Art in another age of mechanical destruction

Paglen (Untitled, Predators, Indian Springs)

Anthony Downey‘s beautifully illustrated and generously hyperlinked essay on The legacy of the war on terror for Tate Etc (34) (2015) is here.

For centuries artists have both responded to and reflected on political actions and events that shape society. Now they have risen to the challenge of questioning the moral ambiguity and culpability of governments waging the war on terror, whose methods may, according to this writer, have done more to weaken democracy than any terrorist.

The essay considers the art works of Trevor Paglen (see his Untitled, Predators, Indian Springs, above) Christoph Büchel and Gianni Motti, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Gregor Schneider, (see his Passageway No 1 from White Torture below), Wafaa Bilal, Coco Fusco, Hasan Elahi and Gerhard Richter.

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If you know Anthony’s previous work (for example his essay on ‘Exemplary subjects: Camps and the politics of representation’), or his Art and Politics now (2014), you will not be surprised to find that – as the image above suggests – there’s much in this essay about Guantanamo — but also much more besides.

Here is the Introduction:

In the months after the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 a significant number of artists and cultural practitioners compared the events, in all their visual impact and operatic pitching of good against evil, with a work of art. These comments were dismissed at the time as reactionary and in bad taste, but they did reveal an imminent desire to develop a degree of distance – be it aesthetic or otherwise – from the emotive, ‘spectacular’ and brutal realities that unfolded on that fateful day. In the months and years that followed, under the political logic of a so-called war on terror, we saw yet another unprecedented attack, this time on the legal systems protecting basic civil rights. The war on terror segued, in short order, into an assault on human rights. For some, terrorism has become the single biggest challenge facing democratically elected governments worldwide. For others, it is the political reaction to it that has done more to weaken democracy than any act of terror.

Executed as it was in the name of justice, the war on terror has resulted in a nominal state of emergency being declared across North America and Europe. Since 2001 we have witnessed the repeated suspension of due legal process, the revocation of constitutional law, the institutionalisation of torture, the withdrawal of civil rights, the deployment of mass surveillance, the routine collection of information on innocent citizens and arbitrary detention without trial for countless people worldwide.

Contemporary artists, in examining the ambiguity of this state of affairs, often create narratives and forms of speculative visual rhetoric that expose the anxieties surrounding these acts.

Joining the dots…

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Rendition Project have just published their first quarterly report on 119 people secretly detained and tortured by the CIA as part of the ‘war on/of terror’.

You can download the brief report as a pdf here, but the infographic below summarises the key findings (and don’t let its stark simplicity fool anyone about the detailed research that went into its production: this is difficult work).

what-we-know

Many commentators have noted that the Obama administration’s determination to end the CIA’s rendition program coincided with a decision to ramp up its covert program of targeted killing.  The preference for ‘kill’ over ‘capture’ is complicated by the living death suffered by many of those who were imprisoned in the carceral archipelago of black sites and prisons – and we should surely welcome the determination to widen the focus beyond Guantanamo to include, notably, Bagram.

But the apparent distinction between the two programs becomes even more blurred once you realise that many of the officials in charge of the one were switched to the other.  According to Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo writing in the New York Times:

‘Perhaps no single C.I.A. officer has been more central to the effort than Michael D’Andrea, a gaunt, chain-smoking convert to Islam who was chief of operations during the birth of the agency’s detention and interrogation program and then, as head of the C.I.A. Counterterrorism Center, became an architect of the targeted killing program. Until last month, when Mr. D’Andrea was quietly shifted to another job, he presided over the growth of C.I.A. drone operations and hundreds of strikes in Pakistan and Yemen during nine years in the position…

‘Mr. D’Andrea was a senior official in the Counterterrorism Center when the agency opened the Salt Pit, a notorious facility in Afghanistan where prisoners were tortured. His counterterrorism officers oversaw the interrogation and waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. His actions are described in the withering Senate Intelligence Committee report about torture that was released late last year, although he was not identified publicly.’

(On the Times‘ decision to name names, see Jack Goldsmith‘s interview with Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the Times).

But the real sting in the tail comes when Mazetti and Apuzzo also note:

‘The confidence [Senator Dianne] Feinstein and other Democrats express about the drone program, which by most accounts has been effective in killing hundreds of Qaeda operatives and members of other militant groups over the years, stands in sharp contrast to the criticism among lawmakers of the now defunct C.I.A. program to capture and interrogate Qaeda suspects in secret prisons.

‘When Ms. Feinstein was asked in a meeting with reporters in 2013 why she was so sure she was getting the truth about the drone program while she accused the C.I.A. of lying to her about torture, she seemed surprised.

‘“That’s a good question, actually,” she said.’

Torture and raison d’état

statue-of-liberty-waterboardingMelanie Richter-Montpetit has an essay at The disorder of things, ‘Why Torture When Torture Does Not Work? Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and the Persistence of White Terror‘, which repays careful reading.

[L]ocating the findings of the Senate Torture Report within the racial-sexual grammars of chattel slavery and its afterlife opens up our analyses beyond explanatory and moral frameworks such as failed intelligence-gathering, “state of exception” or “human rights abuses” towards a more comprehensive understanding of seemingly illiberal security practices in the War on Terror. This genealogy indicates the fundamental role and value of force for the consolidation of the sovereign authority of the U.S. settler imperial formation ‘at home’ and abroad, and suggests the stubborn persistence of certain racial-sexual grammars of legitimate violence and suffering in this age of “post-racial triumph.” For “[w]ithout the capacity to inspire terror, whiteness no longer signifies the right to dominate.”

The immediate provocation for her essay, which is rooted in her recent York PhD thesis Beyond the Erotics of Orientalism: Homeland Security, Liberal War and the Pacification of the Global Frontier, was the Senate Torture Report (see my earlier post on ‘Tortured geographies’ here).

GTMO Statue of LibertyAt Just Security Jameel Jaffer has a brief, important post about the release of these documents – and, crucially, the Obama administration’s attempt to prevent the publication of photographs documenting the abuse of detainees at US military facilities – that loops back to the debate over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.  He argues that it is at the very least ironic that some of the same voices calling for the freedom to publish cartoons whatever their consequences are now demanding the suppression of other images ‘because of the possibility that their release will provoke violence’…

And speaking of violence and torture in the global war prison, Mohamedou Ould Slahi‘s Guantanamo Diary, which is being serialised in the Guardian and was published in book form earlier this week, provides more evidence of its routinised, banalised practice.

Slahi Unclassified Manuscript scan

Slahi is still incarcerated at Guantanamo even though he was approved for release in 2010.  Spencer Ackerman reports:

Slahi’s manuscript was subjected to more than 2,500 redactions before declassification, ostensibly to protect classified information, but with the effect of preventing readers from learning the full story of his ordeal. The book is being published with all the censor’s marks in place, and the publishers – Canongate in the UK and Little, Brown in the US – hope they will be able to publish an uncensored edition when Slahi is eventually released.

The full manuscript is available here.  You can find Tim Stanley‘s review at the Telegraph here (‘a necessary book’ that ‘reminds us that the evil we’re fighting can be found in ourselves as well as in our enemies’), Mark Danner‘s extended review at the New York Times here (‘Slahi’s memoirs are filled with numbingly absurd exchanges that could have been lifted whole cloth from “The Trial”’), and Deborah Perlstein‘s review at the Washington Post here (‘Slahi’s descriptions of … torture are the book’s most compelling, and difficult, passages [and] … are closely consistent with descriptions in official investigations of the treatment of other U.S.-held detainees’.)

In the face of these horrors, it’s necessary to consider this blunt reminder from Peter Beinart:

Torture, declared President Obama … in response to the newly released Senate report on CIA interrogation, is “contrary to who we are.” Maine Senator Angus King added that, “This is not America. This is not who we are.” According to Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, “We are better than this.”

No, actually, we’re not. There’s something bizarre about responding to a 600-page document detailing systematic U.S. government torture by declaring that the real America—the one with good values—does not torture. It’s exoneration masquerading as outrage. Imagine someone beating you up and then, when confronted with the evidence, declaring that “I’m not really like that” or “that wasn’t the real me.” Your response is likely to be some variant of: “It sure as hell seemed like you when your fist was slamming into my nose.” A country, like a person, is what it does.

And in the face of evasion and denial – and redaction and suppression – here is Chase Madar from February’s Bookforum:

Though the [Senate] report has blacked out the names of the torturers, refusing even to use pseudonyms, torture watchers have been able to identify one of the agents, a model for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. Her record of malfeasance, misrepresentation, incompetence, and gratuitous participation in waterboarding was blisteringly detailed by NBC News and [Jane Mayer at] the New Yorker, though neither outlet would name her. But far from being sanctioned or even demoted, she has risen to the civilian-rank equivalent of general inside the CIA. She has, unbelievably, served as the recent head of the agency’s “global jihad unit.”

It’s tempting to compare this to Latin American–style police impunity, but that would be unfair to the societies that have punished at least some of the abuses of their past dictatorships. In the same week that the SSCI released its report, Brazil published its own investigation into state torture of political dissidents under its long dictatorship. Indeed, one of that torture regime’s victims, Dilma Rousseff, is now the head of state. Latin American nations have been chipping away at, or simply ignoring, the amnesty deals made with the authoritarian rulers of the ’70s and ’80s and have brought many of their torturers to justice.

The United States would face a very different reckoning with its record of torture, should it elect to take a genuine, closer look at it. In our case, the impact of torture has largely been muffled by the military adventurism that has underwritten it…

Tortured geographies

Guantanamo 'Suicides' In what now seems another life, I wrote about US torture during the early years of the “war on terror”, in ‘The Black Flag’ (which was specifically about Guantanamo, and which opened with three ‘suicides’ that we now have good reason to believe were anything but: see here and here) and ‘Vanishing Points’ (which extended the argument to Abu Ghraib and the archipelago of black sites like the ‘Salt Pit’ [shown below] within the global war prison).  Both are available in their original forms under the DOWNLOADS tab, and form part of the material I’ve been working with for a new essay to be included in The everywhere war.

Salt Pit

cia-report-p1-normalNow I’m digesting the Executive Summary that has been released by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, but you can download the original (redacted) summary here, ‘Other Views’ here, and the Minority View from the Republicans – and please God it remains a minority view – here.

The New York Times‘ coverage is here, the Washington Post‘s here, and the Guardian‘s here.

In the meantime, some of the best work on the dispersed geography of this vast apparatus was carried out by Trevor Paglen (see my updated discussion here).

map_paglen_emerson_r1_c1

Readers of his Blank spaces on the map will know of Trevor’s own attempt to see the ‘Salt Pit’ for himself, on the ground rather than from the air, and the images that result from this dimension of his work make clear – in plain sight, so to speak – their constitutive difficulties: see, for example, Jonah Weiner‘s essay on his work, ‘Prying eyes’, that appeared in the New Yorker here.

But here is part of what Trevor had to say about the mappings like the one above involved in his Torture Taxi and Terminal Air projects in An Atlas of Radical Cartography:

I’ve actually tried to stay away from cartography and “mapping” as much as possible in my work. The “God’s eye” view implicit in much cartography is usually not helpful in terms of describing everyday life, nor in describing the qualities of the relationships that cartography depicts. Because of what cartography cannot represent… it becomes pretty clear why it (and the forms of power that the cartographic viewpoint suggests) have traditionally been such powerful instruments of both colonialism and the contemporary geopolitical ordering of the world (which of course very much comes out of colonialism)…

I tend to be far more attracted to “on the ground” viewpoints and to embrace their fragmentedness and incompleteness. This project, as well as the “Terminal Air” project with the Institute for Applied Autonomy, are of course notable exceptions. With both of these projects that use the cartographic viewpoint, I was interested in taking what might seem like a familiar image and trying to and make it strange – trying to capture the feeling I had when I first started following CIA flights: it was the constant domestic flights to places like Tulsa, Las Vegas, Fresno, Fort Lauderdale and such that made a big impression on me. In working with John Emerson and the IAA, I insisted that we try to show a continuum between the domestic landscape and the landscape “somewhere else.” Neither of these projects are in my view not particularly useful as didactic tools but are instead useful in helping to see the point that we talked about above: that the “darkest” spaces of the war on terror blur into the everyday landscapes here “at home” and are in many way mutually constitutive. In this sense, they’re … images rather than analytic tools.

As I’ve noted before, this is part of the ‘capture’ side of the US kill-capture apparatus that uses drones (and often Special Forces) for the ‘kill’.  I say ‘US’, but it’s clear – not least from the map above – that a network of other states that radiates far beyond the other ‘Five Eyes‘ which have been so deeply involved in providing geospatial intelligence for drone strikes (and more) has been complicit in the production and concealment of this global archipelago of torture.

But there’s an irony in all this: even as the Obama administration ramped up drone strikes – and after a lull they have been resumed with a vengeance in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas – it was also condemning torture and, last month, committed the United States to acknowledging the extraterritorial reach of the Convention Against Torture (see Sarah Cleveland at Just Security here and Ryan Goodman and Eric Messenger here).  The refusal of the Bush administration to do so was a central part of the argument about legal geographies that I developed in both ‘The Black Flag’ and ‘Vanishing Points’.

So now we have an administration that recognises extra-territoriality to proscribe torture – and insists on it (or its own version of extra-territoriality) to authorise targeted killing.

Death, drones and Camp Delta

When I wrote ‘The Black Flag’ (DOWNLOADS tab), exploring the idea of Guantanamo Bay as a space of exception, three young men had just committed suicide in the war prison.  This is how I started:

In the early morning of 10 June 2006 three prisoners held at the military detention facility at the US Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, two from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen, were found dead in their cells. Although the three men had been detained without trial for several years and none of them had court cases or military commissions pending (none of them had even been charged), the commander of the prison dismissed their suicides as ‘not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us’. Although the three men had been on repeated hunger strikes which ended when they were strapped into restraint chairs and force- fed by nasal tubes, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy described their deaths as ‘a Public Relations move to draw attention’ – to what, she did not say – and complained that since detainees had access to lawyers, received mail and had the ability to write to families, ‘it was hard to see why the men had not protested about their situation’. Although by presidential decree prisoners at Guantánamo are subject to indefinite detention and coercive interrogation while they are alive, when President George W. Bush learned of the three deaths he reportedly stressed the importance of treating their dead bodies ‘in a humane and culturally sensitive manner’. 

KAISER Tod in Camp Delta

After ‘The Black Flag’ was published, I read a remarkable account of the despair and desperation of these three men by Mario Kaiser.  His original essay has now been updated and translated into English as ‘Death in Camp Delta‘ at Guernica.  Here is an extract:

At some point during their captivity, these three men began to retreat. They no longer touched the food the guards pushed through the holes in the doors of their cells. Their bodies dwindled. Their lives hung on thin yellow tubes shoved down their nostrils each morning to let a nutrient fluid drip into their stomachs. In their minds, nothing changed. They didn’t want to stay, and one night, on June 9, 2006, they decided to leave Guantánamo. They climbed on top of the sinks in their cells and hanged themselves.

In the Pentagon’s view, the men hanging from the walls of their cells were assassins whose suicides were attacks on America. The Pentagon struck back.

The story of the lives and deaths of these prisoners is an odyssey of three young men who left for Afghanistan and ended up in Cuba. It is the story of a war against a terror that is difficult to define, a war that the United States government wages even in the cells of its prisoners. It is about a place, Camp Delta, that exposes the asymmetry of this war, and it leads to the front lines—and the American lawyers standing between them, struggling to defend presumed enemies of their country. It is the story of the internal and external battle over Guantánamo.

Nobody but the dead knows the whole truth. But there are places where the story can be pieced together. There are files and letters, people who distinctly remember these prisoners. There are places where the strands of this story intersect. A law firm in Washington. A mosque in London. A living room in North Carolina. A cell in Guantánamo.

This is on my mind today for three reasons.  The first is that Kaiser describes himself as

‘a writer who combines in-depth reporting with literary storytelling. Taking on issues of social transformation and human rights, Kaiser’s stories are based on long-term immersion in environments that are difficult to access. His hope is that this approach provides a fuller understanding of the ways in which policies and social change affect people’s lives and long-term prospects.’

It’s worth reflecting on those aspirations if you read his essay (which I urge you to do) because they raise important questions about the lazy distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, and about the ability of researchers to produce and animate publics through their (our) work.  There’s something there, too, about the power (and, yes, the seductions) of story-telling: so much academic writing still seems to substitute and so privilege our own narrative (‘I did this… then I did that .. I thought this…. then I felt that’) for the stories of others.  And, as Kaiser shows in that brief extract, those stories are often multi-sited.

AGAMBEN State of exceptionThe second reason Kaiser’s work matters to me is that I’m revisiting ‘The Black Flag’ for The everywhere war (more on this later) and, partly in consequence, thinking again about spaces of exception.  I’m in Mexico this week, and I’ve been re-reading Giorgio Agamben‘s Homo sacer and The state of exception.  I was originally doing this to sharpen my arguments about the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as a space of exception for air strikes by the CIA/JSOC and the Pakistan Air Force – I’ll be talking about this in Glasgow early next month, and I’ll post the presentation slides as soon as I’ve finished – but as I’ve worked my way through these texts still wider issues have emerged.

One of the central elements of Homo sacer (and Remnants of Auschwitz – though here too the differences between the two texts are suggestive) is the deliberate exposure of bodies to death: outcasts from whom the protections of the law have been stripped so that their death is no crime.  But in The state of exception Agamben’s focus is on the genealogy of the ‘force of law’ through which this takes place: the victims are nowhere in sight.  Throughout the short text Agamben makes much of the proximity of war and, for the ’emergency’ that activates the modern state of exception, of the First World War, but war and its developing armature of (international) law is never subjected to critical scrutiny.

Yet war (and its casualties) can reveal something else about spaces of exception.  On the battlefield – and let us immediately agree with Frédéric Mégret that ‘the battlefield’ is a highly unstable conceptual constellation – soldiers are at once vectors and victims of violence.  Here the usual restrictions on killing are removed; they can kill, provided they do so ‘lawfully’, without risk of punishment (‘combatant immunity’).  The other side of the contract, of course, is that those who might kill them are not subject to  legal sanction either.

This is not what Agamben means by the state of exception, and apart from repeated references to a contemporary ‘global civil war’ (and to Guantanamo) the transnational rarely appears in his writing and international law disappears into the margins.  His thumb-nail history of the state of exception is framed by the state and its sovereign.

But for reasons that I’ll set out in a later post, the proximity of the exceptional space of  the ‘battlefield’, of war zones and killing fields, to the ultimate reductions of bare life, is far from accidental.  In fact, that’s one of the links between the three deaths in Guantanamo Bay and air strikes and targeted killings in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan which, as I’ll want to show, requires a radically enlarged view of spaces of exception and their historical geographies.  (In the case of the FATA, the Obama administration insists it requires a radically enlarged juridical conception of the ‘battlefield’ in time and space too).

To be continued.

Ghosts of Bagram

bagram_worse_than_guantanamo

I’ve written about ‘haunting’ before, but Asim Rafiqui has an elegaic photo-essay over at Warscapes on The Ghosts of Bagram that adds other dimensions and deserves the widest audience.  Over the last several months I’ve been compiling what has turned into a fat dossier to help me revise my essay on Guantanamo, “The Black Flag” (DOWNLOADS tab), for The everywhere war; in particular, I’m determined to  incorporate other sites in the global war prison – notably Bagram in Afghanistan – because the (in)constant attention focused on Guantanamo artfully distracts the public gaze from these other sites.

No doubt Obama will say he is as ‘haunted‘ by his failure to close Guantanamo as he is by the killing of civilians by US drones in Waziristan.  But here is Rafiqui on the other ghosts from Pakistan:

‘They are ghosts, and I have spent nearly two months trying to find any evidence of them. They are the 40 Pakistani men who remain imprisoned, without charge or evidence, by the Americans at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. They have not been see or heard by anyone other than their immediate families who are granted carefully monitored and heavily censored telephone and internet video call access. Some of the men have been in Bagram, often called one of America’s most notorious prisons, for over 11 years. Denied access to the press, human rights organizations, and legal representation, these men have been silenced and erased, the evidence and rationale for their incarceration beyond the eyes, ears and focus of the public and the media. This is intentional and part of a process of systemic dehumanization that enables the unjust detention and cruel prison conditions the men face. Until 2012, their own government refused to recognize them as citizens of Pakistan. I have spent two months traveling across Pakistan trying to discover something, anything, about them.’

In 2008 the US Supreme Court in Boumedienne vs. Bush extended the right of habeas corpus protections to non-citizens detained at Guantanamo.  But those incarcerated at Bagram, many of them not only from Afghanistan and Pakistan but also from Iraq, central Africa and south east Asia, are beyond the reach of the writ: see Andrew Tutt on ‘Boumedienne’s wake’ here and, for a more comprehensive analysis,  Janet Cooper Alexander on ‘The law free zone and back again’ here.   If you need background on Bagram, try Lisa Hajjar on Bagram as ‘Obama’s GITMO’ here, and for the global war prison more generally Laleh Khalili‘s Time in the Shadows.

Renditions rendered

Many readers will know of various attempts made, several years ago, to map the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme.  One of the most innovative was artist-geographer Trevor Paglen‘s Terminal Air project (and the idea of (de)basing the travel agency in this way was taken up, in a different register, by Adel Abidin: see here).

Trevor and his collaborators produced a series of visualizations of the flight network between Guantanamo and various black sites, some in digital form (like Terminal Air) — the image below is a screenshot of a remarkable animated sequence —

Terminal Air interactive screenshot

— and others displayed on physical billboards, like this one:

PAGLEN:EMERSON CIA FLIGHTS 2001-6

Today the Guardian publishes the results of a three-year programme of ESRC-funded collaborative research between Ruth Blakeley at the University of Kent and Sam Raphael at Kingston University in association with Reprieve into the system of extraordinary rendition and its associated practices.  This is of more than historical interest; they write:

The Rendition Project aims to analyse the emergence, development and operation of the global system of rendition and secret detention in the years since 9/11. In doing so, it aims to bring together as much of the publicly-available information as possible on the detainees who have been held in secret, the detention sites in which they have been held, and the methods and timings of their transfers.

With this data in place, we will seek to identify specific ‘key moments’ that have shaped the operation of rendition and secret detention, both regionally and in a global context. We are particularly interested in the contest between the executive, the judiciary, and the human rights community (comprising human rights lawyers, human rights NGOs, and some academics), over whether and how domestic and international law applies to those detainees held within the system. A key aim of the project is therefore to identify how rendition and secret detention have evolved within the context of this struggle to defend basic human rights.

The Rendition Project also examines the ways in which this system has evolved over time, including during the Obama administration. While President Obama has ordered the closure of CIA-run secret prisons (the so-called ‘black sites’), and revoked authorisation for use by US agents of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, many thousands of detainees in the ‘War on Terror’ continue to be held beyond the bounds of US and international law. Moreover, continued rendition and proxy detention have not been ruled out by the US Government, and may still form a central plank of counterterrorism policy.

The Rendition Project

The website for The Rendition Project includes testimony, profiles and documentation together with a detailed database and an interactive map (produced in collaboration with Craig Bloodworth from The Information Lab).

The composite map is daunting, as befits the terrifying scale of the process itself:

The Rendition Project composite map

But the ability to disentangle the threads and to interrogate the database changes the terms of the engagement, making it possible to track the experience of individual victims and to identify the major circuits and the global network of complicities in which they were enmeshed.

Chillingly brilliant work.