Emergency Response

I’ve been catching up on a stream of publications by Pete Adey and Ben Anderson on emergencies, including ‘Affect and security: exercising emergency in UK “civil contingencies”‘, Society & Space 29(6) (2011) 1092-1109; ‘Anticipating emergencies: Technologies of preparedness and the matter of security’, Security dialogue 43 (2) (2012) 99-117; and ‘Governing events and life: “Emergency” in UK Civil Contingencies’, Political Geography 31 (1) (2012) 24-33.

This has been prompted by a continuing conversation with Theo Price about a series of political/artistic interventions under the rubric of COBRA RES, in which he’s invited me to take part. COBRA, as many readers will know, is

the British Government’s emergency response committee set up to respond to a national or regional crisis. Standing for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A [below], the COBRA Committee comes together in moments of perceived crisis under the chairmanship of either the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary. At COBRA meetings, decisions and a possible response, sometimes simply a press conference, are made under real or imagined conditions of emergency and/or crisis. 


The committee can evoke emergency powers such as suspending Parliament or restricting movement. Such emergency-based responses have ranged from tackling Ash Dieback disease to the deployment of military hardware on civilian rooftops during the London Olympics.  Emergency and crisis-based politics are becoming increasingly common as modes of contemporary governance in an age of hyped terrorism and economic and environmental crises.

COBRA RES is a critical response, holding up a mirror to COBRA ‘as a way of producing different information, new perspectives and alternative narratives, while existing in a mimetic relationship to the emergency Committee itself and the situation it is responding to.’

COBRA RES aims to re-frame the response from an aesthetic perspective, while operating as an active-archive that follows, traces and maps the constantly changing tide of emergency politics. COBRA RES is a collective of artists and writers who aim to ask critical questions of COBRA through a series of creative responses. Reflecting and mimicking the structure of the COBRA Committee, the artists, writers and filmmakers are chosen for their relevance to the given context of the COBRA meeting.

The artists and writers are given nine days from the initial COBRA meeting in which to respond to either COBRA or the context it is meeting under. For the process to work, it is important that pressure is applied to the artists and writers so as prevent too much consideration, with limited facts available, in an attempt to re-create a parallel action of response. 

Steve Bell's If …

You can read more from Theo about the project in ‘Art in an Emergency’ here:

Art allows a certain freedom to explore and reimagine politics, offering a reflective surface on which to review the distorted image projected by the state in moments of crisis. But in recent years, it is politics that has increased its use of aesthetics to help manipulate and develop – often in a favourable light – its own agenda.

This image-based politics is a politics of presentation, of appearance and constructed images that tell a certain story, often a moral story of good v evil, of citizen v terrorist. Such morals are created through aesthetic and performative means to convince the general public that not only is the government protecting them, but that new terror legislation is necessary and justified. This approach is not new, but when political spin is used in ’emergency’ events, from which new terror legislation may then emerge, surely it is better to deal in fact than gesture.

Not all political situations invite an artistic response, but the government’s Cobra committee, and the ’emergencies’ prompting its meetings, offer a wide array of unknown variables that leave an open space for interpretation and imagination. Often Cobra closes this gap with its publicly announced meeting – we aim to re-open it.

As politics and society become increasingly brand-aware, with digital images and presentation the preferred power-tools to promote a political position, art becomes the obvious medium through which to ask questions. Art can only respond to the world around it and if politics and politicians increasingly attempt to define, promote and manipulate their position by aesthetic and performative means, art must reflect, mimic and respond in kind.


COBRA and thus COBRA RES have met five times since January 2013:

COBRA 1.0 Our first response was an exhibition after COBRA had met when hostages had been held in the Tiguentourine gas plant in Algeria.

COBRA 1.1 The second response was a book of artistic and written responses to the COBRA meeting following the killing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London.

Artists: Steve Bell, Hugh Jordan, Kennardphillipps, Nima Esmailpour, Nicolas Hausdorf, & Alex Goller ( H+Corp), Frida Go, Chie Konishi, Samuel Stevens, Theodore Price, Adam Ferguson, Jenny Richards, Richard Wilson, Robert Malt  Writers: Iain Boal (foreword), Nicolas Hausdorf, Theodore Price, Philip Howe, Samuel Stevens

COBRA 1.2 Responding to the situation in Nairobi shopping centre, secret postal responses were submitted to COBRA RES by a selection of artists. This work will not be viewed or opened until the final COBRA RES exhibition in 2018.

COBRA 1.3 DVD of artist films with accompanying book of texts, which responded to the extensive flooding to hit large parts of the United Kingdom.

Artists: Adam Chodzko, Stephen Connolly, Alison Ballard, Margaret Dickinson, John Jordan, Theodore Price, Stina Wirfelt, Samuel Stevens, Rose Butler, Nabli Ahmed, Daniel Shanken, Oliver Bancroft, James Connelly, Stevie Deas, Wonderland Collective  Writers: Nina Power ( Lead Essay) Christopher Collier, Jenny Richards, Nicolas Hausdorf, John Jordan, Isabelle Fremeaux, Theodore Price, Samuel Stevens, Stephen Connolly.


The most recent (fifth) COBRA RES production (see above) is in response to three COBRA meetings in July and August 2014:

18th July 2014 in response to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine (Chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron)

30th July 2014 in response to the continued outbreak of Ebola in West Africa (Chaired by newly appointed Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond)

8th August 2014 in response to Islamic State forcing thousands to flee their homes and take refuge on Mount Sinjar, Iraq (Chaired by newly appointed Defence Secretary Michel Fallon)

Examining the inter-play of emergency politics, COBRA RES has issued a set of emergency card games and an accompanying book of theoretical texts. The games invite the reader to become player by moving towards an active ‘participation’ within the grand narrative of each separate emergency episode.

Cards by: COBRA RES and H+Corp  Texts by: Richard Barbrook, Roland Bleiker, David Campbell, Derek Gregory, Nicolas Hausdorf, Emma Hutchinson, Theodore Price and Strategic Optimism Football Club.

The book accompanying the latest COBRA RES includes my ‘Drone geographies’ (see DOWNLOADS tab) and my post on ‘The war on Ebola‘ (artfully and graciously re-crafted by Theo),

Rapid Response

Interesting post from Ben Anderson at Berfois.  He suggests that ‘Over ten years since the advent of the war on terror it is no longer the “state of emergency” that dominates modern government’s response to emergencies. Organising for rapid response now occurs across all domains of life at a time when disparate events and conditions are grouped under the category of emergency.’  Here’s the punchline:

‘If rapid response has replaced the ‘state of emergency’ as the dominant paradigm for governing emergencies, how might those of us concerned with enhancing democratic life respond to rapid response? The critique of ‘state of emergency’ legislation is now a familiar one: in an emergency Government power is extended and liberal democracies reveal their authoritarianism. Unlike ‘state of emergency’ legislation, rapid response does not usually simply involve some form of temporary ‘suspension’ of normal rights. Quite the opposite: rapid response is the automation of exceptional but constitutional action through flexible, intersecting, protocols that govern how things should be done in response. Whilst the role of ‘state of emergency’ legislation in liberal democracies has been subject to considerable scrutiny in the post 9/11 world, there has been very little if any public reflection on the protocols that facilitate response (the only exception being post disaster inquiries and reports). This needs to change. For emergencies, and the response to emergencies, are a key occasion when lives are valued or devalued and democratic life, such as it functions today, is placed in question. How, then, can the protocols through which ‘rapid response’ is organised be opened up to public negotiation and contestation in advance of an emergency?’

Ben lists a series of’civil organisations and situations in which ‘rapid response’ is now invoked, but (as he knows very well) this often includes a set of militarized protocols.  John Morrissey has provided an excellent account of the origin of the United States’ unified combatant commands that span the globe – like CENTCOM – in which he emphasises the key role of Carter’s Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force that stood up in 1980 ‘to plan, jointly train, exercise and be prepared to deploy and employ designated forces in response to contingencies threatening US vital interests’ in the Gulf region.  Since then – in fact before then – speed and agility became the watchwords of advanced military operations, and not only internationally.  Earlier this year General Ray Odierno, the US Army’s Chief of Staff, outlined some of the changes that lie ahead in an essay in Foreign Affairs (May/June 2012), which included this passage:

‘…  the challenges in the United States itself remain daunting. Although the actions of our forces overseas have helped preclude more terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland, the threat persists. The need for U.S. armed forces, and the army in particular, to provide planning, logistical, command-and-control, and equipment support to civil authorities in the event of natural disasters continues to be demonstrated regularly and is unlikely to diminish. And many security challenges in the Americas are transnational, including humanitarian crises, illicit trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, and weapons proliferation. Army forces will continue to be ready to contribute to broader national efforts to counter those challenges at home, if needed. Our reserve component soldiers remain the bedrock of the army’s domestic response capability, but where appropriate we will also dedicate active-duty forces, especially those with niche skills and equipment, to provide civilian officials with a robust set of reliable and rapid response options.’

That last clause lit up the blogosphere with warnings of a threat to the constitution and of martial law.  I’m not persuaded by those alarms, but I do think that the line between the suspension of rights in a ‘state of emergency’ and the constitutionality of ‘rapid response’ is a dangerously pliable one.

And there are other modalities of rapid response that seek to confound state action and violence, often powered by new social media; here, for example, is a project of Amnesty International against forced evictions:

Note: For more of Ben’s work on emergencies (in the UK), see Ben Anderson and Peter Adey, ‘Governing events and life: “Emergency” in UK civil contingencies’, Political Geography 31 (1) (2012) 24-33 and Peter Adey and Ben Anderson, ‘Anticipating emergencies: technologies of preparedness and the matter of security’, Security dialogue 43 (2) (2012) 99-117.