Justseeds (a decentralized artists collective consisting of 26 members from the US, Canada and Mexico) information about the campaign months in advance so that Justseeds artists could each create a design and print 30-50 copies before traveling to Chicago for the annual Justseeds retreat. At the same time, the Chicago branch of IVAW worked with Nicolas Lampert and Colin Matthes of Justseeds to cut out large stencil portraits of three soldiers who had resisted the US military. One stencil honored Camilo Mejia — a Florida National Guard Sergeant who became the first US combat veteran to publicly refuse to redeploy back to Iraq. Mejia had witnessed detainees being tortured and abused by US troops in Iraq. He served nine months in prison for desertion. In August 2007 he was elected Chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Another stencil honored Suzanne Swift — a 23-year-old Army SPC who was continually sexually harassed and assaulted by three men in her command while she served in Iraq. She suffered from PTSD and went AWOL in January 2006 to resist redeploying with the same unit. She was apprehended and imprisoned briefly in January 2007 and is now active in anti-war and anti-rape campaigns. The last stencil honored Rodney Watson — a 29-year-old Army Specialist who served 12-months in Iraq. Watson refused redeployment and is currently seeking refuge near Vancouver, Canada. A quote from Watson, attached to the stencil, read in part, "I'd rather do my time in jail than be a party to the racism I saw in Iraq. As an African-American, I grew up with racism. But in Iraq, I saw the same kind of abuse and mistreatment, only this was US enlisted soldiers and American contractors, like security forces, abusing Iraqis."

On the morning following Veterans Day both the posters and the stencils were plastered throughout Chicago. Crews targeted billboard ad spaces and boarded-up buildings, spaces that are constantly wheat pasted in advertisement posters — an insidious practice where even the few spaces available to the street artists and the restful eye becomes a site for marketing. Both Justseeds and IVAW knew that their handiwork would not last long, as the trolls who wheat paste ads work 24-7. Additionally the city is infamous for covering up street art with brown paint. However, it was the poetics that mattered. Covering up ads challenged consumerism and the corporate culture that perpetuates systems of inequality and oppression — systems that create public apathy to war. Despite much of the street art being covered up or torn down, the action caught the attention of thousands around the world as the photo documentation that IVAW and Justseeds took was spread through street art and activists blogs and websites. In essence, the street art served as a tactical media intervention.

Photo by Nicolas Lampert.

However, the project did more than just enter the media bloodstream. It built relationships and helped energize a movement and its participants. Nicole Baltrushes, Civilian Soldier Alliance member, was enthralled by the guerilla action, and commented, "Wheat pasting these strong messages of resistance in aesthetically provoking posters over the dull and repetitive advertisements was inspiring and transformational. Later seeing all sorts of passersby standing and staring at our installations made me realize the breadth of people that can be reached with meaningful street art." Aaron Hughes adds "Collaboration is key to growing our movement and connecting the issues. The more ways we are able to collaborate, the more ways we are able to engage communities, inspire communities and build communities strong enough to take on the largest industry in the world, the military industrial complex."

The street art action also served as the start of a series of collaborations between IVAW and Justseeds. Following the November 15th action, an exhibition along with a new mural about GI resistance was installed at the In These Times Building in Chicago. Print exhibitions have also traveled to Fort Hood, Philadelphia, Lawrence, Kansas and Milwaukee. In each case, the print show coincided with readings from the IVAW Warrior Writers project. Future projects (additional murals and a portfolio of the prints) are also being discussed.

These creative efforts from street art to poetry to murals have proved to be an effective medium for reaching new audiences and drawing attention back to the goals of the Operation Recovery campaign. The art was also about the issues. IVAW writes, "We recognize that we must stop the deployment of all soldiers in order to end these occupations. We see the deployment of soldiers with Traumatic Brain Injuries, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and military sexual trauma as particularly cruel, dangerous, and inhumane. Military commanders across all branches are pushing service members far past human limits for the sake of combat readiness. We cannot allow those commanders to ignore the welfare of their troops. From multiple deployments despite PTSD, TBI, and other injuries, to rampant sexual assault within the military, soldiers are consistently being denied their right to heal. This basic right is being denied and we must organize to get it back."

Nicolas Lampert is a Milwaukee/Chicago based interdisciplinary artist and author. Collectively, he works with the Justseeds Artist's Cooperative (www.justseeds.org). His artist website is: www.machineanimalcollages.com

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