Hidden in plane sight

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Just out: Negative Publicity: artefacts of extraordinary rendition by Edmund Clark and Crofton Black, with an essay by Eyal Weizman:

British photographer Edmund Clark and counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black have assembled photographs and documents that confront the nature of contemporary warfare and the invisible mechanisms of state control. From George W. Bush’s 2001 declaration of the “war on terror” until 2008, an unknown number of people disappeared into a network of secret prisons organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency—transfers without legal process known as extraordinary renditions. No public records were kept as detainees were shuttled all over the globe. Some were eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay or released without charge, while others remain unaccounted for.

The paper trail assembled in this volume shows these activities via the weak points of business accountability: invoices, documents of incorporation, and billing reconciliations produced by the small-town American businesses enlisted in detainee transportation. Clark has traveled worldwide to photograph former detention sites, detainees’ homes, and government locations. He and Black recreate the network that links CIA “black sites,” and evoke ideas of opacity, surface, and testimony in relation to this process—a system hidden in plain sight. Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition, copublished with the Magnum Foundation, its creation supported by Magnum Foundation’s Emergency Fund, raises fundamental questions about the accountability and complicity of our governments, and the erosion of our most basic civil rights.

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Here is how the always absorbing We make money not art describes the project:

Photographer Edmund Clark spent 4 years spent hunting for sites of extraordinary rendition and photographing any location associated with the programme. None of the photo printed in the book shows any clear evidence of torture, kidnapping or any other human right abuse. There is nothing spectacular to witness here, just mundane places such as the entrance to a Libyan intelligence service detention facility, the corridors connecting cells to interrogation rooms, anonymous streets or the bedroom of the son of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site. Clark calls the making of these photographs “an act of testimony.”

However, the images start to bear a chilling significance when coupled with the paper trail and extracts of interview patiently compiled by Crofton Black, an investigative journalist whose research focuses on extraordinary rendition and black site cases. Over the course of his inquiry, Black has amassed incriminating documents that range from satellite maps to landing records, from border guard patrol logs to testimonies of people tortured in CIA ‘black sites’, from invoices to CIA documents released after freedom of information act litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union. He managed to give them meaning by organizing them into engrossing episodes that give a glimpse of the building and unraveling of the extraordinary rendition network.

And VICE has an interview with the authors here.  Here is their description of the origins of the project:

Edmund Clark: In 2011, while I was working on a body of work on Guantanamo Bay, I was in contact with Clive Stafford Smith at Reprieve and found out that they were doing work on extraordinary rendition. I met Crofton and discovered that was what he was also researching. I became interested in doing something on extraordinary rendition as a progression of my work on Guantanamo Bay.
Crofton Black: When he first came to me I’d been out in Lithuania, looking at this weird site—a warehouse that had been built in the woods in the middle of nowhere, on the site of a former riding school. I was building a court case around it, so when [Clark] got in touch I said, ‘Oh, you should go to Lithuania and take some photos of this strange, peculiar place.’ Which he did. After that we started formulating a more complex and ambitious scheme of trying to document the black-site network through documents, images, and prose. We spent a long time working out how to fit it all together.

Former CIA Black Site, Lithuania

Former CIA Black Site, Lithuania

Crofton explains why he was drawn to the visual:

I was aware that I had all this material, that there were remarkable stories and images and documents that were bizarre, and spoke beyond what was immediately visible in them. I knew I wanted to do something with it that was less dry than legal cases, which are quite dull. There was an opportunity to do something that spoke to a different, and bigger, audience.

And they both emphasise the banality of bureaucracy in the service of violence (an argument that resonates with what – in relation to targeting for nuclear war – Henry Nash called ‘the bureaucratization of homicide’, which I discuss here):

Black: Obviously, post-Hannah Arendt, “the banality of evil” has become a standardized phrase. For me, one of the places you see it most strongly is in bureaucracy: in these documents, in the way they are written, the way certain forms of interrogation are described, or flight routes are detailed. I wanted to make that point. None of these things would be possible without a complex bureaucratic system enabling them. In theory, the idea of a bureaucracy is that everything has its place and gets done by the right person. But in practice it often means that no one is responsible for anything. And that’s what we found in Eastern Europe—no one was responsible. There’s no one in Poland or Lithuania who is responsible for any of this stuff!
Clark: That’s something we wanted to bring out: the ordinariness, the banality of it all. When she spoke of the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt was talking about the bureaucracy of National Socialism. Here, we are talking about a mosaic of small companies—small to medium enterprises—earning a buck.

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Note the glorious correction above.

And one final comment about the geography of this sprawling bureaucracy which explains why my title is not a mis-spelling:

Black: Most of the paperwork in the book is from other entities or other countries [than the US]. If they wanted to have an entirely secret prison system, they shouldn’t have invented one that involved flying prisoners all over the world. You simply can’t fly a plane from A to B without leaving a gigantic paper trail. You just can’t, otherwise planes would be bumping into each other. They could have just held their 119 prisoners in Afghanistan and we would probably have found it an awful lot more difficult to find out about it. But the peculiarities of how they wanted—or, at times, were forced to—use different locations… that made it detectable.

All of this, of course, parallels Trevor Paglen‘s work in interesting and complementary ways: see my post here, which connects Trevor’s project to Crofton’s work on ‘the boom and bust of the CIA’s torture sites‘ and his involvement in the Rendition Project.

One thought on “Hidden in plane sight

  1. Pingback: Hidden in plane sight | things I've read or intend to

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