The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History

While I was in Cologne I had an e-mail from Ian Paul, an artist/theorist in San Francisco who works around issues of border violence and post-national human rights.  He wanted to include my essay “The Black Flag” in an online project on Guantanamo Bay:

“The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History is a project which hopes to bring together artists and writers from around the world to examine the current conditions of the Guantanamo Bay Prison as well as the possibility of its closure.  The project takes the form of a ‘speculative present’, and posits that the prison itself has been closed and has been replaced by a museum that features exhibitions and public programs which document/interrogate/examine the history of the prison. The project seeks to draw a transnational/transdisciplinary group together to critique the prison, and artists/theorists from 5 different countries have already agreed to participate.”

The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History  has now opened its virtual doors here.  Well worth a visit. (It’s also on Facebook).

Current Exhibitions includes a specially commissioned video montage by Adam Harms, “Performing the Torture List”, while  the Jumah al-Dossari Center for Critical Studies includes “The Black Flag” and contributions from Judith Butler, Martin Puchner, Harsha Walia (and more to come).

As I say, worth a visit.  As Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic blog notes, you can find the Museum on Google maps (really) –

– and he’s captivated by the conceit:

The imaginary museum draws its power from this resonance: If Gitmo exists because of one fiction, perhaps it can be closed by another? Or put another (augmented) way, germane to this digital project: if we change Gitmo’s website, can it actually change its physical and legal reality? That’s what the museum’s organizers are hoping. 

“The museum is the result of a collaboration between artists/theorists and is meant to act as both a critique of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility as well as assert the possibility of its closure,” Rene Guerne, one of its organizers, told me in an email. “In this sense, it is a ‘real’ museum, although I cannot promise that there is a physical building in Guantanamo Bay.”

Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare is also intrigued by the project, and published the artists’ opening statement:

On August 29th, 2012, the website of the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History was publicly launched. Designed by a group of artists from around the globe, the project creates a ‘speculative present’ in which the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facilities have been closed and replaced by an art museum whose purpose is to reflect on the history of the site.

The museum was listed as an official place on google maps ( ) and features original artworks from 6 different contemporary artists, as well as essays on Guantanamo Bay from leading contemporary scholars including Judith Butler and Derek Gregory.

Ian Alan Paul, an artist from San Francisco who coordinated and curated the project, states:

“The purpose of the project is both to explore the human rights abuses that occurred and continue to occur in Guantanamo Bay, but also to provide a space for radical imagination and potential openings and to insist that it is both possible and necessary to close the prison facility.”

The project was the result of large collaboration, with over 25 artists, writers and other volunteers contributing to the project in some way from Europe, North America and South America. Visitors to the museum were invited to plan their trip to Guantanamo Bay, become a member of the museum, apply to be an artist in residence, as well as read about the history of the museum itself.

There were over 3000 visits to the museum on the first day from 42 different countries.

In January 2009, interestingly, Florence Waters – anticipating Obama’s closure of the war prison (I wonder if she still does?) – proposed the creation of a (physical) museum on the site:

Transforming what will become an important site of memory into a museum could be an opportunity to present the facts from multiple points of view and give the subject transparency. Guantanamo detainees and guards would have the opportunity to present their stories alongside one another.

America has led the way in the post-modern world in erecting museums and sites of memory. They serve not only as burial sites of the past but also to affirm the symbolic order of a society, and head warnings to future generations…. Guantanamo Bay Museum would be a cultural and historical showcase dedicated to reinstating America’s most important values, liberty and justice, giving the detainees fair trial in the eyes of the outside world.

If only.  There are, incidentally, several other virtual Guantanamo Bays.  It was one of the founding sites for Mathias Judd and Christoph Wachter‘s  Zone Interdite, and Nonny de la Peña and Peggy Weil created a virtual Gitmo in Second Life (and, ironically, had to launch a campaign to keep Gitmo – their Gitmo – open!).

As the matchless Bryan Finoki put it on the much missed Subtopia, ‘the field guide to military urbanism’ (and still up even though Bryan stopped posting there early this year), referring to and then riffing off Zone Interdite,

 I love the idea of revealing these off-limit places this way, in a sense, de-restricting them in the process of remaking them. Altogether, rendering a de-restricted global fortress. 

What starts off as a few models of detention centers and prison camps could eventually turn into a full on game-world atlas of forbidden cities; a Borgesian labyrinth of illegal walkthroughs and blatantly trespassed border-zones, subverted checkpoints, oblique tunnel architecture, web tourists lost in the intersecting planes of bunker complexity and secret baseworld archipelago urbanism. It becomes a backlash taxonomy of exposed military installations. A virtual military-industrial-complex: “clandestinatopia.” Border fences and security walls give way now to a deterritorialized map of exploratory landscapes, overrun by mad gamers and tribes of sim-squatters preserving the world’s most closed and hidden places as endlessly wandering open space. Like a Subtopianinvoluntary park online, or a virtual spelunker’s paradise. 

So, yeah, I hope to see you there.

And as Bryan reminds us, there are many more black flags to fly over many more prisons and camps all over the world.

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