The Beltway Sniper attacks took place over a three-week period in October of 2002, when two men went on a killing spree in the greater metropolitan area of Washington, D.C. The murders, which were performed entirely at random, caused ten fatalities and critically injured three. David Roesing was a “jaded teen” when the events took place–he remembers canceled sporting events, patrols at school, and traffic jams. These consequences, as minor as they may seem, were characteristic of an entire country’s psyche at that time. The events took place only a little more than a year after 9/11, and the resulting changes in attitudes about public space epitomized, for Roesing, the “fear of random death” that was so prevalent in America.
Over the past year, Roesing and his roommates have co-run an informal lecture series called Upfront Night using their house as a venue. During one such session, having invited his friend who works in the Washington, D.C. mayor’s office to come and lecture, Roesing decided to dedicate the evening to D.C. and present a thesis on the Beltway Sniper that narrated and confronted the coinciding response of the public to these attacks. Using photocopies from Washington Post microfilm archives, he tracked and graphed out the day-by-day happenings during those three weeks: “I had the full account of every person shot, then a section where I just talked about my memories of being in school at the time. I knew I wanted to end by zooming outward, and undercutting the importance of the sniper. I figured by just examining the amount of people killed by various events would make the point, sort of riffing on one of the last things David Foster Wallace wrote, asking why we view the people who die in car accidents differently than the people who died on 9/11.” When Elizabeth Jaeger of Peradam publishing group saw the presentation, she suggested to Roesing that it would translate well as a book.
Although an extension of his lecture, Roesing relies much more on visuals in his book, approaching it as a painting and utilizing an aesthetic vocabulary to depict factual events and statistics. The resulting images are almost sublime–beautiful and disquieting.
The first half of Terror and the Narrative Tendency addresses the events that transpired in D.C., each page an assemblage of images and statistics that chronicle the daily rhythm of the Snipers’ actions. Newspaper clippings on graph paper are explained by a narration of each attack: “oct. 9 53 year old shot while pumping gas in Prince William County.” The days when nothing happened are almost more terrifying than the details of each murder, producing a moment of relief and hesitation. On each top left corner, in what looks like a key to a map, Roesing condenses the events to red, blue and black markings, each delineating the body count of a different day. Each page’s summary is evanescent, evoking the “the mindset of that moment.”
The second part casts a wider net–what Roesing describes in his lecture as “zooming outward” to examine concurrent fatal catastrophes and developments. Referencing the first part of the book’s diagrams and informed by political scientist John Mueller’s graphs, Roesing arranges information in intricate and sinuous diagrams. At first glance, these illustrations appear completely abstract; lines, dots and numbers coalesce over graph paper to form static, pulsing patterns. Upon a closer reading, one starts to recognize these marks as collections of data that delineate other calamities like natural disasters, motor vehicle deaths, and cancer. The numbers become dates and body counts while the lines and dots systematize and catalogue these statistics. Just as terror feeds off of terror, each page builds on the next, inflating with inked characters and strokes.
“Interested in proportion and accepting of our fate,” Roesing proposes a unique and arresting way to digest this sort of information. Although political in content, his intent is neither pedantic nor conclusive. Instead, Roesing’s book acts simultaneously as a visual investigation and historical analysis as each “outward zoom” allows us to take a closer look at the facts at hand.
Terror and the Narrative Tendency is Peradam publishing group’s newest project by artist David Roesing. It is available for presale on the Peradam website as a set of two books, and will be produced on the 10th anniversary of the snipers’ arrest, October 24th.