Topographies of Mass Violence

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I’ve agreed to speak at the Max and Iris Stern International Symposium on Topographies of Mass Violence to be held at the wonderful Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) (above) 31 March 31/1 April 2017.

We’re still figuring out what I might do, but here is the general description of the symposium.  More details when I have them.

The 11th annual Max and Iris Stern International Symposium, Topographies of Mass Violence, will be held at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal on March 31 and April 1, 2017, accompanying the shows Mundos by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles and Now Have a Look at this Machine, by Quebec artist Emanuel Licha. The symposium will address the phenomena of mass violence and the ways in which it is intimately linked to the territories and spaces in which it is perpetrated, but also the spatial and architectural arrangements through which it is mediated.

Mass violence is defined as violence by a government or organized group against certain members of a community or an entire population (members of an ethnic, religious or sexual community, inhabitants of a country). It encompasses violence against a few individuals to several hundred thousand victims: shootings, terrorist acts, feminicides, armed conflict, genocide. While there has always been mass violence, with war being one of the most common manifestations, since the early 1990s the nature of such violence as well as its modes of appearance and representation have changed. Far from making the world a peaceful place, the end of the Cold War and the opening of political, cultural and commercial borders has resulted in ongoing war, even in the heart of Europe, and a resurgence of the oldest forms of mass violence (such as genocide and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the Balkans). Recent decades have also been marked by an increase in certain types of mass violence: against women (the Polytechnique massacre, killing of First Nations women), against sexual communities (the shooting in Orlando, murders of transgender people), against Blacks (police violence) and even against certain social and occupational categories (Charlie Hebdo journalists, Mexican students). Climate change—which has its roots in political decisions about territorial management and is often closely intertwined with conflict—is also a source of broad-scale violence against civilian populations, provoking major movements of people which has in turn resulted in government attempts to impose spatial management on individuals (border walls, refugee camps, apartheids).

The ways in which these phenomena are represented has also undergone major transformations since the early 1990s. The first Gulf War marked the start of an intensive production of images of conflict, leading to tight governmental controls on their dissemination. Later, the advent of the Internet and social media allowed new actors to get involved in producing and disseminating such images, including amateur reporters and victims, but also perpetrators, in a trend toward the spectacularization of group killings: the September 11 attacks, the macabre scenes staged by Mexican drug cartels and the executions filmed by the Islamic State.

In this symposium, an international group of specialists in a variety of disciplines (historians of art, architecture and urban planning, of film and media, as well as architects, artists, activists and curators) will address these phenomena and suggest ways to think about them that go beyond their traditional representations in the media. Their contributions will help us imagine how the investigation of certain spatial artefacts inherent to architecture, city planning or military tactics can lead to a better understanding of these forms of violence.

Mapping, forensic architecture and visual cultures provide tools for conducting such spatial investigations, and certain artistic practices associated with these inquiries seek to offer alternative modes of representation. To escape the media polarization of unrepresentability/spectacularization, but also to counter government erasure and denial of mass violence, many artists take on the role of topographer by recording and representing the traces of this violence in the places where it has been directly or indirectly inscribed. Whether this involves territories where the violence has occurred (such as the Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan deserts; the Highway of Tears in British Columbia and Downtown Eastside in Vancouver;Ciudad Juárez and adjacent neighbourhoods), the evidence that remains (mass graves, destroyed cities, abandoned houses …) or the architectural structures which have made the representation and mediatization possible (war hotels …), mass violence is inseparable from topos.

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Margolles’s Mundos brings together multiple works addressing violence in Mexico:

For over 30 years, Margolles has developed her practice in response to the endemic violence that ravages her country (violent deaths from the drug trade, marginalities and exclusions, feminicides and social injustice). The exhibition, Mundos, brings together works mainly created in this decade, along with pieces that have never been shown before. It includes sculptural and photographic installations, performative interventions and videos. Spare, yet powerfully moving, the work by Margolles reaches out and brings us into the world of those whose lives have been made invisible.

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Licha’s Now Have a Look at this Machine is an installation version of a documentary, Hotel Machine:

Licha filmed in five cities—Beirut, Sarajevo, Gaza, Kiev and Belgrade—in five hotels that house war correspondents covering conflicts. The film is presented in a central space surrounded by five adjacent archive stations, which through texts, images and other documents explore aspects of the concept of the “war hotel.”

Seeing machines

 

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The Transnational Institute has published a glossy version of a chapter from Steve Graham‘s Vertical – called Drone: Robot Imperium, you can download it here (open access).  Not sure about either of the terms in the subtitle, but it’s a good read and richly illustrated.

Steve includes a discussion of the use of drones to patrol the US-Mexico border, and Josh Begley has published a suggestive account of the role of drones but also other ‘seeing machines’ in visualizing the border.

One way the border is performed — particularly the southern border of the United States — can be understood through the lens of data collection. In the border region, along the Rio Grande and westward through the desert Southwest, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deploys radar blimps, drones, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, seismic sensors, ground radar, face recognition software, license-plate readers, and high-definition infrared video cameras. Increasingly, they all feed data back into something called “The Big Pipe.”

Josh downloaded 20,000 satellite images of the border, stitched them together, and then worked with Laura Poitras and her team at Field of Vision to produce a short film – Best of Luck with the Wall – that traverses the entire length of the border (1, 954 miles) in six minutes:

The southern border is a space that has been almost entirely reduced to metaphor. It is not even a geography. Part of my intention with this film is to insist on that geography.

By focusing on the physical landscape, I hope viewers might gain a sense of the enormity of it all, and perhaps imagine what it would mean to be a political subject of that terrain.

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If you too wonder about that last sentence and its latent bio-physicality – and there is of course a rich stream of work on the bodies that seek to cross that border – then you might visit another of Josh’s projects, Fatal Migrations, 2011-2016 (see above and below).

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There’s an interview with Josh that, among other things, links these projects with his previous work.

I have a couple of projects that are smartphone centered. One of them is about mapping the geography of places around the world where the CIA carries out drone strikes—mostly in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Another was about looking at the geography of incarceration in the United States—there are more than 5,000 prisons—and trying to map all of them and see them through satellites. I currently have an app that is looking at the geography of police violence in the United States. Most of these apps are about creating a relationship between data and the body, where you can receive a notification every time something unsettling happens. What does that mean for the rest of your day? How do you live with that data—data about people? In some cases the work grows out of these questions, but in other cases the work really is about landscape….

There’s just so much you can never know from looking at satellite imagery. By definition it flattens and distorts things. A lot of folks who fly drones, for instance, think they know a space just from looking at it from above. I firmly reject that idea. The bird’s eye view is never what it means to be on the ground somewhere, or what it means to have meaningful relationships with people on the ground. I feel like I can understand the landscape from 30,000 feet, but it is not the same as spending time in a space.

Anjali Nath has also provided a new commentary on one of Josh’s earlier projects, Metadata, that he cites in that interview – ‘Touched from below: on drones, screens and navigation’, Visual Anthropology 29 (3) (2016) 315-30.

It’s part of a special issue on ‘Visual Revolutions in the Middle East’, and as I explore the visual interventions I’ve included in this post I find myself once again thinking of a vital remark by Edward Said:

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That’s part of the message behind the #NotaBugSplat image on the cover of Steve’s essay: but what might Said’s remark mean more generally today, faced with the proliferation of these seeing machines?

 

When I wear my alligator boots

When I wear my alligator bootsI left at the crack of dawn the very next day for Madison, so I couldn’t post about this before: last Wednesday Shaylih Muehlmann gave a reading from her new book, When I wear my alligator boots: Narco-culture in the US-Mexico borderlands (University of California Press, 2014) at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (where she was an Early Career Scholar last year).

Her reading was beautifully judged – a series of exquisitely written (and read) extracts that re-traced the narrative arc of the book, explained her own take on ethnography (and its writing), and sparked a lively discussion.  Thanks to Gaston Gordillo‘s generosity, I was able to devour the book on the flight to Madison; since I had to get up at 3 a.m., that was no mean feat and speaks volumes about the book.

When I Wear My Alligator Boots examines how the lives of dispossessed men and women are affected by the rise of narcotrafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. In particular, the book explores a crucial tension at the heart of the “war on drugs”: despite the violence and suffering brought on by drug cartels, for the rural poor in Mexico’s north, narcotrafficking offers one of the few paths to upward mobility and is a powerful source of cultural meanings and local prestige.

In the borderlands, traces of the drug trade are everywhere: from gang violence in cities to drug addiction in rural villages, from the vibrant folklore popularized in the narco-corridos of Norteña music to the icon of Jesús Malverde, the “patron saint” of narcos, tucked beneath the shirts of local people. In When I Wear My Alligator Boots, the author explores the everyday reality of the drug trade by living alongside its low-level workers, who live at the edges of the violence generated by the militarization of the war on drugs. Rather than telling the story of the powerful cartel leaders, the book focuses on the women who occasionally make their sandwiches, the low-level businessmen who launder their money, the addicts who consume their products, the mules who carry their money and drugs across borders, and the men and women who serve out prison sentences when their bosses’ operations go awry.

Read it to find out much more about the intersections between popular culture, the ‘drug wars’ , and the borderlands than the usual cartel-talk.  A central theme of the book is not so much the narco-corridors snaking across the border as the narco-corridos, folk-ballads telling stories of the men and women who work the drug business.  These are also the subject of Shaul Shwarz‘s prize-winning documentary Narcocultura (2013); I’ve embedded the trailer below, and you find out more here and read a thoughtful review here.

Shaylih’s subjects, then, are the low-level players who are, in their way, also being played.  For this very reason, their construction and celebration of narco-culture is also a real challenge to the corruptions, exactions and violences of the state.  Shaylih unravels the connections between prohibition, poverty and addiction in northern Mexico, and en route her gift for narrative – for telling their stories – provides a powerful analytical lens:

‘The people whose lives are chronicled in this book reveal the extent to which the war on drugs ultimately pushes many of the costs of trafficking – the deaths, the vulnerability, and the risk – over the border into Mexico and particularly onto the Mexican poor.  These are the people who run the risks of the business, experience the brunt of the violence, and serve the prison sentences that the wealthy cartel bosses largely avoid…  In the stories that follow, we will see that those who become involved in the narco-economy do so precisely because the Mexican and U.S. governments have declared war against it.  And as their stories show, for a long time this war was already being waged against them.’

Read it, too, for an object lesson in writing prose that doesn’t hobble the flight of the intellectual imagination – as even the chapter titles show:

Introduction: Life at the Edges of the War on Drugs
1. Narco-Wives, Beauty Queens, and a Mother’s Bribes
2. “When I Wear My Alligator Boots”
3. “A Narco without a Corrido Doesn’t Exist”
4. The View from Cruz’s Throne
5. Moving the Money When the Bank Accounts Get Full
6. “Now They Wear Tennis Shoes”: Social Debts and Calculated Risks
Conclusion: Puro pa’delante Mexico

You can access the first chapter here (box, top right). The marvellous title is easily explained:

‘Javier … wore alligator boots like a badge of his past smuggling work… He said that while you may see people dressed as cheros, the alligator boots are how you know if they are really narcotraficantes.’

Exceptions R Us

tumblr_mkc2q1MRtU1s9d11ko1_250Alex Vasudevan writes to alert me to this all-too-relevant site, Agamben Toys or Toys for the State of Exception

Most of the baubles on offer are decidedly for play in the global North, but for older kids with global (in)sensibilities there’s always this model Predator…. and plenty more like it (for example here and here).  Commentary – and comments (you’ll see what I mean) – here and (from Infowars) here.

Toys appeared in a radically different way in an exhibition at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) earlier this year called State of Exception:

166510_475567315838743_1025941788_nLSA Professor of Anthropology Jason De León has spent long hours in the Sonoran environs, cataloging and collecting the items migrants leave behind as they attempt to cross into the United States. Water jugs. Shoes. Small kids’ toys. It looks like trash, but these objects, collected through his Undocumented Migrant Project (UMP), become data to help construct a record of people who are unknown, whose journeys rarely come to light.

Many of these objects are now on display through LSA’s Institute for the Humanities exhibit titled State of Exception. This exhibit considers the complexity and ambiguity of the found objects and what they may or may not reveal in terms of transition, human experience, culture, violence, and accountability.

This is the first major curation of De León’s work since UMP began in 2009, and is a combination of objects, installation, and video shot by photographer Richard Barnes along the U.S./Mexico border.

The exhibition closed earlier this month but you can still access the catalogue/brochure online here.

All of this reminds me that there’s a reason we spell ‘us’ the way we do…

Nieto’s Challenge

Many readers will remember Hillary Clinton‘s off-the-cuff claim last fall that “We face an increasing threat from a well-organised network, drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico.”  In “The everywhere war” (DOWNLOADS tab) I used her comment – together with a host of other sources inside and outside the state – to suggest some of the ways in which conceptions of war were being transformed in the borderlands; so too the military/policing distinction.

But a new report from the International Crisis Group, Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal cartels and rule of law in Mexico, suggests that – in the midst of calls to increase the militarization of the US southern border – at least some State Department officials are having second thoughts.  Indeed, the report claims that Clinton’s remark was seen at the time ‘as a misstatement by many in the State Department, aimed more at linking the kinds of violence and weapons used and the seriousness of the danger they posed rather than describing the nature of the cartels or their objectives.’  And now, in an interview with the Group, John Feeley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, insisted:

‘The violence associated with the criminal activities of the transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) in Mexico is not a national security problem or an insurgency that threatens to destabilise the Mexican government. Clearly, the violence … is a very serious public security problem that has important social and economic repercussions.’ 

For all that, it’s surely more than a ‘public security problem’ and it also has the most acute political repercussions too:

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The report spells out many of those repercussions for the democratic constitution of Mexico – though whether Nieto (Mexico’s new President) will pay any attention to it is another question.  But its fundamental argument is captured in these paragraphs:

The development of cartels into murder squads fighting to control territory with military-grade weapons challenges the Mexican state’s monopoly on the use of force in some regions. The brutality of their crimes undermines civilian trust in the government’s capacity to protect them, and the corruption of drug money damages belief in key institutions. Cartels challenge the fundamental nature of the state, therefore, not by threatening to capture it, but by damaging and weakening it. The military fight-back has at times only further eroded the trust in government by inflicting serious human rights abuses. Some frustrated communities have formed armed “self- defence” groups against the cartels. Whatever the intent, these also degrade the rule of law. 

There has been fierce discussion about how to legally define the fighting. The violence has been described as a low-intensity armed conflict, a kind of war, because of the number of deaths and type of weapons used. The criminal groups have been described as everything from gangs, drug cartels and transnational criminal organisa- tions, to paramilitaries and terrorists. The Mexican government, much of the international community and many analysts reject the idea there is anything other than a serious criminal threat, even though those criminal groups use military and, at times, vicious terror tactics. The army and marines, too, thrown into the breach with limited police training and without efficient policing methods, have often used intense and lethal force to fight the groups, killing more than 2,300 alleged criminals in a five-year period.

Within the grey world of fighting between rival cartels and security forces, there is much confusion as to who the victims of the violence are, and who killed them or made them disappear. Estimates of the total who have died in connection with the fighting over the last six years range from 47,000 to more than 70,000, in addition to thousands of disappearances. Cartel gunmen often dress in military uniforms and include corrupt police in their ranks, so people are unsure if they are facing criminals or troops. A victims movement is demanding justice and security. Mexico has also lost hundreds of police and army officers, mayors, political candidates, judges, journalists and human rights defenders to the bloodshed that is taking a toll on its democratic institutions.

Naming names

Mexican-poet-Javier-SiciliaIn March 2011 members of a Mexican drug cartel tortured and murdered a young student, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, along with six of his friends in the city of Cuernavaca in Morelos.  His father, Javier Sicilia (right), poet, professor and journalist, later told Time:

‘When I got to Cuernavaca… I was in a lot of emotional pain. But when I arrived at the crematorium I had to deal with the media. I asked the reporters to have some respect; I told them I’d meet them the next day in the city plaza. When I got there I found they’d put a table [for a press conference] out for me, and I realized this was going to be bigger than I’d anticipated.

‘I had never thought of starting a movement or being a spokesman for anything. I’m a poet, and poets are better known for working with more obscure intuitions. But in those moments I was reminded that the life of the soul can be powerful too. My chief intuition then was that we had to give name and form to this tragedy and somehow put that into action with real citizens as a way to tell the government, “We need something new, especially new institutions to fight our lawlessness and corruption and impunity, not just that of the drug cartels but the state.”‘

Sicilia's call

Sicilia’s demand (above) started the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (“Haste la Madre!”), but the call to abjure the aggregations and anonymizations of mass violence – by state and non-state actors – has been taken up in other political arenas too.

It’s in this spirit that I read the Open Society‘s detailed listing of 136 people who were subjected to secret detention or extraordinary rendition by the CIA.

Sth-Wana-letter-Jan-20091And now – to turn to a program that is in many respects the flip side of extraordinary rendition (assuming a dark side can have another dark side) – the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London has announced an ambitious campaign to identify and name all the victims of US-directed air strikes in Pakistan.

The Bureau’s Chris Woods explains:

‘Part of the justification for the US carrying out drone strikes without consent is their reported success. And naming those militants killed is key to that process. Al Qaeda bomber Fahd al-Quso’s death was widely celebrated.  Yet how many newspapers also registered the death of Mohamed Saleh Al-Suna,  a civilian caught up and killed in a US strike in Yemen on March 30? By showing only one side of the coin, we risk presenting a distorted picture of this new form of warfare. There is an obligation to identify all of those killed…’

And, yes, we also need to recover the names of those killed by other actors too.  None of  them are ‘just “collateral damage” or abstractions’.

The principle is developed more generally by the Every Casualty project of the Oxford Research Group.

The purpose of the Every Casualty (EC) programme is to enhance the technical, legal and institutional capacity, as well as the political will, to record details of every single casualty of armed conflict throughout the world, civilian as well as combatant. Civilian deaths are particularly poorly documented, and often not recorded at all. Where death tolls are limited to purely numerical assessments, exaggerated, politicised claims and counter-claims frequently abound. By contrast, where Western nations are engaged in conflicts, they meticulously record their military dead not as numbers but by name.

Such detailed, verifiable and comprehensive recording when extended to all victims provides both a memorial for posterity and public recognition of our common humanity. Careful and respectful records ensure that the human cost of conflict is better understood and can become an immediately applicable resource for conflict prevention and post-conflict recovery and reconciliation.

Every casualty

But I think it’s probably a mistake to privilege names over numbers: numbers matter too, and  – whatever the legal-humanitarian reasons for recovering the names – they also help us to imagine what the raw numbers mean.  There are other ways of achieving the same end, and they don’t necessarily involve abandoning anonymity.  I’ve never forgotten the final scene in Richard Attenborough‘s film of “Oh, what a lovely war!”; the shot begins with a single white cross and then pans back and back and back, seemingly without end, until the screen is filled with a sea of 100, 000 crosses [start at 2:21].

Warscapes

The concept of a ‘warscape‘ was originally proposed by Carolyn Nordstrom in A different kind of war story (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) – riffing off Arjun Appadurai’s many other ‘scapes’ – as an indispensable term for what she called ‘an ethnography of a war zone’.  It’s been elaborated by several other anthropologists, including Danny Hoffman, Stephen Lubkemann and Mats Utas, and its geographical dimensions have been very acutely mapped by Benedikt Korf, Michelle Engeler and Tobias Hagmann in ‘The geography of warscape’, Third World Quarterly 31 (2010) 385-99.

But there is another, related series of warscapes – or rather Warscapes.  The online journal Warscapes, a magazine of literature, art and politics, was launched a year ago last week,with the mission of ‘highlighting conflicts from the past fifty years, especially those bearing the burdens of extraordinarily complicated colonial legacies, seeking insight from art.’

Among the feast of delights currently on offer is a series of contributions celebrating Gloria Anzaldúa‘s Borderlands/La Frontera: the new mestiza, which was originally published 25 years ago but has lost none of its power to captivate, move and disturb, and a provocative extract from Teun Voeten‘s Narco Estado: Drug violence in Mexico (Lannoo, 2012), including some stunning and heartbreaking images. He writes:

For the last 22 years, I have been covering wars and conflicts worldwide. I have seen the gamut of barbaric acts of which humans are capable. In Sarajevo, I ran from snipers shooting innocent civilians who were already being starved by the strangling siege. I was in Kigali when the genocide started and saw machete-wielding mobs hunting down hapless victims. In Kabul and Grozny, I walked in residential neighborhoods reduced to rubble, their former inhabitants scrounging for food in the company of stray dogs. I had my share of craziness in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where I was confronted many times with doped-up child soldiers. Recently, in Libya, I smelled that sickening odor of dead bodies left behind after another cowardly massacre.

Nothing compares to the recent drug violence in Mexico… The violence in Mexico has passed a threshold and has become a war – a new kind of war.

It may be a ‘new kind of war’ – certainly others have made that case – but, as I’ve argued in ‘The everywhere war’, it’s surely too simple to reduce the violence to narco-violence….