Growing up in foster care in Appalachia, Bobby T. Luck believed there were only two paths he could take after high school: join the military or follow a second route that would inevitably lead to prison.
“There are a bunch of beds waiting in jails and in the military in barracks, and it’s like you get to choose one,” said Luck, a Columbus expat and a co-founder of the late , reached by phone at his home in Chicago. “Because you’re a part of the system now, and we’re not going to let you out of it. … The government invested in you and your foster care, and they want to make money off of that investment.”
When Luck enrolled in the military, he considered himself a member of the Green Party – far removed from the political stereotype generally associated with those who sign up to wear a uniform. More recently, though, the artist has started to unpack the factors that led him to join, tracing his decision in part to a lifetime of exposure to pro-military propaganda, particularly in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which he watched unfold on a roll-cart television during choir class at age 14.
“I definitely learned that I’m not above the propaganda machine, and I feel now like you have to be vigilant in your media literacy in order to have the truth in front of you,” Luck said. “Everybody has a mission, and if you don’t understand what it is, you can be swayed really easily. I don’t think I would have ended up in the military if I hadn’t been living in a post-9/11 America. If it was another decade or another year, it wouldn’t have happened. It was just the perfect marriage of a high saturation of new media, especially on the internet, and then the fear and the trauma of 9/11.”
These ideas and more surface in Luck’s revealing new multimedia exhibit, “Was It Your Trigger Finger?” (Friday, Feb. 17). Luck said the exhibit, which includes aspects of film, collage and sculpture, was spurred in part by the collective trauma of 2020, which he said led him to revisit past traumas, “almost like a the-body-keeps-the-score-type thing.”
The exhibit’s title, for one, is taken from a question asked of Luck by a military health worker, who was completing a physical and wanted to know more about a finger the artist had broken in the past. At the time, Luck said the question seemed innocuous, yet the moment embedded itself in his memory, taking on different shades when revisited years later and coming to reflect the corrupted value system embraced by the military industrial complex, in which soldiers serve as little more than cogs.
This larger, systemic exploration coincided with more deeply personal questions that started to surface within Luck, who began to explore the residual guilt he felt from being part of a military machine that has caused so much damage – to those who have served as part of it, but also to populations living in countries in which it has operated worldwide. These feelings were further intensified by the deaths of Luck’s mother and father, both of whom passed away in recent years.
“So, I was thinking back on my family and those things we’re supposedly fighting for, and then also about how the military plays into the fears of acceptance you have as a teenager, and particularly the military recruiters,” Luck said. “Before, I thought a lot of it was scar tissue, but as I’ve been picking at it, I realize it’s still very painful. There’s a lot of guilt involved, regardless of how much you actually put into it. Not everybody who joins is going to be out there murdering people, but you’re still a hand in that imperialist machine.
“I have a habit of not owning up to all the things I’ve gone through in my life, and these were things I hadn’t thought about much, just for my own protection. But I think it’s good for me [to explore these ideas], because it’s easier to go through a bad thing and then not think about it, or it’s easier to do a bad thing and then not think about it.”
While untangling this knotty past has, at times, been traumatic for the artist, he has also been comforted by an awareness of the growth and learning that has taken place in the years since, as well as a deeper understanding that has emerged regarding family and the ways that we as people can give and receive care.
“I think it’s a part of aging and looking back on your life. I’m 36 now, and a lot of this happened when I was a teenager, so it’s been good to look back having that space and having the knowledge that I have now about politics and geopolitics, specifically, and all of the ways America is, if that makes sense,” Luck said. “It was good to be able to look back and say, ‘Okay, what does this all mean?’ It just felt like it was something that needed to be done.”