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  • Drones, Projections, and Ghosts: Restaging Virtual War in Grounded and You Are Dead. You Are Here.

The United States relies increasingly upon digital technologies and live-virtual mixed-reality environments to prepare for, pursue, and recover from asymmetrical war. However, Iraqis and Afghans modeled in such systems are structurally excluded from occupying their “first-person-shooter” viewpoints. This essay recasts Emma Willis’s use of Levinasian ethics and Judith Butler’s proposal that war’s framing excludes certain subjects from full humanity to address the obstacles and opportunities for ethical spectatorship that virtual war’s structural occlusions pose to theatre. It does so by investigating how two recent US plays, George Brant’s Grounded and Christine Evans’s You Are Dead. You Are Here., which incorporates Virtual Iraq and was written by this essay’s author, interrogate virtualized war to reframe and restage absent Iraqi and Afghan perspectives and human consequences. The essay argues that despite their achievements, the “hero’s journey” structure of both plays, in concert with the wider public framing of war via the military-industrial-entertainment network, nevertheless reframed the Other as a vehicle for the Western soldier-subject’s cathartic crisis. Expanding on Doreen Massey’s vision of space as multiple trajectories rather than a depthless surface, the essay concludes that thick mapping, such as that modeled by the Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters (JDA), offers new options for performances engaging virtualized war, allowing them to de-couple narrative structure and spectatorship by generating heterotopic and heterogeneous interpretative spaces.

“All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war.”

—Walter Benjamin1

“What do you think about adding the smell of burning hair?”

—Dr. Albert (Skip) Rizzo, creator of Virtual Iraq2

“I want to add my finger prints in this world.”


In Jorge Luis Borges’s fable “On Exactitude in Science” an empire creates a map so extensive that it completely overlays the physical area it portrays.4 When this empire falls into decay so does the map; as it rots the land beneath reemerges. Jean Baudrillard extends and inverts this fable, asserting that it is now the map that remains; the real rots away beneath it.5 These Gestalt double-images of overlaid map and territory, abstraction, and material place foreshadow the immersive, interactive digital landscapes developed by the US military for both training and rehabilitation purposes. However, such evocatively titled “mixed-reality” environments, where ghostly computer-generated Iraqi figures, live actors, and marines in training interact, journey beyond Borges’s rotting map to a mutant variation of Baudrillard’s “desert of the real,” where map and territory have together formed a new hybrid—a malleable, responsive landscape where the act of digital mapping itself remakes the territory. [End Page 663]

As underscored in East German filmmaker Harun Farocki’s Serious Games II: Three Dead documentary film essay (shot in the Military Operations in Urban Terrain Facility Range 220 in California),6 this landscape is both simulated and material. In mixed-reality environments bullets “kill” digitally created enemies in three-dimensional space; trainee soldiers shoot the projected figures with real guns, leaving bullet holes in the walls.7 Figures of women and children are mixed in with combatants to help soldiers discriminate between adversaries and civilians in the heat of battle. Tom Buscemi, director of the Simulation Center at Camp Pendelton, explains that “[t]his is in preparation for the confusion, the chaos that a Marine soldier’s going to see on his first fire-fight. We want to inoculate him with the sight, sounds, smells, and chaos of battle so that his first fire-fight is no worse than his last simulation.”8

While the intention is rational, the idea that a fire-fight will be “no worse” than a simulation troublingly suggests that the experience of war—itself today modeled on the video games that the current generation of soldiers grew up with—merely confirms what has already been rehearsed. The perspectives and fates of Iraqis and Afghans, and the before and after of the events simulated, where real damage lingers, are instrumental, serving as a prompt to others’ training.

These environments can be read as a chilling metonym of the wider public framing in the United States of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: only the American bodies are real. Can the absences and erasures generated by the spectacular operations of virtual war be summoned onstage? How can theatre bear witness to the human damage that lingers outside virtual war’s contained landscapes? This essay investigates the ways in which George Brant’s play Grounded9 and my own play You Are Dead. You Are Here.10developed with the multimedia collaborative Transit Lounge—explore these questions.

These two works do not sit neatly together; they differ in content and kind, and also in my relationship to each. Grounded is an internationally produced one-woman play, developed in a traditional manner: an American playwright wrote it, and after extensive US development, the London-based Gate Theatre produced and toured it. The play addresses drone warfare and surveillance technologies, charting the mental dissolution of a US fighter pilot reassigned to fly lethal drone missions in Afghanistan from a desert in Nevada. You Are Dead. You Are Here. directly integrates virtual technology in its staging, tracking the entwined experiences of Michael, a US Iraq War veteran, and Zaynab, an Iraqi teenager from Fallujah, through the lens of the technologies that mediate their stories. For Zaynab it is her video blog;11 for Michael it is [End Page 664] Virtual Iraq, a virtual-reality program designed for use in therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that immerses the user in a sensory environment modeled on war video-game graphics.

My analysis of Grounded is as a theatre scholar and audience member; my study of You Are Dead. You Are Here. draws on my playwriting practice-as-research with director Joseph Megel and media designer Jared Mezzocchi (Transit Lounge) and our collaboration with Dr. Albert (Skip) Rizzo, who created Virtual Iraq and helms its design team at the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California (USC). Grounded and You Are Dead. You Are Here. both interrogate and complicate the “first-person-shooter” point of view that drives both drone surveillance technology and live-virtual military landscapes, and restore moral complexity and dimension to what Farocki terms “[w]ar (at a distance).”12

Farocki’s arresting phrase refers to the separation of US combatants from actual locations of battle: warfare is waged by drone from a trailer in Nevada or rehearsed in a computer-run simulation. Yet, “distance” also suggests disconnection and disengagement; it points to the difficulty of witnessing war’s effects in a time when simulacral, digitally generated images are integral not only to contemporary US modes of rehearsing, enacting, and recovering from war, but tie in closely to the entertainment industry13 and war’s spectacular media representation.14 Increasingly, the pursuit and representation of what James Der Derian calls “virtuous war”—the capacity to “actualize violence at a distance” and “clean up the political discourse as well as the battlefield”—are melded in the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET).”15 This melding is highly advanced: in television network coverage of the war in Iraq,

computer-generated graphics of the Iraq battlespace were created by the same defense industries (like Evans and Sutherland, Digital Globe, and Analytical Graphics) and commercial satellite-imaging firms (like Space Imagine and that supply the U.S. military. The networks provid[ed] “virtual views” of Iraq and military hardware that [were] practically indistinguishable from target acquisition displays.16

The military applications of virtual technology draw from the same technical and visual resources as commercial video-gaming, news media, and Hollywood, combining material places with simulations to frame new live-virtual spaces as landscapes for war’s staging. Since theatre that deploys these landscapes is dealing with already-theatrical scenarios and their interpellated audiences, it must then reframe and restage to make visible what has been excised. This requires attention to form as well as content, since ideology is embedded in these landscapes and technologies through their [End Page 665] formal structure and point(s) of view. Form structures the rules of appearance and disappearance: Iraqi projections disappear while Marines-in-training leave real bullet holes in the wall. For Judith Butler, such formal ways in which war frames different kinds of life are themselves an act of war, since excision from the frame means banishment from “grievable life.” She argues that exposing the absences generated by visual and discursive frames of war requires pointing out the operation of the frame itself, “thereby exposing the forcible dramaturgy of the state in collaboration with those who deliver the visual news of the war.”17

As we shall see, this is no simple task. Questions of framing, perspective, and point of view necessarily involve the audience. The engagement and positioning of an audience already marked as passive spectators and consumers of spectacular images of war are complex problems that such theatre faces. In addressing them I draw on a recent debate in the field about spectatorship and what Peggy Phelan and Tim Etchells call “ethical witnessing,”18 and Butler’s and Emma Willis’s engagements with Emmanuel Levinas’s view that ethics is located not in the self, but in one’s compassionate response to “‘the face of the other’ through which their alterity is expressed.”19 If virtuous war occludes the Other from the frame, or presents her purely as target, how can theatre reimagine this encounter?

I posit that formal intervention is a vital (although not always sufficient) part of the critique of the military technology that both pieces undertake. I ask whether these works might enable the ethical witnessing that Phelan and Etchells propose, and if so, what wider conditions of reception such witnessing might require: the plays must also contend with the ways in which US audiences are already positioned in relation to spectacles of war, both in contemporary theatre and the broader social sphere, where the Iraqi and Afghan war experiences are most often (with significant exceptions20) [End Page 666] reported, dramatized, and fictionalized through American eyes. The social and political implications of theatrical attempts to reframe the Other extend beyond the stage: in pointing to civilian war casualties, they challenge what Butler terms “the forcible dramaturgy of the state” in which the widespread representational centering of the Western soldier-subject is embedded.

Grounded: A Thousand Eyes Staring at the Ground

Grounded won the US-based 2012 Smith Prize for Political Plays and, after substantial development support in the United States, premiered at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2013, transferring to the Gate in London. Further US and international productions quickly followed: in 2015 the Public Theater in New York City opened a production starring Anne Hathaway, directed by Julie Taymor, and judging by the trajectories of Public productions of Fun Home and Hamilton, the play may well be Broadway-bound.

As Elise Morrison notes in her performance review,21 the play hit a nerve: it came at a time of increasing US military reliance upon lethal drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, accompanied by public unease and troubling ethical questions, such as

[d]o military drones, designed to make lethal precision strikes on enemy targets while keeping pilots out of the combat zone, in fact lead to higher numbers of civilian casualties? Will drones turn the reality of war-time violence into video game scenarios for pilots stationed far away? What are the psychological costs, such as PTSD, for military personnel engaged in remotely fought warfare? Will the drastic asymmetries in proposed uses for drones—delivering Domino’s pizzas and Amazon home goods domestically and Hellfire missiles abroad—only deepen global rifts? How will drones augment the already significant network of state and corporate surveillance in the United States, and what new concerns over privacy, discrimination, human rights, and concentrated power will they raise?22

Those “drastic asymmetries” also reflect the global asymmetries of political power and privilege that facilitate virtuous war; they are distributed across dizzying distances and ever-contracting times. Doreen Massey argues that the postmodern spatialization of history—“a depthless horizontality of immediate connections”23—serves a neoliberal vision of globalization where only the flow of information and goods in the service of capital is unimpeded; human movements across borders are tightly policed by the wealthy against the incursion of the have-nots. The “multiplicity of trajectories / temporalities”24 that for Massey characterize a more democratic and temporally open conception of space are subsumed into a single surface, safe for commerce.

If space is the condition of possibility of a “multiplicity of trajectories,” its mapping to simulacral surfaces, and the embedding of a singular point of view within them (the drone pilot; the “first-person-shooter” in the video game or combat simulation), forecloses its multiplicity and heterogeneity. Point of view and mode of mapping both enact and disguise power; controlling them is key to the pursuit (and laundered representation) of virtuous war. This point underlies one of Grounded’s most vital moves: connecting the surveillance technologies that enable drone warfare to globalized neoliberal conditions of work and commerce. [End Page 667]

Brant shrewdly focuses the wider implications and questions raised by drone technology through a tight, personal lens and a highly contained space, as the play’s protagonist, The Pilot, literally and metaphorically brings the War on Terror home. The repetitive strangeness of “[w]ar as soul-crushing shift work”25 contrasts with The Pilot’s strained attempts to return home and relate to her husband and young daughter:

Hard to go home tonight The desert isn’t long enough Still have bodies in my head . . .

It would be a different book The Odyssey If Odysseus came home every day Every single day A very different book.26

The reference to The Odyssey (one of Odysseus’s pseudonyms is “No-one”), along with the choice to name the character simply “The Pilot,” invokes both Brecht’s epic theatre and a foundational epic war story of Western culture: The Pilot’s story echoes beyond the personal to the returning hero’s war experience, twenty-first-century style. Her character description in the published play reinforces this:

The Pilot: a woman in her mid-to-late 30s. She should have no allergies or asthma after 12 years of age, distant vision of at least 20/200 but corrected to 20/20, and near vision of 20/40 but corrected to 20/20. She should have a sitting height of between 2 foot 9 inches and 3 foot 4 inches, and a vertical standing height of between 5 foot 4 inches and 6 foot 5 inches tall. . . . She should be able to complete a 1.5 mile-run in 13 minutes and 56 seconds or less.27

These are eligibility rules, not personal qualities; this is a trained and disciplined “docile body” whose power, as Michel Foucault writes, is a function of its obedience—its military utility.28

I saw the Gate’s touring production of Grounded at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., during its June 2014 run. Lucy Ellinson, playing The Pilot, stood like a caged, alert tiger in a small, contained cube of translucent material, watching us file in. The entire performance took place within this cube, which presented a Brechtian obstacle to simply watching the actor; we were constantly reminded of her constraint and its stylized mediation through performance. Despite, or alongside, Ellinson’s electrifying performance, it took effort to decipher what we were seeing—a neat parallel to The Pilot’s own struggle to relearn her trade from the “Chair Force” (fig. 1).

Indeed, the struggle to see, to interpret, and then to face the consequences of bearing witness—for The Pilot and the increasingly implicated audience—is central to the play. She has been reassigned from missions over Iraq to the drone control trailer in Nevada where she will learn to fly an $11 million Reaper drone over a desert in Afghanistan that is twelve hours ahead though “1.2 seconds” away.29 The Pilot’s first impression of her new “plane” is that it is “blind,” but soon realizes that [End Page 668]

Figure 1. Lucy Ellinson as The Pilot in the Gate Theatre’s touring production of Grounded by George Brant, Studio Theatre, Washington, D.C. (2013). (Photo: Iona Firouzabadi.)
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Figure 1.

Lucy Ellinson as The Pilot in the Gate Theatre’s touring production of Grounded by George Brant, Studio Theatre, Washington, D.C. (2013). (Photo: Iona Firouzabadi.)

[End Page 669]

it’s not blind after all This camera system mounted on its belly: The Gorgon Stare: Infrared Thermal Radar Laser A thousand eyes staring at the ground.30

She spends twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, staring at a screen, interpreting what the drone sees: “I stare at gray. / At a world carved out of putty.”31

The changing relationship of vision to place and body is central to Grounded, and it charts the perceptual and emotional derailment of The Pilot. She begins her story flying jets in “the blue,” a joyful space of limitless sky and clearly delimited duties. Later, she is betrayed by a positive pregnancy test: “Pink. I’m pink. Fuck.”32 Pink signals her child’s gender and her own gendered confinement because pregnancy means she must give up “the blue.” Along with it she loses the masculine-coded separation of work and home; no longer can she unwind on leave and drink with her air force buddies at a bar after a successful mission.

The discrete spaces of war, desert, home, the gambling casino (where her husband, Eric, works), and shopping mall start to meld together. The all-seeing camera eye in each location replaces the body/self moving through space as a phenomenological marker of distance. Actual distance melts like wax: Borges’s fable and Baudrillard’s revision of it have fused into a single interactive landscape, animated by surveillance. The only cracked cog in the system is The Pilot herself, as the drone’s eyes start to meld with her own perception: she sees herself driving through the desert from above, as if tracking her own car from the drone; she sees her daughter’s Sam’s, and husband’s thermal readings; she loses track of where she is in physical space (fig. 2).

Eric explains that she needs to “[c]lap off the game. Blackjack. The end of my shift”:

(He performs a blackjack dealer “nothing up my sleeves” move with his hands to the eye in the sky) . . . I clap and I’m done. I leave the table and I’m done for the day I say good for you He says, You should make up your own. A dealer makes up his own I tell him to shut the fuck up But I do try it, I do Next day, after a day of gray. (She does, trying to find a signature move, a gesture that will bring relief, change something. . . . Nothing changes) But it doesn’t.33

Grounded melds themes of all-pervasive surveillance and the Foucauldian disciplining of the body through work into a physical gesture. In connecting it to a ritual separating work from the personal, which significantly The Pilot fails to master, Brant assigns it a gestic significance that gains force as The Pilot repeats her attempts to find a gesture that works. Her inability to do so foreshadows the violent climax of the play; the failed gesture, in accompanying The Pilot’s growing stress and disorientation, also points to [End Page 670] the hidden violence of mapping all spheres of life to what Massey calls the “depthless surface” of a spatialized history. The Pilot’s inability to “clap off the game” indicates a wider problem: not only is “everything . . . witnessed,” but as Massey argues, the near-seamless integration of warfare, commerce, “private” entertainment, and surveillance together reinforce neoliberal objectives predicated on global asymmetries of power.

Figure 2. Megan Anderson in Everyman Theatre’s production of Grounded by George Brant, Baltimore (2014). (Photo: ClintonBPhotography.)
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Figure 2.

Megan Anderson in Everyman Theatre’s production of Grounded by George Brant, Baltimore (2014). (Photo: ClintonBPhotography.)

None of the Guilty Will Be Spared

We’re on the hunt. The hunt for Number Two. The Number Two. We are to find him and we are to eliminate him.34

Adrenaline wears off as the mission stretches into endless surveillance, shift after shift. At night The Pilot drives home through the desert, blasting AC/DC; by day she remotely tracks a car, eerily similar to her own, through a gray, putty-colored desert. When the order comes at last to strike, The Pilot loses the ability to distinguish the on-or-off-screen world. When her target, derisively dubbed “The Prophet,” finally gets out of his car to embrace a small girl, The Pilot’s vision skews; she sees her own daughter’s face and disobeys the command to fire. She swings the drone up and away from them, but is overruled by another drone secretly overseeing hers from above, and The Prophet and the small girl are both blown to pieces. [End Page 671]

Her last monologue comes from inside another cage, this time a military prison, and refers to the network of surveillance enmeshing us all. Her last gesture and words before the blackout—for the first time addressed directly to us—invoke the coming explosion:

You You who watch me Who observe me watch my every move here and I know you watch me I know there is a camera somewhere for Everything Is Witnessed . . . Know this Know That You Are Not Safe . . . None of the Guilty Will Be Spared None None None (she successfully performs her motion) Boom.35

Here, in a stunning reversal, The Pilot’s repeated attempts to create a gesture that will separate war from a domestic space finally work. At the moment when all spheres of life have fused into a single nightmarish warscape, she successfully performs her motion, which invokes the explosion that ends the play. In a feminist analysis of the power of gestic moments to complicate mimesis, Elin Diamond writes that a “gestic moment . . . explains the play, but it also exceeds the play, opening it to the social and discursive ideologies that inform its production.”36 Since this gesture was created to “clap off” from work to the domestic sphere in Grounded it can be read here as clapping off her shift—her vigil and the consequences of it, which do indeed “exceed the play”—to leave it with us.

In both productions I have seen—the Gate’s at Studio Theatre and at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, directed by Derek Goldman37—this ending hit hard. There was a long silence between the play ending and the applause. Writing about this moment in Page 73’s New York production of the play,38 Morrison writes,

[o]ur spectatorship was conflated with the disciplinary surveillance under which she had been placed. . . . There was, she seemed to alert us, a burden of responsibility that comes with witnessing a play like Grounded. “None of the Guilty Will Be Spared,” she continued prophetically, implying that responsibility for the devastating impacts of this war belonged not only to military superpowers and terrorists in the Middle East, but also to soldiers like herself and witnesses like us.39

This moment of implication, palpable in production, is one of Grounded’s achievements. The play reveals the military framing of the Other as object of surveillance and target, then demonstrates, through The Pilot’s “heightened situational awareness,” that this objectification and surveillance is not limited to warfare: “Everything Is Witnessed.”

Yet, the play inspires unease and a question. Morrison asserts that The Pilot is increasingly “ambushed by empathy,” drawing on David Krasner’s argument that empathy [End Page 672] in theatre can function as “a means of bridging radical differences to facilitate deeper, though not less critical, understandings of complicated social and political matters.”40 For Morrison this “ambush” builds throughout the play, starting with a trip The Pilot takes to a shopping mall. She imagines faraway workers in India watching American shoppers via the hidden camera in JC Penney’s; their job is hauntingly similar to hers, since it involves staring at a screen. Back at work, the long hours she spends remotely tracking her target through the desert also create involuntary identification through her growing familiarity with The Prophet’s daily routine, despite her attempts at distancing through using a dehumanizing and religion-insulting nickname. For Morrison these surveillance-based connections build toward the play’s final crisis, where empathy overwhelms The Pilot (a conclusion shared by the New York Times’s review of the same production).41

But what Morrison labels empathy at this moment is not triggered through recognition of a shared humanity across “radical differences”; rather, it is precisely through mis-recognition—the projection of an American face onto another’s. The Pilot tries to abort the strike to save the child because she sees her own daughter in the viewfinder. Can the projection of an American child’s face over an Afghan’s really induce a “burden of responsibility” or invite the audience to ethical witnessing? Or, as Elliott Colla writes of the prior war in Iraq, does it instead reinforce the sense that the “invasion and occupation again appear as almost exclusively American events”?42

It is true that in certain respects “we” are all alike, and yet the ways in which we are most alike are an ominous yardstick for empathy; for instance, all human body fat incinerates at the same temperature when struck by napalm or white phosphorus. At such times we are so similar that only dental records can distinguish us. There is a crushing literalness, and limit, to the sense of empathy that sees the Other as “just like me.” How can difference appear in this space? Must it don the guise of the same—the pasting of an American face over an Afghan child’s—to appear at all? Does it only matter if it is actually us in the sights?

For Levinas the face of the Other is what demands an ethical response, yet the drone’s “thousand eyes” do not provide a readable image of the face. Willis writes that “one cannot separate violence from dis-identification, in the sense that making the face of the other un-identifiable is also central to strategies of dehumanization.”43 The occlusion of the Other from the augmented visual field of the drone, then, is complex, partial, and volatile; it both identifies life (as target) and dehumanizes (as “grievable life” with a human face). Referring to the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs’ framing of their subjects, Butler writes that “full inclusion and full exclusion are not the only options. Indeed there are deaths that are partially eclipsed and partially marked, and that instability may well activate the frame, making the frame itself unstable. So the [End Page 673] point would not be to locate what is ‘in’ or ‘outside’ the frame, but what vacillates between those two locations, and what, foreclosed, becomes encrypted in the frame itself.”44 Rather than framing the climactic moment of Grounded as an instance of The Pilot’s ambush by empathy, we might read it instead as a violent instability—a vacillation—in her relationship to the frame that separates “virtuous war” from the deaths it causes. She perceives the imminent death of a child, but cannot grasp the anguish attending it within a frame that literally and figuratively erases the child’s face, and with it the implicit ethical claim, “I am human. Do not kill me.”

This selective and partial occlusion of Iraqi and Afghan faces, hardwired into the drone’s viewing apparatus, also extends to the larger social context. As Colla observes, returning soldiers’ tales have been promoted over Iraqi and civilian voices and heavily subsidized in a kind of art-therapy synergy:

[t]he celebrated example of Operation Homecoming illustrates how elaborate state and private subsidies for war writing can be. The National Endowment for the Arts—“in coordination with all four branches of the Armed Forces and the Department of Defense,” the Veterans Administration, the Library of Congress, the Southern Arts Federation, The Writer’s Center, Random House Books, and the Boeing Corporation”—assembled a massive writing, publishing and archiving project dedicated to fostering the writing talents of soldiers and their families.45

Colla’s point about cultural context is helpful in considering the play’s US reception,46 and perhaps also the limits of what it can express while staying true to its protagonists’ worldview. American audiences come to Grounded in a social context in which the importance of listening to veterans’ war stories is stressed, but in keeping with the rules of virtuous war, near-silence attends the far greater number of wrecked Iraqi (and Afghan) lives. Within this mirror-ball context, of which the play is itself a tightly compressed metonym, the Other’s pain can only appear as rupture, crack, collapse.

The Pilot approaches the limits of the system, beyond which lies the actual face and breakable body of a non-American child, and is herself broken as she slams into the mirror ball. We may empathize with her breakage, grasp the wider circumstances that prompted it, and suffer a chill on realizing that “everything is witnessed,” but, like The Pilot herself, stop short of actually visualizing a face and reality that is not our own.

A Detour to the Mall

Within the mirror ball of The Pilot’s world the Other cannot be perceived head-on. So here I turn to another moment in Grounded of leakage between frames. Like the hidden skull in a Baroque painting, it discloses a sideways truth impossible to view from the perspective that orders the picture. During a rare week off The Pilot shops at the mall with her daughter, yet cannot evade the sense of the all-seeing eye. Here, Grounded connects the everyday domestic with wars on foreign soil through their mutual connection to global economic forces. The Pilot sees “the little black circle in the corner of the wall,”47 then goes into a changing room, where she cannot spot the camera: [End Page 674]

But there’s always a camera right JC Penney or Afghanistan Everything Is Witnessed.

I think of them The 19-year-olds who surveille the dressing rooms . . . They could be anywhere Hell they could even be in India I guess . . .

What if

What if these Indians watching us eventually come here for a vacation but find themselves drawn to JC Penney they don’t know why but they are and when they get there they go right past the sale racks right past the shoes they head straight to the changing room they don’t know why they have nothing to change they walk in they close the door and they suddenly know why they’ve come and they wave they wave to all their friends back home and then they don’t know why but they start to cry.48

This rupture in the play, reinforced by the short, contained lines of the text overflowing into an unpunctuated paragraph, is a moment in which The Pilot’s sense that “everything is witnessed” spills over into the home front. Ironically, her speculation about the Indians has its roots in their shared surveillance work. But her recognition of their mutual entrapment has no place or name within the ideology of American exceptionalism. The refrain “they don’t know why” recurs through the scene.

It is significant that this moment happens in a store; perhaps the truly unspeakable part of “what we talk about when we talk about war” (at least in the United States) is its economic component. In this moment Grounded opens out to a question that can barely be articulated within the diegetic world of the play. Yet, augmenting the powerful gestus of “clapping off” the game, in which Brant connects work, commerce, and surveillance, its reverberations move across borders; they move through the latent human and economic connections that undergird globalization and the attendant integration of military and private-sector surveillance systems within which everyone (not just Americans) is increasingly imbricated.

In Grounded we see through the Pilot’s eyes; since her perspective is welded to the viewing apparatus of the drone, we also view the world framed through the deadly and selective “thousand eyes” of the drone. The Pilot’s struggle to make sense of what is visible and grasp the implications of what is made to disappear points to the violence of such framing itself. For Butler this framing process is “active . . ., both jettisoning and presenting, . . . doing both at once, in silence, without any visible sign of its operation.”49 You Are Dead. You Are Here. addresses a technology with a different purpose than the drone’s thousand eyes; Virtual Iraq was built not to wage war, but to help veterans recover from PTSD. Transit Lounge’s struggle to expose Virtual Iraq’s inbuilt erasures, like The Pilot’s struggle to grasp what she sees and fails to see, nevertheless points to the intrinsic violence enacted by the framing devices of virtuous war.

You Are Dead. You Are Here

I wrote You Are Dead. You Are Here. in the long shadow of the US invasion of Iraq in which the United States stopped counting the vanquished dead, and the returning [End Page 675] coffins of US soldiers were banned from view. My intent was to make a virtual counter-memory theatre, one that challenged the myth of virtuous war by bearing witness both to the death and destruction unleashed on Iraq and the mediated means of its erasure that I have described. Originally commissioned by Megel as a short piece for a Virtual Performance Factory (VPF)—a suite of plays by six playwrights (Keith Glover, Jim Grimsley, Jeanmarie Higgins, Jennifer Maisel, Haris Orkin, and myself) loosely linked by inclusion of virtual elements, the first iteration (The Underpass) ended with a short video that I scripted and the video game–design company Icarus created.

In this war game–style video homeless African American Iraq War veteran Michael “falls” into a memory of the first battle of Fallujah in which, separated from his unit in a sandstorm, he accidentally kills a young girl. The response to the theatre piece, which mixed live performance with this video, convinced us to develop a full-length version, bringing Mezzocchi onboard as media designer; the sequence of events described above in the Icarus-designed video remains the narrative climax of the play. In 2010, after successive workshops at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University and the Davis Center for Performing Arts at Georgetown University, the trio joined HERE’s resident artists program in New York as “Transit Lounge,” a process culminating in 2013 with an Equity showcase production of You Are Dead. You Are Here.

The incorporation of Virtual Iraq and our collaboration with Rizzo, its creator, came in 2010 and changed many things: the play’s diegetic form, content, and media design. The larger framing of the work and our own investments, loyalties, and perspectives shifted as our relationships with veterans, military therapists, and virtual-reality designers wove into the fabric of the project. Yet, the work’s genesis at the CHAT Festival, an event designed to foster collaboration between commercial technology enterprises like Icarus and the humanities, already foreshadows the intense integration of spheres in the MIME-NET, which we were to discover in our encounter with Virtual Iraq.

Virtual Iraq revived the 1997 experiment Virtual Vietnam, developed in an Atlanta-based collaboration by researchers at Emory University, Georgia Tech, and the Department of Defense (DoD). That early iteration repurposed the video game Full Spectrum Warrior, developed by ICT at USC as a military-training tool, for use in PTSD therapy. During 2003–04 Rizzo, a clinical psychologist at ICT, revived the experiment as Virtual Iraq. He and Jarrell Pair, a programmer who had worked on Virtual Vietnam, built a prototype. After an influential article50 flagged the unforeseen high rates of PTSD and head injury, which would become the signature injuries of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Office of Naval Research funded Virtual Iraq’s development. By March 2005 it was in experimental use at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

The process illustrates what Sara Brady calls the “soldier cycle”:51 US soldiers train, wage war, and then, in an ironic progression, recover from its effects, all using immersive virtual-reality (VR) programs. It also points to ICT’s pioneering role in the formation of the MIME-NET, or what Rizzo jokingly though accurately refers to as “an unholy [End Page 676] alliance of academia, Hollywood and the military.”52 Mike Macedonia, chief scientist and tech director at STRICOM (Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation Command) in Orlando, initiated ICT in 1999 after realizing that “[w]here trickle-down from military research on mainframe computers once fueled progress in the field, civilian programmers working on PCs could now design video games and virtual environments that put military simulations to shame. Macedonia had come to Hollywood to find the tools and skills for simulation and, if necessary, fighting the wars of the future.”53 In 2015 ICT’s website remarkably foregrounds the role of dramatic fiction in its “[c]ompelling stories, characters and special effects. The University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies applies this winning Hollywood formula to benefit service members, students and society at large.”54

Located in the academy and funded by both Hollywood and DoD, ICT is a twenty-first-century hybrid that underscores both the extent of the MIME-NET and the near-impossibility of separating the strand that facilitates virtuous war. As director for medical virtual reality, Rizzo’s own research directs the same technology toward the healing arts, most with no military application, as well as the new pre-combat “resilience training” and recovery from warfare-induced PTSD. Medical advances, commerce, war-making, and technology are woven tightly together at ICT and packaged with “compelling stories and special effects.” This smooth interweaving points to a virtualized spatial politics that enacts the “depthless surface of instantaneous connection” that Massey flags; it also reinforces the importance of form as a mode of theatrical critique, since formally embedded perspectives structure the rules of appearance (and disappearance) in these technologies’ extraordinarily diverse applications.

Driving Virtual Iraq

In Virtual Iraq’s clinical use a therapist adapts a series of computer-programmable events to the narrated memories of each client, who is immersed in the digitally rendered sights, sounds, smells, and vibrations of Iraq via a sealed headset and chair. The therapist adjusts this environment in real time, as the client “drives” or “walks” through Virtual Iraq, adding events like sniper fire, injuries to a bystander, or changing the time of day to match the client’s memory of an event.55 Sue Halpern writes that “[t]he idea is to disconnect the memory from the reactions to the memory, so that although the memory of the traumatic event remains, the everyday things that can trigger fear and panic, such as trash blowing across the interstate or a car backfiring—what psychologists refer to as cues—are restored to insignificance. The trauma thus becomes a discrete event, not a constant, self-replicating, encompassing condition.”56

In 2010, after reading Halpern’s piece about Virtual Iraq in the New Yorker, I contacted Rizzo, who offered to show us Virtual Iraq in operation. Not long after, Colonel Mike Roy, who headed the experimental use of Virtual Iraq in PTSD therapy at Walter Reed, was showing us a small room with a computer and a large black chair. I sat in the chair, put on the three-dimensional headset, and traveled through Virtual Iraq [End Page 677] from the “driver” position in a Humvee cruising along a desert road. As I moved my head I could see out the window, view my “buddies” in the rearview mirror, or look down at my own (large white male) hands on the steering wheel. Roy demonstrated some effects: guns went off; the windscreen cracked; my passenger slumped forwards, covered in blood. Without traumatic battle memories of my own, the most compelling part was not emotional, but the onset of a kind of reality-vertigo caused by the weird sensory effect of being “in” a landscape built from animated graphics. My own movements seemed to prompt the unfolding of the world I was in: turning my head opened out expanses of desert through the Humvee window, suggesting a dimensionality and continuity that could then vanish at the click of a button as the computer programmer switched scenarios, or set off an effect like a roadside bomb. In a visceral, vertiginous way my own presence interacted with the map to generate the territory, foreshadowing our coming adventures in a landscape where, as Matthew Causey argues, we have moved from simulation to embeddedness—a spliced reality in which embodiment is conjoined with virtuality.57

Virtual Iraq, like its predecessor Virtual Vietnam, is built as a digital memory theatre. Like Giulio Camillo’s Renaissance memory theatre of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it offers mnemonic prompts through the spatial placement of objects in a specially constructed cabinet for a single viewer, placed at the center of a tiny model of the world. In both Camillo’s theatre and Virtual Iraq the viewer’s perspective orders the world and unfolds it to memory through the art of placement. In Virtual Iraq “place” is, however, itself simulacral, modeled on a seamlessly interwoven combination of thousands of photographs of actual places and video-game animations. Its expression as unfolding landscape is generated anew each time in a collaboration among narrating client, programming therapist, and the available commands (for example, “Stunned bystander,” “RPG attack,” “Light damage,” “Crowded market”). This process generates locations and events in a landscape built not to lay out coordinates of a material place, but to evoke memory; this malleable virtual landscape is itself both the mnemonic prompt and the evanescent object of memory.

Rizzo explains the power of such environments: “With ‘Virtual Vietnam,’ we had a rice paddy and a helicopter. That was it. Soldiers would say, ‘I was being shot at by guys in the jungle’ and, ‘I could see the V.C. and there was a water buffalo.’ But none of that stuff was there. It was in their memory.”58 Those haunted digital spaces suggested an expressionist terrain with fertile possibilities for a theatrical intervention that addresses this essay’s primary concern: How might theatre restage virtual military technologies to challenge their inbuilt erasures and absences? As a digital memory theatre Virtual Iraq might itself provide a narrative portal through which these troubling absences return, in the form of the haunted memories it was itself built to evoke. As these memories gained autonomy they could present an Iraqi civilian perspective as counter-narrative to the soldier-centric viewpoint hardwired into Virtual Iraq, thus challenging that viewpoint’s dominance. [End Page 678]

Adapting (to) Virtual Iraq

After we encountered the technology firsthand I rewrote the play to become a memory theatre for Michael, in which the “absent contents” structurally elided from Virtual Iraq (actual civilian suffering) could return in the form of Zaynab’s weblog posts, first haunting Michael, then developing their own autonomy to complicate his versions of events. The script shifted from its dreamscape setting in a haunted homeless shelter to a “realist” setting and structure progressively fractured by memories turned live. The Virtual Iraq therapy that Michael undergoes, guided by white military-therapist Hanna, became the overarching framework of the play, which begins in a photo-realistic therapy room loosely adapted from our Walter Reed visit (fig. 3). Both Michael’s and Fallujan-teenage-blogger Zaynab’s stories are linked to the following timeline of events:

Figure 3. Anthony Gaskins as Michael in You Are Dead. You Are Here. by Christine Evans, HERE, New York City (2013). (Photo: Lana Duiverman.)
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Figure 3.

Anthony Gaskins as Michael in You Are Dead. You Are Here. by Christine Evans, HERE, New York City (2013). (Photo: Lana Duiverman.)

[End Page 679]

March 2003: The United States invades Baghdad, delivering “shock and awe”

April 2003: US troops enter Fallujah

April 28, 2003: US 82nd Airborne Division fires on a civilian crowd protesting the use of a local high school as military headquarters. Two days later a protest against the killings (seventeen dead, seventy wounded) is also fired upon by US troops, resulting in two more deaths

March 31, 2004: Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah attack a convoy of four US contractors from Blackwater. Their corpses are dragged through the streets before being hung over a bridge, causing outrage in the United States and prompting combat operations to reestablish US control over the city

April 4, 2004: US forces launch a massive assault on Fallujah (Operation Vigilant Resolve / first battle of Fallujah)

In the US-mediated spectacle of the war the attack on the Blackwater contractors dominated. Widely circulated images of burned and defiled US corpses came to define and justify the first battle of Fallujah. Yet, these images were shorn of historical context and nuance; the distinction between Blackwater’s for-profit contractors and US military personnel blurred. In pegging this timeline to both Michael’s and Zaynab’s versions of events we sought to reinstate some of the “absent contents” elided by the spectacular recycling of the Blackwater images (the school closures; the shooting of civilians) from Zaynab’s perspective. The Iraqi blogs that inspired her character cannot be reduced to simple testimony against war: worries about school, teenage crushes, cute pet photos, and family life are mixed with reports on interrupted schooling and intrusions of violence. Their tone suggests the ongoing density of lived experience, gesturing toward the “multiplicity of trajectories / temporalities”59 that the spectacular mapping of war occludes (fig. 4).

Michael journeys back through his memories, while Zaynab’s weblogs move forward through the same time frame. For Michael the animated landscape is a memory theatre; for Zaynab it is her lived world under siege. Eventually, the two collide when Michael kills Zaynab during the first battle of Fallujah, rendered in Icarus’s video described earlier. At this point the live and virtual worlds fully merge: Michael is embedded in a memory that bleeds (fig. 5). Finally, after Michael’s return to the “realistic” setting of the clinic Zaynab appears in the guise of temp secretary to offer Michael tea; they share a fraught moment of recognition, the desert road of Virtual Iraq looping behind them.

We traveled to ICT in Los Angeles to present a staged reading of this version of the work to Rizzo and his team, hoping to work with the technology itself. Rizzo granted Mezzocchi license to adapt the technology for theatrical performance. For Rizzo our work offered a window into the mental suffering of returning servicemen and women with PTSD and a possible means of publicizing Virtual Iraq’s clinical trials, thus augmenting efforts to enroll veterans. We aligned on the need to help veterans recover from PTSD, and to generate a wider critical and social discussion the war. (In one of the many ironies of the process, Rizzo and the veterans we met were less worried about the politics of representing the suffering of Iraqi civilians than were nonmilitary theatre staff and audiences.) [End Page 680]

Figure 4. Kathreen Khavari as Zaynab in You Are Dead. You Are Here. by Christine Evans, HERE, CultureMart, New York City (2012). (Photo: Jared Mezzochi.)
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Figure 4.

Kathreen Khavari as Zaynab in You Are Dead. You Are Here. by Christine Evans, HERE, CultureMart, New York City (2012). (Photo: Jared Mezzochi.)

Figure 5. Kittson O’Neill as Hanna and Anthony Gaskins as Michael in You Are Dead. You Are Here. by Christine Evans, HERE, New York City (2013). (Photo: Lana Duiverman.)
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Figure 5.

Kittson O’Neill as Hanna and Anthony Gaskins as Michael in You Are Dead. You Are Here. by Christine Evans, HERE, New York City (2013). (Photo: Lana Duiverman.)

[End Page 681]

Transit Lounge also sought to explore whether and how formal interruption of this landscape via Zaynab’s weblog could effectively complicate its singular perspective. By ghosting Virtual Iraq with her posts we aimed for a double vision of events whose resolution could only be ambiguous, since it hosted incompatible realities: the living and the dead can only drink tea together in imaginary landscapes. Yet, the live bodies of the actors also gestured toward the violent realities—and real, if vanished, bodies—behind this spectral moment.

Theoretical questions of framing were hammered out through the resistances and opportunities built into Virtual Iraq. We wrestled with the logic of the visual world: what was projected; how frames overlapped; when and how bodies appeared; how two-dimensional projections could map to three-dimensional space. Melpomene Katakalos’s scenic design presented a workaday office with scrim walls that became translucent, revealing Zaynab’s world. Mezzocchi combined imagery created in the software Isadora with Virtual Iraq’s animations, retooled for projection. Alleyways, characters, and times of day suggested new narrative possibilities. The uncanny recurrence of certain figures (a young boy waving, for example) inspired us to “cast” him as Mahmoud, Zaynab’s brother. In its own ironic echo of Shock and Awe, Virtual Iraq at first resisted our attempts to turn left, reverse, or look in the rearview mirror, pushing us ever forward into new scenarios. However, as Foucault notes,60 power and knowledge are mutually constitutive; our attempts to repurpose Virtual Iraq also repurposed us, both onstage and off.

Framing the Frame

Our collaboration with Rizzo’s ICT team contributed to the larger public framing of the performance as essentially “about” the widespread PTSD manifested by returning soldiers. The show was generally well-received as such; it garnered playwriting and design awards and generated charged conversations with veterans, several of whom were eager to discuss their own troubling experiences of witnessing or causing civilian injury in Iraq. While one reviewer noted that “Khavari’s chilling eyes offer a gateway into an alternate reality that Americans aren’t likely to witness otherwise,”61 overwhelmingly, the focus was on Michael: “I’ve read the articles in the Science Times about PTSD but never was I this moved and inspired to fully grasp the extent of the suffering that soldiers returning from combat suffer.”62

As Butler writes, “[t]o learn to see the frame that blinds us to what we see is no easy matter.”63 In our case this was the power of already-scripted narratives of war to assimilate the play. The politics of the American war story is already aestheticized: a contemporary Hollywood variant of Aristotelian narrative structure is embedded in many civilian/military/theatrical partnerships by which veterans’ stories come to US stages. Bryan Doerries’s Theatre of War project stages Greek classical works for military audiences, but the project’s claim to “timelessly and universally depict the . . . wounds [End Page 682] inflicted upon warriors by war”64 makes a clear point: that this is about the warriors’ suffering, not that of those whom they engage in battle. The reference to “timeless universality” also frames the work as both personal (the war hero’s) and ahistorical. And despite its malleability the narrative pathways of Virtual Iraq are built around this same story: the wounded warrior revisiting sites of trauma, gaining insight, and then symbolically returning home.

The material conditions of independent theatre production also played into our framing of the play. Resident artists at HERE participate in the promotion, fundraising, and community outreach for their own show, which is a balancing act while also rehearsing a new work. Dramaturg and outreach coordinator Heidi Howard contacted New York–based veterans and Iraqis, principally through theatre networks. Actor Ed Walsh, an ex-marine engineer who served in Fallujah,65 advised on Anthony Gaskins’s performance as Michael. Noor Theatre, a company dedicated to theatre by artists of Middle Eastern descent, helped us with casting and publicizing the show through its networks. Iranian Kathreen Khavari played Zaynab, and Iraqi actor Abbas Abbood worked with us in rehearsals on her Arabic pronunciation and performance. Nevertheless, the infrastructure linking theatres and the military, such as Theater Communications Group’s (TCG) Blue Star program, the influential tropes of testimonial theatre tied to narratives of healing described above, and our own connections with Rizzo and his colleagues and their networks, dominated the play’s reception.

The formal structure of the play itself also played a role. The choice to tie Michael’s experience to the “real world” of the therapy room, with Virtual Iraq functioning simultaneously as his memory theatre and Zaynab’s world, firmly stages his story in the foreground and Zaynab’s in the background. The play was built as an aesthetic Trojan Horse designed to pass as a “hero’s journey” that would crack open once inside the walls, so that Zaynab could jump out. But the horse was too sturdy and the door did not fully open. Or perhaps in locating Zaynab as ghost or excess the play also reinforced the notion that Iraqis count to the extent that they reveal truths for us. Transit Lounge’s intention to subvert Aristotelian narrative was itself partly subverted by the robustness of the form, and that form’s prior widespread co-option by the theatre wing of the “military-literary complex.” While Zaynab’s character was based on sources outside the mirror ball of virtuous war,66 as counterpoint and critique to the first-person-shooter perspective of Virtual Iraq, she also serves an instrumental function: as antagonist and conscience she helps Michael recover from the moral injury of having caused her death. [End Page 683]


Grounded and You Are Dead. You Are Here. both engage digital military technologies and trouble their built-in perspectives. In Grounded the structural violence of a world spatialized to “a depthless horizontality of immediate connections”67 eventually breaks The Pilot. In its narrative form and choice of protagonist Grounded fits into a discursive framework in the United States that selectively focuses war stories through the individual experiences of its combatants. This amplifies the play’s reach: simultaneously, the play gestures toward worlds and experiences outside of that framework, although economically enmeshed with it.

You Are Dead. You Are Here. solicits a different kind of witness to war through attempting a double vision; however, like the famous vase/face Gestalt image, it is almost impossible to see both pictures at once. The structure of both play and wider context of reception worked to foreground the combat veteran’s war story and to downplay the Iraqi’s. Even Zaynab’s suffering and death in this environment, if staged as a vehicle for a soldier’s healing, can be assimilated. A more recent military application of the mixed-reality environments that Rizzo and his team design is “resilience training,” where soldiers can rehearse and recover from such killings.

And so we return to the problem, both onstage and beyond, of how to bear witness to what is structurally excised from the frames of virtual war. How might alternative iterations of You Are Dead. You Are Here. attempt this?

“Encrypted in the Frame”

Zaynab, staged within a memory theatre designed for a soldier, cracked it open only partially. Here, I return to Butler’s haunting phrase “encrypted in the frame.” To encrypt is both to bury and preserve; to render into code and to enclose the remains. In Virtual Iraq the Other is indeed rendered into code, encrypted as pixels. If these remains cannot be disinterred or decrypted we might gesture toward their absence rather than struggle for a presence already foreclosed. Willis draws on Hans-Thies Lehmann’s observation that “the figure of the other in theatre always has a reality only of arrival, not of presence” to argue that an ethics of spectatorship might begin with “the acknowledgement that, despite an arrival that is never completed, and a lack of presence, we are nonetheless located within a shared ethical space.”68

I start with the early Virtual Iraq’s lack of shadows. “A Sun with No Shadow,” the title of the final film in Farocki’s series, calls attention to one of Virtual Iraq’s eerier features: in its early iterations figures cast no shadow. Veiled Iraqi women, children, street vendors, masked men with guns, and soldiers alike move with a peculiar gliding motion through the streets. Yet, the absence of shadows alerts the viewer to something missing: dis-remembered, amputated from Virtual Iraq’s dream-like memory theatre. The term memory theatre underscores a paradox: although theatre is a communal event, it is also a prompt to inner worlds, what Janelle Reinelt calls “the associational networking of ongoing living.”69 In contemplating this “associational network” I return to Massey’s vision of space as composed of multiple trajectories, each with its own [End Page 684] time signature: their contemporaneity does not reduce to a single surface, amputating their independent histories, but is the condition of their connection.

The Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters (JDA)70 offers one model for how digital landscapes might facilitate such sites of multiple, nonhierarchical story activated by the viewer’s engagement. In key respects it echoes approaches pioneered many decades earlier by artists, like the Situationists’ “psychogeography” or British company Forced Entertainment’s fictionalized tours of real places, which construct palimpsests of multiple story-layers over the one location.71 In a process termed thick mapping, described as a project of “participating and listening that transforms mapping into an ethical undertaking,”72 events, stories, archives, and real-time weather reports are clustered together on a digital map of Japan. These items belong to very different epistemologies; the ordering principle of inclusion is simply that they pertain to Japan and the response to the 2011 triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, Fukushima) referred to as “3:11.” The JDA’s radical inclusivity works to retain a sense of complexity and history, offering entry points for diverse research agendas and allowing users to contribute their own collections of video, text, image, and audio in Japanese and/or English. Along similar lines, which echo Massey’s pluralistic conception of space, Der Derian calls for a “thick collage of insights” to replace totalizing digitized overviews, arguing that “virtual theory” has ethical implications expressed through form: “virtual theory must out of necessity . . . take responsibility, as far as it can, for its mapping of the world.”73

Next time, Virtual Iraq—its dreamscapes, its figures—might become a “thick map” instead of a surface for You Are Dead. You Are Here. to fracture. We might move from the “realist” setup of the therapy room, away from proscenium staging that implies a unifying perspective, toward adjacent contemporaneous spaces. Mezzocchi’s media design could gesture beyond the spectacular images of war in which we are saturated and toward heterotopic spaces where mutually conjoined though incommensurate events coexist.

What follows is a sketch of an imagined performance that invites each audience member to journey through the adjacent spaces in her own time. Each actor (therapist, veteran, blogger) would have a performed “loop” of text or story that repeats, vanishes, collides, juxtaposes, or entirely misses the others. All the components of story are here, but decoupled from a narrative structure that inexorably centers the soldier’s journey:

In one space a three-dimensional, Virtual Iraq–like environment where the viewer can immerse herself in its ghostly, cycling streets; faces and shadowless bodies recur, gliding past. In another a clinical therapy room where command buttons and animated pictures of a desert landscape appear on a computer screen. Another space looks like an empty Fallujan living room. Here, something has just happened or is about to: a window is broken, there are bullet holes in the wall, steam rises from a metal teapot on a tray. On a cracked [End Page 685] screen Zaynab’s web-posts cycle, stutter, continue: the gesture of tossing hair, of pouting at the camera, the complaints about electricity blackouts, the terror at her cousin Mahmoud’s disappearance—the abrupt interruption, then blackout, when a soldier kicks down the door. All cycle on, shorn of context.

Through offering the spectator the opportunity to explore these components separately and mentally restage their connection, this reframing enacts a spatial politics that insists that each story has weight and consequence: Michael’s combat trauma; Zaynab’s crumbling life in Fallujah; Hanna’s anxious programming. Crucially, it shifts responsibility to the viewer for these story-threads’ interweaving, while throwing into sharp relief the ways in which war’s spectacular mediation usually does this work for her by excising civilian suffering from its screens. The unfinished spaces of this hypothetical performance invite the audience to view the conjoined disjunction of the lives whose perspectives they imply and in turn go beyond the work of ethical witness to participate in the generative mapping of new possible worlds. [End Page 686]

Christine Evans

Christine Evans is an assistant professor of performing arts at Georgetown University and a playwright, novelist, and scholar of theatre and performance studies. Her work refracts political and social questions through a poetic lens, often centering on war and its aftermath. Her plays include the multi-award-winning Trojan Barbie (2009), and a trilogy, War Plays (2013). Her current and recent works include You Are Dead. You Are Here. (2013); Can’t Complain (2015); and Galilee, developed at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and Theater J and featured at the 2015 Bay Area Playwrights’ Festival. Her first novel, Cloudless (2015), is set in her Australian homeland.


1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (2nd version), in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008), 41.

2. Albert Rizzo, qtd. in Sue Halpern, “Virtual Iraq: Using Simulation to Treat a New Generation of Traumatized Veterans,” New Yorker, 19 May 2008, available at

3. “HNK’s Blog is a diary of IraqiGirl,” available at

4. Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 325.

5. Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext[e], 1983), 2.

6. Harun Farocki, “Serious Games II: Three Dead,” available at The four short films that comprise Images of War (at a Distance) screened at MOMA in New York City in 2013 show live-virtual technology at use in military training and rehabilitation.

7. See Scott Magelssen, “Rehearsing the ‘Warrior Ethos’: ‘Theatre Immersion’ and the Simulation of Theatres of War.” TDR: The Drama Review 53, no. 1 (2009): 47–72.

8. Tom Buscemi, recorded in “Full Immersion: The Military’s Use of Iraqi Civilians and Pyrotechnics for Troops in Training,” Frontline, 29 April 2009, available at

9. George Brant, Grounded (London: Oberon Books, 2013).

10. Christine Evans, You are Dead. You are Here. ITN (Indie Theater Now) (2014), available at

11. Zaynab’s video blog is a deliberate anachronism. During 2003–04, when the play is set, she would have been writing blogs, not video-recording her posts. A number of young Iraqi women, who kept such blogs in English during and after the US invasion, inspired her character. See “HNK’s Blog is a Diary of IraqiGirl,” available at, and “Days of My Life: Talk about Daily Life of a Teenage Girl In Iraq, My Suffering and Success. My Nickname Will Be Sunshine,” available at

12. Farocki, Images of War.

13. See Pieter van Bogaert, “How to Live in a Game: Harun Farocki’s War Games,” Metropolis M 5 (October/November 2009), available at

14. See Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994). Debord defines the spectacle as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images. . . . [T]he spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production” (12).

15. James Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (New York: Routledge, 2009), xxxii.

16. Ibid., 278.

17. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2009), 73.

18. Peggy Phelan, “Foreword,” in Tim Etchells, Certain Fragments: Contemporary Performance and Forced Entertainment (London: Routledge, 1999), 10.

19. Emma Willis, Theatricality, Dark Tourism and Ethical Spectatorship: Absent Others (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 46.

20. See Sharon Friedman for an explication of the range of (mostly US-based) theatrical responses by women to contemporary war. She notes attempts to “unsettle familiar perspectives” by giving voice to those “often silenced or ignored by politicians and the mass media” (“The Gendered Terrain in Contemporary Theater of War by Women,” Theatre Journal, 62, no. 4 [2010]: 593–610). Further significant exceptions include the verbatim theatre piece Aftermath, which collaged testimony from Iraqi refugees now based in Jordan; see Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, “Aftermath,” American Theatre 27, no. 4 (2010): 61. Canadian playwright Judith Thompson stages an international trio of voices affected by the US/Iraq wars: see Palace of The End (Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2009). UK-based Tricycle Theatre toured to the United States with Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s Guantánamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” (London: Oberon Books, 2005). For a kaleidoscopic view of Iraqi women’s relationship to war, see Heather Raffo, Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire: A Play (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006). Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer Prize–nominated play weaves together the experiences of US combatants with an Iraqi translator who has survived horrors perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s psychopathic son; see Joseph, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2013). A majority of widely produced US plays about the war in Iraq nevertheless have US combatants or veterans as protagonists and focus on their war trauma. These include: Bill Cain, 9 Circles (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2013); Quiara Alegria Hudes, Water by the Spoonful and Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue (both New York: TCG, 2012); Ellen McLaughlin, Ajax in Iraq: A Play (New York: Playscripts, 2008); and Deborah Salem Smith, Boots on the Ground (produced by Trinity Repertory Company and directed by Laura Kepley, 14 April 2006). Some such works tour to military bases, reaching very large audiences, and are funded in part by military philanthropy and the Department of Defense; see Emily Ackerman and K. J. Sanchez, Reentry (New York: Playscripts, 2000), and Bryan Doerries, Theater of War project: “Outside The Wire: Theater of War: Overview,” available at

21. Elise Morrison, “Ambushed by Empathy: George Brant’s Grounded,” TDR: The Drama Review 58, no. 4 (2014): 163–69.

22. Ibid., 163.

23. Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2005), 76.

24. Ibid., 77.

25. Laura Barnett, “Lucy Ellinson: ‘Drone Pilots Are Pretty Bored a Lot of the Time,’” Guardian, 31 August 2013, available at

26. Brant, Grounded, 51.

27. Ibid., 19.

28. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd ed., trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).

29. Brant, Grounded, 35.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid., 38.

32. Ibid., 24.

33. Ibid., 51.

34. Ibid., 52–53 (emphasis in original).

35. Ibid., 71.

36. Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis: Essays on Feminism and Theater (London, UK: Routledge 1997), 53.

37. Everyman Theatre, Baltimore, directed by Derek Goldman, 15 October–16 November 2014.

38. Page 73, New York City, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, 8 January–1 February 2014.

39. Morrison, “Ambushed by Empathy,” 168.

40. Ibid., 167.

41. Charles Isherwood’s review concludes: “This seemingly fearless fighter pilot finds herself being stalked by an enemy she’d kept at bay while doing her job from thousands of feet up in the air: an enemy called empathy.” See Isherwood, “Pulled Down from the Sky, Still Lethal: ‘Grounded,’ a Fighter Pilot’s Story,” New York Times, 17 January 2014, available at

42. Elliott Colla, “The Military-Literary Complex,” Jadaliyya, 8 July 2014, available at

43. Willis, Theatricality, 52.

44. Butler, Frames of War, 75.

45. Colla, “The Military-Literary Complex.”

46. See Celia Wren, “‘Grounded’ at Studio Theatre: A New View of Drone Warfare,” Washington Post, 12 June 2014, available at

47. Brant, Grounded, 48.

48. Ibid., 49.

49. Butler, Frames of War, 73.

50. Charles W. Hoge, Carl A. Castro, Stephen C. Messer, Dennis McGurk, Dave I. Cotting, and Robert L. Koffman, “Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mental Health Problems, and Barriers to Care,” New England Journal of Medicine 351 (2004): 13–22, available at

51. Sara Brady, “The Soldier Cycle: Harun Farocki’s Images of War (at a Distance),” available at

52. Rizzo, qtd. in Halpern, “Virtual Iraq.”

53. Macedonia, qtd. in Der Derian, Virtuous War, 163.

54. See the Institute for Creative Technologies’ website, available at

55. A short presentation on Virtual Iraq by its creator, Albert Rizzo, is available at

56. Halpern, “Virtual Iraq.”

57. Matthew Causey, Theatre and Performance in Digital Culture: From Simulation to Embeddedness (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2006). For more on the effects of immersive theatre, see Rosemary Klich and Edward Scheer, Multimedia Performance (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

58. Eilene Zimmerman, “Getting Blown Up, Again and Again,” Salon, 16 May 2007, available at

59. Massey, For Space, 77.

60. See Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).

61. Sydney Arnt, “Review: ‘You Are Dead. You Are Here’ at HERE,” 12 June 2013, available at

62. Joan Kane, “You Are Dead. You Are Here.,” review, indie theater now,, 8 June 2013, available at

63. Butler, Frames of War, 100.

64. “Outside The Wire: Theater of War: Overview,” available at Other notable examples of such partnerships include D. Salem Smith’s 2006 verbatim theatre piece Boots on the Ground, commissioned and produced by Trinity Repertory Company; and Emily Ackerman and K. J. Sanchez’s 2009 verbatim theatre piece, Re-Entry, which was commissioned by Two Rivers Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, and subsequently toured to military bases and other theatres.

65. In an example of the ongoing subsidized work to represent veterans’ stories in the arts, Ed Walsh later participated in artistic outreach to veterans through a Mission Continues Fellowship at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. See “From the Theater of War to the Theater of Arts,” 29 September 2014, The Mission Continues Blog, available at

66. In addition to the Iraqi bloggers mentioned I am indebted to Anthony Shadid’s work, who was one of the few US reporters to refuse to “embed” with the US military. See Shadid, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War (New York: Picador, 2006).

67. Massey, For Space, 76.

68. Willis, Theatricality, 8 (emphasis in original).

69. Janelle G. Reinelt, “What UK Audiences Know: Understanding How We Come to Value Theatre,” Theatre Journal 66, no. 3 (2014): 337–62.

70. Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters, available at

71. Anke Schleper, “Off the Route: Strategies and Approaches to the Appropriation of Space,” in Not Even a Game Anymore: The Theatre of Forced Entertainment, ed. Florian Malzacher and Judith Helmer (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2004), 170–85.

72. See Harvard University Press’s online catalog for Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano’s HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (2014): “a means of integrating scholarship with the world of lived experience, making sense of the past in the layered spaces of the present for the sake of the open future,” available at

73. Der Derian, Virtuous War, 219 (emphasis in original).

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