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Reading (PA.) by Bomb Light

A simple piece of artwork by Marcos Ramirez calls out America's history of violence, and detonates patriotic ire in Pennsylvania.
 
 
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The artist Marcos Ramirez (aka ERRE), whose Tijuana studio is a mere fifty yards from the nearest border patrolman, spends a lot of time staring across la linea at the strange culture on the other side. He likes gringos well enough, but sometimes is scared by our sublime ignorance of our own history (not to mention those of our neighbors).

For example, how many of us ever bother to think about the contribution of strategic bombing to the American Way of Life? As Ramirez points out, the air forces of the United States have dropped billions of bombs in the twentieth century and have killed, by the most conservative reckoning, more than two million foreign civilians. Most, of course, were Asians, including over half a million Japanese incinerated by two atomic bombs and in the B-29 firestorms that burned their cities to the ground. Another million were Indochinese killed by B-52 carpet-bombing. There were also one hundred thousand or more Koreans in the Korean War, and probably that many Germans as well as surprising numbers of innocent Italians, Rumanians, and other accidental World War II-era Europeans.

We should add to this black ledger at least ten thousand non-combatant Iraqis in two Gulf Wars, a thousand Afghan villagers and maybe five hundred Serbs as well as a few Libyans and Sudanese. In the Western Hemisphere, Presidents Harding and Coolidge sent biplanes to bomb rebellious Nicaraguans, Dominicans, and Haitians during the golden age of Dollar Diplomacy. Later the CIA bombed Guatemala (1954) and Cuba (1962). We bombed Panama in 1989 and are still bombing rural areas of Colombia today.

There is, in fact, little of the earth's surface that we haven't at some time bombed, or, as the case may be, bombarded. Thus when Ramirez was recently invited to participate in "Mexico illuminated," a multi-venue exhibition (12 September to 23 November) sponsored by a consortium of arts institutions in Reading, Penn., he chose to illuminate yanqui history instead.

He won the approval of his sponsors and the Reading Redevelopment Authority to mount a public-art piece on a billboard next to the busy Bingaman Street Bridge. Imitating the green background and lettering of official highway signs, the proposed billboard simply lists eight cities bombarded or bombed by the United States, their distances from Reading, and the appropriate dates.

Ciudad de Mexico 3202 km 1847
Veracruz 3040km 1914
Hiroshima 11194 km 1945
Dresden 4837 km 1945
Hanoi 13206 km 1972
Ciudad de Panama 3497km 1989
Kabul 10979 km 2001
Baghdad 9897 km 2003

Ramirez's idea was to let commuters puzzle out for themselves the meaning of the dates and the association between cities as disparate as Ciudad de Mexico, Dresden and Baghdad. He saw the piece as a "mirror" to help us analyze our own impact on the world. He hoped that Reading residents would become active participants in the dialogue.

They have -- with a vengeance. Even though the billboard has yet to be mounted, the local paper calls it "an eruption of outrage." Letters columns and radio talk shows have been inundated with angry denunciations of Ramirez's supposedly "obscene America-bashing." The city of 82,000 doesn't seem to be talking about much else.

One columnist claimed that Ramirez was trying to show "that the rest of the world hates the United States." A city councilwoman couldn't understand what the billboard had to do with art: "Art is art. But bombing is not Art." Meanwhile, an unnamed "patriotic group" vowed to buy a counter-billboard that would simply boast (vis-à-vis the bombings): "We're Glad!" Others made darker threats.

Then the display company refused to rent the billboard space to the organizers of Mexico Illuminated, issuing a non sequitur press release that "it proudly supports the men and women serving in the military." For a moment it seemed as if Ramirez was about to join that illustrious pantheon of Mexican artists -- including Siquieros and Rivera -- who have had their work censored or destroyed by panic-stricken gringo patrons.

But the organizers have so far stood their ground, promising to find Ramirez a space for his billboard. And some local politicians have had the guts to point out that the supposed "anti-American" message is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Angel Figueroa, a young Latino voice on the city council, calmly observes that Ramirez's billboard is merely "factual." "Everyone will have their own interpretation." Ramirez, for his part, tells me that he is delighted that the "meaning of art" is being discussed with unprecedented passion in American Legion Halls, bowling alleys and neighborhood saloons. At the same time, he is intrigued by the reaction to his historical Rorschach Test.

"It is amazing that a piece like this is so universally considered offensive. After all, the billboard only itemizes events that in their time were celebrated as victories and praised as just causes. Are people outraged because a Mexican artist has bothered to highlight this history? Or do I perceive an underlying shame?"

But Ramirez may have detonated something more than patriotic ire. Reading, a geriatric industrial city that has bled jobs and population for more than two generations, is in the midst of an extraordinary ethnic make-over. Within the next decade it will become the first Latino-majority city in Pennsylvania. Puerto Ricans and Mexican residents are already 40 percent of the population and have brought new vibrancy to the old red-brick town on the Schuylkill. "Mexico Illuminated" is an admirable recognition of that contribution.

But many conservative Berks county residents, including those who employ Mexican immigrants as service and agricultural workers, want only a captive labor supply, not a dynamic cultural presence or a new electorate. A recent study by the University of Michigan found that Reading was "the most segregated city in America for Hispanics." Likewise a federal judge ruled that Berks County had discriminated against Latino voters and ordered federal observers - like those sent to the Deep South in the 1960s -- to oversee last May's local elections.

Ramirez meanwhile is turning the backlash against his piece into yet more art. Using a computer, he has defiantly inserted his bombing chronology onto (a photo of) the Bingaman Street billboard. A wall-sized print of this montage will be mounted in the annex of the main exhibition at Albright College, along with documentation of the controversy. Viewers will be invited to register their own reaction.

Nativist critics of Ramirez should be forewarned that they are dealing with a consummate magical realist. If they're not careful, they may end up being part of the performance. Some years ago Ramirez famously erected a Trojan horse on the border between Tijuana and San Diego. When asked what was inside, he merely laughed. I suppose you either get the joke or you don't.

Marcos Ramirez (ERRE) can be contacted directly at erre38@yahoo.com. He can provide images of the work discussed in the article.

Mike Davis is the author of "City of Quartz," "Ecology of Fear" and most recently, " Dead Cities: and Other Tales" among other works.