Since the start of the Iraq war, Michael Rakowitz’s work has regularly evoked links between Iraq and America, including reviving the import-export business run by his Jewish Iraqi immigrant grandparents. During the war, he attempted to ship a ton of dates from Iraq, its interruptions and diversions reflecting the course of the fighting and its aftermath. In 2003, he organized Enemy Kitchen, a food truck in Chicago staffed by Iraqi ex-patriot chefs and American war veterans. Then in 2011, he served a meal to high-end restaurant patrons in New York on plates looted from Saddam Hussein’s palaces. The backdrop to Michael Rakowitz’s Radio Silence performance — Independence Mall in Philadelphia, where both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and signed — is therefore a logical conclusion to this trajectory of work, heightening the sense of misfortune in America’s relationship to Iraq and in the current sad spectacle of witnessing the destruction of American government while we powerlessly watch. Much of this work was included in a major retrospective this past fall and winter at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The symbolic location of Radio Silence returns us to this point of origin, the birthplace of American democracy, with the pathos and anomie of mutually assured destruction. Having replaced Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship with sectarian factions overseen by incompetent American ideologues during the war in 2003, we created a new Iraq resembling the United States of today, unable to compromise on the most basic functions of making laws, preventing foreign interference, providing public safety, upholding the justice system, or equitably distributing the nation’s wealth. Behind the mise-en-scène of a radio show performed in front of a live audience seated on the grass, the Independence Hall bell tolls every hour, sounding a warning that our government is being systematically dismantled from within.
The Radio Silence performance is staged as a sometimes intentionally kitschy talk show framed by metaphors of physical absence and spiritual presence, in honor of the renowned Iraqi broadcaster Bahjat Abdulwahed, who died in 2016 after emigrating to the U.S. in 2009. The main reference for Radio Silence in the title is the loss of his voice after his emergency tracheostomy, which rendered him unable to speak before the ultimate silencing of his death, but more broadly, it aims to amplify the largely forgotten voices and stories of Iraqis and Americans from the war and its aftermath.
Arabic classical musicians supply the soundtrack, led by Arab-Israeli violinist Hanna Khoury, musical director of the Penn Arab Ensemble, and previously affiliated with Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, a Philadelphia institution that promotes Arab culture. Exiled Iraqi Jawad Al Amiri, now owner of a car dealership in North Philadelphia, gives an incantation of hope for survival and safety in Iraq and for his relatives still living there. For Al Amiri, the silence alludes in particular to decades of forced silence during the Hussein regime as his brothers and sisters were tortured, murdered, arrested, and disappeared.
During the 90-minute performance, Iraqi exiles and U.S. soldiers speak of triumph, loss, struggle, and redemption on a stage designed to evoke the Ziggurat of Ur. We soon hear a story by Sergeant Gin McGill-Prather, a gay female medic, about the Nasiriya U.S. air base, located at the steps of the ziggurat. The plundering of Iraqi antiquities took place much earlier, McGill-Prather says, but she describes herself and other American soldiers using its steps as a playground, heedless of its world-historical value. She reports carelessly picking up a bone and placing it in her pocket for posterity, only to guiltily surrender it at the airport before her return. In the war’s aftermath, ISIS destroyed the 2900 B.C. Ziggurat at Nimrud, an artifact of one of the earliest known cities.
The readings and performances in Radio Silence never come close to achieving a sense of emotional resolution to all of this mess. We went into Iraq based on a sprawl of fallacies and misconceptions, and left in fit of pique and political calculation, having won little for all of the blood, treasure, and tears. The registers of sadness and cultural celebration embodied by Radio Silence never achieve — and maybe don’t aim for — any type of catharsis, but by bringing together veterans and Iraqi expatriates, the community-engaged process achieved a degree of healing.
Members of the Iraq war veteran organization Warrior Writers search for enlightenment in the roles they played as soldiers and its confrontations with the vulnerability of the human condition. Toni Topps reads a hymn about the voice of the voiceless; for almost a year after returning from Iraq she didn’t speak. Kevin Basl answered the call to defend Sioux protesters at Standing Rock against the militarized police of North Dakota. He served as a mobile radio operator in Iraq, and he reads an essay about playing the bugle at funerals of soldiers.
A campy dance-homage to Iraqi cooking is followed by the peculiar tale of Saddam Hussein’s promotion of professional wrestler Adnan Al-Kaissie and the match he set up with American pro-wrestling star Andre the Giant. As a whole, these experiences don’t make much more sense than individual experiences in the fog of war. We’re fighting our way through a dense urban space, unable to see past the next street, unsure where the next bomb will drop. We are would-be leaders operating with limited information, halting analytical skills, and pompous egos, making decisions for which we have no preparation or qualifications.
Around sunset, the performance ends, and the orchestra continues as the audience lines up for lamb, grape leaves, and Kubba from Amasi, the only local Iraqi restaurant. Some sit on the grass on blankets and eat together, while others camp out privately on park benches, returning to their newsfeeds. Radio Silence creates a stage for song, poetry, music, and stories to hold out against the silence, but an enveloping Babel-like silence of seven billion people drowning each other out on Twitter quickly returns. At a moment when the world feels broken and nothing holds the potential to heal it, the food and stories offer some small comfort, a hopeful gesture of slowing down, returning to a starting point, and creating a temporary community in a rapidly shifting landscape of migrations and too-quickly amplified messages.
Stephen Zacks is an architecture critic, urbanist, and curator based in New York City. Founder and creative director of Flint Public Art Project and president of the nonprofit Amplifier Inc., which develops art and design programs in under-served cities, he previously served as an editor at Metropolis and has published in The New York Times, Village Voice, Art in America, Hyperallergic, Abitare, Landscape Architecture Magazine, The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Monocle, Blueprint, Mic, Curbed, and Print. His work has received awards from the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, ArtPlace, National Endowment for the Arts, Graham Foundation, MacDowell Colony, New York State Council on the Arts, and the Newtown Creek Fund. He is currently writing a cultural history of New York City up to and after the mid-1970s fiscal crisis, I Won’t Go Back: Art, Architecture, and Capital Flows in the Ruins of New York, 1958-1989, tracking the influence of artist’s communities on neighborhood change in light of the wildly inflationary city that it turns out financial leaders planned to create all along.