perfect-bound book, 90 pages, edition of 25;

afterword by Carmen Winant

Can You See What I See borrows from the format of the Children's Activity Book to explore themes of visibility and violence in warfare and education. Children's Activity books are a genre of publication that is meant to be in equal parts educational as it is entertaining. Often thematic in nature and printed on cheap gray paper, they are filled with coloring pages, and well known games and puzzles such as Word Search and Spot the Difference. Additionally, they may adopt elementary school exercises teaching children how to identify and trace shapes, or solve simple math problems.

In Can You See What I See however, the coloring pages, rather than featuring popular cartoon characters or cute farm animals, consist of line-based compositions based on contemporary and historical military camouflage patterns from around the world. Viewers are invited to fill in the patterns with colors of their choice, potentially subverting their original purpose of disguise.

Three Word Search puzzles prompt viewers to identify missile and fighter jets that were named after insects, reptiles, mammals, and avians, as well as common weather phenomena.

Spot the sniper, another set of images that appears throughout the book, is based on the Hidden Object Puzzle - a popular learning game asking children to find objects in a busy composition. The majority of these images are appropriated from military training manuals, which, more recently, have turned into an internet phenomenon that aims to test viewers' ability to identify snipers from their landscapes. Lastly, the book is punctuated by photographs from an early 20th Century book on animal camouflage that explains animal coloration using terminology related to the elements and principles of design taught at foundation level at art schools across the country: value, color, pattern and texture. This language is also echoed in the military training manuals on camouflage strategies for disguising people, vehicles, tracks and buildings. 

Bringing together a wealth of archival research, with an observation of her own daughter’s education and media consumption, Can You See What I See attempts to trace linkages between early childhood education and warfare, which, upon closer scrutiny, are revealed to be complex, multi-layered in their embeddedness in a neo-liberalist system of education, and highly disconcerting.

The War At Home

Activity books are a genre I didn’t know existed before having children. Part play, part instructional, they are at once literary (word play) and anti-literary (thinking through visual expression). It goes like this: when I need to answer an email, or wash the dishes, or change the laundry, or take a shit, or call my own mother, I put my children in front of activity books. Here, I say. Do these. They are rife with mazes, rudimentary math problems, coloring, word search games, doodling prompts. My kids – who are both at the liminal ages somewhere between illiterate and literate – are the perfect audience for this. I watch them dive into these books, shrieking with pleasure as they connect the dots or match the colors, and wonder when the last time was that I felt so much pleasure from engaging a book. For this reason, we have dozens of activity books around the house, and often return to old, used up ones, erasing past equations and check marks (which snowmen match? Which sunset is the odd one out?) to return to the same problems – the same activities – again and again.

In this way, activity books have served as an aid, and an innocuous presence in my life; I think many parents feel this way. Which is precisely why Sandra Erbacher’s project stings in the way it does. It all feels strikingly familiar: find the camouflaged object (here, a sniper), find the word (tornado, a kind of fighter jet), spot the difference between (tanks), and on it goes. This isn’t simply a matter of applying the form, one seemingly harmless tool (the activity book) to a sinister set of images (the armed conflict machine). Instead, the book startles me precisely because they are not so apart to begin with. Moving back and forward though its pages, I am reminded that the methods of these books, which teach logic, tactic, and decoding ciphers, are not so far removed from the expediencies of war. And I am reminded of the way that war is treated as game, in our imaginations, in the media, and through drone killings. In Erbacher’s hands, fantasy, battle plans, children’s play: it all bleeds together, as curious as it is menacing. 

Carmen Winant, June 13, Columbus, OH