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Peace Work: Uniforms into Paper

Summer 2019
Summer 2019
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Drew Cameron is a papermaking artist, war veteran, and co-founder of Combat Paper. He has been facilitating workshops across the country for over a decade while also developing his studio practice. His collaborative prints, portfolios, and books can be found in over forty public collections including the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. This essay is an adaptation of a lecture originally presented by the author at the 2018 joint conference of the Friends of Dard Hunter and the American Printing History Association, held at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, October 25–27, 2018. —Ed. Becoming outspoken about war while in the military is terrifying; it may be why so many veterans and actively serving soldiers keep quiet about their politics. Those who have become outspoken seemingly arrived at a moral and ethical calculation based on their experiences that superseded their otherwise usual and welcomed silence. When those who are the war fighters of the continued and exhaustive US interventions and occupations open up honestly about what they did and perhaps more importantly how they feel about it, we are getting closer to the democratic notion that we, as a nation, are meant to be achieving.

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There is a tendency to conflate military service with allegiance to prevailing political doctrines of the times. Those who question military authority or the values of bombing and killing in the name of democracy are quashed. We con-fuse the war with our democracy, or believe that we must have one in order to have the other. It is an intergenerational struggle to rid the world of American, benevolent violence.1  After returning from my deployment in 2003 I was quiet about my war experience at first. I felt like I did my time and had to move on. It wasn't until I met another veteran who was brazen with their critique, and passionate in their conviction that they were an Iraq Veteran Against the War, that I felt compelled to speak up. I began to understand how the Iraq War was yet another ruinous farce that would pit the underprivileged against the oppressed at the behest of powerful elites. I had believed that we were a force for good based on righteous principles, that our efforts were ultimately for the betterment of people in Iraq. The mythical power of imperialism had duped me into a negligent complicity, so I willfully served in another illegal American war, like the generations before me had done as well.2 Seeing another veteran speak their truth activated me. Through my public activism, I met other veterans, and like any activist became a student of history. Being in solidarity with others softened the blow of realizing that I had been a part of something so terrible and unjust—the destruction of a society.  This growing network of veterans and artists was my new service to something bigger than myself. The two efforts of cre-ating artwork and contributing to a culture of resisting endless war began to align. Our collaborative efforts were self-preserving in that we could interpret and deconstruct our own personal war narratives while also connecting them to a movement and inspire each other, supporting our collective arguments and convictions against war. This collaborative spirit is also integral to the way I was taught and the way I teach papermaking. Practice the craft, try various recipes and techniques, research what others have done, and work to achieve positive results of your own. Teach each other, find ways to share your discoveries, and help others overcome obstacles that you have faced, and amplify our collective knowledge. Encourage others to do the same; be willing to share this philosophy openly so that our art and craft can stand the test of time.  The social dynamic has compelled my activism and paper-making alike. So it was easy to cut apart my uniform and turn it into paper because I wasn't alone. It was the direct way to trans-form a static material into an idea where participation is encour-aged, and it was the process of creating the paper that I shared with my community. Combat Paper has led to collaborations with many groups who have lent their own talents to this latest evolv-ing intersection of arts and the military. Inevitably a notion of art as social practice was raised.  Social practice, participatory, socially engaged, or community-engaged art is a growing necessity in art forums. As the  institutions in society we used to rely on become further eviscerated and as agency in the lives of people becomes restricted, we all find ways to fill in the blanks or reveal creative possibilities. Some very provocative work has been developed that asks more of an audience than contemplation or submissive viewing. Socially engaged art invites the audience to be a co-creator, an agent in the change or development of a project that can have lasting effect. Object creation is not the goal. Instead, the practice lies in  building relationships.3 Combat Paper is often regarded as a form of socially engaged art practice. As war veterans, many of us are skeptical of the notion of socially engaged art, not fully convinced of the altruistic sincerity of projects made in the name of "social practice." As former members of the military, we are well-versed in structures of manipulation and control. We can spot the difference between a project entrenched in a framework of power that sidelines the voices inherent to the success of a project versus one that is root-ed in a healthy framework of reciprocity. The participatory model articipants are regarded not as the  medium, but as agents. Thus socially engaged art practice relies on some metric of integrity and ethical behavior, all of which is highly subjective and open to earnest critique.  Identifying our work as social, or engaged, infers a respon-sibility that I find a compelling challenge. When we make paper with the public, with military uniforms or any charged raw mate-rial, we must always be aware of the intention of our projects. Is it to create a cathartic environment for individual participants? Or is the main intention to bring public awareness to specific issues? Who is setting the goals and parameters of an action? Is it community-based so that participation is democratic, and for what duration? How can we innovate our craft into new realms? The work of socially engaged anything requires a capacity to build relationships and a shared decision-making power—a very egali-tarian notion. If papermaking can be our proving grounds for practicing our civics and democracy, then I'm all for it!  In Combat Paper we are often tasked with a type of triage. Many of those who find themselves in our workshops are the ones who would benefit most from a holistic healthcare approach and reintegration effort. Where the government falls short, often community-based efforts catch them. Indeed we are the rags, the leftovers from war, and we intuitively make paper. The responsi-bility we might have to the participant is far beyond what we can offer, perhaps some temporary respite, some camaraderie or new connections, or the creation of artwork that has a deeply personal meaning. In these moments, that is often enough. Although, as the wars have continued, so too have our workshops. I dream of it being the new military, where we pulp our uniforms into paper and use that technology to create some life-sustaining paradigm that won't require a forever sacrifice of our youth onto the altar of freedom. We cannot heal from war until we reconcile with the history and perpetuation of American empire, and move towards a course to change it.   Rendering uniforms into paper speaks deeply to those within the military and resonates with those of us outside of it. If we can see a uniform as a sheet of paper, then perhaps a drone can in-stead be a wind turbine, or a laser-guided bomb can be subsidized public transportation, or a young person can choose not to enlist. Combat Paper exists as a type of peace work, still tasked with the effort of developing our social language to agree that war is failure with its costs destroying all of our futures. The longer I have spent working with uniforms and with war veterans, the more certain I am. We are very much in the place of needing to find this lan-guage, to collect some understanding, and turn down the volume on perpetual war. Encouraging, however, is that the language may very well have to be written on paper.  ___________  Notes  1. For an excellent history of how artists have articulated their political stance through their practice, see Howard Zinn, Artists In Times of War (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003). 2. Anthony Arnove counters all of the arguments for the Iraq War in his book Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007). 3. For examples of socially engaged projects, see Nato Thompson, ed., Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991–2011 (New York: Creative Time Books; Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012).