Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Tortuous Reasoning

It was virtually impossible to imagine 7 years ago: the day that America would find itself debating under which conditions it was OK to systematically torture prisoners of war for information, under which conditions our President had the Constitutional authority to disregard our signing of the Geneva Conventions, not just for the all-too-often-trotted-out ticking bomb scenario, but for hundreds of clearly low-level enemies in captivity, if indeed they were clearly enemies at all, on a routine basis. But that day came, and I read in sheer disbelief as otherwise upstanding Americans across the blogosphere defended the practices we've since discovered were happening at Abu Ghraib, Guantanemo, the "Salt Pit," and via CIA-chartered jets extraditing suspects to nations we know would do the dirty work for us. Fearful Americans with defenses that amounted to "I don't care what they do, so long as they keep me and my family safe."

Yes, yes, I know, the President and his Attorney General (I don't imagine for even a moment Gonzales sees himself as the country's Attorney General) will go to great lengths twisting logic to try and create just enough reasonable doubt to clear him, W, of any involvement personally, but it's rather difficult to imagine, given that they were so incredibly pressed for time in fighting the so-called War on Terror they couldn't comply with the nation's laws on domestic spying, that they had the leisure time to direct Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Robert Delahunty to speculate on when the Geneva Convention guidelines applied and why the President couldn't be held accountable for war crimes, if they were not applied, unless this was a very important argument to have made beforehand. In other words, you don't need a pre-emptive "Get Out of Jail Free" card if you're not intending to break the law, so the creation of that card seems to speak for itself.

The most horrendous aspect of all this, of course, is that expert after expert insists torture does not result in reliable intelligence, making the President's penchant for it seem like little more than revenge, the stomping of a petulant brat with power shoving it back in the face of anyone he can conceivably associate with the 9/11 attacks that happened under his watch.

But I can jabber on about this for hours, and have. What brings it back up as a preface for today's post is the article in the NYTimes by Holland Cotter about what he considers some good examples of "political art," including a performance piece video about interrogation. Cotter's criteria for good political art seem similar to my own:
To some people political art means protest art: slogan-slinging, name-calling, didacticism, an unaesthetic thing. But in the trauma-riddled early 21st century, after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, with a continuing war in Iraq, political art can be something else: a mirror.
Cotter highlights a video by Coco Fusco, called "Operation Atropos," which will be screened tonight at the City University of New York Graduate Center. For the video, Coco and six other women volunteered to be abducted and interrogated by a private defense company called Team Delta, based in Philadelphia, comprised of former members of the United States Intelligence Agency who sell their training services as experts in the "psychology of capture."

As the 50-minute video opens, Ms. Fusco is reading aloud from a briefing that laid out the ground rules for the ordeal ahead, clearly amused by the portentous language: "You will experience physical and psychological pain." The women share a piece of secret information they will do their best not to reveal under duress.

The course begins. The women are riding in a van through the woods in the Poconos when masked men stop them at gunpoint and direct them to strip to their underwear for a search. The women's clothes are exchanged for Day-Glo orange coveralls; their heads and faces are covered with blackout hoods. They are led, handcuffed, through the woods.

The make-believe nature of all this is periodically reinforced as "enemy soldiers" drop out of character to be interviewed about their work. Even so, a sense of real tension starts to build.

Mr. Olujimi's darting, probing, camera work helps to create it. So does the sustained image of the women being pushed, prodded, forced to their knees, yelled at and insulted by the all-male interrogation team.

I have to say, intially the idea of this project offended me, in that its moments of levity seemed to imply that being abducted and interrogated was a sophisticated game...like a corporate camping trip for bonding purposes or something. Cotter disagrees, though, and his rationale is compelling:
So what kind of political art is this? It isn't moralizing or accusatory. It's art for a time when play-acting and politics seem to be all but indistinguishable. "Operation Atropos" is reality television with the cracks between reality and artifice showing. It's in the cracks, Ms. Fusco suggests, that the political truth is revealed.
I'm still left wonder which "political truth" exactly is revealed (though perhaps that's unfair given I haven't seen the video yet), but I appreciate the point about how this piece illustrates the virtually nonexistent line between play-acting and politics these days. What gets me in the end, though, is that, through all of this, why we're examining it is because real people were really tortured, by Americans. We have the luxury to debate this on the blogosphere and/or experience expensive, yet ultimately safe, re-enactments. But I can't help but wonder what the individuals who lived through (or didn't) those interrogations would make of all this tortuous reasoning. I imagine it's all pretty damn black and white for them. I long for the day when it for all us again as well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The US now tortures because we are a morally weak nation of bullies.

By the way, check out this link at WaPo today:


"We hope to get rid of al-Qaeda, which is a huge burden on the city. Unfortunately, Zarqawi's fist is stronger than the Americans'," said one Sunni sheik, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of insurgent retaliation. He was referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, an umbrella group for many of the foreign and local resistance fighters in Iraq. Local Sunni leaders often insist that the most violent insurgent attacks are by foreign fighters, not Iraqi Sunnis.
In Ramadi, "Zarqawi is the one who is in control," the sheik said, speaking to a Washington Post special correspondent in Ramadi. "He kills anyone who goes in and out of the U.S. base. We have stopped meetings with the Americans, because, frankly speaking, we have lost confidence in the U.S. side, as they can't protect us."
Another sheik, Bashir Abdul Qadir al-Kubaisi of the Kubaisat tribe in Ramadi, expressed similar views. "Today, there is no tribal sheik or a citizen who dares to go to the city hall or the U.S. base, because Zarqawi issued a statement ordering his men to kill anyone seen leaving the base or city hall," he said.
"We are very upset. But being upset is better than mourning the death of a sheik or tribal leader," Kubaisi said. "Zarqawi has imposed himself on us. We started thinking of appeasing Zarqawi and his group, because rejecting them means death."

5/30/2006 09:06:00 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...


I recently saw the movie Munich. It asks some similar questions. When an atrocity is commited against a people...do they then have the right to act atrociously to others? Does this solve anyhting? Does the world become a better or worse place?

5/30/2006 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

More on Harrell Fletcher by Jerry Saltz at ArtNet

5/30/2006 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I haven't seen Munich yet, but I have some strongly held ideas about all this that parallel my thinking about capital punishment. Essentially, what I, personally, would do to someone who murdered someone I love is not the question that determines what the Justice system should do to them. The Justice system has to be impartial, look at the bigger picture, and serve to keep society as civilized as possible for everyone. It must survive, with its integrity intact, the incident that I personally (perhaps rightfully) feel should be dealt with through an eye-for-eye type vengence. The system must stay above that. Capital punishment is a failure in that respect, IMO, and by being so drags us all down to the murderer's level.

So is torture.

The threat of terrorism is not that a few thousand fanatics can really cripple America, but rather that America, in overreacting to an attack, will push too far and the rest of the civilized world will restrain/isolate/weaken us. We're seeing the beginnings of this now, with other nations increasingly distancing themselves from the US ideologically. Those other nations are as horrified by what we're doing in G-bay and Abu Ghraib as they were by 9/11, actions that have essentially dragged us down to the terrorists' level in their estimations.

In other words, the only real threat the terrorists have against us is one we're helping them beat us with.

5/30/2006 10:22:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

the virtually nonexistent line between play-acting and politics these days

There are people who benefit greatly from this ambiguity. Our passive habit of viewing everything on tv, from game shows to "reality" programming, as entertainment is exactly what our current administration needs to keep getting away with all of their misdeeds.

5/30/2006 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger The Artist Extraordinaire said...

I had a scary thought reading the first comment about Zarqawi. I saw an episode of Charlie Rose, where the guest was speculating about what the US will find in Iraq. This was when we were first trying the elections and so on. He said there was a mystery box in Iraq we were going to open. And in it was the answer about Sadaam.

It was either going to say "you were right, the Iraqis were oppressed and waiting for democracy and removing Sadaam was what they needed to get started." or it will say "Sadaam existed because that is the only way to control that area."

Sadly, the second is probably the case, with all the different groups fighting. And now it is our problem. Where Zarqawi comes in, is that he quite possibly could be the next leader. Who else is there? And is it that unrealistic, however frightening, to think of 5-10 years from now Zarqawi being the head of the nation, and the US having dealings with him? I mean there's footage of Rumsfeld in the 80s shaking Sadaam's hand that no one seems to care about.

It will be just like the US finally pulling out of Vietnam.

5/30/2006 02:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Priit said...

This discussion is usually cast in terms of oppositions American vs non-American, or military vs non-military. While these are important dimensions, these are not the whole truth. -- One only has to browse some art journals or look around in art exhibitions today to recognize images that are very similar to these horrific images that have been in media in recent years. Just two examples. Abu Ghraib human piles are exact copies of "performance art" made by one group in my country (Eastern Europe) already a few years before 2001. -- A military interrogator was trying to intimate an Arab by showing bloody hygienic binds.. one only has to check out the highly acclaimed Biennale of Venice, with an artwork by a Portugalian female artist - made with the very same tampons..

You can notice that even the language used by the torturers and some artists is similar - the point is "how much the viewer (or the person tortured) can take".

All art is not innocent today..
My understanding is that many institutions of art education today even encourage students to develop special interest in the lowest phenomena of human life - and that often results in inhuman "art" that glorifies the inhumanity. it seems to me that the philosophy that Ryan wrote about "All my work is built on play" is not taught widely today - one has to come to that oneself.

5/30/2006 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I'll be interested in seeing what type of art Iraquis make in the years to come. Much of the political art here seems sort of shallow -- the "slogan slinging" you refer to. Too many pieces coast along by provoking a sense of adolescent indignation. I wonder if that's because, for most artists, the war is an abstraction, not something they're experiencing personally.

5/30/2006 03:16:00 PM  
Anonymous danonymous said...

Fortunately, we do not live in a totalitarian environment. But I would wonder at how many of us artists would be producing political art if there was a real risk involved. One could safely assume ( I think)that many of us are talking art heads. We go where the conversationis good...and safe.
I ,of course, am included.

5/30/2006 03:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

There was a film at last Cannes (or was it Berlin) that was made with the help of people who really had been tortured by americans for no reason.

Why fake when you can just go and reveal the real?

My philosophy on these topis (war, torture, etc) is simply that whatever you do to another, you are doing to yourself. That is sort of an osmeostasic point of view that sounds like it would be hard to grasp because of solipsism, but actually most people do think halfway like this but in the manner of nations, wrether that nation is political or religious.

"WE againt US"....Hurrah...

Torture is really not enviable solution for people who wish to refer themselves as civilized. I can only imagine the thugs that would be engaged to perform such activities. There is no way to control what they would do. It is like sending a bunch of stupid guys in their mid 20-s to war and then hear they raped every women and burned all children. You don't know what is going on.

The problem with americas is that they are spheres of their society which are beginning to loose notions of what it means to be civilized. How can you imagine gang ghettos with thugs killing each others with fireguns everyday? That is very sick.

I think that breaking the rules that have been signed for in international conventions should be considered a war crime. The good thing is that most americans are unaware of what CIA-Whatever are doing in their back, so instead of making it all become big-nation-hate queen drama, people should simply collect the names of who made all these things in their backs and have them "trialed".

Maybe....get rid of the CIA?
How much morality guilt have the CIA provided to America yet?

Just like instead of hating every muslim, we should put on trials those who encourage and organize the killing of non-believers.

This said, I am not for death penalty. I would go as far as cut an arm if a man had been willingly truly dangerous to a large number of people. I mean, if I had raped and killed a dozen little girls I would understand that people want my arm (one arm) be removed.

If I had killed my wife out of being drunk that is another story.
People think prison is fun and not enough a punition. Well, 20 years in prison is much of a punition.
Loose some grip.

So following the argument, I am coming to the case of the guy being tortured: Who is he? What is his crime? Was he put on trial? What is his sentance?

How can you torture a poor drug seller from the street because you want to get to the head of the mafia? Many tortured are pure innocents.

Priit said:
>>>You can notice that even the >>>>language used by the torturers >>>>and some artists is similar - >>>the point is "how much the >>>>viewer (or the person >>>>tortured) can take".

That is very true. Much of performance art is a form of bondage. Personnally I don;t mind people piling up to have weird sex experiences. The Abu Ghraib drama
is that the army forced onto others acts that they probably secretly wished to perform themselves.

I would really prefer people to have orgy slut parties than to inflict torture on quasi-innocents, and when I saw the images of Abu Ghraib I really
could only focussed on the guards and imagine how much repressed orgy-slut they were.

Cedric Caspesyan

5/30/2006 03:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Oopps... homeostasic.... osmeostasic was me thinking of another word and mixing it.

Cedric Caspesyan

5/30/2006 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>>if I had raped and killed a >>>dozen little girls I would >>>understand that people want my >>>arm (one arm) be removed.

Ok, maybe cut their balls too.

My example was harsh, I just meant that I am against any form of death penalty. As in...I wouldn't even kill Saddam Hussein.
Keep him in prison for studies on egomaniacism...maybe try understand Bush through him.

Cedric Caspesyan

5/30/2006 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger serena said...

This thread has gone off in about four different directions already, from 'what should we do in Iraq?' to 'what about torture?' to 'what should artists do about Iraq and torture?' to the death penalty. I'm sure we all have infinite opinions on all these subjects.

But the central question, to me, is "How, as artists, do we communicate most effectively, in order to address all these hideous concerns?"

People tend to shut down when confronted with too much incontrovertible evidence of atrocity. The sense of associative guilt, plus the shock to the nervous system of even thinking about such things, tends to make us numb ourselves out in self-defense. Thus things get far, far out of hand, because there's not enough effective public attention paid to people in power.

Plus, people tend to have the idea that 'getting upset about something' is the same as 'doing something about it.' Which it isn't.

It has been my experience that nothing ever gets communicated or solved without there existing, first, a genuine affection between people. Affection is demonstrated by a willingness to listen non-defensively, a willingness to learn, and a willingness to admit error.

Obviously, our esteemed leader and his administration are weak on these qualities. My task as an artist, a human being, and a citizen is to work on developing these qualities in myself, first, and hope that somehow they seep into my art and into the world around me.

So perhaps we're asking the wrong questions, or at the very least not going far enough, when we tackle these issues. Maybe we should stop trying to fix things for awhile, and start listening.

5/30/2006 04:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>>But the central question, to >>me, is "How, as artists, do we>>>communicate most effectively, >>>>in order to address all these >>>>>hideous concerns?"


>>>Maybe we should stop trying to ?>>>>fix things for awhile, and >>>>start listening.

You are pinpointing the base of the problem:

It's very hard for an artist to listen. Art is mostly based on self-expression and is quite egocentric.

Artists develop projects that help people be heard, and present them as art (but who will remember who was who in a Mark di Suvero and Rirkrit Tiravanija Peace Tower?).

Documentary approaches and curating seem your best compromises.


Cedric Caspesyan

5/30/2006 06:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

It's in the cracks, Ms. Fusco suggests, that the political truth is revealed.

Cotter is prone to empty antiestablishment statements like this, in this case befitting a work that sounds like a horrendous trivialization of torture. Load an issue like this into a work, and Cotter stops looking with his eyes. I wouldn't follow him down that stray path. As you point out, this becomes rather easy to hash out once you approach it on political and moral terms rather than artistic ones: you either believe in justifiable torture or liberty for all. The Constitution is rather clear on the matter. I wish our president was.

5/30/2006 06:24:00 PM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

It seems to me that as an artist, if you want to make a real impact on the political climate, you have to do more than your art. Your art can speak for your motives, but your actions speak for themselves.

Victor Hugo was a statesman who championed the inequities visited upon convicts in France. He fought the judicial system with his words and through political office. Action is what will make a differnce in a political environment, even if that action is manning the phones for a cause, serving dinner in a soup-line or running for office.

5/30/2006 07:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Rebel Belle said...

Thomas Hirshhorn's Superficial Engagement comes to mind as an exhibition that honestly grapples with these issues; how to avoid the didactic trap and to present some emotional truth. The problem is that once again, the same artists are preaching to the same choir. Contemporary art operates in such an hermetic system that it just doesn't really get to the right audience. Yes, it's bloody and gory, as artists, we already know that. This kind of work never really leaves the'hood, and it doesn't really pose much of a threat to a world that is in disagreement.

5/30/2006 09:53:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I agree with Susan.

I also wonder how much impact a protest can have in a free society. I suspect it's much more powerful in countries where free speech is taboo, where people don't realize that they can object, stand up, change things. In my neighborhood, someone is always holding a picket sign or urging passersby to sign petitions. Most don't even notice anymore what they're for. It's sad.

5/30/2006 11:23:00 PM  
Blogger serena said...

I was distinctly underwhelmed by that Thomas Hirschorn show, for precisely the reasons you mention. Presenting 'emotional truth' is all too easy, and doesn't lead to much meaningful debate.

Producing documentaries and curating are excellent options for those with an inclination to produce documentaries and curate, but the problem with being an artist, as you say, is that largely, we do what we do. I am modestly suggesting that we continue doing what we do, only a little more consciously.

5/30/2006 11:24:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

It seems to me that as an artist, if you want to make a real impact on the political climate, you have to do more than your art.

When you do more than your art, I don't think you necessarily have to do it as an artist. Seems like that's just part of being a citizen. One's art practice could be entirely removed from political or social concerns, and that person could still be very involved in political or social causes. Susan's suggestions are good. But I don't think they apply only to artists.

5/31/2006 03:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>>>When you do more than your >>>>art, I don't think you >>>>necessarily have to do it as >>>an artist. Seems like that's >>>>just part of being a citizen.

Hmm...The Guerilla Girls were often seen in front of the Whitney recently.

Their protestation was perhaps only-part-of-being-a-citizen affair but I'm sure they get a little more attention because of the way they costume.

So there's that to consider:
how one can mix social action with creativity directly on the field where it must take place.

Cildo Mereiles (great south american artist) once printed slogans anonymously on coca-cola bottles that he distributed again in the market (that was in the 1960's). That sounds to me like a successful attempt at making political art. Something interventional and risky (I mean, coca-cola could have sued), and that can reach a wider audience.


Cedric Caspesyan

5/31/2006 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Cedric, I didn't mean to suggest that there was anything wrong w/ political activism through art. There are certainly plenty of good examples of that, including the two you mention.

My point, in response to Susan's comment above, was that any person, not just an artist, can choose the sorts of political and social involvement she describes. And those are good things, of course.

5/31/2006 02:49:00 PM  

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