Halliburton convoys in western Iraq. Halliburton convoys in western Pennsylvania.
—Iraq War veteran and Pennsylvania citizen, Kevin Basl
As part of the Lycoming College Spring Symposium on Veteran Issues, I was invited to a short-term residency to organize a collaborative exhibition with Lycoming College art students. Lycoming College is in Williamsport, PA the heart of the fracking boom and recent bust. Immediately I thought of something Kevin Basl, fellow Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) member, mentioned to me about the Halliburton convoys in his hometown and how they reminded him of the Halliburton convoys he saw during his deployment to Iraq.
I reached out to Kevin and Nathan Lewis, also an IVAW member who lives atop the northern edge of the Marcellus Shale geological formation in New York State, to discuss the short-term residency and collaborative exhibition. We discussed the fact that from the companies involved, to the communities most impacted, to the underpinning economic and political interests, there is a haunting mirroring between wars and occupations abroad, and resource extraction here in the United States. We came up with an collaborative exhibition that explores the relationship between resource extraction in Pennsylvania and wars abroad called Resource Wars.
Resource Wars consists of collaborative wall installations by Kevin, Nathan, Lycoming College art students, and myself. The exhibition features four Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative print portfolios, including: Resourced, War is Trauma, We Are the Storm, and Celebrate People’s History: IVAW. These portfolios highlight issues surrounding war, resource depletion, and climate change, while celebrating the movements confronting these issues and working to build a more sustainable and peaceful world.
What follows is a short interview with Kevin Basl about his involvement with the collaborative residency and exhibition.
Aaron Hughes (AH): What is your background and how does it relate to Resource Wars?
Kevin Basl (KB): I was in the army from 2003 to 2008, and deployed to Iraq twice during that time. I grew up in western Pennsylvania, in coal country. After the army, I went back to college to focus on becoming a writer. Since graduating, I’ve been working in the veteran-artist community almost exclusively, from teaching printmaking to fellow veterans, to leading Warrior Writers workshops, to activism with IVAW.
During my time in Iraq, I worked a number of jobs that gave me a firsthand look at the pernicious effects of privatizing the military. As a radar operator, I saw Raytheon employees regularly come to my camp to make costly repairs on equipment that was outdated and unnecessary to the mission (however vague that was). For a couple months, my job was to guard “local nationals” (poor Iraqis) while they filled sandbags for Kellogg, Brown, and Root (during that time, a subsidiary of Halliburton). Witnessing such negligent and unconscionable actions by companies profiting off the pain of Iraqis and the influence of our military angered and politicized me, motivated me to take action.
This exhibition represents my veteran community and my Pennsylvania community in profound ways, and I’m excited to see it being shared so close to home.
AH: What do you see as the significance of the exhibition in relationship to regional and international issues surrounding resource extraction and wars abroad?
KB: These issues are interconnected in many ways. Simply, as finite resources become more scarce, with no changes in consumption and everyday habits, countries will compete (whether through violent means or soft power) to grab what remains.
Unfortunately, some of what remains is under the ground where I grew up in Pennsylvania.
About two years ago, I took a nighttime walk to the top of a hill near my parents’ house and counted four fracking sites in operation, lit up like football fields, generator noise humming monotonously. Simply, they looked like the FOB’s (Forward Operating Bases) in a war zone.
The big rig convoys, the dusty roads and potholes from speeding truck traffic, the fear of poisoned water—it’s similar to what I saw in Iraq. The same companies I mentioned above exploit people both in war and here at home. Making that connection for people in Williamsport was important. No one wants a war zone in their backyard.
KB: Placing so many prints side by side, salon-style, reveals connections and dialogs that may otherwise get overlooked. Seeing a print about urban farming next to a print about PTSD could spark the idea of starting a gardening program for kids plagued with inner city violence. The links here are limitless.
Again, everything’s interconnected. The exhibition is appropriately overwhelming in that regard: a lot of issues, a lot of prints. It’s a vast web that’s difficult to swallow all at once. But represented on a gallery wall, where a viewer can meander, zoom in and out on individual prints, appreciate unique groupings of prints, the issues become more digestible—and (at risk of overreaching) the overwhelming sensation breaks down, because the viewer can visualize how the smallest actions ripple across the whole.
Of course, considering the exhibition is in Williamsport—an area with a long history of resource extraction and a current frontline of fracking—the significance and urgency goes without saying. It was exciting to see a packed opening. It was super inspiring to see so many people who care (especially on a Friday night). It gives me hope.
Kevin Basl is a resident of western Pennsylvania, where he grew up enjoying hiking, camping, fishing and learning about local Allegheny Mountain culture. He twice deployed to Iraq with the army as a mobile radar operator, an experience that politicized him and taught him much about failed U.S. foreign policy. He is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and facilitates art and writing workshops for Warrior Writers and Combat Paper NJ. He holds an MFA in fiction writing from Temple University, where he has taught in the First Year Writing program. Living in Jefferson County, not two hours west of Williamsport, Kevin has witnessed firsthand the corrosive effects of fracking. From country roads turned to dangerous, high traffic thoroughfares for tanker trucks; to the noise and light pollution; to broken promises of jobs creation, he worries he hasn’t yet seen the worst of the effects.
Photographs by Katie Stepnowski