We witnessed beautiful art last night at FACT Liverpool. Dr Emma Murray, Senior Lecturer in Law at Liverpool John Moores University, and Emily Gee, FACT’s Community Manager, presented two films – “ffgaiden:control” and “The Separate System” – on the subject of veterans’ experiences of incarceration, post their serving in the Armed Forces. The irony could not be harsher: from being in the employ of Her Majesty to suffering a sentence at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
The situation even has an academic method and terminology: veteranality. My brief understanding of the approach suggests that this means members of the Armed Forces – everywhere I mean – are just as much victims of war as civilians clearly have always been quite rightly perceived.
Remembrance and monuments seem to be evoked by both films; but more than anything else there is a strong sense of witness, of empowered voice.
I got that feel in the first film, “ffgaiden:control”, through its physically digitalising effect of distancing – it was based on the technology of a video-game – alongside the simultaneously emotional power of the voices and their associated people, who spoke their narratives and experiences of prison and systemic – that is to say, societally sourced – abuse.
In the second film, “The Separate System”, the visual style did affect me considerably: we never see a whole face of anyone speaking. This was explained to me afterwards as a necessary condition for the filming: anonymity had to be preserved at all costs. We were, I believe, if I understood process correctly, talking about offenders still serving their sentences, whilst they participated fully in the development and shape of the resulting artefacts.
All credit to the people and institutions who ended up taking this leap of faith.
The artistic implications and effect of this requirement to silence physical person in both artworks, whilst arguably collaterals, were fascinating however. Even as personal intentionality was the main aim of the communications, engineered and therein facilitated, sitting side by side with the soon to be clearly known soldier was the generalising impact of not seeing all those faces* telling their bewildering stories in off: at the same time, then, known and unknown soldier were present and ready “to do battle”.
And so we come back to the sense of remembrance and monument, mentioned at the beginning. And yet these are people – not others – whose lives are still unspooling. How it is to remember and “monumentalise” a living humanity.
And so even as the physical is only present through its absence, the protagonists clearly make themselves known to us, despite the fact – maybe also because! – we never do see their physical selves.
For what was really astonishing was how so very particular and concrete – how bloody individual – the voices who spoke to us felt. And whilst, ultimately, Dr Emma Murray’s veteranality locates the real post-service conflict not in the personalising blame game of “your job to cope with your PTSD, mate; let the rest of us carry on as we were”, but, rather, much more broadly, in the systemised and already alluded to societal abuse of many veterans rightful post-service expectations and very real desires for utility, it is to be hoped that through powerful individual narratives such as last night’s artworks, the necessary changes – coherent and cogent changes – will one day be levered for these normal men and women, these heroes of contemporary pain, who are treated with such abnormal disrespect.
* I also presume the video-game avatars in the first film aren’t physically accurate sketches of the participants, though I didn’t have an opportunity to positively confirm this in the post-showing debate.