THE FUNAMBULIST is a bimestrial printed and digital magazine complemented with a blog and a podcast (Archipelago) edited by Léopold Lambert. Its subtitle, "Politics of Space and Bodies," expresses it ambition to bridge the world of design (architecture, urbanism, industrial and fashion design) with the world of the humanities (philosophy, anthropology, history, geography, etc.) through critical articles written by long-time collaborators as well as new ones.
Over the past few years, i've been following Lambert's investigation into how the built environment is used as a political weapon. Much of the content the architect produces is free. But because Lambert's work is of high quality and pretty unique for the grounds it covers and the rigorous way it approaches it, it felt natural to me to just click on 'buy' as soon as i found out he was publishing a magazine.
The Funambulist magazine is bilingual french and english. This first issue looks at the violence of military organization in the city and postulates that the violence is not necessarily something that come from the outside. In many cases, the architecture of the city contains this very violence within itself.
The first part of the books analyzes in depth 5 specific case studies: Beirut, Lahore, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Oakland.
Since 2009, Mona Fawaz, Mona Harb & Ahmad Gharbieh have been mapping security in Beirut. The temporary checkpoints, security cameras, screening measures in large department stores, barbed wires, speed bumps, sand bags, tanks, and other physical elements of the security apparatus not only condition the way inhabitants navigate the streets everyday, they also install a segregation that shelters politicians and "high income city dwellers" inside their own bubble. More importantly, these security measures create a visible architecture of fear that affects every citizen's experience of the city.
In her research covering bomb blasts in Lahore, Sadia Shirazi calls this Pakistani city one of the greatest unacknowledged casualties of the United States' "war on terror." She demonstrates convincingly how security apparatuses delineate boundaries, reduces public space and restrict movements and experiences of the city. The result is a city that looks more threatening than secure.
Mohamed Elshahed focuses on the multiple forms that the militarization of Cairo has been taking since 2011.
The Demilit group (Javier Arbona, Bryan Finoki & Nick Sowers) takes a bunkered telecom hotel tower as a symbol of how the city of Oakland is being vacuumed by a consortium of public and private security agencies.
Finally Nora Akawi uses the poster designed for Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design's 2015 graduate exhibition as a starting point to explores Jerusalem and the Zionist's fantasy of an empty land, open to be inhabited and built upon. While denying Palestinians the possibility to plan for the future
The rest of the publication is equally engrossing. It features an interview with Philippe Theophanidis about the legal and logistic processes that govern a 'state of exception' such as the one that characterized the manhunt of Boston in April 2013 when 2,500 police officers were deployed in the city to arrest Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his participation in the Boston Marathon bombings 4 years earlier
Next comes an astonishing photo series showing Jerusalem from above. The most striking feature of the photos is the wall. Not the ones that attract tourists from all over the world but the 500 km wall started in 2002 by Ariel Sharon.
The magazine closes on a series of projects by students in architecture that further speculate and investigate these Politics of Space and Bodies.
I highly recommend that you either download or get the paper version The Funambulist. The pages make for an interesting and informative read that stay with you long after you've closed the magazine. The essays, photos and discussions invite readers to look at their own city in a more critical and inquisitive way, making it hard not to question every barrier, new 'security' measure, parking interdiction, private security booth and other, more subtle way to control the flow of citizens.
You can still get plenty of free content on The Funambulist blog and on the Archipelago podcasts but this first issue of the printed/digital magazine is so good that Lambert's work is definitely worth a very affordable subscription.
I've been dreaming of interviewing The Center for Tactical Magic ever since i read about the existence of this activist art collective in one of my favourite art catalogues ever: The Interventionists. Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life.
Lucky me, last week, i finally got to talk over Skype with Aaron Gach, the founder of the Center for Tactical Magic and a professor at the California College of the Arts. Gach is an artist with the most unusual background. As part of his artistic training, he decided to study with 3 people who have their own understanding of power: a magician, a ninja, and a private investigator and there is a bit of the strategies deployed by each of these figures in the work of the CTM. The work of the group is further enriched by the expertise brought about by the individuals and communities CTM collaborates with: hypnotists, biologists, engineers, nurses, military intelligence officers, radical ecologists, former bank robbers, security experts, etc.
The Center for Tactical Magic uses any craft and scheme available, from the most magical to the most pragmatic, to address issues of power relations and self-empowerment. At the CTM we are committed to achieving the Great Work of Tactical Magic through community-based projects, daily interdiction, and the activation of latent energies toward positive social transformation.
CTM's work combines appealing aesthetics, humour and language with actions that invite people to think, question and reclaim their civil rights. Their most famous project is the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, a truck distributing free ice cream along with propaganda developed by local progressive groups. Another of their initiative saw them launch a bank heist contest. And a year before that, they responded to New York's stop-and-frisk policy by screening Linking & Unlinking on a digital billboard in Manhattan. The billboard showed amateur footage demonstrating how to pick a pair of handcuffs, magicians performing a classic magic trick called "linking rings", while a text from the American Civil Liberties Union was scrolling down and explaining passersby what their rights were if they were stopped by the police. In 2013, they set up big Witches' Cradles that evoke the Inquisition and enveloped people into an altered state (of consciousness, or an altered political state). Most recently, Gach directed and performed a radical magic show which drew parallels between magic acts and contemporary issues such as economic manipulation, political deception, vanishing resources, and social transformation.
Hi Aaron! The Tactical Ice Cream Unit is probably one of my favorite works ever. I first heard about it almost 10 years ago. The vehicle combines 'a number of successful activist strategies (Food-Not-Bombs, Copwatch, Indymedia, infoshops, etc) into one mega-mobile", and comes with high-tech surveillance devices. Are you still using it?
Yes, still using it! Not as much as when it was launched but it does still make it out occasionally. So it's definitely not an everyday operation, it's kind of a labour of love.
When do you use it? When there's something happening and you feel it would be right to intervene? Or more when you're invited by a museum or festival for example?
All of the above. Sometimes it's an invitation to do something with it. Sometimes there's an event happening or an issue where it seems like it would make sense to bring it out.
Recently, and for the first time, there was a protest event where i actually felt like it was inappropriate to bring it out. We've been having a lot of racial tensions in the U.S. and there were a number of protests in Oakland around police brutality. We've done police accountability protests with the Tactical Ice Cream Unit in the past. The TICU always brings with it a sort of levity or lightheartedness or a little bit of the carnival along with the serious critique. But because of how grave and serious these racial issues are, there was a sense that bringing the ice cream unit out to those protests could potentially give the wrong impression.
Have you found that you had to update or modify in any way your tools and strategies over the 10 years you've had the van?
Of course a lot has changed since we've launched it. At the end of 2004, there were not many mobile food trucks, it was not really a phenomenon at the time. The TICU turned heads a lot more than it does now in terms of its general appearance. But at the same time it also functions now as some kind of camouflage that didn't exist then. So in terms of masking ourselves, in some ways it got easier since it makes less of a visual impact.
As for the technology, when we first launched it we were using a mobile wifi transmitter and making it a mobile wifi hotspot. At the time, it wasn't that common at all. It was also expensive to do and it worked most of the time but the speeds for access were really slow. Most people now have access to the internet on their smartphone. The surveillance on the vehicle is still functional and the amount that we can record has increased. In the beginning, our whole hard drive system was something like 200 gigabytes and that has certainly grown. Even then, the way that we had the system up made it possible to record quite a lot. We had to do a tremendous amount of research to set up the power system. The vehicle was running on a gasoline combustion engine. We also had a generator, a battery bank that was being charged by solar panels and at the same time we were running something called phantom power which is a way of silently powering the electronics. This was essential because we wanted to make sure that the surveillance could be running even when the vehicle was turned off. This was more done as a theoretical design process, we wanted to see whether we could accomplish that goal. And there had been rumours floating around the internet of primarily military technologies that were able to do this and sure enough we were able to work with an engineer and designer whose main clients were the military and oil companies. Oil companies would run phantom power at remote sites where they didn't have power lines but they wanted to monitor oil fields. So we designed a system able to do that too for the vehicle. What is interesting is that, when we were in Indiana, the police illegally searched the TIU without our knowledge and they were caught on camera doing that. They didn't know it because the vehicle was turned off and there was no indication that there was power running.
Did you do something about it?
At the time we contacted lawyers and asked what we could do about it but they informed us that there wasn't much that we could do. We thought about publicizing the video footage. But at the time the TICU wasn't heavily used and we thought that making that footage available would potentially prevent that capability being used in the future. We didn't do much with it, it's in the archive. Maybe at some point, we'll break it out.
The ice cream truck driver hands out 'food for thoughts' leaflets along with the ice creams. What kind of 'propaganda flavors' can customers chose from? What's the content of the leaflets? Is it always the same or does it adapt to the events?
It changes all the time. At this point, we've distributed 200 to 250 different pieces of information. Some of it we select or curate. And some of it is selected by the organizations that contact us and send us material to distribute. The idea with leaflets was, on the one hand, to look at models of distribution that exist in community activism, models of distribution where people come together and act on campaigns that they might otherwise not hear or read about. On the other hand, we were looking at the structure of distribution. People are often reluctant to take a leaflet from an activist who is standing in front of them but there are different ways to get people to accept the information. For example, if you go to a restaurant, and you get handed a menu, you don't resent the waiter for asking you to make a selection. You tend not to select in the menu an item that you are put off by. You look at the options and decide on something that is appealing to you. So we were thinking of the menu as a structure for distribution as well. Our 'propaganda' menu exists side by side with different flavours of ice cream and people can pick and choose. There is no direct correlation between a chocolate ice cream and anarchism, for example. People can mix and match what flavours they want. The actual topics of information found on the leaflets go from alternative energy to guerrilla gardening to social justice, to gender justice, to war, war on poverty, class issues, feminism, post-feminism, etc. We also have a few historical items such as the Black Panthers Ten Point Plan. And we have information that is specifically created for children about Greenpeace, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, civil liberties, surveillance, etc. It's a huge range of information.
Of course, i have to ask you about magic. I always dismissed the magic dimension of your work simply because i don't take magic seriously at all. But i realize that you do take magic seriously. Reading your interviews, i found that you are not only well versed in magic but you are also very specific about it. You said in an interview with the Center for Artistic Activism: "I'm definitely situated within the spectrum of stage magic and theatrical performance on one end, and occult and metaphysics, kind of ritual magic, supernatural phenomena on the other end." That surprised me because words like 'occult', 'ritual' and 'supernatural' are a bit dark, aren't they? How does occultism for example apply to your artistic practice? And can i engage with your work while keeping on ignoring any reference to magic?
I hope so. I think one of the strategies and challenges when building this kind of work is to always incorporate multiple points of access. Within the work, there has to be different moments that appeal to different people. We're trying to develop projects that are multilayered so magic itself itself exists at multiple levels. What i mean by that is that everyone understands that word 'magic' but they imagine completely different things when they hear the word 'magic.' We use the same language and assume an understanding but this understanding is vastly different on a subjective level and you can even add on a collective subjective level. When we use the term 'magic' both in the name and the realization of a project, there is a realization that there is going to be an explosion of meanings and at the same time a sort of dismissal. This dismissal is historically a way in which magic sometimes alienates itself, sometimes protects itself, sometimes separates itself and that can be as a survival strategy, as an escapist notion, etc. But i think that's where the power of that idea of magic exists.
In the Center for Tactical Magic, there is usually a concerted effort to try and balance out or explore the range of possibilities which typically get book ended between tricks on the one hand and some degree of spirituality on the other hand. When i began this investigation, my thinking was that magic existed only as tricks as a stage magician. The magician i worked with felt very differently. He thought that his understanding of illusionist magic would help in differentiating between the spookier sides of magic. And that opened up a lot of different interpretations and possibilities for me. Since then that exploration has become pivotal within the development for the Center for Tactical Magic.
How was it pivotal?
What i mean by that is that it seems like a fixed position from which you can rotate in any direction. From a position of acting, it means that you have multiple options and directions that you can move from. It's a formal strategy, it's a discursive strategy, it's also a performative strategy for acting in the world. And some of that is informed by studying within martial arts where i learnt that you don't ever want to be stuck in a place where your options are very limited. For me it's not about being ambiguous or evasive just for the sake of being ambiguous or evasive. But you open up options, different ways of addressing an issue, a topic, an event or a situation as it is unfolding.
I'd like to go back to the darker side of magic. In the interview mentioned above you talk about occultism. Does it apply to your practice?
The word 'occult' literally means 'hidden.' When we think about what is hidden then all of a sudden what we might consider occult enters into that same conversation. So we look at things like military black budgets, or laws that are not transparent in terms of how they affect people's life. Or even the degree to which we understand technologies or how technologies operate or function, both in a physical sense -what is exactly happening inside the phone mechanically or electronically- but also in the sense of how does the functioning of a technology impacts us in ways that we don't see. And this can include things like the fact that it relies on invisible signals, it relies on the electromagnetic spectrum which our eyes cannot detect without other devices. But it also determines our social relations or economic relations because it impacts the way we communicate. Once we are open to those associations, we start to backtrack and look at how the history of occultism is very directly tied to our present condition. What i mean by that is the history of occultism is not simply people behaving in 'dark ways'. You need to banish this false dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil. There are certainly colonial overtones to that association of dark as evil and making those connections simplifies what it is that we are talking about. Most of the claims historically of occultism in a huge varieties of areas is -to one degree or another- about empowerment and i think in 'darker' instances, empowerment means power over others but in the more positive instances, it also means communal power or coming to power together, or avoiding situations where abuse of power by others is taking place.
How can we bring more magic to our life? And should we?
I would go back one moment and say: i think you should take magic seriously but also not too seriously. I would say the same thing about government business. I think you should take government and business seriously but also not too seriously?
Why not too seriously?
I think because you have to approach it critically. You have to approach it rigorously. You have to be engaged.
There is also power in play. There is magic that happens when you approach something with a degree of levity, with this idea that there are rules to any game. And once you understand the game, there are ways to bend those rules or figure out how to interact in ways that might be unexpected. So it's not that we dismiss corporations or governments or that we disregard their power in the world but at the same time, if we take them too seriously and only too seriously we miss out on opportunities to subvert or circumvent what it is that they are doing in the world.
Maybe the shorter version would be to say that i think government and corporations are invested in shaping reality and shaping reality is an inherently creative process and playing is also a way to engaging creative process to shape alternative realities.
But let's get back to your earlier question which was about making the world more magical. I understand that when we develop projects that are magic related, people might be dismissive towards either that name 'magic' or the idea of magic. It is sometimes a barrier to entry but the hope is also that once people realize that their assumptions were false or misguided or oversimplified, there is an opening up in terms of what the possibilities are. Magic is all about constantly redirecting people's assumptions or perceptions about the world. So one thing you can do to have a magical outlook is to always question things like use value, status quo, associations for either materials or relationships and realize they are not fixed. Once you understand the ability to morph those relationships or associations, all of a sudden everything starts to become more magical.
The Center for Tactical Magic seems to be quite successful at engaging the audience, at making them part of the experiences. Including people who might otherwise not be particularly responsive to the kind of social, political or economical issues your projects raise. How do you manage that? Are there some rules? Special tricks?
We use a pop aesthetic at times and we try and draw from cultural themes and expressions that people can relate to but there is this uncanny element to all the projects: people will see something that they are familiar with but presented in an unfamiliar way. In that moment, a recalibration takes place, people start to consider their understanding of the familiar part with respect to the unfamiliar part. When it's done really well, it forces new cognitive categories to form. All of a sudden people have to create a new category and if that new category is potent enough it will also infect all future associations.
To go back to the Ice Cream Unit for example, people understand ice cream truck and they understand propaganda but when they have the two things together, it changes their associations with both and in the future there is a moment where they encounter another ice cream truck or another model of distribution and it will connect back to the experience that they had with the TICU and potentially it informs their future relations to other things that are connected. Maybe that is expecting too much from a project but that's the hope in the way these projects are constructed.
Most of the work of the Center is quite political. Have you ever faced any legal retaliation? or problems with the police? for the Linking & Unlinking - Know Your Rights screening, for example? Or for any other work?
It happens on a semi regular basis. There haven't been huge entanglement. Knock on wood! Most of the time, it's some sort of confrontation and it usually more or less resolves itself quietly. There was a standoff with the police with the TICU in Vancouver, Canada, that lasted quite a long time. With the Cricket-Activated Defense System, there were some interesting correspondence, communications and interviews that seemed to come from law enforcement. Strangely enough, the police tried to prevent the kite project (that we did at Huntington Beach in California) from happening and when it did happen they flew a helicopter over the event to monitor it.
It happens from time to time but we do consult with lawyers around our projects, we are generally pretty good at making sure that the conversation with law enforcement doesn't get us into hotter water than need be. I'm trying to be very careful with my language there. There have been some tough times. There's been some times when we have attracted attention that was problematic.
So you're not actively encouraging confrontation or censorship as a part of your artistic strategy? As a way to generate more attention about a given issue?
No. Projects that court confrontation often strengthen polemic and thinking in those binary systems. Even in projects where we are addressing things like police and protester dynamics, we are not trying to diffuse those situations, we are trying to figure out the approach or the position from which you can have the most productive outcome. A confrontation where you are doing something potentially illegal and then you get a police response does not produce a ripple through a greater discourse. What might become a productive moment is when someone is actually practicing their civil or legal rights within a certain context and that person makes visible the power dynamics that might suppress those rights.
I'm curious about The Light & Dark Arts: A Radical Magic Show that ended a few weeks ago at UC Davis' Main Theater. What was the show like?
It was the first time that i had ever worked into a theatre context. I was writing and directing. Two weeks before the first show, the lead actor broke his hand. He happened to be a student that i was training as a magician. I ended up having to step in as the lead, as the magician. I ended up writing, directing and acting for this first theatre production. So it was unexpected and a bit wild but the audience response was fantastic. People seemed to love it.
Any other upcoming works, research, events you'd like to share with us?
There's two shows coming up. One is an art show in New Mexico that is specifically oriented around the police state and surveillance. And then there's an event in Atlanta, Georgia. A public arts festival with tens of thousands of people that come out for a single night event. We have a new project in the works for that event but it's still very much in development.
The Glomar response refers to the US government prerogative of power to "neither confirm nor deny" the existence of information. The expression was created by the CIA in 1975 in response to media inquiries about a covert program which involved the Glomar Explorer, a salvage vessel built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. The form of non-denial denial is symptomatic of the times we are living. Nevertheless, the ever-increasing opacity of political and social processes accelerated by computer code and secret law is countered by the growing ability of individuals and activists to use those same networked technologies to investigate and act with ever greater agency.
The Glomar Response is also the title of James Bridle's solo show which will open tomorrow at NOME, a gallery in Berlin dedicated to the interweaving areas of art, science and political activism. Bridle's exhibition will present a series of works that use computer code, investigative journalism, and visualization to explore hidden spaces and classified information. Whether they investigate CIA torture, automated police surveillance, relics of British imperialism or immigration, the works on show demonstrate the impact that politics has on technology and architecture.
"Politics are encoded into the architecture and the technology," the artist told me during a skype discussion. "They betray the intent. But we still need some literacy in order to be able to decode the situation so my work aims to make these codes visible but it also calls for the need to raise this literacy.
There's also another aspect to these works and it's that i'm not entirely convinced by this process. I think that there are limits to what you can do. None of these works is going to lead to huge changes in the system. The pieces in the show also speak of that frustration."
Bridle will premiere the work Waterboarded Documents in Berlin. The installation is made of research documents surrounding the operation of websites and domains that end in .io. These web domains, popular with a number of trendy companies, are linked to the island of Diego Garcia and the other islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory. But most people who use these domains are unaware of the dark story of these islands.
The islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory form an archipelago that was forcibly depopulated in the 1970s by the United Kingdom, at the request of the United States which needed an unpopulated island to set up a military base. Ironically, the base is called Camp Justice. Because of its strategic position, the US used it as a base during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a CIA black site and transit point for the extraordinary rendition programme.
The British government has consistently denied any illegalities in the expulsion. Moreover, in 2010, the British Cabinet announced that most of the archipelago would be turned into the world's largest Marine Protected Area, a move that will prohibit commercial fishing as well as oil and gas exploration in the area. Leaked documents seem to confirm Chagossians' suspicion that this MPA was created to prevent the islanders from returning to the islands.
The case has not been heard by any international court of law as no appropriate venue has been found to accept the case.
The navigation charts, maps and other documents shown in the gallery have been submitted to waterboarding, just like some of the people 'interrogated' in the framework of the rendition program. The water damage also alludes to claims made by the British Government that files relating to the UK's role in the CIA's global rendition operations could not be released due to accidental water damage. Finally, these damaged documents illustrate the complicity between contemporary technological networks and older forms of entrenched and imperial power.
Developed in collaboration with digital imaging studio Picture Plane, Seamless Transitions puts into images three unphotographable sites of immigration judgment, detention and deportation in the UK: the Special Immigration Appeals Court, whose design is informed by the need to present secret evidence; Harmondsworth Detention Center, a privately run prison near London Heathrow Airport; and the Inflite Jet Center, a private terminal at Stansted Airport that the Home Office uses to deport rejected asylum-seekers.
Having no pictures available of a phenomenon has become a technique of not talking about it, he told ICON. Physical representations make more tangible the kind of things people find it difficult to talk about because they are non-physical, digital or complex.
The third piece exhibited at NOME is Fraunhofer Lines, a series of visualizations from a variety of sources, including the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture and the UK Information Commissioner's reports on automated police surveillance. These documents, released following Freedom of Information requests, have been analyzed with computer vision to reveal the extent of redaction and the discrepancies between different documents. They are named and patterned after the gaps in the sun's spectra discovered in 1814 by physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer, which both revealed the absence of certain frequencies of light reaching the earth's surface and pointed toward new methods of analysis and understanding.
And i'll end the story with video for anyone who doesn't get a chance to see the exhibition in Berlin this Summer:
Last week, i was in Berlin for the talks and screenings organized by the Disruption Network Lab, a platform of events and research focused on art, hacktivism and disruption. DNL opened its program with Eyes from a Distance. On Drone-Systems and their Strategies, a conference that explored the politics and the regime of power beyond drone-systems. A couple of the talks have already been uploaded online. They will all be there eventually and in the meantime i'm going to dutifully post my notes from the conference.
Starting with the brilliant panel of the first evening. The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones, moderated by journalist Laura Lucchini, explored drone strikes under the perspectives of an investigative journalist, a criminal law researcher, an activist and a blogger/journalist who lives in Gaza under the constant surveillance of the Israeli drones (more about her in a later post but go ahead if you're curious...)
The grey zone is of course the dangerous, blurry area where drone attacks operate. The practice of targeted killing by drones raises many questions: "How many civilians have been killed as collateral damage during these strikes?" "And even if we're talking about militants, how can the killings be justified when there has been judicial supervision? "If these drones can reach their targets anywhere, then how is the battlefield defined?" "87 countries (and counting) are now equipped with military drones, which they use mostly for surveillance. Only 3 countries use drones for targeted killings: the U.S., Israel and the UK. Where will this stop?" "And if these targeted killings are illegal, why does Europe keep silent?"
The first panelist was John Goetz, an American investigative journalist and author based in Berlin. He wrote, together with Christian Fuchs, the book Geheimer Krieg (Secret War) which reveals how the war on terror is secretly conducted from covert U.S. bases in Germany.
Goetz's presentation attempted to reconstruct one day of a drone attack in Somalia and as the narrative unfolded, we got to hear about Germany's involvement into these military operations, the way the U.S. gather intelligence in foreign territories and how innocents end up being caught in the line, if not directly targeted due to inaccurate information.
As he explained at the conference (and as an article in The Intercept further confirmed), drone strikes wouldn't be possible without the support of Germany. The Germans might not launch the attacks themselves but they provide intelligence and they coordinate the strikes that target suspected terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, but that also kill civilians.
The U.S. drone war in Africa is controlled from U.S. bases in Germany, namely Ramstein and Stuttgart. Germany is also responsible for gathering human intelligence. There are many Somali immigrants and asylum seekers in Germany and as they arrive, they are asked about streets, shops, location of members of Al-Shabaab, etc. Any information that could be used by the "War on Terror" is immediately relayed to U.S. intelligence officers.
The second speaker was Chantal Meloni, a criminal lawyer and the author of Is there a Court for Gaza? A Test Bench for International Justice, a book about the crimes perpetrated during the Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip.
Meloni put the issue of targeted killing by drones into a legal framework.
Since 2004, up to 5,500 people have been killed by drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. These are countries the U.S. is not officially at war with.
Killing has supplanted capture as the centerpiece of the U.S. counter terrorism strategy. Opposition to drone killing is growing but it is not as effective as the opposition to torture was. A reason for that might be that the legal framework for drone strikes is more complex.
Drone strikes have escalated under the Obama administration and they are characterized by a lack of transparency: states don't disclose who has been killed, why and who are the collateral casualties. Obama doesn't disclose the identity of the people on the kill list. There is no public presentation of evidence, nor any judicial oversight. The level of opacity is actually ridiculous. The little information we have is provided by media reports, leaks or testimonies.
An analysis by the human rights organization Reprieve found that US operators targeting 41 men have killed an estimated 1,147 people. So who are the 1,106 individuals? We don't know, most of them remain unnamed. What is sure is that the collateral damage shows that drones are not as 'surgically precise' as the U.S. claims.
Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown professor and former Pentagon official under President Obama, sums up the situation: "Right now we have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time, for secret reasons based on secret evidence, in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials."
We associate the start of the drone attacks with the U.S. and their post-9/11 counter-terrorist strategy but the military use of drones started long before that, in Israel, a country that has the longest track record for targeted killing (aka "targeted prevention") of Palestinians. Targeted killings can be defined as the state-sponsored practice of eliminating enemies outside the territory.
Nowadays, most of the drones sold around the world are used for surveillance purposes but it has been forecast that in 10 years every country will have armed drones.
60% of the world export of drones come from Israel. Israeli manufacturer Elbit is producing the best selling model: the Hermes drone which was used in the latest attacks on Gaza. 37% of the killings that occurred during the attacks on Gaza can be attributed to drones.
One can see the appeal of drones for governments and policy makers: they are relatively cheap, they are claimed to be 'surgically precise', they make it easy to kill without any risk and they allow the army to reach their target in areas that would otherwise be difficult to reach. But do their use comply with the martial law?
Targeted killings are generally unlawful under international laws.
The laws under war time are more permissible regarding the use of lethal forces. However, the right to use armed force is not unlimited. Civilians, for example, need to be protected from direct attacks.
States have thus expanded the concept of war on the battlefield as to include situations that should in fact be regulated by law enforcement agencies. The 'war on terror' is a total war for which no end nor boundaries is conceived. The number of enemies is infinite too. Governments justify the use of lethal forces by claiming that this is 'anticipatory self-defense' but, under the laws applicable under war time, the self-defense argument allows killing only when all other solutions, such as capture, have been exhausted. Most targeted killings outside the battlefield constitute thus premeditated deprivations of life, violations of the right to life.
When killings cannot be justified they constitute war crimes and other states have the duty to investigate and not leave dormant this huge accountability vacuum.
Tactical Technology Collective, Unseen War (Exposing the Invisible)
The final speaker was Marek Tuszynski, the co-founder of Tactical Tech, an organization 'dedicated to the use of information in activism.'
Tuszynski's talk focused on a series of short documentaries called Exposing the Invisible. The films look at the investigative work of journalists, artists, reporters, activists and technologists who explore publicly accessible data in order counter mainstream reports and go further than traditional journalistic investigations. One of the documentaries, Unseen War examines the physical, moral and political invisibility of US drone strikes in Pakistan.
He argued that counter powers should build their own intelligence practice.
The operations in Pakistan might be located far away but they concern us because
But there's no reason to be passive, we need to protect ourselves because surveillance doesn't require machines flying above our heads, we are already providing a vast quantity of valuable indormation when we use social media and that data can be used to analyse our digital behaviour. To protect yourself from intrusion to privacy, check out Tactical Tech's Security in-a-Box website.
Image on the homepage via BBC.
A couple of weeks ago i spent yet another fruitful afternoon in Brighton for the Critical Exploits. Interrogating Infrastructure event.
The day was part of The Lighthouse's ongoing exploration of the social and political implications of technological infrastructures. The curatorial research started in 2012 with the exhibition Invisible Fields in Barcelona and continued at The Lighthouse with exhibitions by James Bridle, Mariele Neudecker, Trevor Paglen, etc.) The last event brought together artists and critical engineers Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, critical designer Tobias Revell, and activists from the Open Rights Group for a day of talks and workshops.
Critical Exploits showed how a new generation of artists, designers and engineers are taking a highly critical approach to the development and use of the engineered systems and infrastructures that we increasingly rely on for daily life.
This post is going to focus mostly on Oliver and Vasiliev's presentation which looked at black boxes in the context of infrastructures. The talk is already on youtube but i thought i'd sum up some of the observations that the artists made and add links to the artworks and documents they mentioned while they were in Brighton.
Their presentation started with a quote from Bruno Latour. Talking about blackboxing, the sociologist wrote that When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.
Typical modern devices and infrastructures function (and actually also look) like black boxes, they are far more opaque than they are transparent.
If you look at a gramophone, you'll notice that its inner working is displayed externally. An iPod nano is at the other end of the spectrum, it is completely opaque. We can't actually explain what the many parts inside the device do. And maybe even what they do behind out back. As these devices get smaller, we get even less clue about their inner working. We cannot say we know the devices inside our pockets.
Our understanding of internet infrastructure is similarly foggy. Most of the time, our contact with it is clustered around firefox, safari, explorer, etc. Most users cannot see beyond their web browser. And there is indeed much misconception about the internet. Julian Oliver mentioned a quote he heard at the Chaos Communication Congress where someone said that the only people who talk about 'users' are drug dealers and software developers.
Very few people can actually give an intelligible answer to the question "What is a computer network?" Most people have no problem describing how a postcard goes from its sender to recipient but they are at a loss when it comes to explaining how emails are exchanged. In fact, the Oliver and Vasiliev described the Internet as a deeply misunderstood technology upon which we increasingly depend. Even the terminology used makes our understanding literally nebulous. Take the concept of 'the cloud'. A survey showed that the majority of Americans believe that cloud computing was affected by bad weather.
Another interesting fact their talk mentioned is that the net doesn't belong to the people as it is often assumed. If you have a look at the Submarine Cable Map, you quickly realize that most of these cables are privatized.
Vasiliev and Oliver take their distances from a traditional definition that sees engineering as the practical application of science to commerce or industry. Instead, they wrote, together with Gordan Savičić, a critical engineering manifesto which they regard as a frame for applied research and development that positions Engineering, rather than Art or Design, as primary within the creative and critical process.
The rest of their talk illustrates the manifesto using works of critical engineering. I'm going to simply write their titles down and link to the project pages but i'd encourage you to watch the video of the artists/critical engineers talk to get more background and comments on each work.
Don't miss the video documenting the other talk of the afternoon. Tobias Revell's talk portrayed current practices within critical design and the way the discipline can be used as an antagonist tool for provoking conflicts between set narratives, beliefs and ideologies for awareness, debate and alternate interpretation. The result is a lively and carefully curated inventory of all things Design Interactions at RCA.
This week i'm interviewing Oliver Walker on the blog. I discovered his work a few days (or was it weeks??) ago while visiting Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, a FACT Liverpool exhibition exploring how the working day has evolved from the time of the industrial age to our current service and knowledge economy.
Walker's One Pound installation at FACT lined up 6 videos. Each of them 'lasts as long as it takes the person depicted to earn £1, varying in length from several hours for the some of the lowest paid agricultural workers in the world, down to several seconds for well paid workers in finance, with one film little over a second long.' The idea was ultra simple and the result is striking for the way it exposes vast disparities in working patterns.
Some of his projects involved outsourcing the production of a written constitution for the UK to China and having 1,000 dolls voice it, using the price of an African financial index to control lighting in a Berlin art center, testing certain hypotheses about social behaviour in a dinner party. And building an outdoors spiral staircase for cats.
Here how my online conversation with the artist went...
Hi Oliver! Let's start with One Pound, the video installation which i discovered a few days ago in the exhibition Time & Motion in Liverpool. I've been quite unlucky in my visit because when I entered the room there was only one screen on with a man working in a field. On the other hand seeing him work all alone on his screen made the impact of the artwork even more powerful for me. Who were these 6 workers you contacted? What were their job?
For the readers who haven't seen the work, I feel I should describe it a little more. The six films are displayed on six adjacent screens, with all six starting simultaneously and not re-starting until all six have played through. This means that the shortest, one second long, plays just once every one hour and seventeen minutes (the duration of the longest). The films have a 'hours:minutes:seconds' timecode burnt into the bottom right corner, which pauses when the films end.
To the side of the 6 screens were six label-sized photographic stills from the videos, there to give the viewer a visual idea of who wasn't currently visible. I chose not, however, to include too much contextual information about the protagonists in the gallery itself, hopefully leaving some space for viewers to project their ideas and experiences about who and where they might be. Having said this, the five you missed were; someone working in a cotton processing plant (35 minutes), someone driving a digger constructing a new road (12 minutes), a carpenter (4 minutes), digital media worker (1 minute), and a CEO (1 second).
The original idea for the piece was to show it in a space in which people repeatedly spend time, such as a busy commuter platform, factory canteen or large office foyer, but this wasn't possible on this occasion. The idea would be that viewers would build up a kind of cumulative viewing of all six films. With a few minutes a day over three months, for example, a viewer would see all six films in their entirety, despite the shortest only running for one second every one hour twenty minutes.
The stills mounted adjacent to the video screens function as kind of visual labels. Between these still images and the timecode built into the videos, viewers could understand the relationship proposed by the piece between between time, money and occupation. I almost always make work that needs some basic explanation (usually text), but I'm happy if it then becomes somehow autonomous (whilst not perplexing) beyond this.
And how did you select who or which type of work would appear in your videos?
Essentially the people and jobs featured can be from any working environment, but certain criteria did develop along the way. These criteria may be quite self explanatory; they tend to be people who can be isolated for filming (though not exclusively), so those who work alone; and who I can approach fairly directly in their place of work; and people whose work you can understand visually.
After some time working on the project I also developed a kind of rationale to link all the protagonists. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the exhibition text, this rationale is that everyone filmed is, however indirectly, related to my morning shower. So there are people working with cotton (to produce a towel), infrastructure (to get that towel to me), carpentry (to produce a bathroom door), advertising (funded by advertising on shower products), and the CEO of a company that makes shampoo. I am also interested in developing the project and filming further protagonists, perhaps for further exhibition contexts, or just to develop the work. I often considered featuring just one industry, such as coffee, and this too would have been very quotidian. However, I felt this would have then been a study of that particular industry, and it should be broader than this. The shower is something quotidian (in highly industrialised parts of the world), but still fairly unbranded, and less loaded than the tea or coffee industries which have their own histories.
Incidentally, I filmed myself first, but discarded this.
Which kind of ideas, conclusions and reflections about the labour market did working on this project trigger?
Although I started with the basic premise of wage inequality across the world, the project is not intended simply as a didactic essay on wage inequality. Clearly, it may offer reflection on these staggering inequalities, and this political position is ultimately not left ambiguous. However, the relationship between labour and money is transformed into a more subjective medium - time. Periods of time are not as easily compared with one another as pieces of graphical information, for instance. With video, the timescale is embedded into the medium (unlike photography, graphics or text).
Another way it should offer complexity is by inviting some 'cross' comparisons of inequality - between farm workers and factory workers both in the global south for example, or between well paid creative economy workers and astronomically wealthy bankers. This picks up on something I had observed over several years. On the occasions I had spent time in poorer countries (such as Paraguay), I noticed that there was a tendency to over simplify both the wealth and poverty that existed in the global south and north (though perhaps I'm doing this by using the word 'both', but bear with me).
There can be tendency to think the streets are paved with gold in Western Europe (for example), and not understand the poverty that exists in the global north too. At the same time, to try to explain for example the extent to which the National Health Service in the UK offers all people in the country, regardless of income, world class quality healthcare free at the point of delivery, might well be unimaginable to many (although this isn't confined to those from poorer countries). Likewise, growing up in western Europe, I think it was difficult to comprehend both the extreme poverty existent in developing countries (hence the TV programmes and campaigns to help us), and the extent to which everything, such infrastructure, education and government, does function much as it does in western Europe. Perhaps this is just me, because I grew up when Live Aid was rocking, though I think little has changed.
I think it's a constant struggle to understand this complexity - to keep talking about the extreme inequality and poverty that exists in poorer countries, without stereotyping. My work, not for the first time, sails close to the wind when it comes to stereotypes. I have used very simple (perhaps over simple, certainly flawed) measures, but the breadth of examples of labour, and the choice of images, should leave some space for these issues.
I had no idea that the UK is one of only three countries in the world without a written constitution. So what was the constitution you outsourced to China for the Mr Democracy project like? Standard constitution mixing other, existing constitutions? Something entirely original? A simple writing down of the laws and principles that already govern the UK?
I actually studied this in school, and have been interested in it since then. I was interested in going to China, and started, as I not infrequently do, with some pretty simple interests - in this case lightening fast economic development and the political situation in China. Fortunately, I had this moment of realising I could turn it around, and look at the UK, which I am probably in a better position to make work about. If I get the project right, both the UK and China are criticised.
The constitution is not very revolutionary, sadly, we're still a constitutional monarchy - no republic! The authors initially tried to define more or less how the UK is at the moment, and then did a few tweaks to it. It was originally written in Chinese, and a fourth colleague of theirs translated it in English. Her language register and vocabulary were great, but occasionally she slipped with a few terms - but rightly so. So an early clause starts 'The regime of the United Kingdom is...', while we normally only hear the word 'regime' to define forms of government not currently popular or viewed as democratic by western governments (or 'regimes'!). I invited the authors to refer to other constitutions when drafting the UK's, and they did, and this is common practice when constitutions are written (the US was heavily influenced by the French, for example).
I'm also interested in your experience in finding, selecting and communicating with 3 factories in China which would manufacture the dolls. Is it easy for an individual to commission a thousand dolls to a Chinese factory? Did you require any help for that?
I had never done anything like this, and in some ways China was less accessible than I thought it would be. So many products are manufactured there, yet the process of getting something made isn't easy. It involves lots of long meetings, misunderstandings, and sometimes deception. The doll itself was not commissioned for my project, but the sound chip and electronics were, and it was very unusual to have such a long sound recording - they are usually just 10 seconds, not over 10 minutes!
The British Council were helpful in finding people to help me, so I had an art student as a translator and fixer, though actually he had no more experience in finding a factory than me - he was an art historian. I also spoke a lot to a Chinese designer (Tom Shi) who had studied in the UK, and moved back to Guangzhou to start a design practice, and a family. He let me use his studio for free while I was in Guangzhou, and the two students (Sarah Yin Liu and Jackon Li Yao) helped me way beyond what any assistant should, and we're still friends.
It was all very hands on. I was not doing this in the way most business people presumably do: I visited all the factories, filmed there, and organised the shipping myself -I even went into the ports, which was fascinating.
I think the main person I worked with at the factory that installed the sound chips into the dolls was mainly just interested in meeting me, and of course I wanted to meet him too. There was a funny moment when we were sending the sound file back and forth trying to compress it for the sound chip, and after I had actually agreed to going ahead with it, he called back to tell me that one of the articles was repeated on the sound chip. It was funny to have him read it back to me, as I had always been careful to not talk about the political content of the piece, but as long as it wasn't about China, it wasn't a problem. It was also funny to hear 1000s of dolls in a Chinese factory saying 'The Constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Article One...', as they were being tested.
By the way, why did you chose China and not India? because i suspect that this choice made the working process even more challenging.
China does have a different position with regard to global development than India, but India might have seemed a more obvious choice, historically. China seems more unequivocally a coming super power than India, and is much more symbolic as a place where products are manufactured. Also, the vast majority of toys in the world are made in China, (and of those a large majority in the Pearl River Delta). That China is not considered a Democracy is also important.
I was reading through the blog of the project and found this entry. Could you explain what happened here? How artworks are usually assessed at customs? What is the rule or law? And how it all ended?
When you export/import something, you use a customs agent to organise the customs for you. Mine refused to describe my dolls as artwork, because they were, well, dolls. Artworks attract a lower rate of VAT and no duty, so the difference is huge, as it's a percentage of the value. As the project was funded by the Arts Council England and supported by the British Council, I thought I had a chance of getting them through as an artwork, which of course they are.
I had direct contact with a customs officer, and she explained that Haunch of Venison were currently in a legal battle with the authorities over the import of a complete video installation (with the video equipment), while the customs were insisting it was simply technical equipment. It was a Bill Viola piece. The customs woman conditionally agreed to view my works as artwork after I emailed her photos taken in the factory with me working on the piece, because their definition revolves around working on objects by hand, pretty much ignoring two generations of contemporary art. I was quite impressed with my negotiating skills!
Now let's have a look at another of your projects, Bringing the Market Home. Why did you chose to work with the Dow Jones Africa Titans 50 index? Why select a pan-African index for an installation that was located in Europe?
The piece reverses a tendential direction of influence, with an African share index determining the operation of an aspect of everyday life in a western city, in this case Berlin. Financial markets exercise massive influence, both directly and indirectly over many people's lives over the globe, and this piece makes already existing connections physical, and immediate, while changing the direction of those influences. A blip of speculation on food prices could make a crop unaffordable for thousands of people in one country or region: in this piece, that process is reversed, making financial indicators from Africa ('the 50 leading companies that are headquartered or generate the majority of their revenues in Africa') tangible (cutting the house lighting of the HKW, House of World Cultures, Berlin) in a western city.
Was it on 24/7? Or does the Dow Jones follows 9-to-5 type working schedules?
Yes, it ran 24/7. The first time we got it working it was two in the morning, and we didn't know if the index would be shifting, but it was! We spent ages trying to work out which indices would be working when, but in the end the stocks are traded on multiple exchanges across the world, so several of the indices can change for most of the day, although there are periods when no exchange is open.
So what was the impact that this connection with the DJAT50 had on the lighting circuit in a corridor? Was the light constantly on and off? Or were fluctuations slower to manifest themselves?
Essentially it's pretty erratic. It is read every 30 seconds, and we didn't analyse the data explicitly, but it changes fairly often - sometimes five times in a row, sometimes remaining off for five minutes. This worked well performatively - sometimes meaning viewers didn't notice that there was any change to the system, and then suddenly asking themselves what was happening, why the lights weren't working. This was an important consideration of the project (that you can't see from the documentation) - I really wanted it to be something that was installed in the existing space, that people noticed and asked themselves why this was happening, rather than an autonomous object that people were invited to look at.
Any upcoming project, event, field of research you'd like to share with us?
I'd like to continue working on the One Pound project and Dinner Party. I've also been looking at the relationship between money and happiness, which I started looking at on residency in Paris at the Cité des Arts. I think inequality, mighty fascinating as it is, will come up again soon too, though I don't know how at the moment.
You can see Oliver Walker's video installation One Pound at the exhibition Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, at FACT in Liverpool until Sunday 9 March 2014.