Labor Camp

White Star Cluster

The Third Sonic Reenactment of Operation Iraqi Freedom

October 22, 2009-April 5, 2010 at the LABoral Centro de Arte y Creacion Industrial, Gijon, Spain

Sound, video, custom software, furniture, audio CD, printed matter, installation
by Piotr Szyhalski
and Labor Camp Orchestra

This is the third installation of the Theater Of Operations project. This version utilizes sixteen synchronized audio streams (eight channels of surround sound, and four stereo "open back" headphones) and video.

White Star Cluster fills the vacant interior of the gallery with a sound environment that echoes events in Iraq--a sonic reenactment exploring perceptions of war. The spoken texts were transcribed from videos recorded by cameras mounted on the helmets of American soldiers in Iraq during military related operations and activities. White Star Cluster focuses on footage captured in Ramadi, Iraq, on December 4, 2006, in which U.S. soldiers come under friendly fire attack. This dialogue was then performed in the studio by a cast of players. From ultra quiet, intimate voices to aggressive and confrontational language and sounds, the recordings span the range of human emotions as the soldiers' reenacted dialogue reflects a sobering and at times discomforting truth. Dissecting the minutiae of the adrenaline induced dialogues transcribed from the helmet-cam video, the project follows a slow, labyrinthian path of self-destruction.


A surprising passage delivered in French appears in the third part of the "White Star Cluster." It is unexpected due to the foreign language presentation, but also, because it is decisively "detached" from all other words spoken in the work. As opposed to the documentary nature of the "libretto" based on the transcripts of the video shot in Ramadi, the French text seems to manifest itself from the depths of time. The text comes from a Chinese record retelling three famous speeches by Mao Tse-tung. This particular passage comes from a speech entitled "The Foolish Old Man Who Removed The Mountains" delivered by Mao on June 11, 1945, in which Mao himself re-tells an old fable:

"There is an ancient Chinese fable called "The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains". It tells of an old man who lived in northern China long, long ago and was known as the Foolish Old Man of North Mountain. His house faced south and beyond his doorway stood the two great peaks, Taihang and Wangwu, obstructing the way. He called his sons, and hoe in hand they began to dig up these mountains with great determination. Another greybeard, known as the Wise Old Man, saw them and said derisively, "How silly of you to do this! It is quite impossible for you few to dig up these two huge mountains." The Foolish Old Man replied, "When I die, my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons, and then their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can't we clear them away?" Having refuted the Wise Old Man's wrong view, he went on digging every day, unshaken in his conviction. God was moved by this, and he sent down two angels, who carried the mountains away on their backs."

I posit this text against the image of the Angel of Progress. The vision of two Angels helping the "Foolish Old Man" strikes me as poetically appropriate in the context of the grotesque absurdity of war depicted in the "White Star Cluster". It appears to ridicule the knowledge of the "Wise Old Man" and glorifies determined, however foolish, brute force of relentless physical exertion, in turn rewarded by the descending Angels. A subtle complexity of uncertain motivations present the Angels as potential agents of positive change, or demons of destruction. As we witness men self-destruct in the "White Star Cluster" the ghost of the "Foolish Old Man" gently expands the view from the darkness of combat, and into the vastness of our humanity and nature.


A Labor Camp Orchestra CD containing the audio content of the "White Star Cluster" Project is now available.

   Fig. 01 : White Star Cluster : Installation details

   Fig. 02 : White Star Cluster : Audience interactions

   Fig. 03 : White Star Cluster : Stills from the source video

   Fig. 04 : White Star Cluster : Sample of source text transcriptions

   Fig. 05 : White Star Cluster : Installation process

   Fig. 06 : White Star Cluster : WSC / LCO


All instruments and voices by Labor Camp Orchestra, with the following additions:

Lori Lewis

Double Bass:
Sara Thompson

Ava Szychalski

English Voices:
Rebecca Alm
Scott Bowman
Emmet Byrne
David Goldes
Oliver Grudem
Justin Heideman
Joan Johnson
Pamela Johnson
Kristin Makholm
Abinadi Meza
Aydin Mohseni
Rosie Szychalski
Piotr Szyhalski
Osla Thomason
Paul Wenzel

Additional Voices:
Michael Aberman
Jacey Braband
Rebecca Burg
Allegra Denton
Brian (Buddy) Domeier
Daniel Ferro
Ethan Holbrook
Adam Hutchinson
James Kleiner
Heather Kraft
Joshua Nelson
Amalia Nicholson
Alexandra Roche
Andrew Schatz
Alex Schroeter
Tyler Stefanich
Karl Zinsmaster

All tracks written, produced and performed by Piotr Szyhalski
Musical compositions are based on Erik Satie's "Vexations".

All English texts are based on the transcripts from a helmet-cam video shot in Iraq.
Video text transcriptions: Rosie Szychalski
The final text extracted from the video transcript: White Star Cluster TEXT PDF

Generous support from the LABoral Centro de Arte y Creacion Industrial is gratefully acknowledged.

Additional materials:

Theater Of Operations, The First Sonic Reenactment Of Operation Iraqi freedom: First installation in Cleveland, 2008.
Theater Of Operations, The Second Sonic Reenactment Of Operation Iraqi freedom: Second installation in Minneapolis, 2009.
Theater Of Operations: PROCESS: Notes on the methodologies and development of the Theater Of Operations project.
Theater Of Operations CD containing the audio content of the "White Star Cluster" and "Theater Of Operations" Projects.
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