We catch up with Michelle Dee sitting very still in a seat in the library, she is in something of a daze and trying to process all that she has just witnessed. Now Is The Time To Say Nothing, such a provocative and accusatory title for an incredible project conducted over five years, by a Syrian teenager in Damascus and a group of London schoolchildren working with a UK artist.
The images on screen sometimes have a painterly, abstract quality, the blobs and blotches of colour pulsing like the stuff that lies behind the pictures. Footage of warplanes, an alarming glimpse of the red/black interior of the Syrian High Command, the bombed out buildings, the people running, the mortar fire, the ground shaking: I can actually feel the ground shaking.
Now Is The Time To Say Nothing by Caroline Williams and Reem Karssli is an interactive video installation, described as a provocation against armchair passivity. In my peripheral vision I can see other cube shapes, each one playing the same footage to another person sat down headphones on, watching the screen.
The white noise settles into a truly unconscionable story, yet it is happening to thousands across Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East: from the babies to grandparents. Ever wondered what life might be like living in a war zone, unable to leave your building, unable to go outside? Ever wondered what it does to a child’s mental state?
We are introduced to a group of London teenagers at the start of a school project, they are talking via Skype to Reem and introducing themselves. They are a little shy at first but later, after Reem has gone from the monitor screen, they discuss what they know about Syria, the conflict and how they might reach out to people like themselves. One says something really profound like,’ How do you tell a story that means something to every single person who hears it?’
The school children email Reem, send each other music online for a time, and then after awhile they forget and sometimes Reem forgets: they don’t always get a reply anyway. In Syria the war intensifies, Reem and her family have to move.
I’m tearing up even now recalling the image of a young girl, Reem’s sister I think, carefully folding and refolding a red shirt, packing it away into a suitcase in a cramped bedroom. She is clearly traumatised, she breaks down, her words escaping her mouth faster and faster, until becoming a cry of despair. She says that she would rather die than face the daily, monotonous torture of being trapped inside by the threat of the bombs falling outside.
The hopelessness, the sheer madness inducing effect of her incarceration, fills me with indignant anti-war sentiment. It suddenly dawns on me that some of the footage, I am now sat here watching has been shot at huge risk. “Don’t let them see you with the camera, they are on the roof,” someone warns Reem. It’s not often I’m moved to tears watching a show – not sure it can rightly be called a show – but here I am tears rolling down.
Reem faces a life or death decision. She invites you to make that choice with her.
This really is a powerfully affecting piece of work, the scope and number of variables for the project alone is huge. Caroline is collaborating with someone where she has no control over her staying alive after six months, one year, two years.
Caroline Williams’ artist profile describes her as having a ‘passion to give people who wouldn’t primarily consider themselves artists a platform to create great works of art’. It goes on to say that ‘she seeks stories that matter and people who have something important to say’. Now Is The Time To Say Nothing does have something important to say and it is indeed a great work of art but what does it want me to do?
What does the tv want me to do, write letters to my MP? Ask why it is we are supplying one country with guns to kill people in other country? Wave a flag, sign a petition, go on a protest march? Volunteer on the Mediterranean islands, work the Calais camps, share a news story? What can one person do about a war that is happening thousands of miles away? The pillars of democracy in the west are about as stable and secure as the crumbling remains of the bombed buildings in Syria. Now is Not the time to say nothing.
Now Is The Time To Say Nothing is at Hull Central Library, with remaining performances on March 29 at 18:30, 20:00 and March 30 at 10am and 11.30am. More info and tickets here.