NOT JUST A STATISTIC
Kessa De Santis Interviews Brett James About the Project
September 1, 2004 (New York, NY) – If you have been around the five boroughs of NYC this past week, you have probably seen them. Randomly hung black and white posters. Each bears a photograph, a name, a short description, a number, and a statement, "Not Just A Statistic." These are images of the 953 soldiers the United States had lost to the Iraqi conflict as of the date this first wave of the NOT JUST A STATISTIC project was completed.
As a brief introduction, NOT JUST A STATISTIC is a graffiti-style poster project that was created and installed for the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City (at Madison Square Garden August 30 – September 2). The project itself entailed creating individual posters for every American soldier to have lost their life to hostile fire in Iraq. In order to complete the massive undertaking, a team of artists, editors, and just good old citizen volunteers undertook to research the lives of the soldiers, to summarize those lives with single, humanizing facts, to compile the data, edit it, generate the posters, and hang them around the five boroughs of New York.
The brainchild of filmmaker Brett James, I had the opportunity to conduct a virtual interview about NOT JUST A STATISTIC just days before the GOP was set to come to my hometown. If you are reading this interview months later, I would imagine that, as planned, this very patriotic endeavor has recently made the trip to your city. If you are reading this interview months later, I would imagine that the number of our lost brothers and sisters has climbed well beyond 1000.
Kessa De Santis
How did this project originate?
I challenged everyone to come up with something that would make a difference. Something beyond preaching to the choir, something that could appeal to everyone. That was a tricky. I knew it would be about the war, because that's the only reason I'm doing this. I have feelings about abortion rights and the economy, but they wouldn't have made me drop everything to pursue a project like this.
Why the soldiers?
They're real heroes. The more I work on this, the more impressed I am: they are fighting this war like they were defending their own doorsteps. And the reaction they get for being killed and maimed in action ranges from blind empathy to open disdain. It's awful. I have so much respect for these people for following orders and we owe it to them to make sure the orders they are getting are the right ones. Defending your country sounds like a worn-out, war-mongering term, but when 9/11 happened and West Berlin happened these are the same people we looked to to do what we the everyday person couldn't.
Another way of looking at it is if the Bush administration is like getting hit by a drunk driver, the rest of us are the people who maybe lost our car and got scratched up and everyone says, "The important thing is you're okay." These soldiers are the ones that didn't make it.
What have your other artistic endeavors entailed?
In real life, I'm a filmmaker. This is a total left turn. But it's the right thing to do, so I'm trying to adapt.
Were you in the armed forces? Your friends/family?
None of my family, but the Gulf War happened while I was in college. I had a lot of friends who had gone into the military and it was a very tense time for all of us. Of course, that war proved far less deadly and at least had a semblance of an excuse for existing.
Have you lost anyone to this/any conflict?
Very fortunately, I don't really have anyone I know even at risk in this conflict. Except, of course, for the expected backlash. I do believe that this pointless war is going to cause the death of more American civilians. It's pretty much the exact opposite of actually defending this country.
In conducting research, what has come as a surprise?
I knew I would be affected by it, but I
had no idea how much. The goal of the project was to catch people unawares, but
before the posters
have even gone up, everyone involved has been struck by it. It's hard, you're digging around someone's life trying to find the humanizing sentence and you can't help but get to know these guys and then you run across one that you're like, "I would have really liked this person if I knew them." And then you have a meltdown. Almost everyone on the project has gone through this.
You mention NYers going about their business, but what do you want the people in town for RNC to "get" from the posters?
I'm not trying to bring down the RNCers, but I do feel they'll be too jumped up and focused on their campaign ahead to allow themselves to be swayed from their path by anything, much less this project.
Still, I'm not trying to insult them or tell them their candidate is evil. I'm just trying to tell them, "This is something you should really think about before you vote." So maybe they'll take a little time to listen. If we can even make them doubt a little, it might force the leadership to back down from their overt war-mongering.
The idea of the posters reminds me of the Missing flyers that papered the city just after 9/11. Is that just a coincidence?
No coincidence. We looked at a lot of the 9/11 stuff; 9/11 is the other great tragedy of the Bush administration. Saying that might offend those affected by 9/11 and not about the war, but maybe it's time people started thinking about it that way.
But the 9/11 stuff is far from the only influence. We spent a lot of time thinking about how the protesting in Vietnam only managed to polarize American feelings. I've always felt we could do better than that.
Have you received input/research from
active service people?
No. Sad. But no. The closest I got was an email from a person whose father had died in Vietnam. I didn't get it at first, because he was just sending me a list of humanizing facts about a soldier. Then he told me it was his father. He's been one of the great contributors to this project, which I keep close to my heart. Because if it works for him, there's hope it will work for others.
How does this project fit into the Brett James overall artistic vision?
Like a square peg. In fact, the melancholy from this project will probably make me unproductive for months.
Excerpted from the NOT JUST A STATISTIC mission statement:
The plan is to hang over nine hundred individual posters, one for each American soldier who was killed in Iraq, around the five boroughs of New York City. The posters will each have a picture of the soldier, their name, and a single humanizing fact. Such as, "Favorite dessert was chocolate ice cream." Or, "Planned on being a doctor." It's just connecting the viewer with a soldier, an American, who has died for this war. After all, you cannot know if something is worth the price until you know what the price is.