"There's nothing beautiful or healing about war. But when you come back and you take something like your uniform which you served in and did all those things in in Iraq... I think that turning that into art is something that is beautiful and it does help to heal, especially those of us who have seen combat." - Phil Ailiff
Learning how to make paper... it's definitely been one of the largest impacts on my life... especially this kind of paper where we've put so much into it. - Jon Michael Turner
If at first it seems unlikely that Veterans would take up papermaking to deal with the trauma of war, then we might remember that the Combat Paper project revives an understanding of paper as a material archive of history and memory --- a tradition that, in North America at least, dates to the seventeenth century. Currently, however, paper doesn't often have positive connotations. It signifies the ecological waste of so-called "dead tree publications" or the alienation of bureaucratic modern life consumed by endless paperwork or by the inflated value of paper money. As these clips suggest, however, the process of hand papermaking from cloth rags (paper's primary ingredient until the switch to wood in the late 1860s) facilitates intimacies between body and memory, past and present, artist and audience. Tearing their war-worn fatigues into rags and transforming them into paper, the Veterans who make Combat Paper make into art the cloth that has absorbed blood, sweat, and experiences of, as they note, subordination and violence to themselves and others. Paper, normally considered a mere support for written expression, itself performs the work of reappropriating and resignifying the experiences held within its repurposed cloth. Even before anything has been printed on this paper, Drew Cameron calls it the "reclamation... and reconciliation" of "old dirty rags that are full of bad memories." "I've done the whole process with [my camis]," recalls Jon Michael Turner, "and it's been such a let go. So much weight has been lifted off my shoulders."
"I put... there's so much history going into that paper, and that's what I'm going to write my book with," Turner continues, noting the continuity between the material form of the literary artifact and its content. Turner speaks of putting "so much into" and "history going into" paper, blurring the lines between what he's put into his uniform, and what he'll put into his book (both his thoughts about war and the cloth that dressed his body in war.) At moments like this, the Combat Paper artists sound almost like Lydia H. Sigourney, the antebellum-U.S.'s most popular poet. In "To A Shred of Linen," cloth not only transmits a history of women's labor, but also "absorbs" stories of domestic life that it will "tell" once it becomes book paper. Likewise, Henry David Thoreau, in the "Sounds" chapter of Walden, remarks that the tattered sails being taken from harbor in Boston to a paper mill in Fitchburg can tell a better tale about the sea than will the books they'll make. Sigourney and Thoreau were also drawing on everyday examples like oft-reprinted calls for rags in newspapers that promised young women who turned in their old handkerchiefs that the same matter would return to them as a lover's note. While these examples are different in character from cathartic resignification of war experience, the way paper absorbs and transmits history or narrative in and through its matter is similar. There are hundreds of other examples to draw on, and texts like these form the archive upon which my dissertation draws. A full contextualization the Combat Paper project within the American imagination about paper isn't possible in this space, but I can say the project demonstrates that even in this "paperless age," neither the thingness of print nor the special ability of paper to "speak" its past have vanished, especially when people create or manipulate texts, pondering their physical relationship with the materials, and the histories they contain.
I'm pleased to be sharing this beautiful Iraq Veterans Against War art project with readers on Memorial Day, 2010, and look forward to further discussion of this and the other curators' notes on our shared topic of paper.