06:36
TED2015

Matt Kenyon: A secret memorial for civilian casualties

Filmed:

In the fog of war, civilian casualties often go uncounted. Artist Matt Kenyon, whose recent work memorialized the names and stories of US soldiers killed in the Iraq war, decided he should create a companion monument, to the Iraqi civilians caught in the war's crossfire. Learn how he built a secret monument to place these names in the official record.

- New media artist
From a plant that lives or dies based on stock prices to an oilcan that flows backward, Matt Kenyon creates art that startles, amuses and challenges assumptions. Full bio

There's this quote by activist and punk
rock musician Jello Biafra that I love.
00:13
He says, "Don't hate the media.
Be the media."
00:18
I'm an artist.
00:23
I like working with media and technology
because A, I'm familiar with them
00:24
and I like the power they hold.
00:29
And B, I hate them and I'm terrified
of the power they hold.
00:31
(Laughter)
00:35
I remember watching, in 2003, an interview
between Fox News host Tony Snow
00:37
and then-US Defense Secretary,
Donald Rumsfeld.
00:42
They were talking
about the recent invasion of Iraq,
00:47
and Rumsfeld is asked the question,
00:50
"Well, we're hear about our body counts,
00:53
but we never hear about theirs, why?"
00:55
And Rumsfeld's answer is,
00:59
"Well, we don't do body counts
on other people."
01:03
Right?
01:07
It's estimated that between 150,000
to one million Iraqis, civilians,
01:09
have died as a result
of the US-led invasion in 2003.
01:14
That number is in stark contrast with
the 4,486 US service members who died
01:19
during that same window of time.
01:25
I wanted to do more than just bring
awareness to this terrifying number.
01:28
I wanted to create a monument
for the individual civilians
01:32
who died as a result of the invasion.
01:35
Monuments to war,
such as Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial,
01:39
are often enormous in scale.
01:42
Very powerful and very one-sided.
01:44
I wanted my monument to live
in the world, and to circulate.
01:48
I remember when I was a boy in school,
01:54
my teacher assigned us
this classic civics assignment
01:57
where you take a sheet of paper
and you write a member of your government.
02:01
And we were told,
if we wrote a really good letter,
02:06
if we really thought about it,
02:08
we would get back more than just
a simple formed letter as a reply.
02:10
This is my "Notepad."
02:16
What looks like an everyday,
yellow legal tablet of paper
02:19
is actually a monument
to the individual Iraqi civilians
02:22
that died as a result of the US invasion.
02:25
"Notepad" is an act of protest
and an act of commemoration
02:30
disguised as an everyday tablet of paper.
02:34
The lines of the paper, when magnified,
02:38
are revealed to be micro-printed text
02:42
that contains the details, the names,
the dates and locations
02:44
of individual Iraqi civilians that died.
02:49
So, for the last 5 years, I've been taking
pads of this paper, tons of this stuff,
02:54
and smuggling it
into the stationery supplies
02:58
of the United States
and the Coalition governments.
03:01
(Laughter)
03:04
(Applause)
03:05
I don't have to tell you guys this is not
the place to discuss how I did that.
03:14
(Laughter)
03:18
But also, I've been meeting one-on-one
with members and former members
03:20
of the so-called Coalition of the Willing,
who assisted in the invasion.
03:26
And so, whenever I can,
I meet with one of them,
03:31
and I share the project with them.
03:33
And last summer, I had the chance to meet
03:35
with former United States Attorney General
and Torture Memo author, Alberto Gonzales.
03:37
(Video) Matt Kenyon:
May I give this to you?
03:44
This is a special legal tablet.
03:46
It's actually part
of an ongoing art project.
03:48
Alberto Gonzalez:
This is a special legal pad?
03:51
MK: Yes. You won't believe me,
03:54
but it's in the collection of the Museum
of Modern Art; I'm an artist.
03:55
MK: And all of the lines
of the paper are actually --
03:59
AG: Are they going to disappear?
04:02
MK: No, they're micro-printed text
04:03
that contains the names
of individual Iraqi civilians
04:06
who have died since the invasion of Iraq.
04:10
AG: Yeah. OK.
04:13
AG: Thank you. MK: Thank you.
04:16
(Laughter)
04:18
The way he says "thank you"
really creeps me out.
04:20
(Laughter)
04:23
OK, so I'd like each of you
to look under your chairs.
04:25
There's an envelope.
04:28
And please open it.
04:32
The paper you're holding in your hand
04:38
contains the details of Iraqi civilians
that died as result of the invasion.
04:41
I'd like you to use this paper
and write a member of government.
04:50
You can help to smuggle
this civilian body count
04:54
into government archives.
04:58
Because every letter
that's sent in to the government,
05:01
and this is all across
the world, of course --
05:05
every letter that is sent in
is archived, filed and recorded.
05:07
Together, we can put this in the mailboxes
and under the noses of people in power.
05:13
Everything that's sent in
05:19
eventually becomes part of the permanent
archive of our government,
05:21
our shared historical record.
05:27
Thank you.
05:30
(Applause)
05:31
Tom Rielly: So, tell me Matt,
05:42
how did this idea
come into your head, of "Notepad"?
05:43
Matt Kenyon: I'd just finished a project
05:49
that dealt with
the US Coalition side of the war
05:51
and it was a black armband that was called
the "Improvised Empathetic Device"
05:55
which accumulated, in real time,
06:00
the names, ranks,
cause of death and location
06:03
of US service members
who had died overseas,
06:07
and each time the Department of Defense
or CENTCOM released their data,
06:09
it would stab me in the arm.
06:13
And so, I became aware
that there was a spectacle
06:15
associated with our own people
who were dying overseas,
06:18
but a disproportionate
amount of casualties
06:21
were the civilian casualties.
06:24
TR: Thank you so much.
06:26
MK: Thank you.
06:27
(Applause)
06:28

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About the Speaker:

Matt Kenyon - New media artist
From a plant that lives or dies based on stock prices to an oilcan that flows backward, Matt Kenyon creates art that startles, amuses and challenges assumptions.

Why you should listen

Matt Kenyon works at the intersection of art and technology, creating pieces that question society’s large, complex systems — from our reliance on global corporations and oil, to the military-industrial complex. His works include: “SPORE 1.1,” a self-sustaining ecosystem for a rubber tree, purchased from The Home Depot and watered in conjunction with Home Depot stock prices; “Supermajor,” a collection of vintage oilcans with droplets of oil that defy gravity and flow back into a punctured hole; and ”Notepad,” a commemoration of the Iraqi civilians who died as a result of the US-led invasion, printed in the lines of what appear to be your average, everyday legal pads. 

Kenyon creates these projects through SWAMP, or Studies of Work Atmosphere and Mass Production. He teaches art at the University of Michigan's Stamps School of Art & Design.

More profile about the speaker
Matt Kenyon | Speaker | TED.com