I closed my report of the exhibition The Air Itself is One Vast Library on the promise that i'd come back to my last visit to Brighton with a few words about the crime scene-style outline of a drone that James Bridle painted on the city seafront.
Under the Shadow of the Drone, commissioned by The Lighthouse, is a one-to-one representation of one of the military drones piloted remotely to strike targets in distant areas of the world. The aerial attacks they conduct leave hundreds of people dead, many of them innocent civilians.
The controversy surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles has been recently intensified in the UK with the news that pilots at Waddington (Lincolnshire) are now working in relay with the military in the US to remotely operate American Reaper drones in Afghanistan.
For Bridle, what matters is not so much the drone in itself but the 'black box' side of contemporary warfare technology. "I have a political interest in drones as well, but beyond that, they stand for all aspects of these invisible technologies that have a great effect on the world but are kind of largely hidden from view," he told the Creatorsproject.
We might read about drones, get horrified by the way they monitor, gather intelligence, destroy and kill but we still cannot fully understand them, simply because we don't see them properly, even people who are directly affected by them hardly ever get a chance to see UAVs. Under the Shadow of the Drone suddenly brings drones into our daily life.
I had intended to write down the notes i took during a talk that James Bridle gave last month in Brussels for The Digital Now series of events but The Lighthouse has recently uploaded on youtube a similar talk that the designer gave to the Brighton audience. I highly recommend it. It is both entertaining and chilling. Bridle explains in detail his research into drones and more generally his investigation into the way we perceive and understand technology. He analyzes how the most reproduced 'photo' of a Reaper drone is actually a photoshopped image that first emerged in a forum for 3D modeling hobbyists, he discusses the Disposition Matrix and the escalating assassination program which tracks and kills suspects militant terrorists in other part of the world, etc. He also illustrates his research by explaining briefly some of his own projects such as Dronestagram: A Drone's Eye View which collects images of locations of drone attacks along with a description of the carnage they incur and A Quiet Disposition, a software system that is constantly scanning the web for news reports on Disposition Matrix and drones and finding links between them.
This much shorter video brings the spotlight on Under the Shadow of the Drone:
Under the Shadow of the Drone remains on view on the Brighton seafront, five minutes' walk east from the Brighton Wheel (do stop by The Lighthouse, they'll hand you a map with the location of the shadow) until May 26, 2013. The work was produced by Lighthouse and Brighton Festival.
Going even further in its exploration of the invisible infrastructures that make up our world, The Lighthouse in Brighton currently takes part in the Brighton Festival with two projects that illustrate how the military uses technology to intrigue, screen and hide its activities. The investigation started in 2011 with the exhibition, Invisible Fields, which focused on the invisible but ubiquitous radio spectrum. The research went further with last year's show of Trevor Paglen's photos The Other Night Sky and Limit Telephotography, works i can't seem to be able not to mention almost every month on this blog.
One of the projects that you can see right now in Brighton is a body of work, by Mariele Neudecker, that makes visitors reflect upon (and reluctantly admire) the use of technologies in contemporary warfare.
Most of the works were developed during an artist residency that Neudecker undertook the Historic Nike Missile Site, a former Nike Missile launch site located to the north of San Francisco. Opened in 1954, the site was intended to protect the population and military installations of the San Francisco Bay Area during the Cold War, specifically from attack by Soviet bombers. The site was decommissioned in 1974 and is now open to the public as a museum.
Neudecker documented with seducing photo portraits and patient rubbings a series of weapons of mass destruction that were developed at the height of the Cold War.
The title of the exhibition, The Air Itself is One Vast Library, is drawn from a quotation from Charles Babbage, the 19th century mathematician and engineer, who originated the concept of a programmable computer. In 1837, he wrote:
"The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man's changeful will."
In the context of the artist's work, the quotation suggests that despite the machinations of warfare being beyond our daily perception, the air retains a memory of these exploits.
The portraits of the Hercules missiles are as appealing as they are threatening. They seem to float silently into a dark room, as if they were waiting to be fired one day.
As Neudecker explained in her presentation at The Lighthouse last week, photography would never have enabled her to represent accurately the length and power of the Hercules missiles accurately. She thus obtained the authorisation to sit on the missiles and produced two 13 meter long graphite rubbings of the vast missiles. The close contact with the weapons made her realize that while one of them was real, the other was a fake, designed to trick the enemy into thinking that the U.S. military could count with far more deadly resources than it actually had.
Programme curator Jamie Wyld reminded me that during Second World War, Germany built an airfield that looked real from the air but was actually entirelymade of wood.: hangars, trucks, anti-air guns, planes, etc. To show that they could not be so easily fooled, an Allied bomber dropped a lone wooden bomb on the fake airfield. And not so long ago, Marguerite Humeau was telling us about illusionist Jasper Maskelyne who was hired by the British Army during the same conflict. He would use magic tricks on a large-scale to camouflage, hide, trick or to make dummy military vehicles and soldiers appear.
Other works investigate military imaging and tactical communication, which provide us with new ways of detecting what is intended to be camouflaged and out of view.
I was particularly moved by the photo above. A day that she was browsing through a charity shop, the artist found a set of postcards showing military planes. Her artistic intervention was simple: she just applied correction fluid on the planes. The silhouette is thus hidden as much as it is highlighted. By superposing an additional layer of disguise, Neudecker made the plane even more unsettling and threatening that it would have been had the photo remained untouched.
It's back! After a Summer/early Autumn break, #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM is on air again. Starting today Tuesday 6th November at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 8th November 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
My guest this week is Neal White. Neal is Associate Professor of Art and Media at Bournemouth University and the Director of Emerge - Experimental Media Research Group, a practice-based initiative which is developing critical, creative and technical experiments in media. But the reason why i invited him to the studio of Resonance FM is his activity at the Office of Experiments, a structure that explores, maps and records the advanced labs and facilities that are - on purpose or not - concealed from public view. You can find these records on a website evocatively called Dark Places.
I interviewed Neal White a few months ago already so our radio conversation focuses on what happened a couple of months ago when The Office of Experiments and The Arts Catalyst took members of the public on a 'critical excursion' to discover and study these Dark Places from up close. Called Experimental Ruins: West Edition, the event invited Londoners to discover little-known places of scientific secrecy and technology in the West London corridor.
We will be talking declassified materials, underground bunker housing alternative Cabinet War rooms, cold war archive footage, Atomic Weapons Establishment, sites used by the UK Nuclear peace protestors, etc. I'd tune in if i were you.
Previously: Dark Places and experimental geography - Interview with Neal White. Image on the homepage via Dark Places.
This is already the fifth episode of the art and science show i've been recording for ResonanceFM! It broadcasts today Monday 18 June at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we will have podcasts (still waiting for them.)
Today i'm talking to Tom Keene, an artist whose work investigates technological objects and attempts to understand their agency and how they act as mechanisms of control within contemporary society. I met Tom at a conference about Interactivity a few months ago and he was the one guy in the panel who added a social and sometimes even political perspective on interactivity and on technology in general.
Right now Tom is completing an MA in Interactive Media, a course that merges Critical Theory and Practice at Goldsmiths College. The course graduation show will open on 6th, 7th and 8th July. Tom will be showing "Uncertain Substance" - a speech recognition system that searches the radio waves for conversations about money!
Here's the description of "Uncertain Substance" that Tom just sent me:
A speech recognition algorithm searches radio waves for conversations about money. As an ongoing investigation of the Viterbi algorithm this project seeks to understand the agency of a mathematical entity that operates as structural thread within the fabric of contemporary society.
Conceived in 1966 the Viterbi was originally used for digital signal processing where it detects and corrects errors in digital codes. Its use has subsequently extended through the technologies of speech recognition, DNA analysis, video encryption, deep space, and wireless communications systems. Physical manifestations of this algorithm exists as microchips installed in billions of mobile devices worldwide, enabling communications networks to permeate every conceivable space, blurring distinction between home, work and social environments.
Used to identify patterns and trends of human behaviour, the Viterbi plays a role in automated systems that interpret, record and report on human activity. These systems increasingly make economic decisions, govern response to crime, disaster, health and manage the everyday flow of cities. The Viterbi operates at a deep social level as it constructs new sets of social relations and radically shapes the development of our cities.
Today our conversation will focus on topics such as the social impact of the Viterbi algorithm (with a previous explanation on what the algorithm does exactly) and wireless infrastructures, the loss of public space in cities, in particular in London and in the area surrounding the Olympic sites.
Neal White is an artist, an Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice but he also holds the enigmatic title of 'Director of Experiments' at the international collaborative research practice The Office of Experiments.
One of the current interests of the Office involves an 'overt research' that attempts to build up an alternative and experimental knowledge source about the UK's "Dark Places", the labs and facilities of advanced technological development which are often (purposefully or not) concealed, secret or inaccessible to the public.
The techno-scientific and industrial-military sites under study are approached through publicly available information but conspiracy theories and rumours surrounding these sites form also part of the narrative. The Dark Places place is headed by Neal White and Steve Rowell, but the overt researchers also invite artists, amateur scientists, urban explorers and local communities to contribute to the investigation by participating to bus tours and by contributing to the online geo-mapped database Dark Places.
The next critical excursion that will take people on an Overt Research tour will be in London in October. In the meantime, here's what Neal White had to say about my many questions regarding the Dark Places and his work at the Office of Experiments.
Hi Neal! My only contact with the world of sites of advanced technological development in the UK took place a few months ago when watching an episode of the tv series Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville.
Your experience and knowledge of these sites, while not being complete, is obviously much wider and more grounded in research than mine. Does getting to get closer to these sites makes you more worried about what goes on inside than before? Should we be concerned about what is devised and created in these places?
In our research we are interested in where the limits of an experiment end; literally, spatially and structurally, but also in terms of the 'public imaginaries' that closed spaces of all kinds generate - myth, rumour, conspiracy. So we are interesting in interrogating our own relationship to the military-industrial or techno-scientific complex as cultural and critical practitioners. Sharing practices and approaches with other culturally positioned research organisations, such as the Center for Land Use Interpretation in the USA, our aim is to utilize some of the technologies and techniques used by this contemporary complex and developed by them in terms of technologies of surveillance, mapping, intelligence and to invert them. So with Overt Research for example, our aim is to re-frame documentation of a site or sites.
Within this research we also explore alternative archives and knowledge extracted through new open governance policies as well as posthumous release of information from the official accounts of such sites. We make links with autonomous and independent researchers, activists and amateur enthusiasts, whose work in this area is often informed by a person having worked at a site, having a personal issue or a political motivation.
We feel that the bodies of knowledge produced by this unofficial research are overlooked and should play a stronger role in our cultural life. In using, interpreting and sometimes exhibiting such knowledge, our aim is to create new and open resources that anyone can use or interpret. It is this opening up of what is not visible that makes the world less full of fear.
The Overt Research Project relies on personal research and field trips. How much can you actually discover through these field trips? I guess most of the structures you investigate must be off limits.
You will appreciate yourself that much of the way in which we experience the world is shaped and informed by media, including online sharing of photographic imagery of remote, interesting, derelict or even secret places - or artwork in exhibitions. The staff at the sites we focus on are of course also aware of this and so use the media to project the official story of a site, or not. We visit the sites as this information about them often frequently does not add up or we have information about them unofficially which we want to explore.
For example, you may go to a site, standing in plain sight with a high viz jacket (the Overt part that inverts the logic of the secret site and the technology) of a site that might be a decommissioned Nuclear Power Station, and find that this is only part of the story. Part of the site is decommissioned but a new business park or some new activity is going on there, more discretely communicated shall we say. We can document that in the images. The interpretations on our site of these images then alludes if not explicitly points to the other activity. Part informed by our dark sensibilities and by a critical eye, we point to the construction of scientific research as one which shares intimate links with some of the more sinister aspects of government, security organisations etc. And if you want to add to our database, or undertake Overt Research, we insist that you must first participate physically by joining us on one of our research fieldtrips to learn more about what we do and how we do it. We like to make a link between the worlds we inhabit - informational and experiential. Testing limits and boundaries from the spatial to the virtual I suppose.
You're working with Steve Rowell from CLUI and Lisa Haskell on the Overt Research Project. How do you complement each other?
I met Steve Rowell through the Center for Land Use Interpretation as I received a grant from the Henry Moore Foundation in 2008 to make some work with them and consequently spent too much time at their research residency in Utah, on and off over three years (See 'Museum of the Void - Experiments in the Event of an Archive'- Chelsea Space 2010). During this period I was also undertaking initial research for the exhibition Dark Places at John Hansard Gallery in 2009-10. It seemed like a good idea to see if Steve and I could work together as he was based in Europe for a while. So we performed an informal and strategic knowledge exchange about how to approach, document and uncover information about the sites in which we were interested. I had realized OOE could learn more directly about the methods developed by CLUI and then start to build on these. This formed the basis of the site Dark Places around which the exhibition was then curated. The inclusion of Steve and then Beatriz da Costa, who worked closely with Critical Art Ensemble, made total sense for that exhibition then.
I had known Lisa Haskell for some time (we worked together at Ravensbourne College with Prof Karel Dudesek and Armin Medosch). Wanting her great experience as well as some gender balance in our organization, I approached her to come on board as Technical Director. In this capacity she not only builds our technical back end, but her experience with smaller activist organisations, such as Irational etc, have meant that we could also exchange ideas and knowledge in approach to physical and virtual sites, what to disclose and reveal, intelligence and its counter forms.
I had a look at a few of the sites mapped on the Dark Places website. These sites don't seem to hide themselves, their architecture is often even massive. So what makes them dark?
As I have mentioned, we know that the sites we list may or may not fully disclose all of their activities. Some of the work that goes on is official, but in others it is unofficial. In the USA, the approach is different, and as Trevor Paglen (Experimental Geographer - Blank Spots on the Map, etc) or Lize Mogel (Radical Cartography) would tell you, there is a different official attitude and foundation in law in terms of what constitutes official secrecy and a security threat. Also, in the USA, the vast scale of the landscape is used to conceal.
Here in the UK with such a dense population, and a different legal structure (Officials Secret Act), the aim is to sometimes create public secrets in plain sight, about which we do not speak. As I have mentioned, there are numerous ways in which the truth is presented, leaving room for other truths to remain untold or hidden beneath.
Can you tell us something about the ones that are secret? The ones that don't have such a visible presence in the landscape? How do you find about them? Are there national or international networks of amateurs investigating them?
Take for example GCHQ, nearly everyone knows it is there, Google it! But disclosing more information about how they organize themselves, who works there, etc. would leave you open to direct legal problems. So when we documented it, we photographed the housing estate that surrounds it, with only small glimpses of its structure. Obviously, no people, cars, no number plates. We avoid disclosing any information of this sort. However, the documentation creates a different landscape, something we explored at Apexart in New York in our publication - The Redactor. Redaction is the ultimate aesthetic of a security driven world. Inadvertently the act of redaction drives speculation and conspiracy in terms of the security networks, which is something advantageous to those with power, so to short circuit or speak truth to power in some ways is good. Back to GCHQ, you can go there and drive around.
However, sites like Hanslope Park or Porton Down are less visible, even by car. They make use of geomorphology to reshape the landscape, traffic controls to create circuits of access and entry at high speeds, a range of measures and counter measures. Since we documented Hanslope Park, they have updated their websites and attempted to communicate a little more - openness can be a strategy too.
There is the word 'research' in the Overt Research Project but may we take it at face value? Where do you intervene as an artist? And how important is it that artists and citizens engage with these sites?
Art has always sought to question the way in which we know and understand the world. It cannot simply take the world for granted, but how can it take into account the globalized scale life? Academic research does much to enable greater understanding of the world, but it is slow, bound in a set of ethical dilemmas and almost moribund when it comes to unofficial or non-institutional accounts of the world.
The Office of Experiments itself is based on what Maria Lind has called the 'fourth wave of Institutional Critique', the pseudo institution. However, our aim is to go beyond a critique of the artworld institution per se, and alongside others create new and alternative resources, knowledge and interpretations of the world that surrounds us. Research is a word used to describe this, but it is experimental, non-standard and undisciplined in our minds and in its practice. Our research is collaborative, discursive and opens up dialogue to discussions that many wish to keep concealed. It is a dialogue outside of the mass media, beyond the art of the aesthetics of protest, but is networked and precisely focused on its subject. I wonder if it is an emergent form - structural aesthetics. That would chime with the drive of artists like Ashok Sukumaran or writers such as Owen Hatherly and Stephen Graham.
Another chapter of the research, 'Experimental Ruins', focused on sub-urban London. What did you discover during that phase of the project?
Experimental Ruins refers to the shifts and changes in the specifics of scientific research. As we virtualize through models on computers, less laboratory space is required. Digitisation has meant that models can replace organisms, the infrastructure of labs is shrinking onto networked, distributed and smaller scale sites. There are empty labs in the heart of London. So we wanted to explore the recent geology of science, to excavate its ruins and see what else there was and make a relationship between sites. We started with a workshop with academic colleague Dr. Gail Davies at UCL, a while back and have taken it from there.
Of course when you think about it, Sub-urban London is the perfect place to conceal in public as you have the cooption of local workers, the banality of infrastructure with the efficiency of logistics. It remains a key space in which to place a site of interest to us.
JG Ballard lived in Shepperton all his life. I was born very near there and was always fascinated by the barbed wire fences and private spaces of anonymous private organisations - firing my imagination perhaps. However, JG Ballard also knew that suburbia is a space of fear, a thinly veiled reality that behind its net curtains is morally dark. By way of example, you can go to a site on a small business park in the heart of suburban west London just off of Ballard's beloved M4 corridor and as you come around the corner, you will find it guarded by armed Military Police. This is the Defence Geographic Centre (DGC), which includes the MOD Geospatial Library and Map Depot.
We are currently organising a critical excursion - another of our fully mediated bus tours following on from hugely successful versions around Southampton, Falmouth, Newcastle and Portland, that will train people to undertake Overt Research based on this specific project. This tour will explore the London Orbital to the West of London. As is often the case with our work, it is supported by Arts Catalyst. The tour will launch from The Showroom in West London in October.
On your website there is an announcement for the Office of Experiments Department of Catastrophe - with Museum of London, a new project examining 'Post-Event Archaeology'. Can you already tell us something about the project?
We are working with Museum of London on 'Experimental Ruins'. This has led to the possibility of exploring their vast archives, but also into looking more deeply into contemporary archaeology, a development that enables the forensic exploration of sites at a micro level.
As we are interested in event-structures (a term coined by John Latham with whom I worked a little) - that is the temporal dimension of space and its use, and the context of a social engagement, then this works with the history of site, also revealed in archives. Thinking further about this in an International context, we started to explore ideas of time and events through sites. Catastrophic is probably a category at one end of the register - a very sudden event. At the other end is a slow social decline, in places such as Detroit. Both ends of this register are difficult to document, either due to the rawness of trauma of conflict or massive environmental disaster, or as illustrated in the photography of Detroit, with Ruin Porn. In February, both Steve Rowell and I discussed these challenges at the Association of American Geographers in New York with the Detroit Unreal Estate Agency. The panel was called Ruinations: violence, snafu and porn. We also started to explore the Catastrophic area in a major public artwork that Steve Rowell curated in Washington DC - the 5x5. With the Irish artist Tina O'Connell and Transformer Gallery, we tried to draw on links between communities in the USA and Japan following the Tsunmai and Fukushima Diaichi disaster last year.
Overall as a project it is exciting, but fraught with danger of all kinds. Ultimately it might spell disaster for us, or for those with who are exploring how we might turn their Museum into a ruin itself. This is what we mean by the Department of Catastrophe.
Z33 House of Contemporary Art in Hasselt, Belgium, has just opened an exhibition with a very promising title. Architecture of Fear explores how feelings of fear pervade daily life in the contemporary media society.
I'm going to visit it on Thursday but in the meantime i thought i'd ask one of the participating artists, Jill Magid, to tell us about the work she is showing at Z33 and more generally about her experience with impersonal power structures (police, intelligence agencies, security systems, etc.) which, whether they contribute to it or fight it, are part of this 'architecture of fear.'
One of Magid's most ironic works is System Azure. In 2003, the artist introduced herself to the Amsterdam Police as a "Security Ornamentation Professional" working for a fictitious company. Magid's proposal to embellish police cameras was accepted and she was hired to hand-glued rhinestones to security cameras at the Amsterdam Headquarters of Police, a work that had previously been rejected when she had first presented it as an art project.
In Evidence Locker, Magid developed a personal relationship with the operators of Liverpool's citywide video surveillance cameras. Dressed in red, she had them follow her every steps as she moved across the city. Back in New York, she managed to gain the trust of a police officer and infiltrate his professional (and personal) world. Magid pushed even further her enquiries into the personality of the human beings hidden behind the faceless instruments of power and surveillance in 2005, when she met with employees of the Dutch secret service, the AIVD, and almost turned into an agent herself for a commission by the AIVD itself to create an artwork that would help them improve upon their public persona and provide them 'with a human face'.
The work Magid is showing at Z33 this Fall, A Reasonable Man in a Box, was inspired by the "Bybee Memo", a 2002 document signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee. The document considered the use of mental and physical torment and stated that acts widely regarded as torture might be legally permissible under an expansive interpretation of Presidential authority during the "War on Terror." The memos were declassified by President Obama in 2009. One of the acceptable methods of "enhanced interrogation" described in the document involved the use of a confinement box. The prisoner would be confined inside this box with insects which would not harm them. The people in charge would know that the insect or the animal is innocuous but would leave the prisoner in the dark about it.
Magid's take on the interrogation technique is a room where the silhouette of a big hissing scorpion is projected wall. Every once and a while a pair of tweezers appears on screen to catch the animal by the tail.
Hi Jill! I''ve been following and admiring your work ever since i started blogging. So far i associated you with performative works in which you put yourself on the front line (Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy, Lobby 7 or Evidence Locker for example.) There's no visible trace of you in "A Reasonable Man in a Box". How do you decide whether you are going to be so visibly involved and present in a new work or when you are going to step back?
The Spy Project-- in which I am the main protagonist, finished just before I began the research that led to A Reasonable Man in a Box. The Spy Project involved the censorship of my novel by the Dutch secret service about my experience working with it. This redacted manuscript got me to thinking about other government-censored documents. Simultaneously I was researching torture as it is used by democracies, and how these practices are hidden from public view or scrutiny. Both paths led me to the Bybee Memo. As the document was already complete and therefore no longer open to change, I did not feel I could not enter into it as a protagonist. I found a different way to engage it.
I saw images and read descriptions of the installation at the Whitney Museum. The room where the film was screened seemed to be spacious, with a visible entrance/exit. From what i gathered it still made quite an impact on visitors. But why didn't you chose to take a more extreme road and show the video in a claustrophobic space or in one that looked more like a cell or in a room you couldn't exit until the end of the video?
I was not trying to make the viewer the tortured victim inside the box (i.e. gallery); rather, I wanted the viewer to consider the fundamental questions at the heart of the memo: what is reasonable; and what is a reasonable man in a box? The install is creepy, uncomfortable, and simple. The gallery becomes a shadow box: the shadow of the scorpion in the gallery is proportional to 'the stinging insect' in a confinement box. The shadow, as projected in both the Whitney and at Z33, is larger than life, as the rooms in which they are installed are of course bigger than a confinement box, which is only the size of a person sitting or standing. The fragment of the Bybee Memo discussing the enhanced interrogation practice of placing a man in a box with a stinging insect is also enlarged to scale. This enlargement is a kind of highlighting. Through it, the language has been made physical, enterable. Under these conditions, the memo and the questions it provokes can be examined and experienced on a personal level.
The installation was inspired by the "Bybee Memo". I had never heard of it before. In Europe we are familiar with stories about the kind of music played to drive prisoners crazy, rendition flights (which couldn't have been carried out without the complicity of European governments anyway), etc. But i think that the "Bybee Memo" is less well-know here. Is that the same in the USA? Did the installation play with something that the audience was familiar with or did it reveal the existence of that "Bybee Memo" as well?
There seem to be varying degrees of awareness about The Torture Memos (the common name for the Bybee memos), and the CIA's Enhanced Interrogation program. (Most notably in the press was the detailed practice of waterboarding, a type of enhanced interrogation practiced that simulates drowning.) Regardless, I felt 1. That it was an important document to (re)consider, and 2. That the installation was self-contained and therefore, did not rest upon a prior knowledge.
The practice of placing a man in a confinement box with an insect was detailed in the Bybee Memo that was released in 2009 when President Obama came to office. I'd heard of the memo before working on this project, but I'd never actually read it (It's 18 pages of legalese). I have not yet met more than a few people who have. When I in fact did read it, I was shocked-- more by its language and (absurdist) 'empirical' logic than even by the practices it invoked and legalized.
I'm interested in things that appear to be obvious or known, but aren't. I wanted to slow down the memo, focus and enlarge it, so that I could really look at it. The Bybee memo successfully changed the definition of torture in the United States for half a year, making acts that under the Geneva Convention were considered torture, legal.
A Reasonable Man is one of a series of projects that deal with secret services. In previous works you explored the Dutch secret service and engaged with a number of intimate relationships with members of the AIVD. The purpose of these meetings was "to collect personal data of the agents and to use this information to find the organization's face." So how were these people like? Is secret service all James Bond, exciting adventures and fearless clean-shaved men?
What I find most intriguing about my engagements with government institutions is that in entering them I find that they are far more fantastic than I could have imagined, and rarely resemble what I have seen in films. I never cease to be surprised as to what I find and what I cannot find, and how both of these things affect me. The people I have engaged with are as varied and complex inside the service as they are outside of it.
While working on A Reasonable Man, how much information did you manage to find about the "enhanced interrogation" of high-level Al Qaeda operatives? Did you contact anyone? Meet? Found other pieces of information? How close did you manage to get to the issue?
I focused on the memo and understanding it. I was also interested in the memo as to what was visible and what was missing due to redaction, and how my understanding of the former was influenced by the latter. The idea of the shadow-- of not being able to see the real but only its ghost, had much to do with this schism of visible/hidden.
When I had questions about the memo, I did have some people to turn to. I was in contact with an investigative reporter (who has both a military and intelligence background) that had been embedded with the US army in both Iraq and Afghanistan and had visited Abu Ghraib (He is a protagonist in my current project), and a PhD student at NYU studying torture, law and the media. I also read about torture and democracy in books and in the news. These contacts and this research helped me approach and re-approach the memo with a continually deeper understanding.
Are secret services a theme you're going to keep on exploring?
I never know where the work is going from project to project, as my process is organic. That being said, secret services will no doubt continue to interest me. They epitomize many of my interests (secrecy, intimacy, power, legal and coded language), and they are inexhaustible. I still find myself drawn to any story on intelligence matters in the paper. I'm still a little hurt the CIA has never contacted me; )
I'm curious about something else... What happened to the rhinestone-studded surveillance cameras you installed in Amsterdam?
They are still there, in full glamour (perhaps with a little city dirt and grime) on the headquarters of the police in Amsterdam. Check them out. They're permanent.