Never to repeat
inspired by prejudice
By Zara Houshmand
December 12, 2000
I'm driving the highway that runs like a narrow boundary between
snow-topped peaks and the flat, scraggy valley. In the far distance,
another mountain range, the edge of a salt desert... If it wasn't for
the names of the towns -- Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine -- and the
smell of sagebrush, I could be almost anywhere in Iran.
I haven't spoken a word in a week, in any language, and the sheer
light and hundred mile views match the clear calm of my mind after seven
days of meditation and solitude in the Eastern Sierra. But now I'm
headed home and the old train of logic and associations is gathering
My last contact with the "real" world was in the first shock of the
breaking news about the Oklahoma bombing. I'd left behind the horror of
the television images, a war zone in middle America, the knee-jerk
accusations, "middle-eastern terrorists," a wave of hate crimes. I don't
know yet that the picture has changed, but it doesn't really matter.
Facts don't change the feelings that quickly.
I pass a small signpost for a historical monument, like a footnote on
the highway. Something makes me slow down, back up, and get out of the
car, stepping back into the silence of the landscape.
There doesn't seem to be much there -- a couple of sentry huts built
of stone, what looks like an abandoned warehouse but was once an
auditorium, a few tall trees and a patch of green that says there's
water out there somewhere. Beyond the green, a small white monument
stands dwarfed in the shadow of the mountains.
This is all that remains of the Manzanar internment camp, where
thousands of Japanese-American families were forcibly "relocated" during
World War II-- the drab outlines of an archeological site that isn't
even old, odd chunks of concrete slab, rusting bits of steel rod. The
rows of barracks that housed the prisonners are long gone, dismantled
for scrap at the end of the war.
I had read accounts of this particularly ignominious chapter of
American history, of lives disrupted, property seized, and the
undeserved shame that comes of wearing the face of what America calls
the enemy. I had a sense of how the poison still lingered, had listened
one night to sake-fuelled stories in a bar in Japantown in L.A., and had
seen how those stories, and the silence that surrounded them, shaped the
lives of Japanese-Americans too young to remember the camps
It was coming home to me now in a new way, with the recent news of
Oklahoma and the way it dredged up the stale old stories of the hostage
crisis in Tehran. There's more than just bad luck involved in being the
wrong race, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. There's a moral
failure in how casually our media fuels hatred, how eagerly prejudice
partners with opportunism. There's more than bad luck in the way that
history repeats itself, not inevitably, but with the force of a stubborn
I spent a few hours walking slowly around the site. I felt the
presence of ghosts, a sadness hanging in the air that fifty years of
winds had not blown away. But the place was haunted also by other echoes
with a different kind of sadness, a nostalgia for the landscape of Iran.
What the families interned here had seen as a god-forsaken desert hell
was, to my eyes, beautiful. As I listened to the wind in the trees and
watched the shadow of the mountains moving slowly across the day, I was
home. Even the old scars of the camp roads seemed to trace a chahar-bagh
pattern on the land.
I imagined history repeating itself in the most literal way, on this
very land, and the irony of mapping such a prison onto the prisons that
memory and longing make: the alien looking inward on the landscape of
exile, here in this desolate corner of California where the American
dream was betrayed. There's a poem here somewhere, I thought.
But I didn't get around to writing it. Instead, I did the thing that
kills a poem, whatever else it may accomplish. I talked about it.
I talked to Tamiko Thiel, a Japanese-American artist working in new
media, whose family had been interned at Topaz, another camp like
Manzanar. We were both working at the time at a company with the very
por-ru name of Worlds, Inc. We did, in fact, produce worlds-virtual ones
on a computer screen, but they were surprisingly real to inhabit.
You could walk through architecture and landscape, manipulate a body
that was "you" within that world, meet and talk to other people in a
similar form, though in reality they were sitting at another computer
halfway across the real world. A team of engineers built the technology,
while a group of artists and producers, myself and Tamiko included,
dreamt up ways to use it that would challenge the limits and provide
feedback on what needed more development.
We were supposed to sell the stuff too, of course, but a lot of
creative energy went into pondering the philosophical issues of
homesteading in cyberspace and defining conventions for a new medium.
One persistent issue was realism. If you're trying to create a virtual
reality, then one measure of success is a literal-minded, life-like
reproduction of the "real" world. It's certainly a measure that makes
sense to engineers and salesmen. But we had in our hands a medium that
in theory wasn't bound by gravity or euclidean geometry. We wanted to do
more with it than build shopping malls and space stations. Naturally, we
wanted to make art.
When I told Tamiko about my thoughts at Manzanar, she saw the
potential for a virtual reality art piece. Almost unconsciously, we
began a process of collaboration that would evolve over five years. We
talked through many, many late nights, about problems of structure and
form and control of time-how to shape a dramatic experience that has an
emotional arc, a beginning, middle and end, and yet give viewers the
freedom to find their own way through the environment and make their own
And of course, we talked about the experience of the camps, of being
an alien-American, and who we were talking to and what it all meant. We
shared family history, old photos, and poems, and made each other listen
to "weird" music. We learned, gingerly at first, but with growing
confidence, how to trust each other on questions of "turf" and our
separate areas of expertise. How could we balance the historical weight
of the Japanese experience against the more ephemeral expression of the
Iranian "what if"? How would we honor the historical realities without
being bound to documentary?
We went back to Manzanar to photograph and started to recreate the
mountain panorama on the computer screen. From old photographs we
reconstructed the guardtowers and barracks, and peopled the camp with
ghost images of the families that had lived there. Deep inside the world
of the prison, we planted two gardens of the heart, one Japanese and one
Iranian, magical healing spaces like those the mind builds when reality
Within the prison, also, we captured images of the American dream as
it was dreamt in innocence by our own families, and we fortified its
boundaries with the images of betrayal and hatred that accuse us from
newspapers and television screens, the aggression that plays out like a
video game. We wrote poetry into the barbed wire, and across the
So yes, finally, a poem was written, and this is how the piece ends,
with a panoramic mandala of the mountains and the sky:
May the mountains witness;
Williamson, Whitney, Lone Pine,
.....To the East, a sea of
wears my face.
Erase the shame, the fear, the witless
Witness now, too late:
Each stranger wears my fate.
Let the winds watch:
.....To the South, a million
Each tongue speaks my own hope,
Each foreign tongue my
own, one taste,
Each hunger, one I've known.
Let the earth feel:
.....To the West, a friend unfound
Embrace the lover yet to be discovered.
Unmake the bed you've
made; go free.
How like you is the other: simply see.
May the sky see:
.....To the North, a need so endless
That only one whole heart can offer
Ever to console or feed.
Then offer this one:
ever watchful never to repeat.
Long before we began actual production, Worlds, Inc. had collapsed.
In new media, evaporating technology is an occupational hazard. In the
end, thanks to support from Blaxxun Interactive, we built the program in
VRML for a large screen installation. Much of the production work was
done during a residency at the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and
Sciences (IAMAS) in Ogaki, Japan, with help from many of the
teachers and graduate students under the direction of Prof. Itsuo
Sakane. Click on tiles to see larger
Beyond Manzanar is a virtual reality art installation by Zara
Houshmand and Tamiko Thiel, showing December 12-25, 2000 at the Metropolitan
Museum of Photography, Tokyo, Japan.