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On Video: Paul Chan lets Baghdad do the talking



Paul Chan begins his 2003 video Baghdad in No Particular Order with a title reading "order particular no in Baghdad"--a clear signal that he intends to provide an alternative perspective on Iraq to that offered by the nightly news. Chan spent nearly four weeks in the Iraqi capital last winter as part of the Iraq Peace Team, a group organized by Voices in the Wilderness to protest the imminent war. The Iraqis he met there face his camera in the casual, friendly manner of relatives and neighbors showing off in a home video. When twin sisters He'be and Du'a dance, Chan turns the camera over to their older brother Mohamad; at the Al-Shadbandar Cafe, he lets a 50ish former television director play with the digital camcorder. The resulting "ambient documentary" captures details beyond the range of both the press corps and the international community of camera-toting activists, sketching instead the scope of everyday life in Baghdad.

"My aim was the intentional valuing of certain smaller pictures," says Chan, a 1996 School of the Art Institute grad who's now based in New York City. The portraits of Saddam Hussein that were ubiquitous in prewar Baghdad never appear. "It was one of the things I felt I didn't want to shoot," he says. "I almost chalk that up to war pornography. I didn't want to use the stock grammar of the way you depict war and specifically the situation in Iraq." Instead he focused on idiosyncratic images like the fluttering eyelids and licking tongue of a sleeping monkey, a pet that lived in the lobby of his hotel. "What does a monkey dream about when a war is looming?" he says. "It was one of the most moving things I saw in Baghdad. I could watch that for hours if he hadn't woken up."

Born in Hong Kong, Chan moved to Omaha in 1981, when he was eight. In 1992 he came to SAIC, where an introductory video course taught by Mary Patten opened his eyes to "art as part of the political economy." When he was a sophomore, faculty member Paul Elitzik invited him to become the editor of the school's F Newsmagazine. "He was one of our best editors," says Elitzik. "[He tackled] very aggressive, in-your-face articles on the rawest issues he could come up with."

After graduation he taught computer illustration at Columbia College, where he got involved with the organizing efforts of P-FAC, the part-time-teachers union, as well as workshops in media literacy at Chicago Cable Access Network and digital video editing at SAIC. (He also worked in the Reader's production department for a year.) He left Chicago in 1998 to teach at the University of Pennsylvania and Hunter College, and now makes his living as an artist: a recent show at New York's Greene Naftali Gallery sold out, and this year he won a Rockefeller Foundation New Media Fellowship.

His Web site,, offers a hyperlinked set of observations about his experience in Iraq, juxtaposing miscellaneous impressions (the Iraqi liquor arak "tastes like licorice and stings like rock candy") with heady allusions to Chinese scholar Qian Zhongshu and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek and footnotes to his videos and other art projects.

In the video, Chan visits the memorial at the Al-Amariyah bomb shelter, which was destroyed by U.S. missiles during the first gulf war. As his camera pans across photos of victims of the attack, an Arabic rendition of "I Will Always Love You" blares nearby. On the Web site, a footnote explains that the tune, by a Syrian pop star named Mayyada Bselees, had been chosen by Saddam as his "campaign" theme song, and accompanied the dawn-to-dusk "election" broadcasts then dominating the three state-controlled television stations. Baghdad opened his eyes, says Chan, to the international scope of more than the coming war. "I realized how culturally fluid things were there," he says. "Pop culture is truly global....Everybody thought I was Jackie Chan."

Baghdad in No Particular Order screens Saturday, November 22, at 3 PM at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, as part of the Select Media Festival. Also on the bill is Deborah Stratman's short Energy Country. Tickets are $8; call 312-846-2800 or see the sidebar in Section Two for more information.

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