Simon Farid is a visual artist interested in the relationship between administrative identity and the body it purports to codify and represent. In practice, this means that the artist is 'squatting' identities that have been constructed by other people for surveillance, marketing or institutional purposes and then discarded.
Farid notoriously 'inhabited' the identity of an undercover police officer and the one of a politician who moonlighted as a web marketing guru.
The first identity was the one discarded by Mark Kennedy, an undercover Metropolitan Police officer who spent almost 8 years pretending to be an environmental activist called Mark Stone. To settle into the life of what the UK calls a "domestic extremist," Stone traveled under a fake passport and used a driving licence and bank cards bearing his borrowed name. But once Kennedy's cover was blown however, Stone was nothing but an empty shell. That's when Farid steps in. The artist reactivated Stone's email address, started collecting library and store cards, opened a bank account and amassed a number of other identity articles under the name of Mark Stone. By doing so, Farid effectively 'occupied' the identity that the police officer had abandoned.
His second action involved How To Corp, a "marketing" company fronted by a multi-millionaire called Michael Green. Green's scheme guaranteed his customers that they would earn '$20,000 in 20 days,' provided that they first shelled out hundreds of dollars to buy one of his 'Stinking Rich' (that was the name!) guides. It turned out that Rt. Hon Grant Shapps MP, a British Conservative Party politician, was actually hiding behind the get-rich-quick businessman.
In a performance bearing the irresistible title of Don't Hate The Rich - Be One Of Them!, Farid reconstructed HowToCorp's old website which had hastily been wiped out when Green's activities came to light, built a social media presence and organised performances in which he presented himself as marketing guru 'Michael Green'.
And because a lot of his artistic work evokes espionage practices, Farid also leads workshops in which participants are invited to impersonate a plain clothes police officer, adopt alternative identities or analyse MI5 job adverts to conjecture on their surveillance practices.
In investigating identity-generation processes, the artist demonstrates that identities are not ours. Identities can be easily hacked, stolen, and sold for peanuts. Much of Farid's work is thus thought-provoking and slightly disturbing. It is also often quite hilarious. There was no way i would have missed the opportunity to interview him:
Hi Simon! With your Identity Squatting practice, you look for pre-constructed unoccupied identities that you then infiltrate and reanimate. Could you take us through the steps that needs to be undertaken for a successful infiltration?
For my identity squatting work I set myself the task of occupying the found constructed identity to the extent it had previously existed. This varies depending on the type of identity I'm looking at. A discarded undercover police identity will have had an array of identity articles, while the alter ego of a Conservative MP may only have had an image, website and testimonies to its existence. A nice current example I'm looking at could be Sarah and Zac, fictions created and controlled by an, as yet, anonymous DWP worker. A squatting of Sarah may only need use of an image and DWP endorsement. Sarah and Zac turning up to claim sickness benefit after all might be fun...
After identifying the parameters of the target 'identity', much of this process is just about gathering information. This can be pretty lo-fi, making use of agencies and resources that have their roots in times past; Electoral Registers at public libraries, the Land Registry, General Register Office etc. There is then a degree of blagging required to gain a foothold in the identity.
After this initial jump, piecing together a discarded identity becomes easier as one progresses. The more information and testimonies one collects, the easier it is to leverage this knowledge to acquire more. Through these processes I have come to see institutional identity increasingly as knowledge; have enough knowledge about someone and systems will begin to understand you as that someone.
With the more detailed squattings, a degree of luck is required. This is of course made much easier by focusing on identities that have spent some time in the public eye.
What are the biggest challenges you usually encounter when 'resetting' an identity?
The biggest challenge is an ethical one. With politically motivated work like this, the unoccupied constructed identities tend to have previously been used for nefarious purposes (to put it lightly). When putting such identities back together, I am very conscious of their re-appearance being directed at the authority that initially constructed them, rather than their victims. This means careful consideration at every step of the process to re-open these entities only in an institutional sense, rather than a social one. In our increasingly interconnected world, this can be difficult.
Can you really get a bank card without showing a passport or ID card in the UK?
What does it feel like to squat another identity? To walk around town under another name?
For me this is far more interesting than the technical and procedural aspects of acquiring use of a shell identity - of course there are many fraudsters doing this first part!
Walking around a city while registering under another identity is a surprisingly affecting experience. It begins with an initial feeling of illicitness, the excitement of doing something one is not supposed to. But past this, there is a deeper feeling of liberation. Doing this has really highlighted for me the number of identity checks one is subject to all the time and how affecting these can be; a constant series of re-confirmations, like Simon Farid is always in question. To trick these systems (maybe not all of them, but some, sometimes) really does feel like a weight off one's shoulders.
The thing I can best liken it to is my experience of the London riots in summer 2011. As Hackney burned, I walked the streets alone to stay at a friend's flat in Dalston. Walking through the wild streets, streets that felt abandoned by authority, was scary yes, but also kind of euphoric. Shaking off Simon Farid feels a bit like this, a riot of one.
Does it affect your behavior in any way?
This is quite funny - outwardly I think one would struggle to notice any difference in my behavior at all. I was still sitting in coffee shops, buying things, looking. These identity shells could be tools to radically alter one's actions, but for my purposes here, for these identities to re-emerge in different institutional systems, sipping frappe lattes felt like a revolution. I am very interested in these invisible subversions that outwardly look like nothing, but are in some respects quite challenging. In the end, does this mean something?
Or your own sense of identity (as Simon Farid)?
One thing I have noticed when looking back at these experiences was a lack of engagement with the 'who' of my new shell identity. In practice, these new institutional identities acted as an anonymising tool, rather than any feeling that I had actually lost Simon Farid and emerged as this new person - hence the feeling of illicitness, rather than comfort.
Maybe this would be different in a more prolonged experience? The longest I operated as another was a few days. There may also be an element of not identifying with the shell identities because these identities are not sympathetic characters - for example, I have no desire to be Michael Green!
These are open questions my work is still dealing with.
Operating as 'other people' that actually never really existed. Is there any law against that? What happens if you get caught?
Yes the law is always a worry, and while I don't feel like I ever cross it, there are risks associated with pushing up against the boundaries, especially where precedent is not so clear.
Looking at powerful institutions and figures can sometimes offer a level of insurance against pushback though. Security services have a rule to 'never confirm or deny' undercover identities - this can work in one's favour when working with these identities. Similarly, while one may risk libel laws through operating as someone else, it would usually be in the claimant's favour to leave me alone - that way my work only appears in high-end art blogs rather than the Guardian. Working with these tensions and obstructive rules can be a fruitful tactic.
Nonetheless, I have to be very careful of my security, and speaking openly about this work here still feels a little uncomfortable.
Why did you start squatting identities? Did you dream of being Cindy Crawford when you were young (i was!), for example?
Trying to be other people is a big part of childhood play of course - I remember often being Duncan Ferguson while playing in the park, though 'cops and robbers' may be more instructive here!
More concretely, this work emerged out of an interest in role-play and performativity in everyday life. I am very interested in the hundreds of small performances we present each day in different institutional and social situations. Investigating figures that had taken these performances to an extreme, codified level seemed like a logical next step.
Powerful people and institutions are very adept at being different people at different times. An aspect of this work is to explore whether such tactics can be useful from below too.
The workshop centred on looking at an MI5 job advert for a 'Mobile Surveillance Officer'. These adverts are publicly viewable here: https://recruitmentservices.applicationtrack.com/vx/lang-en-GB/mobile-0/appcentre-a18/candidate/jobboard/vacancy/1.
The adverts themselves are really interesting documents. Of course, they can't be too revealing - this is MI5! And yet, they still need to offer some kind of indication of the job on offer. The result is a strangely opaque document, but one that may offer some small insight into a very secretive organisation.
In the workshop the participants and I, after some discussions about the types of surveillance we partake in, analysed an MI5 job advert to see if we could identify any aspects of the job that might be worth trying out. I had purposely selected the Mobile Surveillance Officer advert for the workshop as this looks like a very interesting, following-based job, unlike most of the jobs that, as you can see, are computer-based.
Through this process we were able to develop a kind of game based on following apparent members of the public, live-reporting our positions using compass points and following coded directions. The outcome was something that approached a mindfulness exercise, looking closely at one's body in relation to space and time, while heightening awareness of the range of surveillances one's body is subjected to in urban spaces.
Do you realise that MI5 should probably hire you?
I assume you assume I don't already work for MI5? I am within the right height restrictions (males need to be shorter than 6'1) and suitably untattooed.
All their adverts warn of a pretty in depth background check though. I hope I wouldn't pass it!
With this question you do hit upon an important question about artist-infiltrators. It is something we discuss in all my workshops; I would be surprised if they have never been attended by a security worker keeping an eye on things. We have seen evidence of CIA involvement in Abstract Expressionism. I expect the arts are a heavily monitored, if not infiltrated, area. Is there anyone you suspect?
No one so far but from now on i'll be more vigilant.
Working in these areas has meant I have had to be very conscious of online security at times. Post-Snowden, I think it has become apparent that communicating online is never reliably safe, secure and secret. As such, I would like to communicate on the internet as little as possible - but obviously if I want funding and interviews like this one, I have to be relatively open and visible online (this is one of the ways they get you, this false choice). So for me it has become more a matter of selection; if I ever want to communicate securely I don't do it online. Otherwise, hi GCHQ!
I laughed when i read the title of one of your workshops: How To Impersonate A Plain Clothes Police Officer. Is that really so hard to do?
Well this workshop did start as a kind of one-line joke, the committing of a crime (impersonating a police officer) that was so invisible as to be non-action; look around you, maybe everyone is impersonating PCPOs?
But the more I thought about plain-clothes surveillance, the more I began to see nuance. Covert surveillance workers have many potential identifying signs; operating in twos, being more observant than your average commuter, not hurrying to a destination etc.
So this workshop developed more into a 'How To Spot Covert Surveillance Workers' workshop. And, as with a lot of my work, I find the best way to learn something is to try it out for oneself.
What's next? Any upcoming work, exhibition, workshop or research you'd like to share with us?
Next up for me is a workshop for Live Art Development Agency's DIY12 called Nothing To See Here. In this workshop I'll be pulling together a lot of these undercover experiments to look more directly at whether covert tactics can form the basis of a meaningful performance practice.
Otherwise, on the back of the MI5 Mobile Surveillance Officer workshop I've started a project trying to map out the departmental structure of MI5 using the job adverts. In many of the adverts they mention other job titles that the advertised job works with/under/over. By looking at a large number of these adverts, I hope to be able to eventually map out the whole structure of MI5 and get a better sense of the organisation's scale. I've written about the beginnings of this process here - http://simonfaridblog.tumblr.com.
Thee artist will also participate to the Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival with Nothing To See Here, a workshop that will explore what arts performers can learn from covert and surveillance workers.
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 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:
Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars, by investigative journalist Chris Woods.
Publisher Oxford University Press writes: In Sudden Justice, award-winning investigative journalist Chris Woods explores the secretive history of the United States' use of armed drones and their key role not only on today's battlefields, but also in a covert targeted killing project that has led to the deaths of thousands. The CIA nurtured and developed drones before the War on Terror ever began, seeking a platform from which it could monitor its targets and act lethally and instantly on the intelligence it gathered. Since then, remotely piloted aircraft have played a critical role in America's global counter-terrorism operations and have been deployed to devastating effect in conventional wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Drone crews, analysts, intelligence officials and military commanders all speak frankly to the author about how armed drones revolutionized warfare--and the unexpected costs to some of those involved.
Sudden Justice is probably the most talked about drone book of the year. It is also the most detailed, the most thorough study of the evolution of weaponised drone warfare you can find. The author, Chris Woods, is an investigative journalist who specializes in conflict and national security issues. He was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize for his investigations into covert U.S. drone strikes with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He also contributes to The Guardian.
In preparation to this book and as part of his work as a journalist, Woods has interviewed former drone operators and mission controllers, retired intelligence commanders, senior Air Force officials and psychologists, US Navy veterans, diplomats, parents of young people killed during the strikes, survivors of attacks, etc. In short, anyone who had any (voluntary or not) role to play in this new form of asymmetrical warfare is bringing their own view about the issue.
The use of weaponized drones outside of the battlefields is one of the most worrying characteristics of our times. At the time Woods was writing the book, drones had already killed 3000 people. Some of them civilians, not militants. The author reminds us, for example, that when Obama's presidency was just 72h old, he had already authorized a secret action that accidentally killed 14 civilians.
By acting as judge, jury and executioner, the U.S. is not only setting a worrying template for the future of warfare, its is also antagonizing the populations targeted (drone strikes have apparently become a recruiting tool and a motivator for jihadists), creating a new generation of operators so stressed that psychologists still have to invent a word that would describe their condition, and alienating allied countries that believe (rightly) that the targeted killing practice is illegal.
There's no sign of a slowdown. Since 2010, the US Air Force has been training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. And the Obama administration intends to keep on eschewing any request for transparency and accountability.
Previously: Politics and Practices of Secrecy (part 1).
And this is part 2 of the notes i took during the Politics and Practices of Secrecy symposium which took place at King's College in London last month. My reports do not follow the schedule of the panels, nor do they cover all the talks. I'm just cherry picking the more interesting moments of the day. Part 1 focused on the art projects. This post is less uniform in its theme. Two of the presentations i enjoyed covered the representation of intelligence agencies in films and tv fiction. Another was about the influence that new forms of surveillance are having on the rise of home-grown ('home' being the U.S.A., the symposium was organised by the Institute of North American Studies) white extremist groups. And a fourth talk wondered if transparency could fix our democracy.
Let's start with Timothy Melley, Professor Affiliate of American Studies at Miami University and author of The Covert Sphere. Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State and of Empire of Conspiracy. The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America.
In his talk, 'The Democratic Security State: Operating Between Secrecy and Publicity', Melley listed up a few numbers:
This secret world costs 8 billion dollars per year.
50,000 intelligence reports are written each year. Their volume is so large that most are never read.
The intelligence hides out in the open:
The complexity of this system defies description Lt Gen. (Ret.) John R. Vines
The U.S. covert state is a growing industry. It handles a huge number of secrets all over the country. It relies on democratic structures but acts like a shadow state that has its own territory and laws. It also support some film makers by lending helicopters needed for films that publicize the covert world. The reason for that is that the secret programme needs public approval.
What we know about the CIA comes from leaks but also from fiction. Our screens are awash with what Melley calls 'terror melodrama." One of his presentations slides even listed those films. Covert CIA operations are celebrated in books, films, games, tv series, etc. Earlier this year, the CIA, pleased with the way it is portrayed in "Homeland", invited the show's cast and producers to visit its headquarters in Virginia and have a discussion. Another example is when Michelle Obama presented the 2013 Best Picture award to Ben Affleck's Argo, a film adapted from CIA operative Tony Mendez's book The Master of Disguise and the 2007 Wired article The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.
Keeping with the spy in entertainment theme, Matt Potolsky, Professor of English at University of Utah, looked at the representation of the NSA on tv and in cinema.
Fiction and films are often the only way the public can picture and judge for themselves the activities of intelligence agencies. FBI, KGB, CIA have often been presented in films. How about the NSA? According to Potolsky, the NSA never turned into real fictional tropes.
There have been more recent attempts to depict the activity of the massive NSA:
Mark Fenster, Professor at the Levin College of Law (University of Florida) and author of the book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. His talk was titled 'Secrecy and the Hypothetical State Archive.'
Fenster started by reminding us of a whistleblower of the early 1970s. Daniel Ellsberg was employed by the RAND Corporation when he not only read classified documents he wasn't supposed to open but also photocopied and released them to The New York Times and other newspapers. The Pentagon Papers, officially titled United States - Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, were top-secret documents that charted the US' political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
There is now a trust in 'transparency' but, Fenster asks, Can transparency fix our democracy? Obama was elected to end Bush's secrecy. But the secrecy is now as deep as ever. If not deeper.
But Fenster says, information leaks. Sometimes from the top, sometimes from the bottom. Sometimes drop by drop, sometimes it flows.
It is particularly tricky to control State information. If you think about the model of communication Sender-Message-Receiver, the Sender would be the State, the Message is state information and the Receiver is the public.
The state is organizationally complex, it is spatially deployed, it is enclosed in buildings, offices. In truth, it is a mess that is difficult to keep shut.
State information is difficult to perceive clearly, it is a vast amount of information, it is hard to archive and to control its release. Sometimes state information can leak by mistake.
The public is made of individuals and they will have their own interpretation of any information released.
In brief, information cannot be controlled, on any level.
According to Fenster, the revelation of a secret often offers marginal gains. It certainly doesn't lead necessarily to a reformed democracy.
Another talk i found very informative was the one by Hugh Urban, professor of religious studies at Ohio State University and author of The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion
His talk, 'The Silent Brotherhood: Secrecy, Violence, and Surveillance from the Brüder Schweigen to the War on Terror' looked at the white males' belief that they are the victims of racial oppression. In their view, white males are persecuted by women, Black people, Muslims, Jews, etc. That's what Urban calls the "white man falling" syndrome.
Brüder Schweigen or Silent Brotherhood, was a white nationalist revolutionary organization active in the United States between September 1983 and December 1984. Its founder Robert Jay Mathews wanted to create an elite vanguard of Aryan warriors to save the white race. The Silent Brotherhood group was responsible for a number of violent crimes: robberies, bombings, murders, counterfeiting operations, etc.
Nowadays, much of the anti-terrorist attention focuses on radical Islam, neglecting home-grown white extremist groups. Figures show that the number of patriot groups in the U.S. is growing very rapidly. The reasons for that are many: bad economic conditions, black president but also the rise of surveillance which augments these people's distrust of the FBI, NSA and other governmental agents.
Urban's conclusions were that:
1. Secrecy is both the explanation and the radical solution for the 'white man falling' syndrome.
2. New forms of surveillance play into, feed and reinforce the narratives of such radical groups.
Politics and Practices of Secrecy was organized by the Institute of North American Studies at King's College London, on 14-15 May, 2015.
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)