Field Guide: From our Education & Community Programs department, an evolving guidebook navigating the expanded terrain of art and creative life.
Lots of Palestinian crafts were on view in the West Bank: textiles in the Hebron market, hand-blown glass and ceramics on the way out of town. In Nablus, shoemakers, soap manufacturers and bakers worked away on semi-automated equipment that must have been Ottoman. Absent the demolished buildings and ruined squares, the old parts of the [...]
Lots of Palestinian crafts were on view in the West Bank: textiles in the Hebron market, hand-blown glass and ceramics on the way out of town. In Nablus, shoemakers, soap manufacturers and bakers worked away on semi-automated equipment that must have been Ottoman. Absent the demolished buildings and ruined squares, the old parts of the city could have been a theme park.
There was also community art in unlikely places: in the Aida Refugee Camp outside Bethlehem I visited Al Rowwad Center, which began with theater and has expanded into dance, visual arts, and computer training for children and programs for women. Its director, Abdelfattah Abusrour, spoke eloquently about wanting to give the latest generations of refugee children a way to express themselves and to “remain attached to the human values we share.” He called his program “Beautiful Resistance.”
When I asked him about collaborating across borders he answered only with examples of difficulties. A play he’d co-written with Americans Naomi Wallace and Lisa Schlesinger was said to support terrorism before it was even produced. An exhibition of paintings by the refugee camp’s children curated by an Israeli student was taken down by a university museum shortly after it went up.
Another tourist mentioned a prize competition that pulled Larissa Sansour’s funding for a piece called Nation Estate. In the proposed work, Sansour had imagined Palestinian cities squeezed so small that they’re single floors in a skyscraper; you’d go by elevator from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. After traveling between the two, I thought the idea was funny, and possibly an improvement on the existing system of segregated roads and checkpoints. Back in the U.S. I heard about another short-lived U.S. exhibition including both Palestinian and Israeli artists including Sigalit Landau, whose Barbed Hula is a video of herself hula hooping on a Tel Aviv beach with barbed wire.
What is art for? To decorate walls? Romanticize what is? Naturalize power? Make visible another’s experience? Express trauma? Imagine a different world? Unsettle the givens of this one?
In Jerusalem I joined a community art tour given by the Muslala group of artists and activists. They work out of a repurposed bomb shelter on the seam line between east and west Jerusalem. Irit, the Israeli guide, took us to see the sometimes subtle interventions the group has made in the built environment of this transitional zone.
She asked whether a sprinkling of arabic-inspired flowers decorating a European styled housing complex was a naive or critical gesture. But when people on the tour started talking about history and architecture, an American said that this was not the place for that kind of discussion.
Irit showed us a rebuilt staircase that reconnects the Arabic and Israeli parts of the city. And a lemon tree–important to Palestinian families, someone said–grafted onto a Eucalyptus, a species that’s been used to drain swamps in Israel. “Is it working?” Irit asked. Is the “Lemonyptus” alive?
On the road back to Tel Aviv, Fred pointed out a detention camp. Then came corporate office buildings, a military complex, malls, lively streets and pleasant neighborhoods with one-story houses that reminded me of vintage California bungalows.
My hotel was a repurposed movie theater in the soft Bauhaus style that makes parts of Tel Aviv feel like leafy european neighborhoods. It’s not far from the site of another suicide bombing near Dizengoff center. In the hotel lobby, a film of Charlie Chaplin as the Great Dictator was looping over and over. No one watched. Outside, Arab shops sold humous and falafel. I strolled down Rothschild Boulevard and checked out the inscrutable graffiti on Sheinkin that conference art historians had told me about.
On St. George’s Street I ran into an Israeli “Stop the Occupation” protest; there were drummers, chanters, clowns and sign-bearers. They looked enthusiastic, marching in support of Palestinian rights. I found my way back to the hotel. In Tel Aviv, my maps worked.
As a tour guide, I try to keep Duchamp’s idea in mind, that the viewer completes the work of art. I wonder whether the tourist passing through a place has an analogous role and what it might be. To consume what the place offers? To represent it? Tag it? To bear witness? Are we responsible for what we see?
In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012. The West Bank Tour Guides saw wonderfully to the care and feeding of the tourists they showed around. In Nablus it was kunafeh on the [...]
In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012.
The West Bank Tour Guides saw wonderfully to the care and feeding of the tourists they showed around. In Nablus it was kunafeh on the street–a creamy, syrupy sweet browned and then flipped in a pizza-sized pan. In Hebron, it was lunch in a cool upstairs room, sinking into soft couches amongst embroidered cushions and watching maqlubeh– “upside down” chicken, rice and cauliflower–upended on a huge platter before our eyes.
The guides took us down market streets and into spice shops crammed full with sacks of saffron, zatar, nuts and mint. Often, they also drew attention to less consumable details that I, for one, would have missed seeing if I were by myself. When Fred Schlomka pointed out Israeli settler houses popping up overhead in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, I was surprised. The street level market there was so packed with pistachios, grape leaves, sheep heads, embroidered abayas and souvenir t-shirts that I’d likely never have looked up to see armed guards stationed on settler rooftops above.
In Hebron’s quieter market it’s possible that I’d have noticed the rock-littered chicken wire overhead but it was the tour guide who said it’s there to protect pedestrians from rocks and trash settlers throw down from their roofs. Not only was space divided horizontally in the West Bank, but also vertically; it took the helpful words of tour guides to point out for me this dimension in spatial segregation.
What is the role of a tour guide? To encourage you to look with your own eyes, or to feed you information? To prompt you to connect what you see with your feelings and experience, or to imagine meanings outside it? And should place-based tour guides just describe what’s there, or let you know what it means for them?
Majdi, who called himself an activist, told hair-raising stories about civilian casualties inflicted by Israeli tanks and artillery in Nablus, about the murder of a priest, about appalling physical and social conditions in the Balata Refugee Camp, (the same camp currently identified by Google Maps as a Green Olive Tour meeting point in another city). Majdi also pointed out the similarity in sound and sense between the greetings Salaam and Shalom. His tour left me drained.
Other Palestinian tour guides told stories about their own everyday difficulties, many having to do with freedom of movement. Samer, who is Greek-educated, knows the Louvre, and has taken his family on safari in Kenya, is barred from Israel, just a short drive away. For everyday matters, his wife’s permit allows her into Tel Aviv for business, he said, but his does not. And even with the right exit permits, travel abroad apparently requires leaving through a third country, Jordan.
Yamin showed a group of us freely mobile tourists a long string of black block numbers stamped into his Canadian passport. The numbers mark him as Palestinian and therefore restricted in where he can go. His anti-visa reminded me of the restricted U.S. passports mentioned in Larissa Sansour’s video, Soup over Bethlehem. I also thought of artist Emily Jacir’s documentation of her travels in Israel on behalf of Palestinians who can’t go. While there, she performs everyday tasks for them: putting flowers on a grave in Jerusalem for a mourner; just playing soccer with a child; paying a bill in a stipulated but simultaneously off-limits post office.
The Palestinian tour guides talked about wanting to get together socially with their Israeli counterparts, to share a meal together or go camping. But some of these border-crossing proposals were apparently illegal, and all subversive. The concept of tour guide socializing as provocative was to me a new and exotic one.
Some of the places where the Palestinian tour guides couldn’t go gave me the willies. In Hebron I found it daunting to venture through checkpoints bristling with Israeli soldiers without a guide’s reassuring presence, especially when I noticed machine guns casually pointing at our backs, with fingers on the triggers.
It was also in Hebron that a small sub-set of my tour group went alone into an Israeli settlement. Walking first through an empty market street from which Palestinians had been evicted felt creepy. Then, after seeing so many refugee camp children cooped up in narrow alleys, the bright settlement playground with its swings and slides came as a shock.
On the bus our Bethlehem guide Samer shared with us family recipes for lemon syrup and for brined olives. You know how much salt to use, he said, once an egg will float on the mix. He talked a little about his trilingual children and a denied travel permit for one daughter. He told the story of a cousin who’d gone storming through a checkpoint with an unconscious child in the back seat to drive her to a hospital. Samer also told jokes: if a rooster lays an egg on the wall, he asked, whose egg is it?
In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012. Israel’s Separation Barrier reminded me of the Berlin Wall–pumped up and on a bender. I could see the barrier that divides Israel from the West [...]
In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012.
Israel’s Separation Barrier reminded me of the Berlin Wall–pumped up and on a bender. I could see the barrier that divides Israel from the West Bank all over the place. It meanders like a river, forming oxbows around Palestinian villages; sometimes it even goes in circles. On my maps, it actually showed up, but not always following the Green Line. Instead, in some places the wall wandered inside the West Bank, appearing to cartographically incorporate blobs of it into Israel proper.
The Separation Barrier is not just an artifact of visual culture, of course. It effectively divides people from people and from places. Yamin, a Palestinian guide, took a group of us to visit a farmer, Abd al Rabbeh, who said the wall is cutting off his farm land from the Al Walaja village where he lives.
If he stays in town, he said, he can’t tend his olive trees. But if he neglects them, he loses them. In his village, Palestinians can’t get building permits from the Israeli authorities for their homes but unpermitted homes are demolished. It sounded to me like Catch-22 all over again.
Abd seems to receive visitors from everywhere. We signed an already internationally-autographed guest book. We admired his hand-watered garden. We shared hummus. We looked up the hill where bulldozers were kicking up dust, inching across a ridge line, moving closer, I suppose, to surrounding the village. Meanwhile, Abd said that the pigeons can go everywhere. And back in Bethlehem you can buy a newfangled souvenir olive wood nativity scene with a miniature Separation Barrier built right in.
In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012. The first thing that confused me about the West Bank is that it lies east of Israel. It’s also hard to explain where or what [...]
In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012.
The first thing that confused me about the West Bank is that it lies east of Israel. It’s also hard to explain where or what it is without referencing an unfinished and ongoing history, and without using loaded terms. I’ll venture that the West Bank I visited is the territory occupied by Israel after the 1967 (Six-Day) War and separated from it by the Green (or 1949 Armistice Agreement) Line. Its name refers to its location on the Jordan River, not to its direction relative to Israel. While there, I had trouble knowing where I really was.
Since 1993 it has been divided into three parts: there are areas controlled by Israel, others by the Palestinian Authority, and a third mixed type that I never understood. The first two are mutually exclusive: Fred, my Israeli tour guide, told me he wasn’t allowed in Area A, nor was his car with its yellow license plates on certain highways. The Palestinian guides were barred from Area C, nor were their green-plated vehicles allowed on many roads and bypass tunnels.
On the road I saw checkpoints, sometimes apparently unattended; concrete blocks between Areas, and confounding bypass roads that segregated Palestinian and Israeli traffic into separate but presumably equal flows.
“Internationals” like me could, I think, go anywhere, although my Lonely Planet warned about certain notorious checkpoints, car rental issues and so on. To go with local guides whose movements were restricted called for a logistics of pickups and drop offs, meeting points and waits at local tea shops. Normally I use travel maps to show where I’ve been and where I’m going. But in the West Bank, travel maps failed me. They never showed where C ended and A (or even B) began.
Instead, they smoothed the West Bank out into one undifferentiated region, unmarked by Israeli areas, Palestinian areas, or by the barriers and agricultural gates that control traffic. Their keys described the number of lanes each road held and how it was surfaced, but left out who was allowed to use it or whether you could get there from here in the vehicle you were in.
Except for one page in Lonely Planet that showed the largest, my travel maps also left uncoded contentious places where people live, like the refugee camps that have existed in the West Bank for more than sixty years. What my paper map called “El Balata” could have been another ancient Arab village, instead of a community of 30,000 Palestinians under United Nations administration. My downloaded map called the “Ayda Camp Gate” to the refugee camp in Bethlehem a “tourist attraction”–making my images of the children living there another global voyeur’s souvenir–which, of course, they are.
Mostly, the refugee camps just didn’t show up on maps. On the ground, though, they were very materially there–concrete and treeless. In the Balata Refugee Camp outside Nablus, the tour guide Majdi told me the original tents had been simply replicated in concrete. Three generations have grown up there, he said, and few have the money to get out; the kids are traumatized by the violence they’ve known; the Women’s Center is trying to build a playground so mothers can use its services. To me it seemed like a lot of issues in a well-populated place that barely registers in the visual culture.
The many Israeli settlements also appeared on my maps simply as towns or suburbs. When I saw them on the hilltops the settlements looked like a cross between upscale real estate developments and medieval stone fortresses.
Outside Bethlehem in Beit Sahour, I stayed with the family of a Palestinian tour guide, Samer Kokaly. From the home’s marble balcony I could look across a valley to the Har Homa Settlement on the hill opposite. My host said the mountaintops are shaved off before settlement houses are built. His own house, he said, had been shelled from the direction of Har Homa.
I didn’t expect my maps to flesh out geography with such personal stories or to label what tour guides both left and right differentiated as economic or ideological settlements. But the same kind of infographic tools I usually trust to find my way around made a strange fiction of West Bank realities.
In 1969 the artist Alighiero Boetti made a work, Occupied Territories, from a tracing of the Sinai, Gaza, and the West Bank severed from their newspaper context, abstracting cultural places into empty natural forms. In contrast, my contemporary maps were filled with data, but they often erased power’s traces in the landscape. If a place is not on the map, does it really exist? Where does information end and art begin? Whose reality does any map represent?
In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012. Read part one. When I arrived, jet-lagged, in Tel Aviv, people advised me to take to the beach, which I did. It’s long, Mediterranean, and [...]
In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012. Read part one.
When I arrived, jet-lagged, in Tel Aviv, people advised me to take to the beach, which I did. It’s long, Mediterranean, and festive: couples thwack balls back and forth in the shallows, kids build castles and moats, there’s a promenade patterned in Copacabana-like swirls, and beachside shops offer fruit smoothies and sunglasses.
Farther south in the old Arab port of Jaffa the seaside road followed the line of a Crusader seawall. An Ottoman-era clock tower marked a square, outdoor cafes encroached on the sidewalks, and tourists snapped away at fantastical graffiti.
Between this gentrifying Jaffa port and the Tel Aviv beaches, I walked through an area where neither center seemed to set the style. A grassy park and a rocky area interrupted the sandy beach. One or two people were reading on the rocks and Muslim families barbecued in the park. Across the street the Hotel David Intercontinental towered over a mosque. On the beach side stood a memorial/museum, a glass box inserted into a stone ruin. And at the edge of the rocks, an abandoned hulk of modern concrete, burned out and layered with tags and other graffiti, overlooked the sea.
My Lonely Planet explained that this transitional zone had been an Arab neighborhood before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The glass and stone Etzel museum commemorated a pre-state military group and the battles it fought. The blackened concrete building–once an aquarium, then a disco–was the site of a suicide bombing in 2001. The mosque had survived both the war and a riot that followed the bombing.
Obviously, much history lay beneath the quiet surface of that sunny space. I wondered about the different people using the Manshiye neighborhood peaceably now, what it meant to them, what they’d want to build or how they’d re-inscribe it if they could.
Later I remembered an Israeli artist, Yael Bartana, who imagined a different marking of place in this vicinity. Her video, A Declaration, (which appeared in the Walker’s 2007 Brave New Worlds exhibition), showed a young man heroically rowing out to a little rock offshore. When he arrives he replaces the Israeli flag flying over this tiny territory with an olive tree. After my walk through the area’s unsettled mix of elements, his gesture still seemed to me absurd and brave at once.
The convivial SupraSpace conference spanned centuries of mostly western art, from Roman imperialist narrative and Byzantine sacred spaces to Chelsea rooftops, Flux-Tours and the overlapping soundscapes that simultaneously occupy the same space in the Old City of Jerusalem. There were cognitive maps of Treblinka, rendered in ghostly pencil lines. An Israeli geographer talked about landscapes–the naive and the critical–painted on the Israeli side of the Separation Barrier in the West Bank.
The conference ended with a talk by Israeli artist Larry Abramson, who’d struggled with using the image of an abandoned Palestinian village that had been effectively erased in Israeli historical memory and artistic representation. Abramson described a dilemma of showing what was really there without “taking advantage” or condescending to the absent Palestinians.
There were no Palestinian scholars at the conference to present villages, walls, rooftops or imperialist narrative from their point of view, although an Israeli-Palestinian film on water that I missed was screening elsewhere in the city. The next day, I left for the West Bank.
Maybe because I’m a wanderer at heart and perpetual outsider, places fascinate me–what they look like, what’s gone into their making, how people live there–and I’m drawn to art and photography that visualizes places. When an academic conference came up this year about space and place in art and visual culture, I looked forward to [...]
Maybe because I’m a wanderer at heart and perpetual outsider, places fascinate me–what they look like, what’s gone into their making, how people live there–and I’m drawn to art and photography that visualizes places. When an academic conference came up this year about space and place in art and visual culture, I looked forward to presenting a paper I’ve been working on, and to bringing to the conference a Walker tour guide’s concern with viewer experience.
My subject was an Indian artist who also focuses on personal experience. Atul Bhalla’s multidisciplinary works make visible an ordinarily ignored stretch of the river that flows past Delhi, foregrounding people’s relationships with water and the natural bodies it’s placed in.
The SupraSpace conference took place June 3-4, 2012, at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel; after it finished, I planned to tour the West Bank, seeing for myself, I hoped, what these contentious places look like, how they’re experienced by the people who live there, and how they’re represented in visual culture and art.
When I discovered, belatedly, that a cultural and academic boycott of Israel is on and gathering steam, the trip became problematic for me. Whether I attended or not, I’d be making a political statement about a conflict I know shockingly little about. In the end, I took inspiration from a collaboration my son mentioned, between Edward Said, the late postcolonial critic and advocate for the Palestinian cause and Israeli-Argentinian conductor Daniel Barenboim. Together and improbably they had founded an orchestra for Israeli and Arabic music students.
I took both journeys, speaking in Israel about place consciousness, subjective experience, and an artist who models a relationship with a substance common to everyone. And then I traveled to the West Bank, trying to look as responsibly as an interested but inexpert outsider can–and trying to make my camera work. It’s taken me a while to put this series of blog posts together; they’re more like personal essays than the raw data of experience. Nor have I followed the threads of history back to the labyrinth where conflict began. These posts try to tell of what I saw in places I don’t belong to, but passed through as a fellow traveler on the planet.
Here it is, the “Slab Angel,” hand crafted by Walker Tour Guides in an epic bronze pour at Vesper College on November 2. The piece will be on view and for sale at the Vesper College holiday sale and show December 2.
Here it is, the “Slab Angel,” hand crafted by Walker Tour Guides in an epic bronze pour at Vesper College on November 2.
A Walker Tour Guide field trip (November 2) to Vesper college for a bronze pour was a gas. Many of us expected a tame demonstration that we could photograph from a safe distance. But no, the evening was to be participatory learning at its most adventuresome: we made the molds, and what’s more, we poured [...]
A Walker Tour Guide field trip (November 2) to Vesper college for a bronze pour was a gas. Many of us expected a tame demonstration that we could photograph from a safe distance. But no, the evening was to be participatory learning at its most adventuresome: we made the molds, and what’s more, we poured the bronze.
The college, a niche institution that grants MFAs in Ecological Architecture, is located in a repurposed brick telephone building off East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Dan Noyes, its director, and assistant Heidi Sime issued goggles and gloves and showed us how to use power tools, chisels and hammers. With these tools and in a spirit of experimentation and cooperation, we chipped a pitted figure (already outlined) a la Giacometti into the wooden boards that served as a mold for our “slab angel.”
Two of us were summoned outside where a small but fiery furnace, shooting blue flames out its sides, brought the metal to a formidable 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. We received a quick lesson on handling a hot, heavy crucible with a three-foot long set of two-man tongs that could hook the pot, clamp it, and transport it to the mold. We also received helmets, leather leg gaiters and giant gloves as well as the urgent advice to move quickly but smoothly and under no circumstances, to drop the crucible.
When the mold was ready, Dan pulled off the furnace’s cover and sidewall to reveal the fabled crucible and its contents of superheated molten bronze. The thing looked dark, dangerous and hotter than Hades, but we managed to snare the container, lift it, move it, and tip its load of liquified metal into the wooden mold, which immediately burst into yellow flames. Dan doused them with sand; we set the empty crucible down and unclamped the tongs.
Later the mold, partly gone but still holding its hardening lump of bronze, went into a wood fire (only 800 degrees) until the mold was burned up. Feeling somewhat surprised and mightily pleased at our hands-on mold-making and bronze-casting achievements, we sat around the fire, feasting on grapes, camembert, truffles and wine, all provided by our hosts. Heidi says the finished piece will be on view at “Scarpa’s Holiday Sale/Show” Friday, December 2 from 5 to 9 pm at Vesper College, 201 6th Street SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.
This experiment in ethical looking has taken me from witnessing other people to viewing corporate, state and global institutions–trading visual places with the entities that watch us, that act on our behalf, control us, or all three. Outside of “Exposed,” entire art exhibitions center on surveillance themes: a fellow tour guide told me about a [...]
This experiment in ethical looking has taken me from witnessing other people to viewing corporate, state and global institutions–trading visual places with the entities that watch us, that act on our behalf, control us, or all three. Outside of “Exposed,” entire art exhibitions center on surveillance themes: a fellow tour guide told me about a show that exposes Cold War spying on its citizens by the East German government. On this side of the Cold War, the FBI’s files on U.S. citizens still make the news, while museums have looked at responses to old and new surveillance. Self-surveillance as an art project can work as a personal act of conceptual resistance.
Making institutions themselves visible seems point up our vulnerability as subjects and also our responsibility as viewers. Last time I wrote about Trevor Paglen’s photograph of a chemical weapons plant and Simon Norfolk’s image of Echelon transmitters. Several years ago, the Walker Art Center exhibit “Event Horizon” featured a photograph from Paul Shambroom’s “Security Series” that documents sites in the U.S. made and used for terrorist attack training. ”Exposed” also includes such a mock village for military training:
Its emptiness reminds me of a stage set, its drama surely a coming street battle. But once the battle is lost and won, what happens to the village? What if this scene is afterwards and the little people in the foreground are responding to an electrical glitch that left the houses dark and the streets and minarets lit? What if someone offstage is planning schools and hospitals? Or more chillingly, what if the schools and hospitals are part of the takeover plan? Trying to imagine more than the bloodless soldier training the caption dictates frees me to think about warfare’s aims and consequences, about the democratic control of communities, state power and the care of humans.
I want to try on alternate readings for other images in the exhibition–the street and social reform photographs, the celebrity and voyeuristic images, the “surveillance style” photographs, the consciously posing subjects, the unaware and helpless subjects. I want to bring the latent stories in the images to life, and give voice to the people visually represented.
For this project in creative and hopefully ethical looking, I need your help: many different imaginations are better than one. So, Thursday, August 25 I’m hosting an Open Field event to re-imagine the stories within “Exposed’s” images and re-think our relationship with the people in them. Please check out this upcoming Game of Words on the Open Field website and put it on your calendar.
My project of looking ethically seems moot when “Surveillance” photographers switch the subject from human beings to institutions. Images of a machine or building unencumbered by memories hardly inspires concern, respect, or reciprocity. And the power of the intrusive camera is compromised by the relative power of institutions that can ward off prying eyes, confiscate memory [...]
My project of looking ethically seems moot when “Surveillance” photographers switch the subject from human beings to institutions. Images of a machine or building unencumbered by memories hardly inspires concern, respect, or reciprocity. And the power of the intrusive camera is compromised by the relative power of institutions that can ward off prying eyes, confiscate memory chips, or make arrests.
Take top secret military sites, for example. A chemical and biological weapons testing complex is no poor immigrant blinking in the light of a magnesium flash:
The Dugway Proving Ground has so much control over its image that you can barely see it. When I clicked on its Google-listed web site to learn more about the place, I was stopped at the virtual perimeter by a blaring error message complete with my ICP address. Making public what an institution wants to keep private takes stronger eyes than mine.
To get his image, photographer Trevor Paglen resorted to astronomy instruments to peer across the thick atmosphere separating him from the site. Even so, he hadn’t a long enough lens to make this invisible thing knowable, or to strip it naked for our scrutiny.
Instead, the indefinite image suggests a sublime landscape–transcendent as a painted heaven or wilderness empire. All this photographic document of distance can do, as long as its caption remains attached, is to make the military plant dimly present. Is this enough information to dispel our ignorance? To convince us to agree or disagree with these activities done on our watch? Or is the whole thing just too far away to worry about?
Simon Norfolk’s also-ghostly transmission towers from his series on the Ascension Islands are the instruments of a global dataveillance program. They are also the objects of his concern about democratic controls on such projects. The image alone, severed from its series, is an enigmatic play of wispy gray on gray. It left me wondering about the fragility of technology rather than worrying alongside its author about the effect of shadowy global organizations on democracy and world peace.
Thomas Demand’s video loop of an ordinary surveillance camera seems a more obvious cautionary image: we are all suspects now it seems to say, monitored by machines whose capability to control people is a matter for their manufacturers to crow about. Instead of ignoring this brave new phenomenon, perhaps we should fight back: map those CCTVs, zap them, find out where to look and how to hide.
I did look, at least for an image of Demand’s “Camera” to post as the touchstone for these questions about privacy, visual control, accountability and security, It turned out the camera image was originally shown with another piece of the artist’s, “Embassy,” which re-creates a nondescript Nigerian embassy office, where the early 2001 theft of some stationery seems to have changed the world.
That context changed the way I saw “Camera,” as though the image had been recaptioned. Instead of an all-seeing Cyclops, the fake camera became a blind witness to a future history it was helpless to prevent. Yawing compulsively on its cardboard wall, it seemed neutered, its soundtrack more annoying in the gallery than alarming. What can any camera see? What can it expose? Who owns it? Who watches its images? Who has the patience to watch?
The issues these images raise seem more political than ethical, unless the two are bound up with one another. Do we retreat into the delights of voyeurism and let power take care of its own business? As viewers, do we accept the mystery of hard-to-photograph state and corporate institutions? Do we try to see through the distances that separate us from them? If we look at photographs that do help us see our society’s well-protected institutions, are we responsible for this knowledge? Can we responsibly look away?
Postscript: The August 8 screening at the Summer Music and Films program, (“I’ve Got My Eyes on You”) is “1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.” Our surveillance society has also been anticipated by an abundance of surveillance sci fi novels, documented by countless photographs, and has engendered the academic discipline of Surveillance Studies. Countless web sites describe this environment, capitalize on it, advocate resistance or seek to understand it.