“I could play this on my laptop back home!”
The low-key intro to A House In Asia puts us in a flight sim hovering over a nondescript urban landscape. It would be quite easy to be underwhelmed in that way.
But then the plane banks, The Statue of Liberty comes into view, and, with a gasp of realisation, we start speeding up, heading directly towards the two tallest buildings on Manhattan Island…
The consequences of the War On Terror continue to play out around the world. It could be decades before politicians and historians, let alone artists, have a full picture of it to work from. Barcelona’s Agrupación Señor Serrano have therefore zoomed in on a particularly pivotal moment in the timeline – the capture of Bin Laden in 2011.
“Zoomed in” is the operative phrase, too. Their storytelling media are toy soldiers and a doll’s house reconstruction of Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, filmed in close-up on the stage and projected.
It’s no straight retelling of the mission. The company take their cue from the US’s codename for Bin Laden – Geronimo. It allows them to set up the whole operation as a game of cowboys and indians, with all the power dynamics, mythology and racial attitudes that implies. Thus our all-conquering US toy soldiers are filmed against a backdrop of black and white Western movie footage, in which a sinister looking sheriff is overdubbed with Dubya’s bullish speeches to the nation. And when our little indians are filmed with the decapitated heads of their enemy, it’s an old wanted poster of Geronimo we see, standing in for the bounty on Bin Laden.
The group also interweave the story of the real Pakistani compound with that of two other identical houses – the reconstruction of that compound used as a US Navy SEAL training facility, and the set of Zero Dark Thirty, the film that told the story of the mission. Action skips between the three, and often the projected live footage is overlaid with gun sights and computer readouts, further enhancing the sense of unreality, of war-as-video-game.
There’s a lot of geekery involved, and the trio often send this up for comic effect. The famous “Tears in Rain” speech from Bladerunner gets nerdily paraphrased, presumably as much for the creators’ amusement as the audience’s, and they take a pop at themselves for being 40 somethings playing with toy soldiers, even though you know they’re secretly proud of it. The only time they take this too far is when five cowgirls join them on stage for a Take That line dancing routine. The reason? The SEAL who wrote his memoir about the mission had the pen name Mark Owen. The scene’s OK in itself, but a tenuous and unnecessary disruption to the tone here.
That aside, A House in Asia makes for a clever take on an unsavoury chapter of history, and never gets too polemical. Rather than ranting, or worse, glorifying, it eases us into our own thoughts via intricate and visually compelling wee tableaux. The key figure throughout is a white-hatted cowboy who appears several times both in miniature, and in flesh and blood, played by one of the company. He voices his thoughts – weary and conflicted, and certainly not as gung-ho as his brothers-in-arms. By the time we leave, we may well share his ambivalence about where this leaves the world.