Radio Silence has been developed over many years of meetings and conversations with Philadelphians. Although most had never met before, they were already united by their relationship to a place, Iraq, and to a situation in which the trajectory of their lives was largely a product of international politics out of their control. They have come together at the invitation of Michael Rakowitz, an Iraqi–American artist who has worked variously with Iraqis and Iraq War veterans for the past 15 years. His series of projects, which have touched upon Iraqi dates and their syrup, destroyed artifacts, Star Wars, and grilled carp, among many other subjects, have explored true but often fantastical narratives that bring the massively complex relations of the United States and Iraq into focus on the human scale.
With a team of collaborators and partners in Philadelphia, Rakowitz worked from person to person, beginning with Bahjat Abdulwahed, who immigrated here in 2009 with his wife Hayfaa Abdulqaddar, and who inspired the form of this project as a live and broadcast radio program. As an important TV and radio host, Abdulwahed's life intersects with major events in Iraqi history and the rarefied study and practice of Arabic grammar, in which he was an expert; as a generous host in his living room, his life reflects the physical, mental, and social displacements that refugees experience in their journeys away from embattled homes and toward uncertain futures. His spirit informs the entire project, even after his untimely death in late 2016.
After Bahjat and Hayfaa we met other Iraqis, primarily in living rooms, library basements, high school sports fields, and Dunkin Donuts locations in Northeast Philadelphia, recording conversations along the way. This has led to the stories, readings, and performances that are woven through the radio program, and the live extensions of their contributions developed for the one-time performance. At the same time, we began workshops with Warrior Writers, a Philadelphia-based organization that works with veterans using writing as a means of self expression, healing, and testimony. Within closed groups, Iraq War veterans support each other creatively, personally, and emotionally, as each processes feelings and experiences, memories, and dreams. Organically developing out of the personal concerns of participants, and at times responding to prompts from the artist, these contributions join those of the Iraqis in narrating the past, present, and future of Iraq, and its displacements (in the form of people, culture, memories) here in Philadelphia.
Putting Bahjat back on the air became the framework for imagining a radio program that would bend time and merge space, creating a portal to Iraq, in all its dimensions, here in this present moment in Philadelphia. As the live broadcast combines expected radio elements like weather reports, reporting from the field, musical guests, serialized fiction, and much more, all in unexpected ways, it does so on a stage that inserts famous Iraqi monuments into this most symbolic space of America: Independence Mall. The performance uses the live situation to create this visual commingling, and to create this moment of presence, not just for the Iraqis themselves, but for the symbols and music and food of Iraq. In the radio programs to follow, Rakowitz taking full advantage of the “beautiful blindness” radio affords so that our own minds can do the work of imagining a place we have never been.
In both cases, an idea about Iraq is being built, through words and images, to stand in for a country in the process of disappearing, as buildings and monuments and landscapes have been destroyed by war and conflict, and as the people have been displaced in the aftermath.
Elizabeth Thomas is the curator of Radio Silence, a project developed with Mural Arts Philadelphia as part of a Pew-funded residency to explore innovative forms of public practice. Throughout her career she has focused on the production of site-responsive works across a range of forms and disciplines. As Director of Public Engagement for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, she is developing new initiatives in contemporary performance and public practice. Previously she directed the MATRIX program UC Berkeley Art Museum and has held curatorial positions at the Carnegie Museum of Art and Walker Art Center.