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Covert Operations @ San Jose Museum of Art

David Taylor, "Camera Room, New Mexico," 2007, from the series "Working the Line," 2007 – 10. Pigment print mounted on Dibond, 29 1/2 x 36 3/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and James Kelly Contemporary, Santa Fe, New Mexico. © David Taylor
Let’s call it the Paranoid Sublime. To bring us up to speed, we might want to remember that the old kind of 19th century sublime pertained to what Edmund Burke proclaimed (in 1757) to be the terrifying vastness of nature. Subsequent qualifications on that sublime, such as Immanuel Kant’s mathematical sublime, or Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe’s recent postulation of a technological sublime have pointed to a kind of Futurism that substituted other kinds of unimaginability at moments when human culture began to compete with nature in the vastness game. Soon thereafter, many other kinds of sublime emerged before the word slowly morphed into a vague all-purpose superlative that now needs precise qualification to mean anything at all. 
As was the case with other moments, our own moment has its own unique form of sublime fearfulness, which now stems from our daily minute-by-minute struggle with the contending forces of truth and loyalty in a world governed by endlessly manipulative deceptions. No longer can faith save us, because even that is now part of the same circus of manipulation that defines our lives, all in service to a diffuse, invisible and omnipresent national security state that feeds off of the fear that it manufactures. In response to that state, The Paranoid

Harun Farocki, "Serious Games II: Three Dead" (stills), 2010. Single-channel digital color video projection with sound 8 min., dimensions variable

Sublime shows us the vast distance between the place where we actually are and the proverbial Kansas that was so fondly remembered by Dorothy and little Toto. Maybe we can wrap our heads around it, and maybe we can’t, but the more we attune ourselves to the effects that it exerts on our everyday lives, the more we are able to see how pervasive its insidious logic is. As William Burroughs once wrote,” there are two definitions of paranoia. One is an irrational belief that one is being persecuted while the other is possession of the facts.”

The Paranoid Sublime will be on full display at the San Jose Museum of Art through January 10 in an exhibition titled Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns, originally curated by Claire C. Carter for the Scottsdale Art Museum. Its subtitle refers, of course, to Donald Rumsfeld's now-infamous 2002 remark: 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.”  The exhibition contains 33 works by eleven artists who work in a variety of media to reveal and/or reflect upon the hidden culture of schizoidal cruelty that lurks behind policy acronyms and weaponized infobots. Ostensibly, the show is dedicated to artistic responses to the ways that the 9/11 terrorist attacks have transformed American life, but at its best moments, it reaches beyond that kind of grant application prosody to touch on something deeper, pertaining to the shadow worlds of menace and malice that slither about the wilted grasslands of happy talk that are the normal territories of everyday conversation. The exhibition’s catalog defines five sub-themes governing the show’s organization (Evidence, Disclosure, Surveillance, Simulation and Defiance), with some of the artists’ works showing up in two or more of these sub-themes. Unfortunately, the exhibition’s physical installation does little to uphold these categories, so the actual experience of viewing the show defaults to a vaguely faceted presentation pertaining to the cyberwar of everyday life.
David Taylor, Along the Tijuana River, San Ysidro, California, 2009, From the series "Working the Line," 2007-10, Pigment print mounted on Dibond 29 1/2 x 36 3/8” Courtesy of the artist and James Kelly Contemporary, Santa Fe, New Mexico © David Taylor
Trevor Paglen’s work not only steals the show, but also elevates almost all of the other works positioned in proximity to it. One of these works is titled Code Names (2007), consisting of well over a thousand terms applied as vinyl lettering to a 12 x 45-foot gallery wall. All of these are predictably cryptic (i.e. “LINK DOGWOOD,” “PANTHER VISION”), but by virtue of scale and force of numbers, form an overwhelming totality that bespeaks the vastness of the national security state. Paglen is also represented by other works, including three large photographs of the type that were included in his memorable 2008 SECA Exhibition at SFMOMA. Two of these are brilliantly colored luminous twilit skyscapes worthy of Albert Bierstadt. In one of them, close inspection reveals a reaper drone cruising aloft, while another shows a radar imaging satellite crossing the

Trevor Paglen, "Untitled (Reaper Drone)," 2010. Chromogenic print, 48 x 60"

evening sky in front of the Draco constellation.  A third photograph shows an unmarked jet aircraft on the runway in front of the Gold Coast Terminal at Las Vegas’ McCarren International Airport, that being the point of entry and exit for Area 51, the ultra-secret U.S. Air Force base said, by conspiracy buffs, to harbor the remains of extraterrestrials.  The photo was taken at night with a telephoto lens, and from a stylistic point of view, it perfectly merges the visual syntax between dispassionate “evidence” and evocative artiness.  Another of Paglen’s works of interest here is a grainy reprint of the American passport photos of six CIA operatives who are wanted by European Union law enforcement in connection with the abduction of Abu Omar from Milan in 2007.  

Jenny Holzer weights in with works that represent official documents, in this case a pair of small powder blue canvas works that have official autopsy reports photo-silkscreened on them, officially attesting that death of an anonymous detainee was a homicide.  A more typical example of Holzer’s work titled Ribs, (2010), consists of eleven LED apparatus set as semi-circular structures affixed to a wall. Text flows at different rates of speed up an down the signs, conveying a miasma of twinkling text culled from declassified documents that provoke thought about the revealing and withholding of official information.  But the information presented is too diffuse and fragmentary to allow viewers to draw additional conclusions.
Jenny Holzer, Ribs, 2010. Eleven LED signs with blue, red and white diodes, text: US government documents, 58 1/4 x 5 1/4 x 5 3/4 inches each. Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read, New York. © 2010 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay
In addition to Paglen’s images, there are other arrays of photographs that tell us something about the secret world that undergirds the one that we think we live in. Taryn Simon gives us a peek into the places where such worlds are made. One such image is of a hallway in the old CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, the walls of which sport a couple of late Modernist examples of Post-Painterly Abstraction.  They remind us of the valorizing role such works play in government institutions. 
Taryn Simon, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, 2007,?inkjet print and Letraset on wall, 37 1⁄4 x 44 3⁄4”
David Taylor’s primary focus, on the border between the United States and Mexico, is exemplified by a particularly chilling image of an armed US Border Patrol agent peering through a port in the metal wall that separates the two countries. The largest photograph in the exhibition, by David Gurman, is a combination of two high-resolution satellite images, one of Bagdad and one of Washington DC, compositionally linked by the snaking form of the Tigris and Potomac rivers.  Of the video presentations, the most interesting is titled Serious Games IV: A Sun With No Shadows (2010), a series of street shots taken by Harun Farocki in Iraq after its return to “normalcy.” 
To reiterate, it is Paglen’s work that steals the show, and one would be hard pressed to imagine what Covert Operations would look like without it. With the possible exception of Holzer’s work, his is the only work that truly touches on the Paranoid Sublime. Elsewhere in the show (which also includes Ahmed Basiony, Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0, Hasan Elahi, Jenny Perlin, Anne-Marie Schleiner and Luis Hernandez Galvan and Kerry Tribe) we see a kind of over-sanitized, bridge-and-tunnel version of the sinister topic at hand that sometimes even lapses into a kind of rarified cuteness. For example, Thomas Demand’s photographs of forensic reconstructions of such things as the modest kitchenette that Saddam Hussein used in his hide-out bunker come off as vaguely charming.  In other cases, the work in Covert Operations comes off as a poor
David Gurman, Reflector Project: Tigris-Potomac IKONOS View, 2007. Digital images of the Tigris River and Potomac River captured in February 2003 by the IKONOS satellite, presented as two chromogenic prints on aluminum, 44 x 196 inches each. Courtesy of the artist. Commissioned by the Walter and McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute. (© David Gurman)
relation to the way the same issues are addressed in more sophisticated agitprop distributed via the internet, such as Abby Martin’s new webzine, The Empire Files, or for that matter, in popular cinema and television narratives.  It is worth remembering that there have been other contemporary artists who have explored these themes with greater success at an earlier moment—one thinks of the work of Julia Scher or Mark Lombardi to name two, and even though their efforts were prominently exhibited long before the events of September 11, 2001, their visualizations of the Paranoid Sublime were far more ambitious and searching than most of the work presented in Covert Operations.  Really, only Paglen’s work rises to that earlier standard, and the reason is simple: the fundamental question that it prompts, to paraphrase from Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days, is not whether or not the viewer is paranoid, but rather, is that viewer paranoid enough?
“Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns” @ San Jose Museum of Art through January 10, 2016.
Cover image: Anne-Marie Schleiner and Luis Hernandez Galvan, "Corridos" (still), 2005. Interactive video game in arcade installation; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artists. © Anne-Marie Schleiner and Luis Hernandez Galvan.
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.

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