Eye in the Sky
Treister, catalogue essay for 'In The Name Of Art and other recent works',
Annely Juda Fine Art, London 2013
intelligence isn't what it used to be!...So What!...Human Intelligence
isn't what it used to be either."
In 1979 John Cale, released Sabotage/Live, an album of new songs recorded in concert at CBGB's in the Bowery, New York City. Cale had a longstanding interest in the operations of the military and geopolitical struggles and how these not only found expression in politics but in psychological subjective and cultural arenas. He wrote, "Sabotage was a response to the militarism that was in the air around then" it was "about going through the nuclear barrier (to) find out exactly what it does, how people live in the face of it". Songs included Ready for War, Mercenaries and the title track, Sabotage, a roiling electric stutter, where three-quarters of the way through he yells "Military intelligence isn't what it used to be!" then pauses, and shouts again "So What!... Human Intelligence isn't what it used to be....either!"
It was a high point of the Cold War and Cale's record vividly expresses how the hydrogen bomb and the concept of mutually assured destruction coloured understanding. Today his raw melancholy songs of anomie, paranoia and poetry seem to be exemplary cultural expressions of Bomb and Cold War Culture.
1979 was the peak of the Cold War, it was also when Soviet Forces entered Afghanistan, and the Iranian Revolution took place, two events that mark the emergence of complex new patterns of power and conflict between groups and belief systems that were to replace the Manichean polarities of the Cold War, and which continue to determine our contemporary world in pervasive and evolving ways. Afghanistan was to see the defeat of national Russian Forces by improvised groupings of religiously inspired Islamic Mujahdeen and Iran the deposition of an absolute ruler who had been backed by the resources of the American and British governments and the establishment instead of an Islamic Republic run on a theocratic constitution with a priest - the Ayatollah Khomeini - as spiritual leader.
Suzanne Treister's work maps ways that human intelligence and military intelligence interacted and worked on each other over the years since Cale barked out his admonition. She explores how new relations between the observer and the observed have been established and new subjectivities formed in a world increasingly determined by pervasive technologies and the demands of the military and security arms of government and state.
The drone placed upon a plinth allows us to glimpse outlines of these new landscapes. As with Treister's earlier work focusing on heterodox intelligence techniques such as remote viewing, or the history of John Dee's scrying mirror, the work helps make us aware of elements in the desire (and ability) to see at a distance that link the technological sphere with those of the occult and the supernatural. The image of a disembodied eye floating high above the human domain features in Renaissance religious imagery, in the arcane iconography of Masonry and the American dollar bill. Phillip K Dick wrote a novel called Eye in the Sky where a series of subjective universes shaped by the belief systems of the novel's protagonists are brought serially into 'reality' in the aftermath of an accident at a particle accelerator. One of these worlds is that of a Christian Fundamentalist, complete with an all seeing god (the eye) and the ungodly zapped by divine lightning strikes.
Here it is made manifest in a toy, the Parrot A.R. Drone. It is fitted out with two cameras and, according to the product description on the Apple Store site can be sent up into the heavens by means of a free app run off your phone or wireless enabled computer. 'As you fly, the HD video is recorded and sent directly to your device', and you can 'join a community of pilots, keep track of your flight data, location, photos and videos and share them with a community of other pilots from all over the world thanks to the AR. Drone Academy. Check who is flying in your neighbourhood or watch videos from pilots at the other end of the world.' And in the process establish a complex informal web of recording and surveillance that seems to imply a shift from a singular to a potentially panoptic gaze.
There is much talk about drones as a means of collecting information in civil situations: a role that is set to expand massively as police forces invest in the technology - recently the Northern Irish Police Force requested funding to spend £1,000,000 on two drones to monitor protesters at the G8 summit - but this is still minor compared to their military use. In the theaters of the 'War On Terror' after 9/11 drones are central. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, American and British forces have flown around 36,000 drone missions in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa over the last five years and launched over 1,200 missile strikes. Drones have killed between 3,500 to 5,000 people since 2002 in actions in dusty mountain and desert regions. These deaths take place many thousands of miles away from where the pilot pulls the trigger that releases the missile; they live and work in an airfield just outside Las Vegas. This is a new mode of experience for them: the pilots do not have the distance from the site of conflict that they used to have in a cockpit of a fighter or bomber plane - where they never saw the effects of the impact of the bomb - nor do they have the visceral engagement of combat on the ground. Instead the effects of a strike are relayed back to them in Vegas in real-time in Hi-Def Video. Oz, one of the pilots, say "the cameras are good. A Hellfire missile does have significant effects on the human body, and you should get to see that. If you can't accept it, you are in the wrong job. But the weirdest thing for me - with my background [as a fast-jet pilot] - is the concept of getting up in the morning, driving my kids to school and killing people. That does take a bit of getting used to. For the young guys or the newer guys, that can be an eye opener." As the article says, "the effect on pilots of this strange new state of being simultaneously at home and at war has not yet been tested." (Rob Blackhurst, The Telegraph Sep. 24, 2012).
The drone can be seen as a concrete expression or metonym for new relationships generated by smart technologies, where daily actions and communications are increasingly subject to potential oversight by people and machines looking at activity from a great distance and tirelessly seeking pattern and meaning in actions and undertakings that until recently would have been invisible.
The pilots are targeting 'insurgents' - a blurry phrase, who are 'prosecuted' rather than killed. And they have generated a scenario in their current use where 'in effect all military-age males in a strike zone are described as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.' (New York Times May 29 2012). A taxonomy that considerably reduces the number of 'non-combatants' killed in any given strike.
A grid of beautiful watercolours of orchids becomes a meditation on naming and meaning. These blooms, each with a carefully delineated structure and detail are all examples the Orchis Militaris, the Military Orchid. These are rare flowers which, according to the literature, look 'like small soldiers. They have an ash coloured 'helmet' formed from three sepals, the petals are hidden by the helmet but the white lip which projects downwards from the helmet has distinct 'arms' and 'legs', spotted with red 'tunic buttons'. Of course whether these lovely flowers look any more military than any other species is questionable to the untrained eye, but they remain categorised as something close to combatant status. There are echoes here of the slightly sinister aura that such plants take on in popular fiction: where cloistered colonels or businessmen have hothouses of exotic blooms collected from the Himalayas from which, more of often than not, they are extracting a rare toxin - one previously known only to an arcane mountain tribe. This anachronistic echo is given a new resonance by the 'weaponisation' of organic extracts - ricin for example which is extracted from 'the castor bean plant, a common ornamental and can be grown at home without any special care'. Ricin is a schedule 1 controlled substance in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and has been produced industrially in the Soviet bloc, experimented on by Al Quaeda and home-brewed by Texan maniacs seeking to eliminate President Obama through sending Ricin impregnated envelopes in the mail.
In 2003 The Bookings Institute - an influential Washington think-tank - published Policy Brief 125 about how the attacks on the Twin Towers had changed the landscape of Intelligence:
Documents released by Edward Snowden show quite how great the failure of government has been in meeting this responsibility. The internet, far from being the utopian space as imagined by its early activists and represented by the tech companies that occupy and run it, has become a vast platform for state surveillance.
In Camouflage (2013), Treister has sourced images and texts from websites associated with US Department of Defense and National Security about the GIG and PRISM projects. GIG stands for The Global Information Grid, which has been developed as a "net-centric system operating in a global context to provide processing, storage, management, and transport of information to support all Department of Defense (DoD), national security, and related Intelligence Community missions and functions - strategic, operational, tactical, and business - in war, in crisis, and in peace" (NSA Website), and PRISM, - famously revealed by Snowden - a clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining program operated by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) which since 2007 has allowed the organisation to 'receive' emails, video clips, photos, voice and video calls, social networking details, logins and other data held by a range of US internet firms. It names these companies as: Microsoft and its Skype division; Google and its YouTube division; Yahoo; Facebook, AOL, Apple and PalTalk - a chat service owned by AVM Software. These disclosures came in the form of the leaked graphics from internal power-point presentations about PRISM, and Treister has taken these graphic forms and languages and expanded them across the surface of the documents.
Snowden was a private contractor employed by the National Security Agency, represented in Treister's 2010 work The U.S. National Security Agency On Fire, made before the recent revelations of its activities. The work is based on Ed Rusha's painting, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire (1965-68), that showed flames erupting from the roof of the new expanded museum intended to collect and curate the high value productions of contemporary culture.
emeyefive (2008-10) centres on the work and life of Stella Rimington, who was the head of the British Intelligence agency MI5 between 1992 and 1996. After leaving that post Rimington has made a career for herself as a writer, both as author of a series of thrillers and of an autobiography. She was the first Director General of the agency whose name was made known to the general public - previously the identity of the individual had been considered to be a state secret, but an investigative campaign by the New Statesman and Independent Newspaper had published photographs of her which was followed by M15 issuing a pamphlet on the workings of the Service as part of a new programme of transparency. In emeyefive Treister has taken information and images from her autobiography, from her novels and from her appearances as a writer, and has placed them in new indexes and contexts. The central panel is a graphic expression of the plot of Rimington's spy novel 'At Risk' and it uses the forms of the alchemical diagram to explore the characters and events that constitute the text. Alchemy sought to investigate and map the essential mystical truths of the world and determine the ways that mundane structures reflected and expressed relationships between the higher and lower planes of creation: how patterns and relationships on one level echoed and expressed greater truths on another. It was a way of seeing the world that refused the arbitrary and the meaningless, insisting instead that every thing on the material plane was an expression of a higher arcane structure which the seer and initiate might, through scholarship, research and illumination, be able to read and interpret. The side panels of the triptych are composed of vignettes in pencil taken from photographs in her autobiography. The panels echo the arrangements of an altarpiece, with a central expression of a mystical truth flanked by events from the lives of the saints. Here though, rather than being accompanied by a small reliquary of a saint's clothing or finger we have instead a video screen relaying shaky informal footage of Stella Rimington talking in a library in Kennington.
One of the foundation techniques of Alchemy was taken from Jewish mystical Talmudic tradition and centred on the deep analysis of sacred texts: for if these were the word of God other levels of meaning could be found and explored at many different levels. From this developed specialisations such as Gematria which sought patterns through the giving of numerical value to letters, seeking meaning through their combination and sum, approaches that have since underpinned techniques of cryptology and code breaking. Faced with the vast number of letters and texts that travel across the digital universe, mathematical algorithms are used to analyse this mass of data in search of pattern so that wider narratives might be derived and hidden intentions revealed. This is done through the identification of keywords and the mapping of use of phrases which shapes both the operations of Security Agencies and corporations.
In The Name Of Art (2012-13), collects the titles of curated exhibitions in the visual arts over the last century: the sort of exhibition that seeks to identify a trend or make an analysis of the condition or state of art at any given moment. Treister presents us only with words. Words that contain theses, which contain works which contain cultures: an expanding regression of association and depth, but here bounded by the spiky black and white of Gothic letters on white paper. We are invited, despite ourselves, to seek meaning in occurrences and clumpings of names and words and from this to intuit narrative and deeper structures.
The presence of certain words in an email or electronic communication entering or leaving the USA will be registered by the National Security Agency who currently make a copy of nearly every email sent or received: this has been long suspected but has only recently confirmed. Despite its representations in popular culture, the NSA has no 'human' intelligence division, being concerned only with signals and communications. The running of espionage and 'humint' is the remit of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose structures and operations are necessarily hidden and obscured. Treister's diagram/map CIA (2011), enumerates and lists the characters of a fictional CIA as described in a thriller 'Intelligence', by Susan Hasler. This fiction tantalises with the same promise of revealed truth as Rimington; Hasler was an active employee of the CIA for over 20 years, working variously as analyst, as a speech writer of George Tenet - the director of the CIA when the intelligence services were constructing a case for the invasion of Iraq with the Republican party, much of which turned out itself to be a fiction - and in counter terrorism. The fiction promises the possibility that a reader might detect within it the outlines of a truth, that an occluded structure might be revealed, given the right approaches and the proper analytical procedures: an analytic process that might start with Treister's diagrammatic rearticulation of the plot.
Both the CIA and the KGB established their political centrality and power bases over the period of the Cold War. Although there was penetration of civilian life and political and social activity in the West in search of subversives and other undesirables, this was nothing in scale compared to the activities of the security forces in the Eastern European and Soviet States. In East Germany approximately one person in a hundred in the general population was operating as an informer on friends and family, reporting to the 91,000 already directly employed by the Stasi. Stasi Wallpaper (2012), part of the artist's ART FOR OLIGARCHS series, is a work that recalls the ubiquity of this pre-digital surveillance through the production of an attractive repeat pattern wallpaper for the house, developed from photographs of electronic hardware the artist found in the Stasi Museum in Leipzig. The KGB works in ART FOR OLIGARCHS (2012-2013) touch on another resonance, of specific interest to the artworld: which is the overlap between people who were powerful in the security structures of the USSR and the new hyper-capitalist powerbrokers and the Post-Soviet oligarchy that the Western contemporary art market has become so abjectly dependent on. CIA Black Sites (2010), explores another collision between the seemingly utopian drives of contemporary art and the exercise of power. Treister uses images referencing Malevich's Suprematist experiments in pure abstraction with a title that evokes both the CIA's support of abstract art in the 1950s as a way to challenge the aesthetical and social determinations of the Soviet administration, and a name currently given to facilities off the official maps where the CIA kidnap and detain people who they consider to be of 'high value', and keep them out of the sight of either the public or the law.
THE REAL TRUTH A WORLD'S FAIR (2012) proposes a map for a hypothetical World's Fair which represents the powers and activities that make up today's world. World's Fairs as staged across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had pavilions representing nations alongside those sponsored by corporations such as General Motors and Kodak, and others representing abstracts such as Arts and Cultures, or the Unity of Nations. Treister proposes one for today that also contains more mysterious presences: The Omega Foundation - a UK based organisation that researches US Military programmes that target civilians, for instance - or the Interplanetary Internet and Fundamentalism, as active forces that form the architecture that we move through today.
The technological search for linkage and underlying structure, the teasing out of directions and narrative from large collections of data is achieved through the use of algorithms. These at their most basic are a protocol of actions and operations that produce output from the mass of input. Increasingly algorithms shape and direct how we experience what is around us and how we are seen. They determine the shape of the financial markets - through automated trading - or what adverts pop up on the pages that we google - and determine whether our actions and activities are seen as harmless or harmful by the people and programmes and machines that monitor what we do through the analysis of our electronic and digital traces. Like the theological constructs of medieval Christianity they imply a vast intelligence at work that sees what we are doing, that can tell what we are thinking and what we desire, and moreover, like the jealous God of the Testament, one which is constantly on the lookout for signs of deviation and transgression: although nowadays perhaps less open to the forces of mediation and intercession and mercy that were offered through the presence of the Saints in the Heavenly Pantheon. And like the constructions of God these are ineffable, immaterial, mysterious and all around us. Like earlier expressions of religious art, The Algorithm series (2013) might be seen as proposing representations of different ways that this numinous presence might be understood: as a Platonic perfect form, as hidden, as an algorithm that represents itself, as The Void.
Richard Grayson 2013