Author: Parker, Judith
Date published: May 1, 2010
SURVEILLANCE IN SUBURBIA
High Value Targets
By Cheryl Pagurek
Patrick Mikhail Gallery
January 6-February 8, 2010
"High Value Targets," a multimedia exhibition by Canadian artist Cheryl Pagurek, employed a diptych format to present contemporary military surveillance and war imagery from the Middle East juxtaposed with domestic scenes of a lush urban backyard to convey a disquieting sense of unease and underlying tension in the family life of middle-class North America.
Pagurek's exhibition raised questions about personal and public security and vulnerability. As she noted in her artist's statement, "The work opens up a space to contemplate the myriad ways in which we, as individuals, might feel under siege in today's world." The artist's understated disclosure about the source of the military content1-consisting of video footage and stills from the war in Iraq dating predominantly from 2007 and 20082 - allows it to be read as a symbol of threat and surveillance of our time rather than a specific reference.
The soundtrack of Pagurek's dual-channel video, Growing Pains (2009), combined everyday domestic sounds with the aggressive noise of armed conflict, and provided an intentionally disturbing ambience in which to view her series of five large digital prints, "High Value Targets" (2009).3
Pagurek's sinister title "High Value Targets" was derived from U.S. military combat terminology refering to attack objectives. Each of the photographs' subtitles - They have wounded, Clear to engage, Good Missile, We've got a runner, and Follow my lead - is an example of military jargon or command taken from her video and reflect the type of armed activity seen in one half of the print and by inference the potential for this activity in the seemingly tranquil urban environment depicted in the adjacent half. For example, High Value Target 4: Good Missile, a vertical diptych, presents a verdant suburban "Garden of Eden" seen from above, abutting a grainy green aerial night-vision image of pale buildings surrounded by palm trees and a smoky green tail from a missile that has just hit its target. Both parts of the diptych are overlaid with viewfinder lines that center on the garden and conjure a sense of danger while also raising the spectre of civilian space as the objective of military assault. High Value Target 2: We've got a runner, a horizontal dual-image print whose title refers to chasing an escaping person, contrasts a close-up photograph of tender green and red shoots pushing through the soil amid a tangle of last year's dead foliage with a military observation image. The garden - also a scene of surveillance - is superimposed with a circular viewfinder and is seen beside a grainy brown night-time aerial surveillance image matted in vivid green, depicting a barely discernable, ghostly-white human figure running just beyond the crosshairs. Pagurek's work conjures the possibility that our safe and protected neighborhoods might also become a place of surveillance and danger; it also allows us to dimly grasp the living conditions of civilians who experience war from the air.
Pagurek's major work, the Growing Pains video, introduces the artist's other roles as parent and gardener. The dual metaphor of the female artist as cultivator of plants and nurturer of children is apt as both require acts of "balancing chaos and order on a small domestic scale" and "the handling of adverse effects."4 As the title suggests, Growing Pains' original impetus came from the difficulties of negotiating the minefield of motherhood and the problems of making parental decisions about the control, freedom, and safety of children.5 The video commences with a car slipping on an icy driveway in a snowy suburban scene juxtaposed with grainy aerial footage of buildings showing plumes of black smoke seen through crosshairs, accompanied by the sound of a helicopter. Through overheard conversations we encounter intimate slices of daily family life, reminiscent of the contents and tone of a personal journal. A shift in the parent-child relationship is relayed through Pagurek's son's first unaccompanied airplane flight across Canada at the age of twelve. We hear a man's voice ask, "What are you worried about?" and a woman's reply, "I'm not worried about his ability, but about the usual things - child abductions, plane crashes." The domestic dialogue is immediately followed by the forceful explosion of a building under rocket fire.
Growing Pains establishes a haunting sense of imminent threat in the urban environment by using parallel cinematic language. Shots of the suburban home and garden frequently mimic the pans and zooms of the military surveillance footage, while complex layering and montage moves imagery and sound back and forth from one side of the screen to the other. The seductive colors and textures of gardening activity during four seasons, along with the destructive intrusion of slugs, are contrasted with intense military surveillance and combat footage that escalates to the horrific tracking and shooting of human beings from the moving perspective of a helicopter gunship. It is a scene that becomes all the more disconcerting as the sounds of automatic weapons and matter-of-fact dialogue between airborne gunners and their commanding officers are heard.
Pagurek's work creates connections between geographically separate worlds and the people that reside in them. It also raises questions about the relationship between warfare and "acts of security" there required to maintain our privileged lifestyle here.
NOTES 1. The text in the press release for the exhibition reads, "Contemporary military footage from the United States war with Iraq. " The Growing Pains video credits the source as Digital Videa and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS). The DVIDS website FAQ section describes it as a public service paid far by the U.S. Department of Defense with the content created by U.S. military personnel, agencies, and contractors in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the world. 2. Author conversation with the artist, March 13, 2010, in Ottawa. 3. Theprints in the "High Value Targa" series range in size from 28 x 76 incites to 77 x 44 inches. 4. Cheryl Pagurek, Artist's Statement, Growing Pains, 2009; www.cherylpagurek.com. 5. Author conversation with the artist March 13, 2010, in Ottawa.
JUDITH PARKER is an Ottawa-based art historian and arts administrator.