Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns


Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns

By Vivian Sming November 23, 2015

Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns is a bold exhibition of works by thirteen artists who consider the heightened state of U.S. national security, surveillance, and secrecy that has escalated since 9/11. Organized by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona, the exhibition is currently on view at the San Jose Museum of Art, where it provides a challenging reflection on Silicon Valley’s relationship with data and privacy. Using photography, video, and new media, the artists—which include Ahmed Basiony, Thomas Demand, Harun Farocki, Jenny Holzer, Trevor Paglen, Taryn Simon, and Kerry Tribe—take varied approaches toward information as a medium for creating work.

The exhibition takes it title from remarks made in 2002 by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. When asked about evidence linking Iraq with weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld responded, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there a­re also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Rumsfeld’s evasive comment signals a period in which the U.S. government relied on the fear of terrorism to avoid accountability for its actions. With works spanning from 2002 to 2014, Covert Operations serves as a historical survey of this time, tracking artists’ urgent responses to a new era of state-implemented fear, refined surveillance, and unending wars, as well as the more recent unraveling of classified activity through leaks and revelations.

Trevor Paglen. Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010; chromogenic print; 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco; Metro Pictures, New York; and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne.

Upon entering the exhibition, David Gurman’s large-scale diptych of hi-res satellite photographs, Reflector Project: Tigris-Potomac IKONOS View (2007), immediately demands attention. On the left is the Tigris River in Baghdad; on the right, the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. The two rivers are visually aligned, forming a symbolic connection between the two regions. While symmetry and balance are created within the piece, the asymmetric warfare within the Iraq War is underlined in Gurman’s adjacent installation, Memorial for the New American Century (2014), a bronze bell that sounds every hour with the number of violent Iraqi civilian deaths. Using live data from, the bell operates with a mechanism that sounds like the loading of a rifle and produces a jolting clang that resonates throughout the museum.

Across the room is Kerry Tribe’s silent black-and-white 16mm film, Untitled (Potential Terrorist) (2002). In the months after 9/11, Tribe published a casting call for actors in Los Angeles, which read, “Potential terrorist: Any age, gender, ethnicity. Must look like a terrorist.” Reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, Tribe’s moving portraits are filmed for minutes at a time, documenting subtle shifts in each actor’s stances and expressions. Other than gender (out of the twenty-nine actors, only one is female), there is no one exceptional feature that can be identified categorically in all of the participants, unhinging various forms of profiling that are set in place in attempts to control the otherwise unpredictable motives of individuals. At the same time, the piece is an uncomfortable reminder that a “terrorist” could really be anyone.

Kerry Tribe. Untitled (Potential Terrorist), 2002 (stills); 16mm black-and-white film; 30:00. Courtesy of the Artist and 1301PE, Los Angeles.

The works of Jenny Holzer, Taryn Simon, and Trevor Paglen pivot on the information they reveal. While Holzer uses declassified information as a literal medium within her iconic works, Simon and Paglen take investigative approaches to bring the otherwise hidden into the visual realm through photography—Simon, obtaining access to documents from obscure U.S. facilities and institutions, and Paglen, undertaking intensive research processes to capture classified activities as they appear in sky and space.

Ahmed Basiony chooses to use his body as a way of enduring and responding to the frustrations of governmental policy. In his posthumous video, 30 Days of Running in the Place (2010/11), Basiony jogs in a plastic suit, collecting sweat as well as data from his daily exercise routine. The video is placed alongside raw footage of the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrations (during which Basiony was subsequently killed), where physical energy is manifested as an entropic force for potential change.

Ahmed Basiony. 30 Days of Running in the Place, 2010/2011 (still); two-channel digital color video installation with two-channel soundtrack; run time and dimensions variable. Footage from the 2010 performance of 30 Days of Running in the Place and the 2011 Tahrir Square protests edited by Shady El Noshokaty. Courtesy of the Basiony Estate.

Harun Farocki’s series of videos Serious Games I–IV (2009-2010) follows U.S. military training systems and procedures to examine the simulacrum of war. The first film explores the use of video games as a method of learning tactical maneuvers, while the second shows combat training facilities built precisely to replicate nondescript Middle Eastern cities. In the next segment, military psychologists help soldiers through therapy as they recount traumatic memories while navigating within virtual reality environments. Farocki considers the multiple forms that these artificial worlds take—all advancing toward a highly asymmetric warfare.

Farocki’s piece hits close to home, not only providing a critical reflection of the Bay Area, but also of California at large and its participation in creating such asymmetry. LA’s entertainment industry propels representations of international violence through its blockbuster films, while gaming companies create those same worlds to enact brutal fantasies. After the military uses these industries to lure its recruits, the replicated environments within movie sets and virtual reality are then repurposed to train and heal combatants. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds itself and the economy of war.

Harun Farocki. Serious Games III: Immersion, 2009-2010 (still); two-channel digital color video projection with sound; 20:00. Courtesy of the Artist and Greene Naftali Gallery, New York.

For the San Jose Museum of Art, the exhibition comes as a daring move, confronting its major donors, which include Lockheed and other IT companies in the region. While much of the art in Covert Operations is contextualized within the conditions shaped by 9/11, for a growing segment of the population the “post–9/11” world—one in which lines of communication have always been under surveillance and internet browser histories are aggregated for profit—is the norm. Likewise, revelations of ongoing violations of privacy, freedom, and human rights are increasingly greeted with less surprise, for the post–9/11 world is also a post–WikiLeaks, post–Edward Snowden, post–Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, post–Combat Exclusion Policy, and potentially, post–Guantanamo world. Thus the works in Covert Operations are not necessarily enlightening. Rather, they demonstrate artists’ critical attempts to cope with a decisive turn in U.S. policy, a historic shift that is all too soon being remembered as following due course.


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Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns is on view at San Jose Museum of Art, in

San Jose

, through January 10, 2016.

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