Debi Cornwall, Necessary Fictions

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Radius Books (here). Hardcover (9×12 inches), 324 pages, with 105 color reproductions. Includes texts by the artist, poetry by Nomi Stone, fiction by Roy Scranton, and essays by Makeda Best and Sarah Sentilles. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past two decades, at least since September of 2001, there has hardly been a moment when a meaningful piece of the American consciousness wasn’t focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the ongoing wars taking place there. But the tumultuous events of the past year, including the global pandemic, the Presidential election here in the United States, and most recently, the riots at the Capitol, have pushed the war on terror to the back burner of the news cycle, even though the effort very much continues on a variety of diplomatic and military fronts.

This refocusing of attention elsewhere has provided a window of opportunity to see the whole set of dramatic conflicts with a measure of distance and detachment largely impossible previously. And it is this sense of measured reserve that has animated my interaction with Debi Cornwall’s photobook Necessary Fictions – the urgency of the moment has shifted a bit, and so we can apply a different, and perhaps more aloof, framework of thinking to photographs like these that teach us about that time.

Cornwall’s pictures document stage set towns made to look and feel like villages in Iraq and Afghanistan, complete with low-rise buildings set in sun-blasted desert sand and fake storefronts, markets, and mosques. Like behind-the-scenes photographs made of movie sets, sound stages, and other theatrical productions, her photographs expose these constructions as approximations and illusions, showing us the plywood and concrete on the back side or the empty unfinished interiors behind more elaborate and realistic facades.

Since 2016, Cornwall has made ten trips to the military bases across the United States where these villages have been built, the aggregation of these places given the fictional name of “Atropia”. Their purpose is seemingly straightforward – provide soldiers with simulated environments and related training exercises that closely match (as much as possible) the kind of situations they will encounter when posted abroad. The US military has for decades devised training programs that replicate different war zone conditions, but what is different here is the scale, complexity, commitment, and in a sense nuance of this particular operation. We’ve moved from simply shipping soldiers out to the desert regions of the United States for some basic training, to building entire plausibly-realistic villages, populating them with former Afghan and Iraqi citizens and other roleplayers, employing Hollywood makeup artists to create realistic-looking wounds and injuries, and generating sophisticated scenarios that are acted out by the various participants. If this all sounds a bit far-fetched or even surreal (not to mention expensive), Cornwall’s photographs are the evidence.

Cornwall isn’t the first to document these kinds of camps (Claire Beckett did so more than a decade earlier, as reviewed here), nor is she the first to make an artistic career out of trying to unpack the broad and sometimes seemingly incomprehensible machinations of the US military (An-My Lê would certainly be one who has devoted many years to such projects, as reviewed here.) What Cornwall brings to the table is an extremely systematic and methodical artistic mindset, honed during her previous career as a civil rights lawyer and applied to this subject (and her previous work at Guantánamo Bay, as seen in her 2017 gallery show, reviewed here) with persistence and refined logic. Both her photographs themselves and their photobook presentation in Necessary Fictions are carefully controlled and thought through, like artworks with a not-so-invisible undercarriage of reasoned argument.

War is messy, and presumably so is training for war, at least on a smaller scale, but Cornwall’s photographs are anything but. They are slow, largely quiet (except for a few where interactive scenes are taking place), and often infused with an almost Minimalist sense for geometric grace and proportion. She gravitates toward clean lines and refined angles, and the Lego-block architecture of these fake towns, especially when seen from afar, offers plenty of opportunities for layering pastel volumes, isolating streamlined forms, framing angles and black void square windows, and playing with the simplified visual essences that make up these places.

Many of Cornwall’s best photographs ground us in this streamlined world of nondescript blocky volumes, and then proceed to focus our attention on details that break the fun house illusion that this is a real village somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of these pictures capture incongruous cheap surfaces like plywood, concrete, and cinder blocks; others document the telltale signs of fakeness in alternate ways, as seen in makeshift storefronts, signage, rock walls with painted mortar, even the town mosque, where birds have nested in one of the arched niches. Markets are filled with fake fruit and vegetables, street carts are laden with fake eggs, and butcher shops display fake slabs of meat; turn the corner and cut out cars dot the landscape, a fake graveyard is filled with tombstones, and even fuzzy fake sheep idly wander the streets. And in one room, someone seems to have left their script in a pile on the floor, which breaks the fourth wall of this charade as much as someone turning to talk directly to the camera.

The military presence and purpose of these places tends to enter these pictures obliquely, at least until the training scenarios start to play out more fully. Cornwall first shows us resonant details: camouflage netting covering something unknown (perhaps a truck or tank), yellow smoke billowing from a thrown canister, barbed wire trailing out a doorway, or a bullet-ridden shooting target set up in an otherwise vacant room. Then the training begins, and we see soldiers walking streets, making rounds, clearing neighborhoods, setting up snipers on rooftops, and gathering for instructions, with a helicopter or two hovering overhead now and again. These engagement scenes then get more elaborate, with soldiers variously interacting and negotiating with groups of people acting as tense villagers, angry bystanders, and local police, or dramatically handling insurgents with rocket launchers, machine guns, and suicide vests.

That the roleplayers populating these villages are variously US citizens, refugees, and immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan, often speaking local languages or employing prior military training to aid in the realism of the scenarios, creates layers of dissonance that is hard to photograph – friends play enemies and citizens play terrorists, all in the name of better military training. Cornwall’s photographs of these actors and participants are consistently formal and respectful, the deep irony of the situation only visible in the incongruousness of the artificial environment and the small breaks in character seen in a few faces. Often she centers in on details, like plastic prayer beads or headscarves, highlighting how they become stereotypical stand ins for more complex understanding. The first image in a section called “population” offers a crowd scene broadly out of focus, and it is perhaps more successful then even the crispest portraits in documenting what these people are being asked to be – an approximation.

Even more surreal and conceptually thorny are Cornwall’s images of soldiers dressed as casualties, with bloody wounds (aka “moulage”) supplied by talented Hollywood makeup artists. Here we have soldiers acting like they have been killed, or severely wounded, with any number of mortal injuries, including legs blown off, bullet wounds to the head and face, and explosive shrapnel damage to bodies and legs, which must create more than a little conflicted internal uneasiness for the participants. Cornwall initially photographs the soldiers with deadpan expressions, their seriousness in theory matching the implied traumas of the moment. But in the back of the photobook, hidden in an envelope, are more portraits taken from the same sessions where the soldiers are relaxed and mugging for the camera, the incongruity of the fake wounds and the broad warm smiles adding to the sheer strangeness of the exercise.

Cornwall ties all of these separate photographic threads together with interleaved texts, which are printed on thinner paper, and via a selection of longer essays at the end of the photobook. Many are her own thoughts, observations, and reflections while working; others are snippets of conversations with the various participants and soldiers; and still others are drawn from official documents, newspaper reports, and speeches from elected officials. These are balanced by responses to the images in poetry and fiction, and more scholarly and curatorial analyses of the work. The result is a photobook that has more words than most, the competing textual interpretations and interactions leading to a densely layered experience that liberally mixes fact and fiction, in more ways than one. The photobook itself rewards “reading”, as the front to back progression flows with an internal logic that builds from one subject to the next and supplies further background that informs the pictures.

Cornwall’s photobook walks a delicate line, documenting a set of realities (which are themselves fictions) but also forcing us to see the absurdities embedded in them. It’s hard not to come away from Necessary Fictions with more questions than answers, from how we have reached a point where we need such realistic simulations and what has changed about how America acts on the world stage that we require such training so consistently and so often, to who organizes and benefits from such elaborate training efforts (do the scenarios really make for better soldiers or reduce PTSD later?) and what it really feels like for the soldiers and roleplayers to have participated in these dramatic but altogether fake simulations. Cornwall offers us a parade of seemingly deadpan images and texts, which then pull us down a rabbit hole of nested complications, complexities, and contradictions that feel much more intertwined than we ever realized. Sleeping soldiers look like children, commercial odor products add realistic smells (available in favorites like Perforated Bowel, Decaying Flesh, and Thermal Burn), fake blood is smeared across the side of a white car, pretend villagers carry stuffed animals to angry encounters, and exit doors are marked “out of play”, the whole twisting approximation of reality bending in on itself until it becomes its own kind of abstraction.

In Necessary Fictions, Cornwall has thoughtfully shown us the point where the separation between real war and a well-made reality show becomes disturbingly hard to comprehend. It is this fundamental and deep-seated surreality that has stuck with me as I have spent time with this photobook, and the conclusions we must draw from what she systematically presents become all the more puzzling and ominous the more we consider them. In this way, Necessary Fictions is a bit sneaky – it’s a photobook filled with surfaces and stereotypes we think we can identify (and have likely seen before), but the more we look and wrestle with its manufactured illusions, the less we can say we understand.

Collector’s POV: Debi Cornwall does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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