Moore’s Law does not work for images: once a depiction has ‘jumped the shark’, no increase in scale, distribution, or other form of push or package can save it from slipping back into noise. If Daesh — commonly referred to as ISIS — has taught us anything, it is that the economy of images, like all markets, undergoes fatigue. Although it might be difficult, please consider the evolution of their pornography for just a second.
Even though beheadings, the destruction of irreplaceable artworks, and other recorded horrors should be graphic enough in and of themselves, Daesh directors have continuously turned to escalating production values as well as increased scale. Why are such dressings now necessary for something that claims its emotional power by being first and foremost a document, or to put it another way: could these appeals to style and gimmicks be a sign of overcompensation? Instead of considering the media burnout of these terrible actors, let’s flip the question: how to create and publicize activist images when the representation of crime and terror has become ubiquitous to the point of banality?
The artist and thinker James Bridle and I have been engaged in a particular discussion recently, namely, how to make the invisible visible — particularly when it comes to concealed abuses of power, and those who lack political representation. In the context of this catalog, such a query turns on the body of three new works exhibited at Nome, Seamless Transitions, 2015, the Fraunhofer Lines (series No. 001-5), 2015, and the Waterboarded Documents (series No. 001-2), respectively.
Although each work is independent, they all pivot on differing aspects of a linked contradiction Bridle has been staring at for some time: while human rights are self-evident and inalienable, why are those outside the thinking of the law — migrants, refugees, so-called illegal combatants, and other ‘aliens’—often striped of their rights? If the exception proves the rule, are these persons (de facto) non-persons (de jure), and likewise, is the requirement of humane treatment thus suspended? To critique the handling of such ‘special cases’, Bridle’s work goes to and through the very limit of state jurisdiction, the border, and its related techno-management systems. To provide some background, it is worth first mentioning a previous piece by the artist first.
Building off Giorgio Gambian’s work on pariahs, Bridle appropriated those holographic androids used in international airports to promote traveler services so as to form his installation, Homo Sacer, 2014. This automated and disembodied ‘agent’ instead presents a litany of laws establishing citizenship for an implied, but non-present subject under review. As a mirror to this phantom immigration officer, the centerpiece of the show on view records the absence of persons not granted free transit.
In Seamless Transitions, 2015, a composite CGI fly-through of British sites of immigrant detention, trial, and deportation are modeled after eyewitness accounts — photography is not permitted within these restricted installations. Although depopulated, Bridle’s fixed P.O.V. camera here tracks a kind of procedural chain of events following a denied asylum seeker’s movement through processing and ultimately toward his or her rendition by private jet. While the animation simulates a procession through these drab intuitional spaces, the fixed nature of the linear shot coupled to the film’s set narrative lends the viewer the sense of being mindlessly forced through a deterministic and indifferent apparatus.
Bridle first came to study these spaces after recording similar charter planes with flight tracking and other airspace monitoring software — particularly planes used in the ‘extraordinary rendition’ program, extrajudicial governmental abductions of alleged War on Terror suspects and other foreign nationals by the United States of America in concert with the United Kingdom and other NATO and non-NATO member states. The nature of these flights has been revealed in Freedom of Information Act requests, yet due to the sensitive nature of the material, many of the files, such as the (US) Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, were received in redacted form. As a way to amplify the paradox of these semi-disclosures, Bridle produced a set of prints by scanning these files through facial recognition software — not unlike the kind used by the Transportation Security Administration and other similar border control services — to plot spectrographs dependent on the amount of light that gets blocked by the intentionally obscurant marks on the reports’ page. Taking the title of Fraunhofer Lines, or the technical name physicists use to study the material properties of refracted lighted, the resultant rainbow-like grids allude to the titular reference coded into the PRISM program, a clandestine intelligence gathering network run by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) to covertly collect internet communications from at least nine major US internet companies without warrant. To flip these dynamics on themselves, Bridle completes the exhibition with his own targeted surveillance.
While it is not included in the exhibition itself, the artist has recently launched Citizen Ex, a browser extension that traces the ‘algorithmic citizenship’ of your web searches, or said in another way, the program delineates the places through which internet search requests are routed and/or registered. One such internet country code top-level domain name, ‘.io’, denotes the British Indian Ocean Territory, a geostrategic archipelago situated in the Indian Ocean halfway between Tanzania and Indonesia. The largest island in this chain, Diego Garcia, is host not only to a newly founded marine nature reserve, but also a US military base, which Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, has stated was used by the CIA for ‘nefarious activities’ including the waterboarding of prisoners as well as managing their extraction through the extraordinary rendition program. Maps of this island round out the final work in this exhibition; however, each has been ‘redacted’ in a sense as Bridle has overlaid them with blurry water damaged documents related to these ‘extreme interrogation’ tactics so as to ape a set of Diego Garcia flight logs that were likewise damaged under curious circumstances.
When it comes to images and progressive politics, the question of how to depict a subaltern in such a way as to not exploit her and her body yet again is a key concern of feminist art production. In a recent lecture at the Kunsthall Athena, Greek theorist Angela Dimitrakaki noted how feminist artists first sought to withhold images of the female form as a kind of conceptual and literal refusal of objectification, while a later generation of producers turned back to the display of actual bodies as a way to resituate the then overly abstracted idea of womanhood. Yet, from a dialectical standpoint, these antipodes could be resolved by an image that is both there and not there, a specter, as it were. While it might be entertaining to consider that the above works attempt to exorcize the darkest spirits of our global police infrastructure, their ability to haunt our imagination might be where their real power lies.