4,000 Iraq war-stricken voices heard in exhibit

By Alex Stedman

As those dealing with the tragedies of the Iraq war find ways to express their distress, one Chicago artist took the initiative to turn the emotions of more than 4,000 people into art.

Jennifer Karmin, an artist, poet and adjunct faculty member in the English Department, has written a poem titled “4000 Words 4000 Dead,” a four-year project composed of submissions from soldiers, veterans and civilians. She has performed the piece on city streets across the country. In October, she transcribed the words in the small room of a mansion, 6018NORTH, used as a public, nonprofit space for artists at 6018 N. Kenmore Ave., as part of the center’s “Home: Public or Private?” project.

While the exhibit is closed to the public, Karmin’s final street performance will be Veterans Day, Nov. 12 at a downtown location yet to be announced. The poem will be published by Sona Books, an independent publisher of artistic works run by Jill Magi, a visiting writer in the English Department’s graduate program.

The exhibit is small, with off-white walls that feature words such as “bodies,” “quicken,” “toll,” “home” and “grotesque.” Karmin randomly selected submitted words and used the American flag to sporadically paint the walls in dripping black paint. The only other object in the room is a paint-splattered bathtub.

“[The bathtub is] really interesting in that space,” Karmin said. “It’s this place for cleansing or ritual. How do we even start to clean up after this mess?”

Karmin said she was inspired to start the project in 2008 after watching ABC News White House Correspondent Martha Raddatz ask former Vice President Dick Cheney what he thought about the number of American casualties in the Iraq war reaching 4,000. Karmin said the question inspired her to use the Internet to ask anyone to submit up to 10 words about how they felt about the war. She collected the submissions for four years.

She used the words to write a poem and performed it on the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York while handing out copies to passersby. Though she said some were supportive, others ignored her.

“The thing about public work is that you’ll always get some people who just can’t handle it,” Karmin said. “You’re still getting a reaction out of them in some way.”

The month-long transcription process took an emotional toll on Karmin. She said spending so much time with words that were not her own made her grieve.

She said she is also upset about the lack of attention to the war during the presidential election.

“There’s something about this political period that makes me kind of sad,” she said. “We’re on the cusp of the election and you don’t hear the candidates talking about our soldiers.”

Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a Chicago-based anti-war group, spoke at an Oct. 27 community discussion of Karmin’s project. She said the media ignored her organization when covering the struggles of Iraqi children, and artistic works like “4000 Words 4000 Dead” are one way to get people to ask questions about the war. She also mentioned a group of Iraqi refugees living on the same block as the mansion.

“[The refugees have] been traumatized by the way their country was sort of beaten down, and it didn’t seem like anybody in the international community cared,” Kelly said. “For refugees in this neighborhood to discover there are artists who do care

[is] significant.”

Stephen Funk, artistic director of San Francisco-based Veteran Artists, said his organization uses art to help veterans cope with the psychological challenges that stem from traumatic war memories.

“A lot of times, people with post-traumatic stress disorder get caught in these feedback loops where they get stuck,” he said. “[Art] is a way to leave things behind and move on.”

Karmin said her work not only serves as a means of creative education, but also as a way to evoke emotion. She said she hopes change can come from the project and is glad that so many people have come to the mansion to support her art.

“There’s a way to take that sadness and transform it into something else that can be used for action,” Karmin said.