I suspect that there are very few places left on this planet that haven't been discovered by intrepid explorers. Yet, Trevor Paglen has found and investigated territories that still need to be documented and exposed to the world. If you've never seen his photographs, i suggest you swing by the Z33 House for Contemporary Art Center in Hasselt, Belgium. They are part of Architecture of Fear, an exhibition that examines how feelings of fear pervade our daily life.
For his Limit Telephotography series, Paglen used high powered telescopes to picture the "black" sites, a series of secret locations operated by the CIA. Often outside of U.S. territory and legal jurisdiction, these locations do not officially exist, they range from American torture camps in Afghanistan to front companies running airlines whose purpose is to covertly move suspects around.
Paradoxically Paglen's images deepen the secrecy of their subject rather than uncover it. Limit-telephotography most closely resembles astrophotography, a technique that astronomers use to photograph objects that might be trillions of miles from Earth. Paglen's subjects are much closer but also even more difficult to photograph. To physical distance, one has indeed to add the obstacle of informational concealment.
The other photos the artist is showing at Z33 are part of The Other Night Sky which tracks and documents classified American satellites in Earth orbit. With the help of a network of amateur "satellite observers" and of a specially designed software model able to describe the orbital motion of classified spacecraft, Paglen could calculate the position and timing of overhead reconnaissance satellite transits. He would then photograph their passage using telescopes and large-format cameras .
I've seen his works in numerous contexts, from new media art festivals to activist conferences and contemporary art exhibitions. However, the more you see Paglen's work, the more questions you want to ask him. I've finally decided to catch up with him and interviewed him via skype for the upcoming Z33 catalogue:
How does you desire to document and reveal coexist with the need to express yourself as an artist? How does your formation as a geographer feeds your art practice and vice-versa?
I guess it's all mixed-up. For me it's difficult to dissociate what is geography from what is art or journalism in my practice. Art has its own methods and the same is true for geography and journalism. Each field can give you ways to ask questions and communicate that other fields can't give you. What i've tried to do is make things a bit more complicated. There are artists pretending to be anthropologists or scientists but i've asked myself "What happens if art is not some sort of degraded, diluted form of pseudo social science or geography but if it is actually also geography or social science in its own right?" I've always been an artist but ten years ago i started studying geography and social science and i'm trying to be as good at it as someone for whom this is the main profession.
Isn't all this government secrecy a bit disheartening sometimes? It seems to have no boundaries nor end, it even appears to keep on growing. Do you ever feel like it's time to close the chapter and dedicate your time to a subject that is easier to circumvent? What keeps you going?
Nothing is particularly easy to understand. People have tried for thousands of years to understand flowers.
In my case the question is about secrecy and i'm interested in the aesthetics of it as much as i'm interested in politics. How does the State look like now? And looking at secrecy is part of who we are now.
I'm also interested in the history behind the individual images of "Limit Telephotography". How much time, energy does it typically take to get one of those images? How much research do you have to make, miles to go, people to contact?
It's different from one image to another. Each of them has taken enormous time to make. The places they picture are very remote and it takes a long time to get there. I often travel from the Bay Area and it can take a 10 hour-drive to get to my destination. After that i have to hike with my telescope and heavy backpacking.
The other thing is that photographs don't look very good the first time so i have to come back time and time again. One photo took me six years. I went to the location twice every year until i got the image i wanted. That can happen not only because the conditions are not what i want but also because i learn a lot in the process, i learn how to see the place. I need some time before i can understand how a place should look like in photo.
Both Limit Telephotography and The Other Night Sky have received wide coverage in the press. Did this attention to 'the black world' have some consequence in the access you had to information?
It's easier now! People get in touch with me because they've heard of who i am and because of that too, it's easier to stay out of trouble.
We have this idea that secrecy is this perfectly oiled machine but the secrecy system is not all that organized. Also we imagine that there is one single brain orchestrating secrecy behind the whole State but this is not the case. Lots of things are contradicting each other. The secrecy system is internally inconsistent but also incoherent.
Who contacts you exactly? People from the military?
Yes, but i'd rather not go into details about who they are.
But now that your books and photos have put the spotlight on what should not be revealed, have you ever heard of bases that had to be closed or covert activities that had to be re-scheduled because of the attention you brought to them?
Yes! A lot of the infrastructure of the rendition program had to be modified because of the way journalists, human right activists and researchers have turned it into a political issue and made it public. But now we have the drone assassination programs which are a kind of version 3.0. of the rendition program.
What should the Black World matter to us beyond the anecdote and the fascination for the hidden? Why should we fear? We are not terrorists after all...
Well, I can only talk from an American perspective. The Black World is a State that is inside the State and it works differently. It's monarchic in the sense that it's not a democracy. It is run by generals and ultimately by the President. There's very little overview of it by other parts of the government and obviously by the people. It has a tendency to change everything around it to its own image.
For example, if you want to build a secret plane then you need first a secret factory to build it. Thousands of workers and managers will be working in that plane factory, they have to swear secrecy and you have to ensure that they will indeed keep the secret. That means that social engineering will also have to be organized. All this will require a lot of money which you obviously can't get from the congress. So you have to find ways to fund your project without ever telling anyone how you're going to use that money. Once you have the planes, you need a secret airbase. But how do you create a place on the surface of the Earth that will remain secret? So you build that place and claim that it doesn't exist. Everything you do is outside of the court system so you also need to set up new laws which are actually not even laws since they haven't been voted by the congress. So you start to create your own laws and legislation. Over time, the rest of the State starts to look more and more like the secret part of the State. It's that structural organization that people should be concerned about, because illegal things are bound to happen where there is no oversight. That's what happened with the rendition flights and torture program and recently with the drone assassination program.
Architecture of Fear remains open at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium through December 31, 2011. Entrance is free.
One of the reasons why i go through the trouble of taking one bus and two trains in order to get to Z33 in Hasselt is that the Contemporary Art Center regularly identifies and confronts phenomena, ideas and flows that characterize or affect contemporary culture. Their new exhibition, Architecture of Fear, examines how feelings of fear pervade our daily life.
The show explores how fear has moved from being an immediate emotional strategy for survival, the result of a personal experience, to becoming a constant, more abstract, low level feeling that paves the way for new infrastructures based on security, prevention and 'risk-managemen't. Without ever judging nor pointing the finger, Architecture of Fear asks visitors to put their anxieties into a broader perspective. Are threats of terrorism, viral diseases, pollution and financial crisis entirely unbiased and valid? Have some of them been surreptitiously fashioned by politicians and the media? Are CCTVs in the metro making me feel more secure or in danger, for example?
As Frank Furedi, author of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, explained in an article for Spiked, "The prominent role of fear today merely indicates that it serves as a framework through which we interpret a variety of experiences."
Architecture of Fear has invited international artists and designers to investigate how fear as a mental construction can be built up through language and images. I've already mentioned the work of Charlotte Lybeer and Jill Magid. I'll come back with an interview with Trevor Paglen soon-ish. In the meantime, here's a quick walk through some of the works in the exhibition.
In Museum of Nature, photographer Ilkka Halso articulates his fear of a world where nature will be confined to museums, private amusements parks and performance spaces. The buildings will not only allow the inhabitants of the Earth to see what forests, lakes and rivers look like, they will also protects these last fragments of flora from threats of pollution and from actions of man himself.
The works shown by Laurent Grasso in the exhibition are equally compelling and sinister but they are also more complex and allude to conspiracy theories and ambiguous military researches. The title of Grasso's video 1619 refers to the year when Galileo Galilei first used the term "aurora borealis" in his writings.
Nikola Tesla looked into the aurora borealis almost three centuries after the Italian scientist but he was more interested in its capacity to reflect electromagnetic waves. Inspired by Tesla's research, the American military set up the "High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program" or HAARP, a research program specialized in the application of high frequencies to the "aurora borealis" in Alaska. HAARP is studying the transmission of electricity in the uppermost portion of the atmosphere. But because of its military funding and the fears associated with electromagnetism, HAARP is surrounded by controversy. Its forest of antennas have been accused of beaming electromagnetic waves that are extremely hazardous to human health, of disrupting climate, of having all sorts of influence on human behaviour and of being weapons able to disrupt communications over large portions of the planet.
Grasso's video artificially reproduces the color vibrations of this luminous phenomena in an environment where one can discern a geodesic sphere.
Visitors of the exhibition will find a model of that very sphere in the adjacent room. Bathed in pink light, the sculpture leads to more worrying stories, conspiracy theories and mystery.
The geodesic sphere, directly inspired by Buckminster Fuller's model, refers to the shape of the receiving stations of the Echelon network, an ambitious listening programme created in in 1947 and operated on behalf of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, and the US. ECHELON was reportedly created to monitor communications between the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Since the end of the Cold War, it is believed to search for terrorist plots, drug dealers' plans, and political and diplomatic intelligence. Some even claim that ECHELON is also used for large-scale commercial theft, international economic espionage and invasion of privacy.
Rather than researching, explaining or interpreting what lies exactly behind military uses of natural phenomena and global surveillance systems, the works by Laurent Grasso open up even more speculations, conjectures and ambiguities.
Tsang Kin-Wah's The Second Seal refers to the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse. In the video installation, words that seem to be made of fire descend slowly from the ceiling and snake down the walls of the gallery space. Written by the artist, the text talks of war, violence, evil, vengeance, power, death. The words attempt to articulate the complexities of our society with its many doom scenarios, its dilemmas and anxieties.
Designer Susanna Hertrich's Risk charts bring us back with our feet firmly on the ground. The posters confront a series of risks (terrorist attacks, plane crash, car accident, cancer, etc) as they are perceived by the public with the actual hazard they represent.
The charts are accompanied by the Alertness Enhancing Device and other Prostheses for Instincts that aim to awaken human beings' long lost natural instinct for the real dangers of life, as opposed to the above-mentioned perceived risks that often cause a public outrage.
Through electronic simulation, some prostheses are able to create physical and mental sensations (goose bumps, shivers down the spine, hair standing up on your neck) similar to the ones we experience in instinctive fear responses.
Global Anxiety Monitor, by De Geuzen, investigates reasons for paranoia as well but brings them into a different perspective. The work looks for anxiety buzzwords on Google image and shows side by side the results obtained in several languages. Sometimes the google image angle on pollution, torture, recession, future or unemployment coincide in all the languages investigated, sometimes they are at odds with each other and reveal cultural biases and local tensions.
More details about Architecture of Fear in the mini catalogue available online for free:
Architecture of Fear remains open at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium through December 31, 2011. Entrance is free.
From 2003 to 2008, young photographer Charlotte Lybeer spent extended periods of time in gated communities and contemporary theme parks to document how these places neatly designed around a central theme managed to give an illusion of safety and dream lifestyle. Strangely enough, she told me when we met for a drink in Antwerp a few weeks ago, living inside gated communities only increases the feeling of unease, the paranoia. Everything is fine and safe as long as you're among the people you have chosen to live with, those who have the same -architectural but also moral- values as you, but as soon as you step outside and face 'the real world', the fear rises much stronger than ever.
For this new series, Charlotte visited a variety of places in the world, from luxury shopping villages to holiday resorts and residential districts, which have in common a fake, idealized Flemish/Dutch architecture. These "paradise" enclaves were created by developers from behind a desk and usually have nothing to do with authenticity or local context. The artificial settings are empty capsules aimed at creating a pleasant environment for mass consumption and tourism.
Orange County, a holiday resort in Turkey with replicas of typical Dutch facades as well as of the windmills of Volendam and Amsterdam Central, is particularly striking. It's a little piece of Holland heaven under a perpetually blue sky and set against the backdrop of mountains. Lybeer also found plenty of Dutch/Flemish architectural clichés in the Belgian designer discount outlet Maasmechelen Village and much more surprisingly in Northeast China, where a Dutch businessman born in China had the ambition of opening Holland Village, an amusement park and residential complex in Shenyang. Holland Village featured replicas of famous Dutch public buildings and windmills. It never opened.
The artist's photos -whether they capture details, passersby or a whole street- translate perfectly the feeling of eeriness that pervade these places. Everything is so neat and pristine that you wonder if people are actually allowed to set foot in this postcard-perfect architecture. The facade of the INNTEL Hotel in Zaandam (NL), however, doesn't attempt to fool anyone. The architect of the building fearlessly piled up several houses of the typical Dutch building tradition on top of each other.
Charlotte gave her series the title The Villages because these secluded places replicate the feeling of safety of a village, a place where you know who is who, what to expect and where things appear to be immutable.
Does getting so close to gated communities and to the people living there makes you better understand why one would want to live there or does it have the opposite effect, makes you feel that a gated community is something best left to paranoid people? More generally, can you refrain from making judgements about their way of life? because when looking at your photos it seemed to me that you felt some tenderness towards these people. It's all very subtle and respectful.
I lived for 2 months in most of the gated communities I photographed, so during that time I try to understand the choice of living in a gated area.
I definitely don't want to generalize it. For some people I understood their reasons, and for me some people are just to scared or not adventurous enough to live inside the ungated world. I question more the idea of project developers and architects who construct that kind of housing, than the people who choose to live in it.
I guess that the reason why you first decided to document a gated community was that you were curious about them but also that you might have had some preconceptions before going there. Were these preconceptions met or did you find that life in a gated community was nothing like what you had expected?
I always do lots of research before I travel to a certain place. So I'm very much prepared. Nowadays you can find so much information on the internet, it's almost possible to see every corner of a place virtually. So for the project in China (2007) and Dubai (2008) I planned before the locations I want to photograph (sometimes I decided already on the framing) and the I waited until something happened in the framing, that made my picture. Of course I also like to let me be surprised by the reality of the moment and the place. Sometimes an unexpected glimpse of strong sunlight can make the image or a person who passes by and just fits perfectly in the atmosphere... thats what I like about documentary photography, you can make a combination about the planned and the coincidence.
One would expect people living in gated communities not to be very open and welcoming to the intruding photographer that you are. How do you get access to them? Do you have to ask for official authorizations? Is it a difficult process? How ready to help you are people living there? Which kind of relationships do you form with them?
In most of the places it is not allowed to photograph, so I always ask for permission.
I write letters, phone or email the gated communities and most of the time they don't give me permission.
Once I'm there, people are a bit distant in the beginning and they don't easily trust me. But when I stay in a gated communities, I'm everyday everywhere, so they can not really avoid me.
I also look quit innocent, so that helps too. And I try to explain my intentions and be honest about my goals. People appreciate that. Some are even proud their living environment is interesting enough to be photographed. They get used to me after a while. That's also one of the reasons why I stay there for 2 months, so people have the time to adjust at me and vice versa.
I still have contact with some of the elderly people in Florida, they liked my visit allot, I was a part of the entertainment there.
You've investigated and photographed gated communities in several parts of the world, Florida, South Africa, Belgium. Are their reasons to live in a closed environment the same wherever you go? What motivates them to seclude from the rest of the city?
Not at all. In Florida I photographed a gated retirement community. So it's something between an elderly house and a club med.
I understand their choice of living there, no traffic, everything they need is withing close reach, silence, clean, many friends... I can understand that many people prefer to spend their last years of their live in such an atmosphere than in a grey small boring elderly house in Belgium. But I don't say it would be my choice.
In South-Africa, safety was the main reason. Families with young children lived there.
You also photographed Dubai. Is there something in Dubai that you find similar to life in gated communities? An atmosphere of artificiality for example?
Dubai looks like one gated community. Everything is artificial and controlled. the absolute climax of the topic.
It was for me also the most difficult place to work, the security persecuted me for an entire day... just because I took pictures with a camera with many pixels. They noted down everything I did, from drinking something until speaking with somebody. They even ask me to hand them down all my photos.
Curator Ils Huygens made a lovely interview with Charlotte Lybeer (in dutch):
Architecture of Fear remains open at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium through December 31, 2011.
One of the many (very many) reasons why i wouldn't want to be a man is because the way they have to dress is so uneventful. Last Summer's most flamboyant sensation was the 'mankle'. Poor lads! On the other hand i wish i were a man so that i could dress head to toe in Walter Van Beirendonck. I do have a lovely paper dress staring a portrait of Van Beirendonck sitting naked on the back of a bear and little grey penises near the hem but nowadays he doesn't design much for women.
I love his work so much i almost made cartwheels a few days ago in an art gallery where i found a leaflet promoting his solo show at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp. I spent 4 hours in public transports to get to Antwerp, walked under the rain until somewhere between the Martin Margiela boutique and the sublime Dries Van Noten store, i found myself in front of transparent doors adorned with the naked red silhouette of WVB.
More than just a showcase of the designer's most extravagant pieces of archive,
But there are also toys everywhere. Vintage, Japanese, Mexican toys, etc.
Masks and ritual objects from Papua New Guinea, Austria, North America.
And works by artists with whom the designer shares concerns and ideas: Ai Weiwei for his political engagement, Robert Mapplethorpe for his documentation of the S&M world, but also the Chapman Brothers, Mike Kelley, Erwin Wurm and Grayson Perry.
Isn't he cute?
The exhibition echoes the main interests of the designer. There's obviously his relentless search for alternative ideas of beauty and representations of the body. This preoccupation is reflected in the models he sends on the catwalk. Some are bodybuilders, others are chubby 'bears' (a characteristic type in the gay community), or they can be thin, fragile boys.
He puts them on stilts, wraps them in latex, has them wear T-shirts with prints of preoperative drawings for plastic surgery, sends them on the runway with gas masks, corsets, prosthetic horns or with the face adorned with stick-on latex interpretations of Maori facial tattoos, etc.
Van Beirendonck's collections might seem whimsical and outlandish but many of them are instilled with controversial themes and political commentaries: AIDS, the burqa debate, censorship, gender issues, mass consumerism, ecology, war, capitalism, etc.
Finally, a spectacular room was entirely left to Walter van Beirendonck's collaboration with fashion photographer Nick Knight/SHOWstudio.com and stylist Simon Foxton. Their photography and video project brings into a new light the most memorable pieces from his archive:
So ladies, you know where to drag your man in need of sartorial inspiration this weekend! Walter Van Beirendonck: Dream the world awake runs at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, until February 19th, 2012.
Niewsblad.be has a photo set on flickr. Mine will come later, when i finally get back to wifi-wonderland.
I was planning to post this interview next week but because Ivan Henriques's action plant is yet another brilliant work on show at ArtBots Gent this weekend, i thought it would be silly to wait and not promote the event with a timely post.
Ivan Henriques worked with professor Bert van Duijn (Biology University and Hortus Botanicus in Leiden) on a research into the "action potential" of the Mimosa Pudica. The result of their collaboration is Jurema Action Plant, a machine which interfaces a sensitive plant (Mimosa Pudica), enabling it to enjoy technologies similar to the ones humans use. The project also explores new ways of communication and co-relation between machines, humans, and other living organism.
Plants don't have nerves, wires nor cables but much like humans, animals and machines, they have an electrical signal traveling inside their cells. The plant is fitted with electrodes and placed on a robotic structure. A signal amplifier reads the differences in the electromagnetic field around the plant to determine when it is being touched. Any variation triggers movement of the robotic structure by means of a custom-made circuit board. Touching any part of the plant is enough to make it move away from the person touching it. One of the most common names given to that plant after all is 'touch-me-not.'
If the plants can fell the touch and this signal travels inside the plant and be can be measured in any part, does it means that plants have memory, consciousness?
Imagine if we could communicate with plants and work together. Is it possible to reshape and redefine our tools to be coherent with the environment? Would we keep on destroying the few existent plants/animals and forests?
Hi Ivan! How did you get the idea and why did you want to build this plant-machine and give some power to the plants?
The main idea of empowering the plant comes from a range of work that I am developing called Oritur (Oritur is also the title of the book which is a compilation of texts from myself and invited artists and researchers from different countries - it will be published soon by Verbeke Foundation).
Jurema Action Plant (JAP) is a hacked wheelchair and an electronic board of communication with the Mimosa -- acting as an interface of communication between the bio-machine and us. In order to realize this work I thought about three aspects: biodiversity, plant intelligence and machine intelligence. 1) Creating a new kind of specimen, an assemblage of a plant and a machine -- a hybrid; 2) A simple movement of a finger towards the plant leaves makes it move away after the touch; 3) The plant triggers the hacked machine via the electronic board of communication into movement. While developing this work at the Summer Residency at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam/NL, it raised some questions:
Are the mechanics found in some plants species an intelligence? Do plants feel? How do they respond to the environment? Are plants considered in a lower level than us because they don't move and communicate in the same timescale as ours? My position in Jurema Action Plant is to explore plant behavior, research this intelligence to find possibilities for direct interaction and create a work which makes people think about our future.
You're going to spend several months at the Verbeke Foundation for a residency. What are you going to work on there?
At the moment I am rebuilding a piece called Three Seconds which will be part of Verbeke's collection. It is composed of a closed circuit where a video camera, which faces and captures images from a rectangular aquarium containing a live Goldfish, the image is transmitted to a monitor, which has the same proportions of the aquarium and also faces it. Between the camera and the monitor there is an apparatus, which gives a three second delay to the live image. In this way the fish, which as we know has a three second memory-span, can see its recent past, which it would otherwise not be able to reach.
I am very exited to start the residency at Verbeke foundation (which will complete two weeks October 11th) and I have several ideas which are in a cloud of concepts such as architecture, recycle, interaction, biology, evolution, utopia, movement, kinetics and living organisms.
You worked with professor Bert van Duijn from the Biology University and the Hortus Botanicus, in Leiden, to develop the action plant. How was the collaboration going? Do you find it easy as an artist to communicate with a scientist? Do you use the same language, for example? Do you have to adjust to each other's way of working and thinking about nature?
While researching about plants mechanics, physiology and biodynamics, I had the opportunity to meet professor Bert van Duijn who uses a technique called action potential to measure electrical signals that travels inside the plant for agricultural purposes. Through professor van Duijn I met the organization from Hortus Botanicus Leiden which opened their doors to my research about this specific plant and helped me seed the Mimosas. We had to adjust our vocabulary and tools all the time and the whole team had different perspectives and goals when working with nature.
Can you also tell us something about the rhythm of the plant? Sometimes it rests, it doesn't react as fast as the machines we are used to (from toaster to robot)... Do you think humans are ready to accept and respect this 'slowness' of the machine?
Much like humans, animals and machines, plants have an electrical signal traveling inside them, but they do not have nerves like humans and animals; nor wires and cables like machines. Plants are completely independent and can exist without humans, but humans and animals need plants to survive. They are also moving, to extend their territory, but on a very different timescale to ours. Jurema Action Plant has its own time, it is an equalization of ourselves, machines and plants. In my opinion we have to re-think about the machines we develop and the concept of bio-sensors. There are plenty of machines in the world and we keep on making them. Do you know where these electronic components comes from, how they are made and in which conditions? Why not re-use? The machines we create are coherent within themselves but I think that our machines could be much more coherent to the environment. JAP is a prototype of machines for our future, where we can communicate with all the specimens at the same level to achieve a common evolution. Even if we have signs of a catastrophe in the next future due to global warming, war, deforestation, population growth and a very strong economical difference from place to place, I believe in a good future. The problem is not the technological development, but who is in charge of researches, innovations and changes.
What are you doing when you're not working on Jurema Action Plant?
I have some projects going on and I'm preparing new ones, making drawings, graphics, researching about kinetic architectures and motors that run with very low voltage and current. I am also preparing the third edition of EME - Estúdio Móvel Experimental (first edition 2009 and second in 2010), a mobile residency in Rio de Janeiro that works as a platform for artists and researchers to explore and create public artworks/workshops in the natural and urban environment in Rio.
This year's ArtBots is organised by timelab Gent, in cooperation with ArtBots US, Ugent and Foam. It's open only over the upcoming weekend in Ghent, Belgium.
If you miss ArtBots, Jurema Action Plant is also exhibited at the Verbeke Foundation and it will travel to Leiden in October for the Scheltema festival.
Z33 House of Contemporary Art in Hasselt, Belgium, has just opened an exhibition with a very promising title. Architecture of Fear explores how feelings of fear pervade daily life in the contemporary media society.
I'm going to visit it on Thursday but in the meantime i thought i'd ask one of the participating artists, Jill Magid, to tell us about the work she is showing at Z33 and more generally about her experience with impersonal power structures (police, intelligence agencies, security systems, etc.) which, whether they contribute to it or fight it, are part of this 'architecture of fear.'
One of Magid's most ironic works is System Azure. In 2003, the artist introduced herself to the Amsterdam Police as a "Security Ornamentation Professional" working for a fictitious company. Magid's proposal to embellish police cameras was accepted and she was hired to hand-glued rhinestones to security cameras at the Amsterdam Headquarters of Police, a work that had previously been rejected when she had first presented it as an art project.
In Evidence Locker, Magid developed a personal relationship with the operators of Liverpool's citywide video surveillance cameras. Dressed in red, she had them follow her every steps as she moved across the city. Back in New York, she managed to gain the trust of a police officer and infiltrate his professional (and personal) world. Magid pushed even further her enquiries into the personality of the human beings hidden behind the faceless instruments of power and surveillance in 2005, when she met with employees of the Dutch secret service, the AIVD, and almost turned into an agent herself for a commission by the AIVD itself to create an artwork that would help them improve upon their public persona and provide them 'with a human face'.
The work Magid is showing at Z33 this Fall, A Reasonable Man in a Box, was inspired by the "Bybee Memo", a 2002 document signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee. The document considered the use of mental and physical torment and stated that acts widely regarded as torture might be legally permissible under an expansive interpretation of Presidential authority during the "War on Terror." The memos were declassified by President Obama in 2009. One of the acceptable methods of "enhanced interrogation" described in the document involved the use of a confinement box. The prisoner would be confined inside this box with insects which would not harm them. The people in charge would know that the insect or the animal is innocuous but would leave the prisoner in the dark about it.
Magid's take on the interrogation technique is a room where the silhouette of a big hissing scorpion is projected wall. Every once and a while a pair of tweezers appears on screen to catch the animal by the tail.
Hi Jill! I''ve been following and admiring your work ever since i started blogging. So far i associated you with performative works in which you put yourself on the front line (Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy, Lobby 7 or Evidence Locker for example.) There's no visible trace of you in "A Reasonable Man in a Box". How do you decide whether you are going to be so visibly involved and present in a new work or when you are going to step back?
The Spy Project-- in which I am the main protagonist, finished just before I began the research that led to A Reasonable Man in a Box. The Spy Project involved the censorship of my novel by the Dutch secret service about my experience working with it. This redacted manuscript got me to thinking about other government-censored documents. Simultaneously I was researching torture as it is used by democracies, and how these practices are hidden from public view or scrutiny. Both paths led me to the Bybee Memo. As the document was already complete and therefore no longer open to change, I did not feel I could not enter into it as a protagonist. I found a different way to engage it.
I saw images and read descriptions of the installation at the Whitney Museum. The room where the film was screened seemed to be spacious, with a visible entrance/exit. From what i gathered it still made quite an impact on visitors. But why didn't you chose to take a more extreme road and show the video in a claustrophobic space or in one that looked more like a cell or in a room you couldn't exit until the end of the video?
I was not trying to make the viewer the tortured victim inside the box (i.e. gallery); rather, I wanted the viewer to consider the fundamental questions at the heart of the memo: what is reasonable; and what is a reasonable man in a box? The install is creepy, uncomfortable, and simple. The gallery becomes a shadow box: the shadow of the scorpion in the gallery is proportional to 'the stinging insect' in a confinement box. The shadow, as projected in both the Whitney and at Z33, is larger than life, as the rooms in which they are installed are of course bigger than a confinement box, which is only the size of a person sitting or standing. The fragment of the Bybee Memo discussing the enhanced interrogation practice of placing a man in a box with a stinging insect is also enlarged to scale. This enlargement is a kind of highlighting. Through it, the language has been made physical, enterable. Under these conditions, the memo and the questions it provokes can be examined and experienced on a personal level.
The installation was inspired by the "Bybee Memo". I had never heard of it before. In Europe we are familiar with stories about the kind of music played to drive prisoners crazy, rendition flights (which couldn't have been carried out without the complicity of European governments anyway), etc. But i think that the "Bybee Memo" is less well-know here. Is that the same in the USA? Did the installation play with something that the audience was familiar with or did it reveal the existence of that "Bybee Memo" as well?
There seem to be varying degrees of awareness about The Torture Memos (the common name for the Bybee memos), and the CIA's Enhanced Interrogation program. (Most notably in the press was the detailed practice of waterboarding, a type of enhanced interrogation practiced that simulates drowning.) Regardless, I felt 1. That it was an important document to (re)consider, and 2. That the installation was self-contained and therefore, did not rest upon a prior knowledge.
The practice of placing a man in a confinement box with an insect was detailed in the Bybee Memo that was released in 2009 when President Obama came to office. I'd heard of the memo before working on this project, but I'd never actually read it (It's 18 pages of legalese). I have not yet met more than a few people who have. When I in fact did read it, I was shocked-- more by its language and (absurdist) 'empirical' logic than even by the practices it invoked and legalized.
I'm interested in things that appear to be obvious or known, but aren't. I wanted to slow down the memo, focus and enlarge it, so that I could really look at it. The Bybee memo successfully changed the definition of torture in the United States for half a year, making acts that under the Geneva Convention were considered torture, legal.
A Reasonable Man is one of a series of projects that deal with secret services. In previous works you explored the Dutch secret service and engaged with a number of intimate relationships with members of the AIVD. The purpose of these meetings was "to collect personal data of the agents and to use this information to find the organization's face." So how were these people like? Is secret service all James Bond, exciting adventures and fearless clean-shaved men?
What I find most intriguing about my engagements with government institutions is that in entering them I find that they are far more fantastic than I could have imagined, and rarely resemble what I have seen in films. I never cease to be surprised as to what I find and what I cannot find, and how both of these things affect me. The people I have engaged with are as varied and complex inside the service as they are outside of it.
While working on A Reasonable Man, how much information did you manage to find about the "enhanced interrogation" of high-level Al Qaeda operatives? Did you contact anyone? Meet? Found other pieces of information? How close did you manage to get to the issue?
I focused on the memo and understanding it. I was also interested in the memo as to what was visible and what was missing due to redaction, and how my understanding of the former was influenced by the latter. The idea of the shadow-- of not being able to see the real but only its ghost, had much to do with this schism of visible/hidden.
When I had questions about the memo, I did have some people to turn to. I was in contact with an investigative reporter (who has both a military and intelligence background) that had been embedded with the US army in both Iraq and Afghanistan and had visited Abu Ghraib (He is a protagonist in my current project), and a PhD student at NYU studying torture, law and the media. I also read about torture and democracy in books and in the news. These contacts and this research helped me approach and re-approach the memo with a continually deeper understanding.
Are secret services a theme you're going to keep on exploring?
I never know where the work is going from project to project, as my process is organic. That being said, secret services will no doubt continue to interest me. They epitomize many of my interests (secrecy, intimacy, power, legal and coded language), and they are inexhaustible. I still find myself drawn to any story on intelligence matters in the paper. I'm still a little hurt the CIA has never contacted me; )
I'm curious about something else... What happened to the rhinestone-studded surveillance cameras you installed in Amsterdam?
They are still there, in full glamour (perhaps with a little city dirt and grime) on the headquarters of the police in Amsterdam. Check them out. They're permanent.