green parrots is a new and mixed media installation combining naïve craft and domestic folk art with digital audio and video in order to explore the widespread phenomena of anti-personnel mine casualties among young boys in Afghanistan. The project is a continuation of my ongoing research around toys and play as sites of knowledge production and acts of world-making. However, in this instance, largely motivated by the approaching ten year anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan, green parrots exposes an exceptionally traumatic, though too frequent, example of childhood play and learning.
Living in a land damaged by decades of war, young boys in Afghanistan frequently encounter anti-personnel mines and other explosive remnants of war (ERW) and engage with them as irresistibly curious objects. As the film clip from the 2008 documentary Back Home Tomorrow (dir. Fabrizio Lazaretti & Paolo Santolini) makes evident, the violent repercussions of these encounters often begin with–and are motivated by–a measure of recognition. Abstract understanding of or precaution around the mine as possibly dangerous becomes overwhelmed by the boys’ overriding impulse for experiential understanding–to figure it out for themselves. Thus, rather than resulting from a mischance accident, the damaging explosion is triggered by what might otherwise be considered a healthy, almost scientific, pursuit of knowledge; a combination of proximity, persistence, partial awareness and a passionate curiosity to understand more through manipulation, observation and experiment.
As a sculptor long interested in manipulatives and object-based learning who strives to create analogous circumstances for playful engagement through art, I was disturbed by the boys’ revelation that normal, everyday, even ideal, inquisitive engagement with the material world was being violently and intentionally remunerated with pain, fear, hospitalization and amputation. And so their curiosity made me curious, their vulnerability exposing my own. Their stories prompted a new line of research into toy-like anti-personnel mines and other ERW. If I found something unusual, mechanical and toy-sized in my world, how would I feel? Would I feel compelled to touch it or pick it up? Would I carry it home and take it apart? Haunted by these questions and their uncomfortably close correlation to my earlier work, I felt compelled to figure out these objects for myself, to not only figure them out literally as sculpture, but to attempt to figure them out phenomenologically–as experience.
Towards this end I have been researching and replicating in paint and papier-mâché the Soviet produced PFM-1, known popularly as the "green parrot" or "butterfly mine" and plan to suspend these replicas as an aerial mobile. The aerial mobile re-enacts the dispersal of these weapons that give them their colloquial name while simultaneously invoking the familiarity of “naïve” materials and the domestic intimacy of a children’s play space. Together, this creates a situation in which the audience is implicated into and thus compelled to consider the disquieting entirety of the phenomena; the reality of anti-personnel mine manufacture, the effects and locations of their distribution alongside toys and safe, creative play spaces intended to provide for children’s physical, emotional and intellectual development.
The audio component of the installation is an adaptation of Lazzaretti and Santolini’s documented conversations among several Afghan boys recuperating in Emergency’s Surgical Center for War Victims in Kabul, Afghanistan. My last project, blanket-fort, employed several Asian American girls as research assistants for the audio production and overall development of the work for the Asian American Women Artists Association. This project involves a translation team of American-English speaking boys to interpret and vocalize the Afghan dialogue for an American audience to create a point of reflection as the US enters its tenth year of occupation in Afghanistan, the longest running war in American history. The audio effect is as unsettling as the physical installation. The small American tongues speaking in the first person bring the violence that happens distantly and abstractly “over there” suddenly and unconscionably home.
The participation of the translation team and their parents opens a conversation about children and the effects of war and allows those children who know very little about the realities of war to cultivate their awareness of those children who know too much. The members of the translation team learn about the existence of anti-personnel mines and the effects of war and these weapons in the lives children who encounter them. Fundamental to raising this awareness conscientiously and compassionately is to work closely with their parents to share these stories appropriately, re-assure them of their own safety and to provide them with an activist opportunity to do something meaningful and helpful that extends their peace and security as a possibility for others.