Aaron Hughes

Aaron Hughes Interviewed for Never The Same on 4/21/11 at the National Veterans Art Museum by Daniel Tucker

Aaron Hughes is a field organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and an artist and curator focused mainly on themes of militarism, violence, war, and associated traumas. He recently curated an exhibition, “Intrusive Thoughts”, for the National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM) and is part of a young generation of veterans trying to infuse this important local institution with new ideas, energy, and art.

Daniel Tucker: What is important to you about presenting the artwork of veterans as artwork by veterans?

Aaron Hughes: I don’t necessarily know if it’s specific to artwork by veterans, but I think that when I was deployed I came to this decision that what I could trust was art. The idea of creating something seemed honest to me in a way that other things people do in their lives, other work, other practices did not.

I feel like there are these moments of really honest work and a lot of it comes from surviving violence and how that creates a very specific relationship to life or death.

This need for survivors to explore the grosse violence of war was historically part of the inspiration to destroy language for the Dada artists, or for Goya to depict over and over again these monsters and hangings and grotesque spearings and destruction of other human beings. All of those things are still here in our society but it’s glossed over with ads of beautiful people, and declarations of  What is and is not art.

Art is about finding a common human language that is lost in war. This loss of language is a loss of understanding, is a loss of meaning, is trauma. And I think veteran artists are seeking to reconstruct a common human language. Veterans dealing with trauma are often seeking for a language to explore and share these traumas and memories. These memories of traumatic experiences are never complete, and will never get completed. So veterans keep trying to complete these memories  through their work.

I believe this is what the veteran art here is doing, and that’s why I’m really invested in this space [The National Veterans Art Museum/NVAM], and why it’s important to frame the work as specifically veteran artwork.

DT: Can you talk about the relationship between your organizing with Iraq Veterans Against the War and your art curation? Because you’re working with some of the same people, you’re working with some of the same concepts, and it’s manifesting in different ways. But you’re living through both and negotiating the possibilities and limitations of both.

AH: What attracts me about organizing is that organizing is creating spaces and meaning for not just one person but for a community. And I think that is also what the NVAM space can do.

To me cultural spaces, such as NVAM, are  intended  to create collective meaning through the sharing of stories. In both organizing and curating, I’m  attempting to bring people together to discuss and build a common story and a common meaning. In this process,  people can relate to each other’s stories and  these spaces can become tools to build a narrative that isn’t being heard in our everyday lives.

That is the idea of the show Intrusive Thoughts. We are bringing this collective veteran narrative from the shadows of our society. There are 80,000 homeless veterans on the street every single night in our country living in these shadows. We know it. And here’s a space to see it and bring these shadows to light.

Organizing is doing the same thing, its creating space for those voices to be heard and build a common narrative that makes and individual’s voice not seem so isolated in our society.

DT: Do you find that the common story or shared sense of each other bridges across generations, in terms of veterans from past wars and occupations to today?

AH: I think there are definitely strong connections.  When I was beginning to explore art, I found Otto Dix and that was what spoke to me. And when I got into organizing, it was a Vietnam Veteran that spoke to me. Otto Dix was doing 80 years ago what I wanted to do with my work now. So I definitely feel like those relationships are there but they’re hard to find.

Our veteran communities isolate each other pretty well and are also successfully divided. For example, when I first got home in 2003,  Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans were competing with WWII veterans for congressional funding for VA benefits. Congress voted down a bunch of VA funding for the current veterans.

It’s amazing how these divisions arise and we look at each other’s differences as opposed to each other’s similar struggles. We compete rather than try and bring our struggles together.

That said, more World War II veterans and Korean-era veterans are committing suicide today than they were directly after those wars. And why is that? Why are so many of them committing suicide today? Is it because they’re seeing something familiar that  they don’t want to be reminded of or be a part of? I kind of believe that that might be the case.

DT: You are an Iraq veteran that is participating in this institution and executing this very provocative exhibition here, and site-ing it here for a reason. Have you been able to facilitate or witness some exchanges between Vietnam-era veterans and the work that you’re presenting, which is by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans?

AH: Yeah. The guys that started this museum and that are still here are predominately Vietnam vets — old, cranky Vietnam vets. They see connections. But, they know not everything is the same. Just the other day Michel Helbing, who is one of the original members of NVAM, was saying, “Veteran art from the Vietnam War started off with photography and then re-representations of photography and then deconstructing those photographs with collage, and then finally people began to get into painting or other mediums that are more abstract and more removed from the direct experience.”

I think that is similar to what I am seeing veterans  produce. For example, Chris Vongsawat’s images of his deployment are direct, raw, snap shots.  Ash Kyrie’s work is a departure from this documentary style.  Instead he’s exploring the relationships between his experiences and the mass media’s photographic representations of those experiences. He’s collaging those things together and moving in the direction of more abstraction.

DT: As someone who is curating this and doing a lot of thinking about it in terms of your own art practice, what do you think about the relationship between the work that requires so much explanation and back story to make sense versus the work that often uses either much more straightforward imagery that reads as being about war or actual text that references veteran experiences? And how are you thinking about that and how to present it effectively when some of the work requires so much explanation and then you’re pairing it with work that is so much more straightforward? What is your interest in doing that?

AH: That’s interesting. It’s funny because I guess I want to believe that the work can stand alone without explanation, that people can come to it with their experiences and see it, like even Ash’s pieces. Viewers don’t need to know that each image represents  a specific category. But it adds these layers of meaning when this is revealed. Or for example, Jeremy Berggren’s work takes on more levels of meaning when we know the backstory of his relationship to mortuary affairs.

I would like to think that—and maybe naively—  that the work can stand by itself, it can hold its ground. I really think it’s always about building a story. It’s not maybe one that is linear or fits perfectly but it’s building a story, building an idea, building meaning. I think that has to come from different angles. I think that it needs space for things to be abstract and for things to not fit.  You also need space for things to be really direct and in-your-face and challenging and complicated in a way where it doesn’t make sense. I mean, maybe that’s the naïve hope that people are going to stick with the work long enough to challenge themselves to see the different relationships. Build different stories. I hope that happens.

DT: Can you talk a little bit about the pre-history of this project, Intrusive Thoughts, in terms of your own background? I’m curious about some specific examples of art, research, or organizing projects that you’ve been involved with that led you to this kind of vantage point of “Intrusive Thoughts”?

AH: Yeah. In 2008 I was extremely involved with the Warrior Writer’s Project [organized by Iraq Veterans Against The War/IVAW], and we were going to compile a book of all these writings and we were debating about the framework of the book. I really was invested in this idea of Intrusive Thoughts.

I don’t know where I had first heard the phrase. It might have been an offhand comment from someone. But no matter where our conversations started in Warrior Writers Workshops they always ended up cycling back to these particular moments people remembered from their deployments. Each person seemed to have a small set of recurrent memories and intrusive thoughts. I wanted the book to be framed like that, but I lost the debate.  We decided on Re-Making Sense as a title and framing  as it was more constructive and empowering.

I’ve been hung on to that idea ever since because I want civilians to understand how intrusive thoughts make the war a life long experience for many veterans. I want people to get that they’re real and that they’re affecting our society; whether that’s your family member that’s now an alcoholic, or your great-grandfather that never talked about being in the war every veteran has intrusive thoughts that manifest in different ways.

I just want an understanding of intrusive thoughts to be really present, especially now since it has been at least three years since the media has been covering death tolls in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year was the most deadly year in Afghanistan to date and it is as if it didn’t even happen here.  This show at the NVAM came out of that longing for the war to be present at home, and that same longing came out of those Warrior Writers workshops.

On a different point, I became familiar with a lot of the art work in the show through organizing. While organizing for IVAW I was meeting veterans across the country always asking, ‘can I see your work, show me what you’re doing.’ And a lot of veterans don’t feel like their work is being looked at. So it’s nice to see it and then talk to them about it.

Everything overlays. I think about the campaign IVAW is doing right now around trauma and the traumas of war and how Intrusive Thoughts is all about that. This is all about trauma. And this exhibit is just a different way of talking about it. These different angles inform each other.

DT: You talked about people, the artists that you’re working with in this show not feeling like their work is being seen. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? As far as the phenomenon that you’re talking about, about the war, veterans not being seen or not being visible. And then there’s another phenomenon that you’re talking about, which is artists that happen to be veterans, not having their art work seen or understood or taken seriously. Can you talk about the relationship between those two things? I imagine they’re interrelated, but they’re also different issues.

AH: I can talk about it on different levels.

Meta-level. So I’m obsessed with this idea of vulnerability that Judith Butler talks about, and this idea that our vulnerability is what allows us to kill. It’s the fact that we can be killed, it’s the fact that we can be destroyed, it’s the fact that we can die that leads to reactions and responses of violence. And I think our society as a whole doesn’t want to acknowledge that we are vulnerable, that our society is constructed by human beings and we’re dying and our society will change and it will die. That’s a real thing that doesn’t fit in with the story that our society is telling about itself.  Veterans are a representation of that vulnerability, of that real concrete ‘We have been killed and we are killing,’ and so I think we as veterans are hard to look at. Our society doesn’t want to see that vulnerability when we think about what clothes we’re buying or where our food is coming from and definitely not what our foreign policy is doing. I guess I feel like veteran’s experiences, or them just being on the streets, is a real representation of that vulnerability. I want to embrace that- Yeah, I can die. I’m going to die. And that’s okay. So, I’m just going to live how I’m going to live and I don’t give a shit about your system. I don’t need to fit into it, and there’s nothing for me to get out of it, there’s nothing for me to gain. I lived with my backpack for two years in the jungle; I can fucking live on the streets of Chicago. I think this is a result of the real antagonism with society’s lack of acknowledgement of life.

On a different point, in some ways our society wants to see what we already know about war. We want the reified version. We don’t really want to deal with the complexity of the real experience of war in our lives on a daily basis. I don’t want to fucking deal with it in my life on a daily basis. I can’t imagine why people would want that.

But it’s real, and it’s a part of who we are and I think that not wanting to listen to that is why the movies and the images we see [that do relate to war] are representations of representations or an artist’s ‘smart’ idea of what war looks like or what war means without even really caring about the veterans that they’re taking photographs of, and what their stories are and how does that relate to the fact that they’re now taking photographs of them? I think that it’s a lot easier for people to digest that and to take it on because it already fits into the story that we’re telling.

It’s just a very safe representation. It could pretend to be a critique, but it’s not dealing with the messiness of it, and I don’t think we want to be that vulnerable when we’re dealing with the idea that we don’t know how to look at war or how to handle war.

DT: As you travel around and go to people’s studios, what is some of the work that you’ve encountered that isn’t about the war? What is, as someone who is now involved in organizing and curating the work of artists who are veterans, the kind of art you are seeing that is not explicitly dealing with the subject matter of either veterans status or war experiences. Or have you seen that?

AH: [pause] I have seen very little. And what I have seen is maybe—I haven’t seen very much to be honest. I can say I’ve seen some love poems or something. I’ve seen music that people have created, that’s just an attempt to be music. Yeah.

DT: As you work to facilitate these spaces or frameworks in which people, non-veterans and veterans alike, can experience the cultural production of veterans, do you want to see that expand conceptually in terms of what the work is about? Or is it important to you at this point that the work, and the conceptual framework that it is presented in, meet that difficult subject, the one that you’ve clearly committed the most of yourself to?

AH: I think that’s hard to answer.

I don’t think war is just about—or being a veteran and talking about war —is just about war. I think its looking at violence and looking at one’s humanity and relationship to other people. I think it’s an experience that encompasses a lot of the human experience. And so there’s room to really expand and to explore. Also, many of these veteran artists are taking on other conceptual frameworks and questions in addition to the subject matter of war.

For example Ash’s work is dealing with representations of war and taking on the way the media frames war. So his work is already removed from his personal experience and it’s not just talking about war. It’s about representation. It’s talking about these other larger ideas. I guess I feel like there’s room to explore and go beyond, and I also feel like some artists have dedicated their entire lives to making work about war, and they’re not veterans. So I guess I think that it’s not even just unique to veterans.

I feel like the portraits that Otto Dix, a WWI veteran, was doing later on in his life of families and doctors and drug addicts during the Weimar Republic, was still about war. I think it was still a direct story of telling this relationship these people’s lives have to war.

So, I guess no. I guess I’m not expanding or broadening conceptual vision.

DT: That’s cool.


AH: I guess that’s cool. It seems limiting.

DT: If you want to think about it that way. That’s not what I was intending to suggest… You make a lot of art and experiences that are about people exploring their emotions and I guess I’m curious what you see as the relationship between internal transformation that people experience and external or social or structural kind of transformations that you want to see occur or that you have seen occur? And I could elaborate more, but I also feel like you’ll have stuff to say. . .

AH: I probably have stuff to say about everything, which is not always a good thing.

I think it gets back to the idea of meaning, and what is meaningful in our lives. And I think that is in direct relationship to our humanity and our ability to share that with other people. Emotions are a major part of what make us human and therefore I think they’re a major part of what makes meaning. What makes something meaningful is when you feel it on some level emotionally and spiritually. So I don’t necessarily know if emotions can be transferred, like someone sharing an emotion means that other people are going to be sharing that emotion. But I think it humanizes the people sharing it, and it humanizes the people observing or being a part of it. It reminds them that they have emotions too, and that they can share them. It’s okay. It’s okay to be a human being. Which is kind of, like why shouldn’t people be angry? Why wouldn’t we want to share that anger so we can feel it and move with it, do something with it, act upon it, and move beyond it?

So I think that’s where I’m looking for transformation, for myself, is in my ability to share moments that are meaningful to me and for me to see and become aware of other people’s experiences and moments that are meaningful to them, which are usually fraught with emotion. Those are moments that probably a lot of times people can’t even talk about. But maybe they can just describe. And that’s why I think art is so important, it can be a descriptive tool for those moments.

DT: I have two more questions. Can you talk about an art project or art experience that you’ve had that has blown your mind, transformed all your thinking about what you’re committing your life to? What’s a project that really changed how you thought about the world or your work?

AH: So I’m making all of these images about my experience in the war, which has a lot to do with seeing all of these little kids on the side of the road that are willing to jump on a semi-truck to get food or water. The number of kids on the side of the road and how many of them have been violated by the war—I was making all that into artwork and I wanted to do something with it. So I decided I’m going to have a show, I’m going to sell the work and all of the money is going to go to all of these foundations that are helping the kids. And I heard about this foundation Global Medical Relief Fund that was working with these kids, and they were on Democracy Now! and I called them up and I was like, hey, I sold this work, I want to donate all the money to you. And they’re like, okay, sure. And so I just sent them this couple thousand-dollar check. And then they called me and they’re like, thank you for this donation, and I was like, well I’m going to be in New York, can I come and visit?

And this is during my time at The Kitchen, which hosts this summer institute, and it was a come-together with Herrell Fletcher and a bunch of other artists, and my idea of art was just rapidly transforming, and I was asking myself. . .what is art?

We were doing a come-together event, which meant that we all had to bring someone from the community to the event for them to tell a story. And I brought Ahmed, who had lost his arm and his vision when he was walking home from school in Iraq [and was being assisted by Global Medical Relief Fund]. His hand got blown up, and he put his hand up to his face and he burnt his eyes. He was here in the United States to get a prosthetic arm and prosthetic eyes. I visited him to talk to him about him coming to do this event, and tell his story. And when I was visiting him, the first thing that he did is he just went up to me, grab my arm, and he started yelling ‘run.’ “Run.” And it was because he just wanted to run. He’s a little kid, he’s nine years old, and he wants to run but he needs someone to guide him. And he has no idea who I was—he doesn’t even care that I was in Iraq, being a part of abusing his society and him. Who knows? But he doesn’t care, and he just comes up and grabs my arms and yells ‘run.’

I feel like that’s what I want to do. Like life is for love and trust. When he came to the come-together event, he stole my camera. He can’t see. He’s running around taking fucking pictures and he can’t see anything. And so after the show, I made a slideshow about his photographs—with all of his photographs and his story, photographs that we’re seeing that he never will be able to see. And they’re all these blurry, messy images. And I just thought, ‘how concrete is that?’ And for me, something about that experience, being with this child was really powerful, specifically because of my relationship to kids while I was deployed, which is funny because after I did that show and had that work someone came up to me and said, “don’t you think it’s a little—“ I had never thought of it, but then they said to me, “well don’t you think it’s a little—it’s easy, you’re using these little kids to create sympathy and emotion. Don’t you think that’s problematic?”

Fuck. Yeah. How do I deal with that? Which is what the tea project that I did a year and a half ago was about. It was about going back to Iraq in 2009 and telling people in Iraq that I was in your country, you know, a part of oppressing your people. And I’m sorry but I’m not here for forgiveness, I’m here to take responsibility. And this man, afterwards, yelling something and coming up to the stage and I’m thinking he’s going to punch me in the face. And he comes up on stage and translation comes through and he said, “I just want to come up on stage and give these gentleman a hug.” And he gave me a hug, and it’s like, I broke down. Then he taught me how to make tea to chill me out. And it’s like, how universal is that?

And then, Warrior Writers—the first time I’m sitting around a table of veterans and I’ve been at the University of Illinois, hating every other college kid there because they have no clue. I can’t go to the bar without freaking out. How can kids wait in line for twenty minutes to get into a fucking bar to drink some beer. How is that a valuable use of their time? This is where I was at, at that time. I was so angry at everything. And I go out to this Warrior Writers retreat in Burlington, Vermont and I’m sitting at a table and we all do the first writing exercise and then we all read our writing to everybody else, and all of a sudden you realize that everybody else there knows you. You know them. They’ve been through what you’ve been through. You don’t even need to have experienced exactly what they’ve experienced, but it’s like knowing this common experience that ‘I’m not alone.’

And I think that, in a lot of ways, maybe that’s what all of those things are about. Whether it’s connecting with Ahmed, or connecting with the oil workers in Iraq, or connecting with these other veterans in this show—connecting with people in Chicago.  We’re not in this alone. There’s other people that are here, that are witnesses and that are a part of this experience.

The Combat Paper Project  itself is about transforming a uniform into this space of expression, this institutionalized costume of domination, of power, tearing it up, destroying it and turning it into a space of expression that is opposite. We are taking those symbols and turning them upside down. Those people that go through that, that do that, that take their uniform that means so much to them. A uniform that they don’t even really want to get rid of because they’ve slept in it for months at a time, and it has little pieces of sand still in it from the desert and now they’re ripping it apart, all the pockets and all these little lint things are falling out of it and this all is transforming into something with a little bit more meaning, something that isn’t about control, something that isn’t about uniformity, something that’s a little bit more personal.

DT: Well my last question is about place and community—I mean, your work is very national if not international in terms of the kind of connections that you’re making, like social connections with other people and the kind of community you’re trying to form through your organizing. I just wonder if you have anything else to say about—you’ve talked about creating these kind of spaces for finding commonality or common threads. But I guess I’m also curious about what do you want these communities that you’re a part of creating, what do you want them to do? And I guess I’m also specifically curious about in certain places, like in this space, like in Chicago, where you’re certainly part of a conversation and a community that extends beyond your status as a veteran and your organizing work. What do you want from the communities that you’re a participant in and a part of creating?

AH: Space and community, specifically relating to Chicago, this space.

DT: What do you want from the communities that you’re a participant in and a part of creating and cultivating? And then number two is about this place that you live and where you’re from and how it affects you or inspires you.

AH: Communities: what I want is to be a part of a community that’s telling a different story than what I was told.

DT: That you were told when?

AH: Like growing up as a youth, and just believing in a lot of the myths that I feel like our society perpetuates about itself, whether its American exceptionalism or if it’s ideas of religion or ideas of power and masculinity, romance, like their romance of war. All those kind of things, I want a different story to be told and I want to be a part of making that story, and the community is a part of that, and challenging the dogmas and the power structures that are perpetuating those stories. How do we make a new language? How do we make a new story? So I think that’s what I want, which is a part of concrete changes. It’s a part of real social changes, and I think it is a different type of story.

I think of the historical context of Chicago, and the fact that you can’t go to an event or an organizing meeting or an art show without running into history of some type and dealing with that history. How does that effect the way we’re working today? How are we negotiating the work and the things that were done in the Eighties and the Seventies and the Sixties and the Fifties and the Forties, and all that is still here? And that’s in people’s political relationships. That’s how you can set up a show here and not over there. All that is real on one end, and it’s informative and useful. I think it has taught me things that I don’t think a lot of people doing this type of work have a lot of opportunity to learn.

On a different level, Chicago can be really honest at times, which I really appreciate. The different neighborhoods and the different communities that exist here have the potential to isolate communities but there are people honestly trying to work in coalition and break down barriers.

For example, a gentleman from Cease Fire came to the talk IVAW had.  He’s talking about trauma in the inner city, and we’re talking about trauma of war. There’s an opportunity to talk about making these connections and building a relationship. And how can these kids from Cease Fire listen to or how can they be heard by us veterans. I guess I want to believe in that work in Chicago. There are really serious attempts to do that work of connecting these issues and building those relationships while acknowledging the disparity and power and privilege and all these other things that are really present in Chicago.

Our neighborhoods are re-gentrifying. My mom’s school is getting shut down. It’s turning into a charter school, she’s getting laid off at the end of the year. It’s just real. And all these different relationships that are around her work, around my work, around other communities work and how we have these points of intersection, like the education system, the transportation, the community spaces, the museum itself and how they get used.

DT: Just a last addition to that question is: you have been back in Chicago organizing these cultural events and exhibitions and projects for several years now, and I’m wondering as you continue on with your work what do you, specifically the art stuff, what do you want from this city and its people and its art-going publics and its cultural institutions and media? What are some expectations or just desires do you have in relation to the kind of work that you’ve been making and that you’re probably continue experimenting with?

AH: Recognition of an artistic movement is what I want and that movement doesn’t necessarily have to be outsider art, or insider art or these different framings, but can be genuine and more about exploring different mediums to create spaces of meaning and ideas. I want that from Chicago. I think Chicago can be a platform for that to exist, but I think it can also really quickly compartmentalize work and put it off into a corner. Like this work is over here, and that work is over there. That’s even the way I was introduced to this museum. People were like, ‘have you ever heard of this museum.’ And it was this thing that was not a part of the art world. Oh, no, no, no. It’s not a part of the museum community. It’s not a part of the veteran’s community. It is its own little segmented off project and… I want a movement. I want those communities to come together, converge, grow, build on each other, inspire each other, flat roll this city into something else: into a different way of seeing it, a different way of relating.


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