Ian Howard

oneworld
Queensland Art Gallery

With in the installation, oneWORLD, Ian Howard created a classic dystopian space. oneWORLD projected a nightmare vision filled with the terrors of technology and totalitarianism and as such it was designed to both demonstrate and critique the way in which a particular military culture has permeated our lives. While the installation offered much in the way of sharp political invective on the nature of militarisation, the question arises as to whether it was as much a critical response to this syndrome as it was yet another symptom of it? In fact, one could suggest that Howard runs the risk of propagating the very thing he sought to expose.

oneWORLD built upon the collective knowledge of the dystopian narrative and presented us with an Orwellian landscape of almost sublime proportions: a realm of darkness, chaos and confusion, illuminated only by occasional spots of light. In experiencing the space the viewer stumbled upon, and was confronted by, varying scenarios which served to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the 'military machine' within our world. We peered voyeuristically into small domestic interiors, into familiar everyday events, into a community surrounded and overshadowed by the technology of warfare. The space was littered with models of military hard ware, often in the most incongruous and disparate of settings, where bullets and bombers served as a bizarre form of interior decoration. This positioning of the domestic and the military, which was the at the very crux of the exhibition, exemplified how our culture has adopted a strangely passive acceptance of this rather savage state of affairs.

While the physical setting of the objects carried with it an element of the fantastic, the background hum of the television monitors held a far more chilling reality. The monitors constantly spewed out military statistics and dispatches and in the process one was reminded of that information over-load which so characterized the Gulf War. In a complete reversal of the policy of secrecy and dis-information which the United States military had used in Vietnam, the Gulf War took a very different tack. Here the military pursued what seemed an 'opendoor' policy where the media was given full access to both military information and charismatic Generals. In the process the commentators and critics of the Gulf War were successfully buried in a barrage of information which was well-nigh impossible to analyse. In

oneWORLD Howard replicated this situation where the information received was so overwhelming, and thus deliberately obscure, that it ceased to have any real meaning. Yet in spite of its lack of any real calorific value such information is fed to us constantly. oneWORLD solidified its message by verifying the way in which war seems to be a permanent, though uninvited and very often unconsidered, presence in our daily lives.

Thus Howard provided a three-dimensional representation of those all too familiar grim warnings of the dystopian narrative, replete with their sense of loss, intimidation and anxiety- that presents something of a problem . Having reinforced that nightmare first raised in

Nineteen Eighty-Four: having successfully projected the notion that future holds little more than " ... a boot stamping upon a human face for ever"-where do we go from here?, Does not oneWORLD testify that there is nowhere to go? That there is no escape? The problem in

Ian Howard's work lay in the fact that, to my mind, oneWORLD actually re-created and reestablished those very patterns of passive acceptance from which it proposed to rouse us.

I suspect this glitch in the system is an almost direct result of Howard's use of the dystopian format. The reasons for the use of the dystopic are obvious. It is an interesting medium through which to represent his message for what utopia/dystopia offer is a space of unlimited possibilities. As literary genres they are well recognised and effective methods of social commentary and political criticism. However Howard's choice the dystopic realm as opposed the utopic, as the agency for his ideas, is where some significant contradictions begin to surface. Quite simply dystopia is the inverse of utopia and whereas utopia is a space of hope and consolation , dystopia reflects only despair and alienation. The dystopic exists only as a negative moment. lrving Howe in a discussion of the dystopic genre describes it thus:

Still dependant on a vision of the Golden Age, the [dystopian] novel thus shares an essential quality with all modern literature: it can realise its value only through images of their violation. The enchanted dream has become a nightmare projected with such power as to validate the continuing urgency of the dream.2

To expand upon this we must understand the dystopic as the genre of the twentieth century.

Both utopia/dystopia have, since their inception, shared an uneasy coexistence but it was not until this century that dystopia became the dominant representative mode. The reasons for its ascendancy are complex but relate for the most part to the rapidity of social and cultural change which marks our era and the displacement and disaffection such change engenders . As a result the future seemed marked by uncertainty and the rosy pictures painted by utopians, invalid. The twentieth century is no longer troubled by dreams of Eden but by phantoms of the Apocalypse and as the millenium comes to a close these phantoms seem to gain an extra dimension.
The dystopic space serves only to heighten our anxieties and increase our sense of fearfulness. It symbolizes a lack of faith in a viable future and thereby the question remains as to whether such a negative proposition is an effective political strategy. I would not suggest that we do not have much to be terrified and angst-ridden about but that the dystopian does not offer any solutions, only more nightmares. oneWORLD presented the invasion of the military into our lives as a fait accompli: as a situation so dictatorial and all-encompassing that we as a community could never have any power over it. Thus for all of the 'political correctness' of Howard's installation it did not offer any strategies for change and it gave us no means of redressing the problem.

The catalogue claimed that lan Howard's purpose in one WORLD was to "effect a shift in consciousness"- to heighten our awareness of the militarisation of the every day. If I then ask for an 'awareness' of solutions as opposed to that of problems am I not asking for a different form of art? Yes, I am. Political art as a form of 'consciousness raising ' has its part to play. However if it is to be considered a viable medium in the nineties and if it wishes to reaffirm its validity after more than a decade in the wilderness, then its practitioners might need to reassess their methods.

notes: 

1. G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Middlesex, Penguin, 1981 , p. 215. The quote in full reads, "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face-for ever".

2. I. Howe, Politics and the Novel, New York: Horizon Press, 1957, p. 180.