Liverpool Biennial 2010: Alfredo Jaar at the Scandinavian Hotel.

Scandinavian Hotel

Art A video installation across three screens, Alfredo Jaar’s We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know is being presented in the dark, derelict environs of what must have been reception area of the old Scandinavian Hotel, with daylight from the basement atmospherically slipping in from underneath through bare rough wooden floorboards. It collects footage from various sources to investigate and ruminate on the Rwandan genocide, it’s a kind of epilogue to The Rwanda Project, a series of artworks developed by Jaar as a response to the genocide and the world’s inaction thereof.

[I'm now going to talk in detail about the piece, so if you're planning on visiting, please come back afterwards for what I thought.]

Assuming we join the piece at the beginning (I didn’t but I’ll pretend I did for the purposes of writing about it), we’re offered a BBC News report from not long after the outrage which provides the context surrounding a visit by then US present Bill Clinton (which is interesting in its own way for the slow non-sensationalist pace with which it proceeds, a sharp contrast to some of the television reporting which appears now). This is followed by the famous remarks by Clinton in which he apologies for the inaction of those who were in a position to intervene in which he suggests that they didn’t know the scale of what was happening.

There then follows the powerful guts of the piece, testimony from three Rwandans who were directly effected by the action in their state and how they survived through sheer luck, which is too horrible for me to repeat here. At which point, Jaar drops in a tiny interview with Stephen Lewis, the Canadian politician and diplomat, who was appointed to an enquiry into the Rwandan tragedy by the Organization of African Unity (OAU). He passionately and damningly suggests that Clinton did know about what was happening in Rwanda but had his mind on other things “as he so often did”. Lewis has tears in his eyes, the kind of tears only men who stoically won't cry have and we understand because we've heard just some of the testimony which he must have been a daily ritual as part of the panel.

As I stepped back into the entrance corridor, the Biennial volunteers asked for my opinion (which is never a good idea). My insta-reaction (which was perhaps not quite as verbose as they had expected) was that I thought that however potent that interview was, that the film was deeply simplistic in essentially laying the blame on Clinton’s shoulders (Jaar also employs freeze frames to indicate moments in the footage of the former President that might suggest he was being insincere) and that even though he was supposed to be “head of the free world ™” the whole of that world was in theory culpable, especially the UN who (I think) were on the ground in a non-partisan capacity.

In hindsight, my at least technical appreciation of the piece has improved. I can understand that Jaar is pointing his anger in one direction in order to simplify the argument, that he’s using Clinton to symbolically represent the failure of all the parties involved (presumably because by making his apology Clinton turned himself into a target). I also concede that Jaar has identified that in a gallery-type setting its impossible to present too complex an argument since its rare that a visitor will sit for the entire duration of a piece and so the artist has to keep repeating the message or theme in a variety of ways, in this case five directly focused movements (the fifth being an effective montage of shots of what must be the memorial the artist has created in Rwanda sixteen years on).

On top of which it's worth adding that since I was in the bubble of being a university undergraduate during the period all of this was taking place and so not really paying attention to the real world, my memory of the period is hazy, and though I've picked up some of the history subsequently (not least from the film Hotel Rwanda) I'm probably the last person who should be criticising the politics of a piece by someone with far greater knowledge of the subject than me. In other words We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know should be applauded for reminding us that there were plenty of atrocities in the twentieth century and that all of them should be remembered and evaluated and re-evaluated even if we know, because we know what humanity is capable of, that they won’t be the last. Known, unknowns, perhaps.

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