Most of us feel a range of emotional and rational responses to the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System, from fear to appreciation to sadness to affront.
But many people also sense the profound absence of critical questions about such a system. Is it possible to encapsulate an amorphous threat into five simple categories? How can citizens of any country come to their own terms with the threat of terrorism? What do those categories mean for my daily life? What does it mean to talk about a Homeland? What popular, historical, or political substructures might offer insight, or challenge?
Terreo is a digital art commentary on the Homeland Security Advisory System. It is a Windows application that runs in the system tray of the Windows task bar, along with the other gauges and utilities provided by the system. When an Internet connection is present, Terreo uses Web Services to update itself with live data from both the Department of Homeland Security and Amazon.com. Terreo then simultaneously displays both the current terror alert level and a book recommendation, including title, author, price, and a jacket image if available.
Terreo deploys several strategies to comment on the Security Advisory System and the notion of Homeland Security in general. The Security Advisory System and the Department of Homeland Security are outward-facing systems. They purport to help Americans grapple with an external threat through strategies of protection, concealment, and confinement. But the system and the department do little to turn our attention inward, asking Americans to meditate on what it means to feel peril, how international politics (including US policies) relate to the threat of terrorism, and what individuals can do to consider their own role within this threat.
Cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that the symbolic value of the attack on the World Trade Center rests on the fact that the towers represented the "center of virtual capitalism." "It is the awareness," says Zizek, "that we live in an insulated artificial universe which regulates the notion that some ominous agent is threatening us all the time with total destruction" (from an early version of "Welcome to the Desert of the Real" available on The Symptom; see sidebar for the book edition). Terreo attempts to poke a hole through this wall.
Terreo's juxtaposition of terror alert levels and consumer products creates a kind of discourse absent from the Security Advisory System itself: that of meaningful, introspective engagement with the material world. Terreo presents the two cultural products in a commercial metaphor of personalization (Your terror alert level, Your book recommendation), individuating the system in a way that the US Government has been unable to do.
The Security Advisory System is an entirely extrospective tool; it only offers a one-way view of the world. This perception seats terrorism and the fight against it from the sole vantage point of a stable and unblemished Homeland. It assumes that Americans can remain inside a safe room, gazing through a hermetically sealed window at the horrors of a harsh world outside.
But in fact, we now all find ourselves in that harsh world, together. Terreo offers itself as an introspective tool, a mirror that allows users to question that vantage point by challenging themselves to order it in new ways.