Special Forces

Special Forces turns Lebanon war into art

April 27, 2007
by Michael Fox

From El Salvador in the ’80s to Bosnia in the ’90s to the Israeli invasion of Beirut last year, Bob Ostertag has been moved by war’s impact on civilians. Each time he created an art piece, but don’t call him a political artist.

“There’s nothing about my work designed to convince anybody of anything,” the acclaimed San Francisco new-music composer said in a phone interview. “Artistic work and political discourse are different things.”

Ostertag has collaborated with Montreal animator Pierre Hébert for several years as the improvisational performance duo Living Cinema. Their latest piece, “Special Forces,” was inspired by last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Living Cinema presents the U.S. premiere of “Special Forces” on Friday, May 4 at SFMOMA, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

“You could say it’s about the victims of war,” Ostertag said. “What art can do is let us into a particular moment that we don’t really have access to by reading the newspaper or watching television.”

In performance, Hébert starts by taking a photo or brief clip from a newscast and freezing it. He then draws over the image, borrowing from influences as varied as watercolors, Etch-a-Sketch, puppet shows and charcoal drawings, to transform a moment of realism into an evocative sequence.

Backed by Ostertag’s computer-aided soundtrack, Hébert conjures associations that range from whimsical to satiric to haunting. Unlike a standard documentary that provides information and elicits predictable emotions, a Living Cinema show is experiential and ethereal and utterly unique.

A high percentage of the civilian casualties in Lebanon were children, Ostertag says, and the artists debated which images conveyed that particular misery of war without being overly graphic.

“It’s easy to put a horrible picture up on the screen and shock people,” said Ostertag, a professor of technocultural studies and music at U.C. Davis. “Where’s the art in that?”

He is satisfied with the images they selected, like a scared child that he believes is neither self-evidently Lebanese or Israeli. As such, “Special Forces” doesn’t provide political or historical context for the conflict, and isn’t an advocacy piece for one side or the other.

“I don’t think ‘Special Forces’ is going to make anybody who supported the Israeli invasion of Lebanon change their mind,” Ostertag declared, “and I don’t think art can make anybody who opposed the invasion change their mind.”

As for his score, even aficionados of new music will likely be surprised.

“Every sound you hear comes from computer games,” he confided. “People of a certain age or lower who’ve grown up with video games will probably recognize what games the sounds came from.”

Ostertag didn’t focus on war-related video games for his bits and bytes of music, but he was thinking about zeros and ones in a specific — and political — way.

“As a musician who uses computers, I feel I can’t not be aware that the tools I use to make music are the same tools that we now use to kill people.”

Living Cinema was invited to debut “Special Forces” in Beirut at the beginning of April. To his disappointment, Ostertag was unable to obtain a new passport in time to make the trip. Hébert performed alone, accompanied by a score that Ostertag emailed him in Lebanon.

When he toured “Yugoslavia Suite” in the Balkans, Ostertag discovered the power of presenting a work to people with firsthand experience of the events. So it’s likely that Living Cinema will reprise “Special Forces” in Beirut, and perform the one-hour piece in Israel.

Though his work is often inspired by current events, Ostertag maintains an art-for-art’s-sake attitude.

“When I think of political art, I think of art made with the idea that the audience will see it and think more like you on the particular issue,” he asserted. “And I always find that [that] art fails and is boring, and is trying to do something that art is not meant to do.”