Publisher Verso writes: Scientists tell us that the Earth has entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene. We are not facing simply an environmental crisis, but a geological revolution of human origin. In two centuries, our planet has tipped into a state unknown for millions of years. How did we get to this point?
Refuting the convenient view of a "human species" that upset the Earth system unaware of what it was doing, this book proposes a new account of modernity that shakes up many accepted ideas: on the supposedly recent date of "environmental awareness," on previous challenges to industrialism, on the manufacture of consumerism and the energy "transition," as well as on the role of the military in environmental destruction.
Through a dialogue between science and history, the authors draw an ecological balance sheet of a developmental model that has become unsustainable, and explore paths for living and acting politically in the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch that recognizes that humanity's imprint on global environment rivals some of the greatest forces of nature. The authors suggest that the Anthropocene started with James Watt's improved steam engine designs in the late 18th century which kicked off the industrial revolution and thus the 'carbonification' of our atmosphere. From that time on, human activities started to have a significantly damaging impact on the Earth's ecosystems: high levels of air pollution, ocean acidification, out of control climate, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, modification of continental water cycle, etc. As the authors note, the Anthropocene is a sign of both our power and our impotence.
The book attempts to comprehend this new epoch but also to dispel a few misconceptions. I found particularly interesting the one about the sudden 'awakening' to our responsibility in climate change and the one that claims that only scientists possess the knowledge and wisdom necessary to save the planet.
The Anthropocene is often presented as an 'awakening' as if we were the first generations that realized the damage that burning fossil fuels, overfishing and other human activities have done to the earth atmosphere. But as the authors easily demonstrate, men knew what they were doing 200 years ago and environmentally damaging actions regularly met with criticism, challenge and struggle right from the beginning of the Anthropocene.
The book also states that today's scientific knowledge is put on a pedestal. On the one side is a small elite of scientists who appear as the spokespeople for the Earth. On the other is the uninformed mass of the world population awaiting to be saved or at least shepherded in the right direction. If we believe the experts, serious solutions can only emerge from further innovations in the labs, rather than from alternative political experiments in society as a whole. Besides, as the authors write, to position humanity (or just its elite) as a pilot means that the earth is little more than a cybernetic machine that can be dominated from the outside. They conclude that what we need right now is not a rescue plan made of geo-engineering prowess but more narratives, types of knowledge, a variety of civic initiatives and popular alternatives which explores the outlines of living better with less.
The book also demonstrate convincingly that the responsibility for the Anthropocene doesn't rest on the shoulders of every single human beings. Fressoz and Bonneuil explain at length the role that the military, capitalism and two hegemonic powers (Great Britain in the 19th century and the U.S. in the 20th Century) play in the Anthropocene. Some thinkers even used the word 'Oliganthropocene' to define a geological epoch caused by a small fraction of humanity.
The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us is well written, impeccably researched (the authors quote all the relevant thinkers you might imagine from Marx to Piketty, from Gandhi to Hannah Arendt) and its discourse brings the Anthropocene into a wide historical and societal context. But above all, it is a book that shows that in the time of the Anthropocene, the entire functioning of the Earth becomes a matter of past, present and coming political choices. Even though people running the political sphere seem to royally ignore that fact. I've always found it a bit strange to see how low ecological concerns and promises figured in electoral campaigns.
One of the most important lessons the book has to offer is that we should probably all stop talking about an ecological 'crisis'. It's too late for that. A crisis can be overcome, the anthropocene can't. We've reached a point of no return.
Photo on the home page by Marco Gualazzini, Coltan mining from R.D. Congo- The War of Minerals.
Next week, NOME, one of those too rare galleries exploring art, politics, and technology, is going to open Jacob Appelbaum's first solo show in Germany. Titled SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy, the show was curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli and accompanies the symposium SAMIZDATA: Tactics and Strategies for Resistance which will explore alternatives into the development of shared forms of post-digital resistance.
Jacob Appelbaum is an independent journalist, a hacker and a Wikileaks collaborator who helped develop the anonymous web browser Tor. He is also a U.S. citizen who has been living in exile in Berlin, due to an ongoing investigation into his involvement with Wikileaks and to repeated harassment at immigration. His situation offers a striking contrast with Ai Weiwei's, a Chinese artist who has long been prevented from leaving his own country (although a few weeks ago, he was finally given his passport back and moved to Germany as well.)
Earlier this year, Weiwei and Appelbaum were invited to work together as part of Seven On Seven, Rhizome's series of artists-meets-technologists events. The two of them met at Ai Weiwei's house in Beijing and their collaboration was filmed by Laura Poitras, the director of the award winning documentary Citizenfour and another artist who has been living under the gaze of State surveillance.
The video that documents their collaboration shows the artists working inside Ai's studio, emptying the stuffing from toy pandas and replacing it with shredded N.S.A. documents released in 2013 by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The work is called Panda to Panda, a reference to peer-to-peer communication but also an allusion to the Chinese secret police whose unofficial symbol is the panda. Sewn inside the stuffed toys are also micro SD memory cards that contain a digital archive of the intelligence documents.
The pandas were then sent to free-speech activists around the world and to museums, as a kind of distributed backup.
Appelbaum will also be premiering at NOME a series of six colored infrared photos shown as cibachrome prints. Each of them celebrates a political dissident whose brave work has made them the targets of oppressive governments.
The portraits show William Binney, a former high official with the NSA who resigned in 2001 and has since spoken out against the NSA's data collection policies. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author whose recent book, No Place to Hide, is about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents. Sarah Harrison, a British journalist, legal researcher, and WikiLeaks editor. She accompanied Edward Snowden on his flight from Hong Kong to Moscow while he was sought by the U.S. government. The other portraits show Laura Poitras, Ai Weiwei and Julian Assange.
The fantastic people at NOME (thanks Tabea!) put me in touch with Jacob Appelbaum and we discussed over the phone about the exhibition, his experience of surveillance and the world of secrecy. Unsurprisingly, the conversation took place under the shelter of an encrypted calling app:
Hi Jacob! You are a U.S. citizens in exile and you are now living in Berlin. Do you find that an individual's right to privacy is less under attack in Germany than it is in your own country? And do you think that this situation is likely to change and that Europe shows signs of becoming more and more open to surveillance and control of citizens?
Surveillance is a French word so it's not as if surveillance came from the United States to Europe. Surveillance has been here for a long time. The first big data project of Europe was the holocaust, as documented in the book IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black. I think that it looks like at the moment there is a scary and worrying trend in Europe of moving towards the right wing with Le Pen and other groups across Europe and with that often comes a consolidation of State power and surveillance. It is very scary because if groups like the Golden Dawn, Le Pen, people who are in charge in Hungary at the moment and extreme right groups here in Germany, have control over these surveillance apparatuses, it will be very bad. I think it's very bad already but it will just get worse. In particular with the Golden Dawn.
The political and cultural situation in Europe is not like the weather. It's not just something that you observe. It's not just something that happens. Rather it is something that we let happen and that we create by taking an active role in. I think that we are in fact changing this dialogue a great deal. It's not just me and Laura and Glenn. It's hundreds of thousands of people across Europe who really care about improving the LIBE committee in the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights, the Court of Luxembourg, etc. You can see that there are a lot of people who remember how surveillance has been used for in the 20th century and who understand that surveillance is not always used to prevent crime but in some cases is used to commit crimes. This is something that people in Europe understand and i think that the situation is changing precisely because this understanding is working its way into the common understanding and into the cultural discussion. But it's not like the weather, it's not changing on its own.
I'd be interested to know about your choice of making portraits in cibachrome prints. Why did you use this photographic process?
I've been living under surveillance in some way or another for about 13 years. Maybe more. And in different capacities. In the last 5 years it has become very intense. The reason i mention this is because when you shoot with a digital camera and you plug in to a computer that's on the internet, when you share photos on the internet, that's it! They are no longer your photos. I'm sure that all the photos that i ever posted on the internet, on flickr for example, are sitting in an FBI database and i'm sure that they've been used to harm people and to harass my friends and people i work with. So i don't really post photos on the internet anymore and as a result i started to work with slide film very heavily. I also started to keep my files offline and if i scan them, i keep them scanned on machines that are not connected to the internet and only for archival purposes. I felt that it made a lot of sense not to go to a professional printing studio and print digital photos of these slides but to actually do the entire process offline as much as possible. Cibachrome is the most analog process and it allows me to go low tech and that was very important for me. Cibachrome felt like the natural thing because it fits with the whole reason i was shooting slide films in the first place which was to regain my autonomy from surveillance.
The people your work portrays are involved in uncovering surveillance. I read some of the names in the list of captions for the photos of the show: Sarah Harrison, Laura Poitras, and William Binney. Who are the others and can you briefly tell you why you chose them?
The other people are Ai Weiwei who needs no introduction. David Miranda is in the photograph with Glenn Greenwald. He is the partner of Glenn Greenwald but also works with him around the Snowden affair. There's Sarah Harrison, the woman who helped Snowden to seek and receive asylum, basically to escape from Hong Kong. Then there is Julian Assange, William Binney and then Laura Poitras.
Apologies for the silly question but why did you decide to shred the information rather than stuff the pandas of the work Panda 2 Panda with whole pages randomly distributed?
Two reasons. The main reason is that i felt that it represented the way that people actually see the information anyway. Ideological information, economic information or the information that spies craft doesn't make sense to a lot of people. It's a specialized language. These shredded documents are the support structure of the actual body itself. But we also added a very small micro SD card inside the pandas. It actually contains the documents and then some. Which means that every single panda is the medium and the message in itself and it can be transported. We smuggled 20 of these pandas out of China and took them all over the world. That means that even if you took the whole internet down, even if you got rid of every website and of every member of the press, you'd have to actually also go and track down these 20 pandas. In addition to a lot of other things. The goal was then to have a piece of art in a museum that is full of this kind data and to make it so that the secret services wanting to erase it would have to go into the museum and destroy the pandas. Which places them very firmly in the aesthetic camp of being on the wrong side of history. In a sense, it's like asking them "Come on! Get us! We dare you!"
How will Panda 2 Panda be exhibited exactly at NOME? With some of the pandas, the Poitras video and some information? What will the installation of the piece look like?
There won't be any video. But instead we will have these 6 very large prints, nicely framed, mounted on aluminum and shadow boxes. We will also have the panda and the bag that it came in which is a beautiful Ai Weiwei bag which says ''Cǎonímǎ'' which is this Grass Mud Horse (the word for internet censorship in China.) Weiwei and i signed this bag and it's the transport for the panda. The panda is filled with documents that have been made public in the press.
But I decided that it wasn't good enough. I wanted to create a final piece for the show that takes this project beyond what is public. For many years i've worked as a journalist shredding documents, either because we take journalistic notes about a source or we print out a document that we believe we wouldn't legally be able to release without the risk of being arrested or something like this because it contains agent names, for example. And i have garbage bags full of these shredded documents. I just can't throw them out. So i decided that that was going to be like the paint of a new picture. I collaborated with 3 other artists to make a hundred little necklaces. These necklaces are vials, like little test tubes, and inside of it are shredded unreleased documents. So a hundred people will be able to carry around the equivalent of the panda, except that it's documents that have never been released. It reaches a totally different audience of people and in some ways it feels more risky but also less risky because it's shredded documents. The piece is called Schuld, Scham und Angst which means Guilt, Shame and Fear in english. The reason behind that name is that i and all of the journalists who shredded documents and didn't release every single one of them, we became in a sense collaborators with the secret state. And i'm distressed with myself for having to do that. The only time that it is ever appropriate to do that is for source protection reason.
Do you find that you and Ai Weiwei have a different approach to issues such as surveillance, secrecy and censorship? And how you express your opposition to them?
Yes, i do think that we are very different. We have complementary approaches. One is a coping mechanism. The other is a resistance strategy.
Weiwei is trying to document his whole life, to make himself as public as possible which in a sense raises his profile. Everyone talking about surveillance either vanishes or adopts this approach. Both Weiwei and i are both taking this approach to a degree.
I am also trying to raise the consciousness about this issue, to make sure that no one is victimized like this ever again. It's not just about me. I think Weiwei also wants that to happen but it not clear to me --even with a work like Panda 2 Panda-- that we change the fundamental structure of that kind of oppressive surveillance. But Weiwei is under much more oppressive surveillance than i am these days.
The work that i've done under the last 10 years is to make it hard for the people to monitor anyone who would be targeted for surveillance, whether they are legitimate so-called 'targets' or otherwise. But i also want to raise the consciousness about it and to raise the culture of discussion so that people start to ask 'wait a minute! what does it mean to be a legitimate target?" I want to actually try and empower every person, not just special people, to free them from that kind of oppressive dynamic which in itself is a punishment and is often done in total secrecy. It happens in such a way that it corrodes life itself for people. So i want to fuck that up as much as possible.
Do you think we should all assume that we are under surveillance?
No, i think we should all live with the assumption that we have the right to resist. It is our duty, in fact. We don't have to live with the assumption that we are under surveillance. And in fact, when we do it then that tells us that we should take action.
Jacob Appelbaum -- SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy, an exhibition curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli, opens on 10th September, 6pm and closes on 31th October 2015 at the NOME Gallery in Berlin. The event is organized in parallel with SAMIZDATA: Tactics and Strategies for Resistance which gathers hackers, artists and critical thinkers exploring possible alternatives into the development of shared forms of post-digital resistance. will take place on 11 and 12 September at Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin.
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.
Publisher OR Books writes: On Saadiyat Island, just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, branches of iconic cultural institutions, including the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the British Museum and New York University, are taking shape to the designs of starchitects such as Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster. In this way, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seeks to burnish its reputation as a sophisticated destination for wealthy visitors and residents.
Beneath the glossy veneer of the Saadiyat real estate plan, however, lies a tawdry reality. Those laboring on the construction sites are migrant workers who arrive from poor countries heavily indebted as a result of recruitment and transit fees. Once in the UAE the sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses them in sub-standard labor camps, pays much less than they were promised, and enforces a punishing work regimen. If they protest publicly, they risk arrest, beatings, and deportation.
For five years, the Gulf Labor Coalition, a cosmopolitan group of artists and writers, has been pressuring Saadiyat's Western cultural brands to ensure worker protections. Gulf Labor has coordinated a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and pioneered innovative direct action that has involved several spectacular museum occupations. As part of a year-long initiative, an array of artists, writers, and activists submitted a work, a text, or an action.
Some 15 million migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, form the vast majority of the labor force in most Gulf states. In the UAE and Qatar, 90 percent of the work force and the population are migrant workers (both white collar and blue collar.) No matter how many years they have lived and worked there, or even if they were born there, these people have no voting, representation, or association rights. Thousands of them are currently working on construction sites to create Saadiyat Island ("Island of Happiness"), a £17bn cultural hub in Abu Dhabi that will soon host the new premises of international cultural institutions such as New York University, the Louvre and the Guggenheim.
The men constructing the architectural 'icons' designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid (aka the It's not my duty as an architect to look at it lady) and Tadao Ando, are trapped there since their passports have been confiscated, they receive lower than expected wages, are confined to substandard housing, are submitted to 10pm curfew, poor food as well as segregation in the official labour camp, etc.
Because of the notoriously low wages they receive, migrant labourers often have to work for years before they manage to pay off the debt they contracted to cover the recruitment and travel fees to the UAE. This recruitment debt is central to the system. No one would labor under such conditions unless they had to pay it off.
If they protest against the poor living/working conditions or unpaid wages, the workers get punished or deported.
And anyone who speaks in their favour isn't welcome in the country...
The editor of the book, Andrew Ross, is a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and a social activist. Earlier this year, he wanted to do some research on labor issues at Abu Dhabi, where a campus of his university is located but he was informed at JFK Airport that he could not enter the country. Similar rebukes awaited other members of the Gulf Labor Coalition. Artist Ashok Sukumaran was denied a visa to travel to the UAE. Walid Raad was turned back at the Dubai airport.
The artist group Gulf Labor Coalition has spent the past few years investigating and denouncing migrant worker abuse. But while the UAE and other Gulf governments can largely ignore the group's calls, the European and American cultural institutions who will be present on Saadiyat Island need to protect their 'brand' and the values they stand for. As Paula Chakravartty and Nitasha Dhillon write in their essay for the book: it remains urgent to continue to use our leverage as artists and scholars to hold US and European museums and universities accountable in their home countries for the abuses against human dignity of workers thousands of miles away.
The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor charters Gulf Labor's fight in a series of texts written by members of the coalition.
Some of the authors explore Western institutions complicity in migrant worker abuse on Saadiyat, other analyse the place of construction workers in the building process, report on visits and interviews with deported workers, look at the artists who have engaged in direct political action, draw lessons from examples of art and activism in the global stage, document performances organised inside the Guggenheim Museum in New York by G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction, a 'Gulf Labor spinoff devoted to direct action' Global Ultra Luxury Faction, etc.
The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor is lively, opinionated and eye-opening book. It is an important publication because of the realities it reveals and investigates. But it does more than that. The essays it contains can be read as a series of lessons for anyone, journalists, artists or activists, who want to take a stand, protest and challenge every complicit element leading to a situation of abuse and injustice.
Because things might be slow to change but that doesn't mean protesting is useless. As Sarah Leah Whitson notes in the foreword:
The efforts of Gulf Labor have prevented these world-class institutions from sweeping their complicity in the exploitation of migrant workers under Abu Dhabi's desert sands.
Most significantly, these efforts have produced concrete results, with the private institutions and businesses involved in Saadiyat Island agreeing to a minimum set of commitments to protect worker rights, including the right to change jobs, an end to passport confiscation, and the refunding of recruiting fees.
And the campaign has even led the UAE grudgingly to adopt some legislative reforms, including electronic payment of wages, changes to the sponsorship system that allow workers to switch jobs under limited circumstances, and greater supervision of work conditions by a vastly expanded pool of government inspectors.
By the way, Hyperallergic is doing a great job at keeping up with Gulf Labor latest actions.
I've been strangely busy ('strangely' because believe me it's not my style at all to be a busy person) over the past couple of weeks and i never got a chance to sit down and write a small report of the Politics and Practices of Secrecy symposium which took place at King's College in London last month. Here's the blurb that lured me into spending a whole day in a lecture hall:
In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the surveillance capabilities of intelligence agencies, this interdisciplinary symposium gathers experts to discuss the place and implications of secrecy in contemporary culture and politics.
The event started with a keynote by Jamie Bartlett about the Secrets of the Dark Net. It was entertaining and more about the dark sides of the internet in general than strictly speaking about the Silk Road. The journalist talked us through his adventures online and offline with sex cam ladies, neo-nazis, drug sellers and anorexic girls. If you're curious about the content of the talk, then i advise you to check out his book The Dark Net.
The symposium itself looked at how the relationships between citizens and government have changed since the Snowden revelation, the impact of secrecy on society and the place of the subject in a world that keeps us under close surveillance and doesn't regard us as fully-formed political agents. The angle was very much American. Not because the USA is the only nation that uses and abuses of secrecy (although they are making a name for themselves in that field) but because the symposium was organized by the Institute of North American Studies at King's College.
I won't cover all the symposium presentations. I'm just going to do a pick and mix of what i heard there. This first post about the event might still be fairly coherent though because it will focus on the arty Roundtable 2: Aesthetics of the Secret. And since he is an artist and an artist who has some valuable ideas to share about secrecy, discrimination and control, i'm also adding to this post Zach Blas' talk (which was part of another series of talks that zoomed in on Opacity and Openness.)
Let's start with Zach Blas. He is an artist, writer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at the University at Buffalo. The title of his talk 'Informatic Opacity' is also the one of his upcoming book.
The idea of informatic opacity is explored in two of Blas' artworks. The first one, Facial Weaponization Suite, is a series of workshops in U.S. and Mexico that looked at biometric facial recognition. The artist worked with members of specific minority communities (queers, black people, etc.) to create masks that are modeled from the aggregated facial data of participants. The amorphous and slightly sinister masks are then worn in public performances. The masks represent each individual but cannot be detected as human faces by biometric facial recognition technologies. The work is a dark critique of the silent and gradual rise of the use of biometric facial recognition software by governments to monitor citizens. The symbol of the mask is also important. Pussy Riot, members of the Black Bloc and the Zapatistas wear masks to hide their face but also because masks make them visible.
For Blas, the main motivation behind the work wasn't so much privacy and transparency. His first interest laid in highlighting a technology that standardizes identity globally in order to create templates that can calculate identity and can be applied around the world.
The standards of face recognition technology are rigid and they can break down. As the two examples below demonstrates, these technologies are routinely accused of not recognizing non-Caucasian faces:
Not being recognized by biometric machines makes some people more vulnerable to discrimination and criminalization.
Édouard Glissant called for the right to opacity. For him opacity was protecting anyone who is 'diverse'. Blas book takes Glissant's idea of opacity and puts it into the context of informatics. Information opacity, he says, resists forms of globalization and standardization.
The second work Blas mentioned is his Face Cages series which focuses on biometrics as a form of capture.
Face Cages is a dramatization of the abstract violence of the biometric diagram. Diagrams are fabricated as three-dimensional metal objects, evoking a material resonance with handcuffs, prison bars, and torture devices used during slavery in the US and the Medieval period. The virtual biometric diagram, a supposedly perfect measuring and accounting of the face, once materialized as a physical object, transforms into a cage that does not easily fit the human head, that is extremely painful to wear. These cages exaggerate and perform the irreconcilability of the standardized, neoliberal biometric diagram with the materiality of the human face itself-and the violence that occurs when the two are forced to coincide.
Now to Roundtable 2, Aesthetics of the Secret which was, unsurprisingly, the one i was most looking forward to listen to.
John Beck, Director of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture at the University of Westminster, kicked of the session with 'Photography's Open Secret.'
The talk explored the desert landscape in the South West of the U.S., one of the most photographed regions in the world, but also one that hosts a vast amount of secrecy.
The desert is a space where there is nothing and where therefore anything can be done and left: military bases, weapon testing facilities, nuclear waste, etc. It can be used as a dump space where unnecessary leftovers of power can be placed. It is a space where secrets are literally left into the open.
The medium of photography echoes the ambiguous characteristic of the desert. Photography is an instrument for revealing, unveiling, documenting and exposing. But it can also be used to hide, by leaving things out of the frame, by staging or doctoring evidence. Photography is at once a medium of transparency and a medium of opacity. And that makes it difficult to regard photography as a source of reliable evidence.
Richard Misrach photographed places that are now less restricted than they were during the Cold War but that were used to conduct secret programs and operations.
After 9/11, Trevor Paglen has taken up the role of photographer/investigator of sites of secrecy. Using limit telephotography, he documents black sites and other secret spaces and programs of the USA. Some of his photos, however, move toward abstractions and as such, embody the skepticism that photography can provide us with straightforward representations of the world.
Laura Kurgan bought hi-res satellite images showing four vulnerable landscapes: a desert in Iraq, the rain forest in Cameroon, the tundra in Alaska, and the Atlantic Ocean. Seen from afar, the images evoke monochromatic Minimalism, but a closer investigation reveal traces of geopolitical issues such as illegal logging or helicopters flying over the desert during "Operation Iraqi Freedom."
When Google launched its satellite imagery service in 2005, some governments attempted to censor sites deemed vital to national security. The Netherlands, for example, hid hundreds of significant sites including royal palaces, fuel depots and army barracks behind stylist multi-coloured polygons. Ironically, it made the censored sites even more conspicuous. The country has since adopted a less distinctive method of visual censorship.
The second speaker of the roundtable was Neal White, artist, Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice at Bournemouth University, he is also Director of Emerge - Experimental Media Research Group.
His talk, Secrecy and Art in Practice, looked at the various methods art employs to reflect on the practice of secrecy.
He mentioned the Critical Art Ensemble's tactical biopolitic works, Taryn Simon's photo series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Trevor Paglen (but then almost every single speaker spoke about Paglen's work), Charles Stankievech's Counterintelligence, etc.
White also talked briefly about the works he is involved in with the Office of Experiments. I've blogged in the past about The Overt Research Projects which combine field observation, alternative knowledge gathering and experimental geography techniques with other research methods to archive and geo-map spaces related to techno-scientific and industrial /military research in the UK.
I was also surprised to learn about The Mike Kenner Archive which was donated to the Office of Experiments in 2009 so that they can show the archived material to the public. Mike Kenner's collection of thousands of documents were obtained following over thirty years of research and FOI (Freedom of Information) requests into the activities at the Biochemical Research Centre at Porton Down, Wiltshire (referred to as MRE) and other sensitive research establishments. The documentation contains photographs, de-classified but restricted secret and top-secret documents, cabinet office and official correspondence, experimental data, images, diagrams , analysis, video, photographs, newspaper cuttings etc. Many of these highlight experiments that had a significant impact in the region of Weymouth in the UK, with experiment conducted on the public using live pathogens, largely through around Lyme Bay. Far from being historic research alone, Kenner's work points to controversy generated by what may well be ongoing scientific trials and experiments, continuing to this day often concealed from the public in plain sight.
The last speaker of the roundtable wasn't an artist but a Senior Lecturer at King's College and the curator of the whole event. Clare Birchall explored how artists are using the materiality of secrecy in their practice. Unsurprisingly, she discussed Paglen and mentioned his keynote at last year's edition of Transmediale. Which i'm copy/pasting below:
Birchall also spoke in details about Jill Magid's work at the AIVD, the Dutch secret service.
In 2005, AIVD asked her to create a work for its new headquarters. They were hoping that the commission would help improve its public persona by providing "'the AIVD with a human face."
Magid spent the following three years meeting with eighteen employees of AIVD in "non-descript public places." AIVD restricted the artist from using recording equipment, so she had to write down her notes. She never disclosed the identity of her contact but compiled the information she had collected during the interviews into a collective persona that she referred to as "The Organization."
When AIVD agents visited the first exhibition of the project in 2008, they confiscated several works and censored the draft of Magid's report.
The artist "protested against the censorship of her own memories," prompting AIVD to suggest that she "'present the manuscript as a visual work of art in a one-time-only exhibition, after which it would become the property of the Dutch government and not be published.'" Magid's 2009/10 exhibition at Tate Modern, Authority to Remove, marked the fulfillment of this request: the uncensored report sat securely behind glass. In its penultimate state, the project thus expressed "what it means to have a secret but not the autonomy to share it." (via)
Compared to my previous post (Eyes from a distance. Personal encounters with military drones), the talks from the panel Tracking Drones, Reporting Lives zoomed out from the personal perspective and brought together a data journalist, a documentary director and an artist whose work examines the drone issue:
Data journalist Jack Serle, who works at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, as part of the Covert Drone War research team, is involved in the Naming the Dead project which attempts to reveal the names of the civilians and militants killed by the drones in Pakistan since 2004. Film director Tonje Hessen Schei is currently showing in theaters across the world DRONE, a documentary that focuses on the CIA drone war. Artist, musician and researcher Dave Young presented The Reposition Matrix, a workshop series that investigated the military-industrial production and use of military drones through collaborative open-source intelligence and cartographic processes.
The panel was moderated by Marc Garrett, director and founder (together with Ruth Catlow) of the community and art space Furtherfield. In his intro to the panel, Garrett reminded the audience of the role that artists have played in exploring the dark sides of drones, sometimes even anticipating their power as the video BIT Plane demonstrates. In this work (shown at the Furtherfield exhibition Movable Borders: Here Come the Drones! two years ago), Natalie Jeremijenko and Kate Rich from the Bureau of Inverse Technology operate a radio-controlled model airplane over the Silicon Valley. By filming the aerial views, the BIT Plane can be seen as a precursor to the emerging DIY surveillance video enabled by the new availability of drones.
The talk of the first panelist, Jack Serle, focused on the BIJ's Covert Drone War, a research aimed at providing a full dataset of all known US drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
When the investigation started, there was online one version of drone attacks and it was coming from Washington. Their official line was that drones were surgically precise and that they were so efficient that no civilians were killed in the strikes:
It's this surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it, that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.
But the data coming from Pakistan quickly demonstrated that the reality was otherwise.
BIJ's work is based on open source data such as media reports, NGO reports, court documents, information leaked by governmental sources, accounts from eyewitnesses, etc. The observation of this data enables also the BIJ to pick out patterns revealing some uncomfortable facts about the war on terror.
For example the BIJ noticed that sometimes a strike would hit a building in Pakistan and that another strike would be launched on the same building 20 to 40 minutes later. The same pattern was observed elsewhere. It reveals that when the CIA was hitting a building, they were in fact waiting for the rescue team (made of both civilians and militants) to come and pick up people who had been injured in the strike. This is obviously a very bloody tactic.
Another pattern observed involved strikes hitting funerals. The CIA exploit a local custom: local commanders often attend a man's funeral. But of course the people who take part in the funeral and were injured or killed by the drones are not necessarily militants. Many of them are civilians.
There's more details about these two practices in Chris Woods and Christina Lamb's article CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals.
By gathering numbers, names and other evidences, the Naming the Dead project counters secrecy and anonymity. Concealing as much as possible is a key element of the drone program, it enables it to continue its activities unquestioned.
Serle explained that with the Drone War Project, the BIJ doesn't want to morally judge the technology per se. Instead the work of the team aims to bring transparency and enable people to make changes.
Next in the panel was Tonje Hessen Schei, the director of DRONE which was screened later in the evening (and which i'd recommend you see.)
The film looks at drone under different angles: the families of Pakistani victims of drones, the human rights advocates and activists, the drone pilots (namely Brandon Bryan) and the vast and incredibly lucrative industry which interests lay in keeping this war going on forever and ever.
The director talked about the relationships between the entertainment industry and the military, her disappointment at Obama who had promised to close Guantanamo Bay and who's now sending drones to kill people, etc.
One of her main concerns regards Europe which knows what is happening and remains silent. The United States is setting a worrying new standard of warfare with the drone program and it's only a question of time before we see Russia, Iran, China and other countries use drones to go after anyone they regard as a threat to their country. When that time has come, how will we be able to counter it? How are we going to say that the practice is illegal when we've done nothing to stop the United States?
Drones have changed warfare and its future. They've become the new normal even though there has never been any proper debate about the ethical, moral and legal challenges they present.
A survey found that 66% of the U.S. people is in favor of drone strikes. Perhaps the percentage would me much lower if people were actually presented with all the facts. There has been a wide media coverage of the DRONE documentary in both the UK and Norway but the film is still very much under the radar in the U.S.
The trailer of the documentary is very catchy and spectacular. It's part of the strategy of the film director who wanted to relate to mass culture and appeal to the broadest audience possible.
The last speaker in the panel was artist Dave Young who made a series of valid points:
- The war on terror operate often in deserts. This is what Deleuze calls a 'smooth space', a surface that can be interrupted, moved and reconfigured without leaving any trace.
- Young also talked about The Reposition Matrix, a series of workshops dedicated the use of cybernetic military systems such as drones and the Disposition Matrix, a dynamic database of intelligence that produces kill-lists for the US Department of Defense. Working together, workshop participants developed a 'cartography of control': a map of the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies. The artist explained how some of the information used in the workshop came from unexpected sources: such as google satellite maps where sometimes the shadow of a drone would appear on a view or facebook where many soldiers post photos of their life. So in the background of selfies or group portraits, one can glimpse the base where they are working.
- During World War II, Norman Wiener worked on a research project at MIT on the automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns and guided missile technology. He studied how a missile changed its flight path through the use of advanced electronics. What intrigued him was the principle of feedback that was used, i.e. the missile gave feedback regarding its position and flight path towards its target. It then received instructions for small adjustments to its flight path in order to further stabilize it and to arrive at its target, etc. (via) His research was abandoned after the war but the concept of continuous feedback between the missile system and its environment can actually be extended to other systems and this eventually led him to formulate cybernetics.
- Young's account of the tactics deployed by the U.S. army during the Vietnam war was equally fascinating. Some of the technology does indeed foreshadow the use of drones. One was a 'people sniffer', a detector that could 'smell' human urine and sweat and thus detect enemy soldiers in hidden positions. This Operation Snoopy (because that was its name) and other tactics are presented in the 1969 video Bugging the Battlefield
- another important point Dave Young made is that the military is always trying to remove the agency of the soldier. A soldier can be disobedient, he or she can question an order or strategy.
Previous posts about the Drones event: Eyes from a distance. Personal encounters with military drones and The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones.