Counting casualties

Southwest sign project spotlights soldiers killed, wounded in Iraq

KINGFIELD — On a freezing March evening, Kingfield resident Camille Gage and 15 volunteers stood on the 40th Street pedestrian bridge overlooking I-35W. In front of their bodies they held large, white signs bearing single numbers, lined up next to one another to form a five-digit figure: 33,304.

The number represents the count of United States soldiers who have been killed or wounded in the Iraq War as of early March, according to the website, icasualties.org.

From 5 to 6 p.m. — the height of rush hour traffic — the group stood with their signs, braving the cold and wind, occasionally waving at cars down below.

“They look at you with gratitude kind of, like they’re happy to see you, [and] you’re voicing something that they kind of share, or that you’re witnessing a sacrifice of these soldiers that they feel is important, too,” Gage said of the highway drivers. “It’s sort of this moment of connection that I hadn’t even anticipated, and that is really a lovely part of the project.”

Gage, a 51-year-old mother, artist and public affairs worker at the Humphrey Institute, started her monthly sign-holding mission two years ago as a public art project. She grew up watching Vietnam War coverage on television and feels that enough attention isn’t paid to the Iraq War, which started five years ago.

“You don’t see the caskets of soldiers who have died coming back, and you also don’t hear the number of dead and wounded announced,” she said. “As an artist I thought, ‘What can I do to address this?’”

Coming together and taking action

Roughly 50 of Gage’s friends and neighbors, along with some strangers, have held signs with her on the 40th Street bridge. Initially, Gage wanted to switch up the location and tried displaying the number on I-94 and next to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, but she found that 35W provided the ideal traffic flow. Now, the group — termed “Bridge People” by some — has a monthly meeting spot.

“When you’re standing on that overpass, there’s definitely a dialogue that starts to occur with the people that are driving by,” said Howard Oransky, a frequent sign-holder who co-founded Form + Content gallery Downtown with Gage. “Some people honk their horns and wave at you and are obviously very much appreciative that you’re there. And then it goes, of course, all the way to the other side, people screaming obscenities and giving you the finger. It just shows you how powerful the information truly is, just to see that number.”

Over the years, drivers have become more and more supportive of Gage’s project, but she recalled one incident in which a man exited the freeway, circled back, pulled up to the bridge and argued with the volunteers for a half hour.

“The first thing he said is, ‘Are you doing this because you’re against the war or for the troops?’ And I said, ‘Both.’ And then he started screaming, ‘You can’t have it both ways!’ and I said, ‘Yes I can,’” Gage remembered. “I really appreciate the sacrifice of the people that are [in Iraq], want to honor that, think people should think a lot more about it, and I have grave concerns about the war. So I can have it both ways.”

One of the main purposes of the project, she explained, is to display the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq without any accompanying messages. “We don’t have an American flag. We don’t have a peace sign or anything like that. It’s just the number,” she said. “It’s interesting how people project onto that either we’re protesters or that we’re anti-the-war or for the war.”

Politics meets art

Gage currently supports Hillary Clinton for the U.S. presidency. She said she would be fine with Barack Obama, but just wants a leader who will end our involvement in Iraq. A 20-year Kingfield resident and grandmother of one (soon to be two), Gage is a bit of a news junkie. She takes in as much literature about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as possible and especially likes memoirs from soldiers. Right now she’s reading “Rule Number Two: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital,” a firsthand account of a clinical psychologist who was deployed to treat soldiers in Iraq.

Combining public affairs and art has been one of Gage’s passions since the 1960s. She graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1996 and is enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Minnesota in Interdisciplinary Studies, fusing art and social engagement.

“For me, the arts can play a role in helping to illuminate a topical issue for people,” she said, but “I don’t want to be too didactic.”

Gage’s volunteers have ranged from 4 to 70 years old, with a mixture of ethnicities and occupations. During the March meet-up, three 9th-grade students from St. Paul helped hold the casualty signs as a school project.

“I was so moved to be contacted by these young people,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful way of meeting people throughout the community.”

Braving the cold

Given Minnesota’s unpredictable weather, standing still on the 40th Street pedestrian bridge for an hour can be challenging.

“You first have to get used to this slightly vertiginous feeling of being on the bridge that moves a little bit. And when the semis come, they’re right underneath you, it’s crazy. It’s like a circus ride. Then it becomes very energizing. In the winter, of course, it’s harder because it’s very cold. The freeway is like a river of wind; it just blows,” Gage said. “You get so energized by all the positive affirmations and all the people that are so happy to see you there, it’s almost hard to stop. Some days it’s like oh, let’s stay out a little longer.”

Unlike many artistic endeavors, the Iraq casualty project is one that Gage will be happy to wrap up and put away. “I have said I will do this until we bring the troops back, and I will. And I fear that that will be a very long time,” she said. “I would love nothing more than to end this.”

Contact Mary O’Regan at [email protected] or 436-5088.