Signs of War: The Afghanistan War 10th Anniversary Highway Banner Project

Questions on the Overpass
By GREG COOK  |  October 17, 2011

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I'd climbed onto the guardrails of the Dorchester Avenue overpass in Boston to tie a recycled bed sheet to the chain-link fencing. The sheet bore the inscription, "1ST LT. TIMOTHY STEELE, 25, DIED AUG. 23, 2011, KANDAHAR PROVINCE," and it puffed with wind from I-93 rushing below.

As I stooped down to attach the bottom corners, a guy in his 20s walked by. He read my makeshift banner. "A friend of yours?" he asked. No, I replied, and explained that I was putting up banners honoring a couple of the 40 or so Massachusetts people who have died in the Afghanistan war. The 10th anniversary of the war's beginning was the next day, October 7. I'd organized a group of 10 artists and collectives to hang banners at highway overpasses across New England as a reminder of our ongoing wars, which most of us would rather forget about. The man said he was a veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq. He thanked me for doing what I was doing.

"This is the longest foreign engagement that the United States has embarked upon in its entire history," Providence artist Jay Zehngebot notes. For the past couple years he's been making art about unmanned, remote-controlled military drones, and for the anniversary project he silkscreened a 30-foot-wide banner with an image of a drone (the actual drones have a 50-foot wingspan) next to a full moon and hung it on the Smith Street overpass of I-95 in Providence. The drone seemed to hover over traffic and in front of the Rhode Island State House.

"I worry that if people are comfortable with 10 years [of war], why not 20?" Zehngebot says. "Afghanistan stands as the best evidence that the US has created the conditions for endless foreign involvement, and the drones illustrate the ease with which we will continue to embark upon war."

The war has been going on for more than half the lives of the Gloucester high-school-age members of the Human Rights Initiative, who hung a banner over Route 128 there reading, "WELCOME HOME FROM AFGHANISTAN" — over which is stamped in red: "POSTPONED." Artists Jill Slosburg-Ackerman and Marilyn Pappas hung a banner quoting John Lennon and Yoko Ono's line about Vietnam, "WAR IS OVER IF YOU WANT IT," over Memorial Drive in their hometown of Cambridge. Maria Molteni, of Boston, hung a banner on a footbridge over the Mass Pike in Allston reading, "WE MUST LIVE IN THE PRESENT TENSE." Malden artist Kari Percival's banner, "BRING MY DAD HOME ALIVE NOW," was over I-95 at Southampton Street in Boston. Additional participants included the Institute for Infinitely Small Things, the Fourth Wall Project, and Anthony Traver.

For a few years now, Damian Cote has been putting similar banners across highway overpasses across New England. For this occasion, he put up 11 more, from Boston to Connecticut to New Hampshire. Over I-95 in Providence he hung one saying, "A FALLEN SOLDIER, A FREER NATION," and another reading, "NOTICE: THERE WILL BE NO PARADE FOR THIS WAR."

"I still go to the VA hospital," says Cote, a Marine veteran (1996–2000), "and I see these things, guys with bionic legs. . . . Here in my small western Massachusetts area, I've seen a different one every time I go. Twenty-year-old guys."

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