Infrastructural Violence: The Smooth Spaces of Terror

Image: Surviving witness to a 2010 drone strike in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, Pakistan, guiding the Forensic Architecture team during the digital reconstruction of the event. Image: Forensic Architecture, 2013.

Susan Schuppli considers the digitally rendered spaces of James Bridle’s project Seamless Transitions. Behind the closed doors of high security locations in the UK, we are invited to witness – wrapped in the fluid form of computer animation – the architecture, administration and politics of the War on Terror. 

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James Bridle, Video stills from Seamless Transitions, 2015. Animation by Picture Plane.

As tracking shots and image pans move us through a sequence of locations enveloped in the computational veneer of synthetic architecture, the cinematic capture of corporate culture merges with the super-mesh of carceral space. A high resolution labyrinth of empty corridors, closed doors, waiting rooms, and seating areas that “transitions seamlessly” into security fences, gated zones, and a secret court. The steady illumination of these interior spaces defies their temporal specificity as day becomes continuous with night. But this brightness too will soon morph into the black-hole darkness of a covert operation as we exit onto airport tarmac where a private jet awaits, its stairway extended and cabin door agape.

There is something deeply sinister in the relentless perfection of these multiplying screen spaces emptied of human presence. Dread streams from their plasmatic pixels and violence lurks beneath their digital cladding. These are the unseen spaces of British law and order where decisions as to immigration and practices of deportation take place: Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre at Heathrow; the Special Immigration Appeals Court in the City of London with its architectural provisions for the presentation of evidence in secret; and the Inflite Jet Centre at Stansted Airport, a private terminal re-purposed after hours by the Home Office to deport migrants whose asylum claims have been rejected or whose biographies link-up with locations suspected of anti-western sympathies.

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James Bridle, Video stills from Seamless Transitions, 2015. Animation by Picture Plane.

Through a combination of investigative strategies and 3D computer modelling, artist James Bridle takes us into sites that are off-limits to cameras and recording technologies or to those without proper security clearance. Spaces where detainees wait out their days in crowded conditions without access to proper legal advice and healthcare, where the accused and their lawyers are denied from seeing the documents that set out the grounds for their deportation, or where private tour buses arrive in the middle of the night. Even the executive lounge in the airport terminal at Stansted withdraws from the regime of visibility when its human cargo switches from its elite business clientele to that of the dispossessed. Despite the proximity of these sites to many million inhabitants in the UK, knowledge of their presence and the activities that take place within is very limited and expressly designed to restrict them from public scrutiny. Criticism of the security practices that have emerged as part of Britain’s expanding arsenal of anti-terror legislation is mitigated when civic engagement is diminished. As Bridle makes clear in his writing and commentary, reducing the field of visibility reduces demands for greater public accountability.[1]

These clandestine architectures and the logistical networks in which they operate are key components in what I call the “infrastructural violence” of the global war on terror that results in the systematic erosion of rights as well as the legal guarantees of citizenship. Yet Bridle, in visualising Britain’s hidden spaces of detention and deportation, does more than simply bring the unseen into public view and therefore into public discourse. With the use of video wall technology and CGI he also makes explicit the degree to which the smooth surfaces of data-space will produce the very screens on which the war on terror and its various protagonists will wage their battles—their de facto image wars­—from the televisual interface of armed drone surveillance and combat, to the online release of Islamic State videos.

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James Bridle, Video stills from Seamless Transitions, 2015. Animation by Picture Plane.

Indeed as I write this text, I cannot help but reflect upon Article 13 of the Geneva Convention, which states “prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity”. This is the Article that prohibits States from trafficking in images of prisoners that can be used for propagandistic purposes or could exploit their misery for salacious reasons such as selling newspapers, although the Article’s legal interpretation has been widely disputed as to who and what technically constitutes a State actor. For example, Al Jazeera’s decision to release photos of US soldiers killed in Iraq in 2003 prior to their families being informed was hugely controversial, whereas the publication of images of Guantanamo Bay inmates by the US was deemed permissible and even in the interests of national security, because the prisoners’ legal classification as “illegal enemy combatants” didn’t offer them the same protection accorded to prisoners of war.[2]

With the 2014 killing of British aid worker Alan Henning, the government even went so far as to suggest that the very act of watching the Islamic State execution video could be deemed a criminal act punishable under law. On October 5th The Independent ran a cover with a black square designating an unimaginable image with the caption “On Friday a decent, caring human being was murdered in cold blood. Our thoughts are with his family. He was killed, on camera, for the sole purpose of propaganda. Here is the news, not the propaganda.”

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The Independent on Sunday, Front cover, 5 October 2014. Image: Susan Schuppli

In attributing extraordinary moral powers of persuasion to images, Article 13 confirms the consequential nature of images as potential instruments of political violence such that their production and circulation must be closely monitored by the State. On the one hand we have a Convention that set out to protect the human dignity and rights of subjects incarcerated by the State during times of conflict and war by limiting the circulation of their photographs. And on the other (the sites presented in Seamless Transitions) there is deliberate obfuscation of the very images that would ultimately help to hold the State accountable for potential human rights violations, by shedding light on practices that take place under the cover of a virtual image-ban. Certain kinds of images are considered so morally reprehensible that they must be barred or withdrawn from domestic circulation and even have legal sanction to ensure their media blackout. Whereas others, such as those produced by Bridle, in which the State relies upon an image-vacuum to carry out its activities with relative impunity, are surely needed.

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Surviving witness to a 2010 drone strike in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, Pakistan, guiding the Forensic Architecture team during the digital reconstruction of the event. Image: Forensic Architecture, 2013.

In 2013 Forensic Architecture, a European Research Council project led by Principal Investigator Eyal Weizman, that I was affiliated with as Senior Research Fellow, travelled to Düsseldorf, Germany to interview a female survivor of a US drone strike that had taken place in Mir Ali, Pakistan on October 4th 2010.[3] The strike killed five people including her brother-in-law. Over the course of a day, working with her lawyer and a computer modeller, the witness guided the digital reconstruction of her destroyed home locating all its architectural features and positioning personal objects within it, including her child’s toys and walker. The resulting 3D model and animation was entered into the UN Drone Strike Investigation conducted by Ben Emmerson (UN Special Rapporteur for Counter Terrorism and Human Rights) in 2013 as a form of spatial evidence and presented at the UN in both New York and Geneva. This architectural visualisation was essential in helping the witness recall the sequence of events of that harrowing day.

“The footsteps and conversations of the gallery visitors provide a lively syncopated soundtrack to the mute pixels of computational space.”

As is the case with the three sites represented in Bridle’s project Seamless Transitions, recording devices of any kind are prohibited in the Taliban controlled tribal areas of Pakistan and therefore knowledge of drone strikes is driven by casualty statistics (numbers killed and injured). Aside from witness testimony, few visuals exist that can provide the public with information as to the extent of damage of such lethal events, the majority of which are still directed towards the domestic living spaces of local inhabitants.[4]

Our UN investigation worked from the premise that the only advantage that human rights workers had in this landscape of asymmetrical warfare was access to witnesses with whom we could work to re-create on-the-ground visualisations of drone strikes and their aftermath. And in the process also help to redress the inequity between who had the privilege of “seeing” into the space of violence and who did not. The optical sensors that permit classified visual access is available to the US drone operator working at a distance thousands of kilometres away, whereas local villagers and survivors who experience a strike have only their traumatic memories and physical scars to help them remember. This image-deficit contributes to a general lack of public awareness and even arguably interest in events that seem at times far away. This is also the same visual condition that motivates much of Bridle’s artwork and in particular this new commissioned project. With few images, save the screen space of the drone operator’s remote-controlled console to picture the spaces and consequences of drone warfare, the ferocious violence as well as psychological harm of this military strategy upon civilian life still largely goes unchecked.[5]

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The Media Wall and and Cafe at The Photographers’ Gallery. Image: Sam Mercer

The gallery is busy today and the noisy soundscape produced by its many visitors bleeds into the viewing experience of Seamless Transitions, which is itself deliberately devoid of any audio that might us help understand the full register of what goes on in these digitally conjured spaces. As the acoustics of commonplace events attach themselves to the unfolding image-sequences they amplify the degree to which the dubious operations that will take place within them are also being undertaken in direct proximity to the activities of everyday life. The footsteps and conversations of the gallery visitors provide a lively syncopated soundtrack to the mute pixels of computational space. The provocation of James Bridle’s project is ultimately a demand to bring these two incommensurate realms of experience together in order to produce a transformative politics: the space of public life and discourse here in the UK, and the infrastructures of violence in which logistics, architecture, State power and the law collude to produce the smooth spaces of terror.

 —Susan Schuppli

A video interview with James Bridle can be seen here.

Notes

[1]. See for example his discussion of the failed deportation of Nigerian Isa Muaza. James Bridle, “What They Don’t Want You to See: The Hidden World of UK Deportation,” The Guardian 2015.

[2]. See Howard Tumber and Jerry Palmer, Media at War: The Iraq Crisis (London: Sage, 2004). P. 71.

[3]. http://www.forensic-architecture.org/case/drone-strikes/

[4]. See Alice Ross and Jack Serle, “Most US drone strikes in Pakistan attack houses,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, May 23 2014.

[5]. See for example my research into the manner in which the sound of drone surveillance is creating conditions of fear and anxiety (arguably a form of collective punishment) for those living in FATA such that the social life of communities is being irrevocably damaged. Susan Schuppli, “Uneasy Listening,” in Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, ed. Eyal Weizman, Susan Schuppli, and Shela Sheikh (Berlin: Sternberg, 2014).

Further Reading

Bridle, James. “What They Don’t Want You to See: The Hidden World of Uk Deportation.” The Guardian, 2015.

Schuppli, Susan. “Uneasy Listening.” In Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, edited by Eyal Weizman, Susan Schuppli and Shela Sheikh. 381-92. Berlin: Sternberg, 2014.

Tumber, Howard, and Jerry Palmer. Media at War: The Iraq Crisis. London: Sage, 2004.

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