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On September 11, 2012, I began serving as the Artist-In-Residence at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, or NSP, in New York. The NSP has legally challenged abuses of power by the Bush and Obama administrations’, such as uses of torture, unlawful detention, targeted killings with drones, CIA kidnapping and rendition, and the arbitrary nature of no-fly lists.
The NSP was also responsible for the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request and subsequent litigation that led to the release of over 100,000 pages of documents that came to be known as the Torture FOIA. Among this vast archive of documents is a set of U.S. Military death certificates and autopsy reports of Iraqi and Afghan men who have been killed while in American detention centers. I have been working with those documents in a project called “Did You Kiss the Dead Body?”
A recent public conversation between myself and ACLU attorney, Alexander Abdo, held at the Lambent Foundation in conjunction with Aesthetic Justice, an exhibition curated by Niels Van Tomme, raised a number of important questions surrounding different legal, medical, and cultural frameworks needed to understand the material history and identity of individuals who have died in U.S. custody since September 11th, 2001. How do the lives of the men in these documents come to be remembered and brought into our shared history?
As an artist, part of my logic suggests that the documents perform a second stage of violence to the bodies that have already experienced incarceration and death, further subjecting them to dismemberment and scrutiny. The documents are contained within an archive, which serves a secular memorial function, erasing rather than helping us to remember these excesses of power. I am interested in augmenting the secular archive with alternate forms of remembrance and mourning in order to make these incarcerations and deaths more significant in our cultural memory. From a legal standpoint, the documents serve as proof of the excesses of power, providing the possibility to hold those in power accountable for their acts. Their existence is viewed as beneficial and there is a belief in the underlying functional rationality of the document and the archive. The residency was a way to explore the philosophical gap between my view as an artist, engaged with ideas of empathy and remembrance, and the legal perspective of these documents as rational instruments serving justice.
During the residency I had multiple conversations about empathy, intimacy, trauma, the law, torture, and death with lawyers in the National Security and Human Rights Project. Many of the lawyers I spoke with brought the first legal challenges to the Bush administration’s illegal conduct. These challenges included cases like Ali v. Rumsfeld, which sought to prosecute Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior military officials for their roles in the arrest, detention, and torture of innocent men in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, which filed suit on behalf of five extraordinary rendition victims and targeted a subsidiary of Boeing that was responsible for flights and logistical support in the transportation of rendition victims to CIA black sights in countries known to use torture. An interview I did with Jameel Jaffer, the Director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, about last week’s Supreme Court oral argument, Clapper v. Amnesty, which challenges the U.S. government’s warrantless electronic surveillance of Americans’ correspondence with foreign individuals, can be found at Creative Time Reports.
Organizations like the ACLU, through litigated declassified sources, and Wikileaks, through leaked classified ones, have made available to the public huge amounts of information confirming egregious abuses by the U.S. Government domestically and internationally. The problem with releasing such vast archives of information is that they remain largely opaque to the general public who has no clear way to delve into and make sense of the information.
The ACLU did the work of making the documents available, but this is only the first step. The next stage is to assign a deeper cultural meaning and greater value to the documents. This is where artists, poets, historians, theorists, and writers enter. Our knowledge of communication, analysis, and creative intervention is fundamental to the possibility of the documents having a life beyond a physical or digital archive. Our role is at the heart of shaping cultural memory and public debate. I believe in the transformative and liberatory potential of art. The act of creation is one that cannot be quantified or harnessed towards productive and concrete ends, but it effects social change nonetheless. It throws the realities of unquestionable power into doubt, not by mimicking it, but rather by subverting it, through another poetic logic that renders conventional power mute and offers another register of truth.
The residency at the ACLU set in motion fundamental changes to my understanding of what my role as an artist is and the context within which my work is made. The residency provoked a rethinking of the traditional spaces and conditions for how artistic research is done. The concept of audience was replaced by a new and provisional sense of community where my research was performed not in isolation, but through shared, interdisciplinary conversation and debate—a reciprocal expansion of the understanding of one’s work and the understanding of its spreading sphere of influence.
“Did You Kiss the Dead Body?” was part of the 2012 Taipei Biennial:Modern Monsters / Death and Life of Fiction, September 29 – January 13, 2013. More information on Did You Kiss the Dead Body? and other projects can be found at http://www.rajkamalkahlon.com.
Rajkamal Kahlon is an artist who focuses on painting and drawing. Most recently, she served as the Artist-in-Residence for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project.