Wednesday, March 29, 2023
March 29, 2023

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WSUV teacher creates cyberspace memorial for gun violence victims

By , Columbian staff writer
6 Photos
Words describing gun homicide victims and empty bullet shells are elements of John Barber's looping multimedia artwork.
Words describing gun homicide victims and empty bullet shells are elements of John Barber's looping multimedia artwork. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Approximately 190 miles separate the campuses of Washington State University Vancouver and Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. But that distance seemed to disappear when 10 people were gunned down in a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1, 2015.

“It’s not safe to be anywhere,” John Barber realized. “What if a similar thing happened here?”

Barber, a digital-media artist who teaches in the Creative Media and Digital Culture Department at WSUV, wanted to find some meaningful way to memorialize the victims of that tragedy — and all the victims of intentional, homicidal gun violence in America.

“It seemed that 2015 was a year of really pronounced mass gun killings — in schools, in places of worship,” he said. “The question became, how might I do something to memorialize these people whose lives were taken by senseless gun violence?”

First, Barber went hunting for complete, reliable statistics about gun homicides in America. He was surprised to discover that assembling the data wasn’t easy. Even the FBI, which is supposed to collect and report homicides, doesn’t have definitive information. Eventually, Barber looked to an independent, nonpolitical website called — plus his own monitoring of news reports of shootings.


See and hear the names:

About the artwork:

“Remembering the Dead: Northern Ireland”:

“I excluded accidental killings, suicides, officer-involved shootings — not to diminish them,” Barber said. “I wanted to identify intentional uses of guns to kill people.”

The number he eventually came up with was appalling: Approximately 3,000 Americans were killed with guns in 2015.

“It is tedious and soul-draining work to identify these victims,” he said. “I can never be certain that I have identified all the victims.” Some are identified only as “unidentified male” or “unidentified female,” he said.

Like a bullet

Most memorials involve inscribing a name on a permanent surface. “You have to be physically present to see it,” Barber said.

But the artwork that Barber eventually generated, called “Remembering the Dead,” partially exists in cyberspace where you can experience it anywhere, anytime: One by one, each gun homicide victim’s name appears in white letters on a dark screen. A computer-generated voice speaks the name. Starting at the top, the names start filling up the background of the screen. The sequence of names is randomized by software — it’s not a loop or in chronological order.

“It’s a constantly growing memorial wall of victims,” Barber said. “The idea is an eternal memorial, similar to an eternal flame.”

There’s a physical display for “Remembering the Dead” too: a rounded cabinet full of bullet casings, topped by a video screen running the name sequence. The cabinet was made by Jim Boesel, a Washougal woodworker and artist who attended WSUV.

Behind the video screen stands a tombstone inscribed with the roles all those people played in our lives: Son. Daughter. Mother. Father. Wife. Husband. Friend.

“They weren’t just statistics or names. These were human beings with lives and aspirations and dreams that were taken away by intentional gun violence. They deserve to be remembered,” Barber said. “They could just as equally be us.”

News cycles tend to focus on shooters and forget about victims, Barber said. His aim is to reverse that.

“This work doesn’t include the names of any perpetrators,” he said.

At least one of the names belongs to a man who was murdered in downtown Vancouver: pawn shop employee Bentley Brookes. Friends and acquaintances said Brookes was a cheerful, gregarious guy and devoted husband who ran for city council and county freeholder. He was 58 on Nov. 25, 2015, when he was shot and died at Pacific Bullion Precious Metals on Main Street.

Provocative or not?

“This is not meant to poke the debate about gun control,” Barber said — a controversy in which many people seem to be “talking past each other” rather than with each other, he said. Barber said he simply wanted “to focus attention on what’s lost: human life.”

A version of this artwork debuted last year in Derry, Northern Ireland, at an international conference hosted by the Irish Sound, Science and Technology Association. Barber created a version called “Remembering the Dead: Northern Ireland” featuring the names of nearly 3,600 victims of the political violence known as “The Troubles,” from the 1960s through the early 2000s.

“Remembering the Dead” has also shown in Winona, Minn., and — very briefly in November — at Boomerang, a downtown Vancouver gallery and charity shop.

Barber said he is eager to find more sites where he can exhibit the work in public.