Not Rico in Puerto Rico

The Puerto Rico ‘debt crisis’ of 2015 –which is not new– has given rise to a slew of news articles. 

These articles annoy because what they tend to do, in some measure or another, is reassert the findings of the Krueger report –too small a tax base with too large a debt– in a slightly more elegant language. (N.B. The Krueger report, FYI, was commissioned for hundreds of thousands from ex-IMF economist Anne Krueger and pals to “find out” what everyone already knew, and this way, the governor had a seemingly non-partisan way to impose more austerity measures, such as a min. wage exception).

In the best of cases, the news writers have placed the blame, rightfully, on D.C. In the worst cases, they blame the colonial governments and Puerto Ricans, using slightly veiled and racially coded language. But what is missing?

What’s not being said, or can’t be said, else it causes too many headaches?

1. These various items leave out one huge, gaping issue… Puerto Ricans have tried, in their own many ways, to find a solution to the colony for several generations. As many writers do concede, Washington D.C. and Wall Street together made sure to crush any nationalist revolts for many decades; they, then, instituted a new deal industrial program with business incentives to hold on to their military bastion — and now they plan to walk away. (Hah.) But the other side of the coin is that whether through statehood pleas, various autonomy plans, or through independence, a majority of P.R. residents have tried–very obediently and politely– to get out of the colonial-dominant conditions of the “commonwealth;” to find a peaceful and political solution to an involuntary condition; and what happened — Congress refused to act, delaying and delaying,  stalling and stalling (…yes, the commonwealth party often was voted into power – a choice of pragmatism when the alternative candidate was worse). Now they expect Puerto Rico to pay (whether pay immediately or pay through a bankruptcy plan makes relatively little difference). That the infallible debt will be paid somehow does not seem to be in question, though.

2. More boricuas live in the US than on the island(s). For ages and ages many of us, myself included, have paid a little or a lot of money, depending on personal circumstances, in taxes. …In total, that’s a lot of money that went to bailing out banks and that goes to the US military and to Israeli aid and to the nefarious war on drugs and stupid border walls and so on and so forth. That the White House has the audacity to say that “no one” is contemplating a “bail out ” is an insult. It plainly states, ‘we are not going to give US-based Puerto Ricans any consideration’–not even a voice–in these negotiations. (And not to mention what Puerto Ricans pay for the more-commonly mentioned Jones Act merchandise). And then they want (expect!) our votes! LOL. Notice–none of the Democratic party candidates even questioned the white house on this… All they argue for is a chapter 9 protection. Where is our political voice in this? We’ve been denied any agency, once again. The colonization is not restricted to merely a territorial boundary.

3. We Puerto Ricans know, from our own experience and that of our parents and grantparents and great grandparents and great great grandparents, that Puerto Ricans have been, to use a neoliberal word, resilient. But we’re not just resilient, we invented resilience in the face of disempowerment. Puerto Ricans, in spite of a sense of, oh, how to put it, …a mourning? A sense of a slipping modernity that escapes like sand through our fingers and that was never really or fairly granted to us to begin with, AS IF we didn’t really deserve it…? …Know what I mean? In spite of all this —because of all this, actually– Puerto Ricans have historically made art, culture, literature, comedy, film, performance, dance, poetry, pop music, food, architecture, painting, design, agriculture etc etc etc etc… We’ve made a world out of a sense of dignity — to retain our dignity, both now and in the past. And future. We have remade the ruins of two empires. No bank can ever truly own our dignity, and yet they refuse to look at us as equals for what we’ve already done. What Vox, WaPo, NYTimes, Bloomberg et al will not tell anyone is that we will, always, by hook or by crook, find a way. (btw Just ask the US Navy about Vieques). And we will, let it be known, find a way to beg, borrow, and steal. And we will find creative ways to cheat the debt. Because that’s how people save their dignity in conditions they never participated in creating. How do the banks and the White House prefer to play this? The “nice” way? Or the right way?

4. Last but not least, Puerto Rico is both under a US occupation AND expected to pay this debt. This is sort of a debt that was something like the price tag for belonging to the empire — an empire we never chose to begin with. There weren’t other ways or other models of development to go forward. This was it. Either starve to death or take onerous debts (yes, i do blame also the treasonous colonial rulers locally). This debt is like sending a hostage a bill for their holding cell.

So… These thoughts I just tapped on my phone over the last hour or so. They could be much more fine tuned for sure, but they’re the product of much pent up frustrations and truly, anger. To summarize, at the very least, Puerto Ricans have already paid enough, and at the very least, American politicians, if they have any bit of decency, should become aware of what Puerto Ricans, on the island and on the mainland, really think. The debt should be audited, yes, as many have pointed out, but Puerto Ricans have demanded and demand a truly deliberative and participatory decolonizing process. We tried to find a way and now Puerto Rico is being handed the bill for overstaying its welcome — as if there had been a way out.

an xray of the George Packer liberal mind

The New Yorker‘s reigning liberal, George Packer, on the Charlie Hebdo attacks (emphasis added):

The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists.

They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades.

Packer on “why” ISIS killed Kenji Goto:

The Islamic State doesn’t leave thousands of corpses in its wake as a means to an end. Slaughter is its goal—slaughter in the name of higher purification. Mass executions are proof of the Islamic State’s profound commitment to its vision.

Also, don’t even try to sort ISIS out…

We want to understand the Islamic State’s thinking, to anticipate its next moves, to assess its relative strength. But ISIS keeps on defying ordinary questions. The Islamic State doesn’t behave according to recognizable cost-benefit analyses.

Oh wait, by the way, why did Jared Lee Loughner shoot up Gaby Gifford’s office in 2011?

Just don’t even bother…

The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America’s political frequencies are full of violent static.

Must be nice to be The New Yorker’s Chief Correspondent of: “Whatever, bro. Violence.”


The air for states: the essential quality of violence in state formation and protection

New states are usually the product of catastrophe. Violence is the air they breathe.T.J. Clark.

By terror thereof. To forme the wills of all. And whoever calls this into question proposes an end to what we know of politics as such. — Hobbes

Why does the collective “we” focus so intensely on the Islamic beliefs of the attackers in Paris, but not on the attackers’ beliefs, no different from “ours,” in founding a state?

If it is true, as is being reported, that the Paris attackers are linked to IS, then we must ask ourselves:

¿Where does all the insistence in repeating the religious cause come from? ¿Why do we refuse to discuss the problem of the state and the violence that all states originate from?

The will to reduce the attackers to barbarians and savages —different from “us”— extracts these battles from, one, their political origins, and two, their inherently spectacular modernity. Even some of the best writing from an anti-racist perspective misses this. Teju Cole wrote a brilliant short essay for The New Yorker. Cole masterfully identifies the liberal problem of relating with certain victims of violence and not others. But what Cole misses is the essential quality of violence in state formation and protection.

Furthermore, even in the lefty renunciation of Charlie Hebdo as a racist publication (myself included), the usual condemnation of the attacks on the basis of “freedom of the press” gets muddled with how purportedly unimaginable the attacks were, since the press is thought of as sacred. But established states wage warfare on the press all the time. Obama recently unplugged North Korea’s internet, for example. Israel, the United States, and NATO routinely bomb media targets. The list is endless.

Attacks that spread fear and strategically situate sensational violence in the news stream serve to augment recruitment, increase radicalization, and continue to draw causes for war. France already declared it. The discourse of hitting at religious fundamentalism without discussion of state fundamentalism reproduces the demagoguery of people like Rupert Murdoch, Sean Hannity, and the rest who insist on persecuting Islam.

In effect, a categorization of violence against the media as Hobbesian ‘terror’ is an extension of state politics as we know them. To be clear, violence against the media is horrible, but it is absolutely normal in the condition of our present. Further, the media conditions and greatly monopolizes the conditions that create an experience of the present, making media itself a strategic military target within the logics of state formation.

To “be” Charlie Hebdo as a paragon of press freedom is an affective identification with what the Retort collective called an “afflicted power” almost ten years ago, post-9/11. To paraphrase a friend’s hilariously biting comment on Facebook, none of us is a magazine, and even having to declare that one isn’t one looks suspiciously like the people who claim to “be” Charlie. Perhaps one only needs to stipulate that one is not Charlie within a certain logic of state formations based upon these types of mediatized, distant, affective identifications.

The 2015 attacks in Paris are a form of state violence also. Basic history would convey that, much like European conquerors did not come to the Americas to convert indians, the point of the Paris attacks is not Sharia law in and of itself. The inherent cruelty of these attacks, and their media function, is inseparable from the same political foundations of all modern states.


I. It’s surprising to have to spell out these notions, but here goes…

One can condemn violence and at the same time sustain a critical stance against Charlie Hebdo.

One can condemn the “asymmetric warfare” of masked gunmen and also reject racism, tyranny, and hate.

One can denounce cold-blooded massacres while also unsubscribe from the horrible, orientalist titillation of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the mental passivity of liberalism.

II. It is imperative, at this frightening intersection, to resist the coercive call to stand behind a vacuous, hypocritical, shallow slogan about “free speech.” The response to the horrible tragedy in Paris already seems to become folded into the same previous mode of thinking that enabled the magazine to exist and thrive. It is a mode in which there is no deliberation of better or worse ideas; just a liberal “freedom” excuse to embrace hate (albeit hate selectively applied, despite liberal disclaimers otherwise).

Western culture is arbitrary in its principles; it is arrogant, self-centered, and self-deluded about its respect and care for the weak and oppressed. A glance at statistics about drone strikes tells the story. Ebola tells the story. Palestine tells the story. The migrant labor building imperial stadia for futbol and Olympics tell the story. The fact that a hashtag like #BlackLivesMatter exists. The deportations of millions and deaths on the high seas…

This is a frightening moment — a moment charged with reactionary simplifications and reductions. These reductionisms serve a purpose. Among other things, the point is to ignore the very complex circulations through which the killers were likely trained, funded, armed, and recruited. If we explored these circulations, more than the usual suspects that might be rounded up in the coming hours or days would be implicated.

Instead, political doctrinaires murmur slogans about an ancient religious cause behind the killings. They equate vast social processes with merely “terror,” nothing more; and none of it has anything to do with the actual, mediatized and quite modern ways in which the operation came about. These dimensions must remain unthought and unimagined.

Who identifies with “#JeSuisCharlieHebdo,” and who does not? It is exactly at these points where one should resist and explore ideas more critically and openly and generously, but this is politically dangerous for the neoliberal parties.

III. The cartoonists and reporters killed earlier cannot speak now, obviously. The voicelessness of death never dies. It lives on in martyrdom. We thus create Western martyrs, ventriloquizing with their corpses. Sadly, the victims themselves are appropriated. The dead suddenly appear solemn. They are actually being used as blunt tools against dissenting thought and radical ideas. The morbid fascination with the dead falsely assures the living that life isn’t meaningless. But ironically, it has been Charlie Hebdo and many more who have been complicit with precisely such a cheapening of life. The response pathetically shows exactly how we live in such terrible times; in societies of alienation. I would post the images of the covers, but it is not worth it to continue giving them more views.

To work in collective and common ways against alienation requires critical thought and analysis. But huge forces exist to force closure, such as #JeSuisCharlieHebdo. The massive public spectacles in plazas are smoothly incorporated into these forces.

To make matters worse, our Western governments and corporations have operated in the spaces of totalitarianism: they’ve spied, bombed, tortured, and killed in (semi-)secrecy.

What can be said or done to counter the outpouring of craven solidarity with nothing but an abstract notion of “free speech”? This outpouring insults real people who have differences and needs, but seek to live together. It also closes down a discussion that builds on a true public knowledge, exposing all that is done in our names. #JeSuisCharlieHebdo is patently antithetical to collective and common life, alienating entire groups of people who never saw their lives represented in this rag. And it is therefore contradictory to abdicate power, as happens at these moments, to the states which have proven time and again to be incapable of facilitating this shared life.

Notes On Tania Bruguera’s #YoTambiénExijo Performance in Cuba

As has been widely covered, artist Tania Bruguera was detained in her native Cuba, along with many others. She attempted to launch #YoTambiénExijo at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. The action was to be an updated version of her 2009 performance, Tatlin’s Whisper #6, at the Bienal de la Habana. She is now free from detention but her passport has been reportedly confiscated.

The performance is described as an open invitation for Cubans to speak about their “hopes and fears for their future and that of the communist island” (per AFP). Her detention drew international scorn just two weeks after the historic agreement to open ties between the United States and Cuba. About one thousand people, myself included, signed a petition to ask for her release.

Political detention is reprehensible. But beyond the faint outlines of the case, Bruguera’s intentions remain, for me at least, hard to read when thought about in the context of her previous trajectory. Perhaps for her as well. She argues that she works deliberately with political uncertainties. And before one can begin to make sense of it all, one should keep in mind that the performance is arguably not over yet. She now faces court charges, according to several sources, which seem hard, if not impossible, to separate from the stifled performance itself. That said, some *very* provisional notes can be jotted down.

Bruguera’s work has been embraced by Cubans like Yoani Sánchez, “the best-known dissident blogger from Cuba.” But it is unclear (to me, at least) that Bruguera identifies with the dissident community in return. Furthermore, Bruguera self-identifies as a leftist feminist, and yet she’s now being celebrated by the exiled right. She’s unlikely to reciprocate the gesture. Her letter on the occasion of the new diplomatic ties, which denounces rising economic disparities, is far from anything that the right would genuinely agree with. But rather than being accidental alliances, I’ve come to think that Bruguera must revel in inciting such contradictions as a way to reveal political expediencies that remain unsaid in society.

Bruguera indicated that she did not want to be freed if other detainees were still held. At one point, she went back to protest the detentions and ended up back in jail. Yet this is not tantamount to declaring that she agrees with other detainees’ viewpoints. In other words, unlike the Cuban dissidents, she was not being held for any particular ideas herself and was arrested instead for the platform she threatened to bring. As a relevant side note, Puerto Rican artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz shared a post on Facebook in which she demanded that Cuba release Bruguera, while pointing out that the United States also uses “preventive detentions” to stymie dissent ahead of large protests. Coco Fusco, in the best, in-depth blow-by-blow so far, similarly pointed at the myriad rules that govern public space in the US, especially around comparable government plazas, as a way to put Cuba’s actions into more perspective than a shrill anti-Castro soundbite.

Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version)” (2009)

Apart from what dissidents may have been expecting to accomplish through #YoTambiénExijo, Bruguera often stages performances that seek to make ordinary members of civil society visible, and invite them to take a risk by stepping out of anonymity. I personally don’t see her work as a platform for self-selected activists, who nevertheless seem so drawn to it. Sometimes those activists might be better served by staying out of it, since they can end up being unwitting performers that says more about them than what they say about current politics. In fact, Bruguera often sets up conditions where established actors or institutions, such as museums, seem to come across as repressive agents themselves, employing performers that act as police forces. Other times she sets up conditions for a voice to come across and then disrupts the very performance with unexpected happenings to allegedly challenge accepted social norms.

In the current staging of Tatlin’s Whisper #6 for the Plaza de la Revolución that was shut down, it wasn’t clear if Bruguera intended to revisit the props (the white dove, for example, harkening back to a famous Fidel speech), and the green-garbed guards flanking every speakers. Far from minor details, these would change the whole perception of the piece, adding meaningful aspects that go beyond merely an open mic.

On the one hand, dissidents seem to think that Bruguera’s work deliberately provokes and exposes the state: “con su propuesta Bruguera había develado el entramado de censura, cobardía cultural y represión que inmoviliza la vida cubana” (Bruguera has exposed the scaffolding of censorship, cultural cowardice, and repression that immobilizes life in Cuba — YS). And an expression from the exile community calls the cancelled event “one of the most important cultural challenges that the Castros’ tyranny has had to face” (“uno de los desafíos culturales más importantes a los que se ha tenido que enfrentar la tiranía de los Castro”).

On the other hand, judging from her past works, it seems that Bruguera is interested in creating a situation in which many unexpected outcomes might come to the fore. Those outcomes may include state reactions, but the work is not limited to those, and doesn’t depend on them to operate either. There often seems to be more in Bruguera’s work that happens at a barely perceptible level of power relations than what initially meets the eye. Tellingly, while Sánchez seems to understand this performance as already concluded, since it already exposed the state apparatus, I don’t think Bruguera is jumping to concur. This volatility is not necessarily something that the opposition in Cuba (or in exile) wants. Bruguera says (again, tellingly), “Esto sirvió para quitarle la máscara a todo el mundo;” (This served to unmask everyone – emphasis on “everyone” added here).

Tatlin’s Whisper #5, Tate Modern, 2008

Bruguera also made statements on Cuba’s art world status that seem to amplify what Fusco recently observed. Fusco says,

Bruguera’s foreign audience is the only one at present that can easily consume the flow of information about her artistic proposals, political views, and serial detentions. The Cuban people remain outside the picture so to speak, but Cuba’s status as an art world superpower comes under scrutiny.

Bruguera is similarly quoted as saying (referring to the new diplomacy between La Habana and Washington D.C.):

Ahora se abre una nueva posibilidad para que las obras de los artistas cubanos, las compren los coleccionistas norteamericanos y todo el mundo pone las cosas en la balanza. (— A new possibility opens up now for the works of Cuban artists to be purchased by North American collectors and everyone weighs things on a scale).

Slightly different from a dissident’s usual, repetitive focus on the ruling elite, at least some of Bruguera’s discourse is directed, thus, at the artists’ world itself. Bruguera seems to say that Cuban artists are playing it safe; they want to be available for the wealthy American market — which is understandable considering there is not much they can get to economically support their work in Cuba. The suggestion, true or not, is that these artists don’t want problems from the Cuban government when it comes to travel visas, biennials, cultural prizes, etc. Bruguera makes comparable accusations here. (From the right wing, similar observations appear from Néstor Díaz de Villegas here).

But Bruguera also seems to suggest, as Fusco echoes, that collectors outside of Cuba can become complicit in state repression while incentivizing conveniently digestible pseudo-nationalistic works, watching the value of their relatively modest investment in contemporary Cuban art balloon. Meanwhile, Bruguera opens herself up to criticisms of being a parachute provocateur who can spend most of her time outside of Cuba, and when she returns, seems to draw attention to issues that already are obvious to those living there.

Dissidents may want to see Bruguera’s work in the context of speech within the territorial space of Cuba, but Fusco and Bruguera both seem to concur that the performance did more to expose something outside of Cuba than inside. As Fusco concludes,

it may well be time for art world cognoscenti who have for so long been charmed by Cuba’s eccentricities, anti-imperialist rhetoric, and relatively cheap art prices to consider what, beyond the convention of indignant public letters, might serve as a valid response to a state that imposes draconian measures to enforce its hegemonic control over public space and discourse.

Finally, as Bea Santiago wrote, nothing can justify detaining an artist for exercising her speech. But the detention needs to be understood in light of recent USAID efforts to plant astroturf social media in Cuba to overthrow the government. Bruguera denies working with any US funding or logistical support — perhaps something that not all Cuban dissidents can honestly say.

Does Bruguera see the White House and the State Department also as part of all of those who are “unmasked” in all of this? What about the political ambitions of some or all of the dissidents? Did the performance have some unnoticed effect on those fronts? What at first may seem like the piece’s greatest weakness —the gap between intended citizen-participants and the actual regular dissidents who showed up— falls away in the aftermath, revealing deeper schisms and personal jockeying happening beyond facile media representations of the current shift.

Bruguera’s case in court is pending and she has indicated she will take on the state. With the next Bienal de la Habana coming in May 2015, some are already calling for a boycott, while Bruguera has also been instructed not to appear. There may be many more realities that remain to be unmasked.

  • Audio of Bruguera speaking (in Spanish) about her detention, via US-government-funded Martí noticias, here.
  • See also Bruguera’s episode of Art 21.
  • Ver también esta entrevista con Bruguera: “Para nosotros el primer y más puntual objetivo es la participación ciudadana plural. Que todo el mundo sienta que tiene voz y que su voz es escuchada. Otro objetivo es que el cubano de a pie conozca más lo que es un performance artístico  y el arte contemporáneo comprometido socialmente y en específicos sobre el Arte de Conducta y el Arte Útil.”

[Updated on January 6]

[reposted from here, slightly updated for clarity and new links; subscribe to my newsletter here]

When “state secrets” become exhibited…

“Unknown site, Noordwijk aan Zee, South Holland, 2011,” Via Open Society Foundation

@mishkahenner’s Dutch Landscapes series, where the artist appropriates censored Google Earth images of significant political, economic, and military locations, which Dutch authorities have concealed with a stylized array of multi-colored polygons. On view starting November 4, as part of the Moving Walls 22 / Watching You, Watching Me exhibition at @opensocietyfoundations in New York.


Would love to see this show in NYC — Brings up many questions about what “work” exhibitions and exhibited images do. Is visibility of, and the exposed aesthetic created by, state secrecy (the Dutch variety, in this example) an impediment or a questioning to state power? What does the registry and archival collection of secrecy’s trace produce, or is it a kind of titillation? What subjects are inscribed in this kind of work?

Another one (via @opensocietyfoundations instagram account)

Tomas van Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days series. Using a camera attached to a drone that he purchased, Van Houtryve photographed locations and gatherings in the United States that reference American drone use—both domestically and abroad—to reflect on privacy, surveillance, and contemporary warfare.

Lately have also been thinking about the unseen dimensions of these kinds of images — what are the networks and infrastructures that create the environment for these images, and how are those secured? The space of the gallery and the space of the satellite spill into each other…?


Nature videos as sedative

Pete Brook recently posted a report about a prison experiment in Oregon where inmates in solitary confinement are exposed to images from National Geographic in a space called “The Blue Room.” The experiment seeks to “calm the IMU’s prisoners and make its tiers safer for corrections officers,” according to another report in The Oregonian.

Brook writes:

Let’s just pause and consider what is happening here. Let’s consider the carceral logic and policies from which the Blue Room has emerged.

The state has decided to isolate prisoners in bare cells, with only artificial light, in a state of near total sensory deprivation, for 23 in every 24 hours. Let’s not speculate why prisoners are isolated; I’m less interested in what behaviours land a prisoner in the harshest custody conditions, and more interested in if and how those custody conditions improve or exacerbate existing problems and/or create new problems.

(The Blue Room, photo by Beth Nakamura via Pete Brook)

There’s so much to take away and digest here, I’m not even sure where to start, and haven’t been able to approach it dispassionately. The images that Beth Nakamura presents are intriguing in their own right. There’s something eerie about an experiment that promises soothing scenes of nature, but instead has the clinical feel of the most dreary classroom and its myriad projector glitches (channeling some Foucault here). But I’m more troubled by the experiment itself and the role of academics. The person who came up with the idea (of course, there are many precedents, as Brook points out, of penal management tests) is a biologist called Nalini Nadkarni at the University of Utah. Maybe the best is to begin with a list:

Velocity: From (what else?) a TED talk to inside solitary, i.e. the startling fact that an experimental hypothesis that can have serious repercussions makes its way from TED talk to corrections officers, bypassing all manner of serious academic debates on the ethics of this test.

Sedatives: Why is it necessary to sedate prisoners with images? Is the core issue here the danger the prisoners pose to themselves, or is to about the penal guards, and why is it the academic’s role to protect the carceral system above all? Allegedly, the images prevent self-harm, but it is unavoidable to bring up the issue of who manages life in all of this bleak scenario. Does the inmate have any agency over how and where to live or not live? One might ask how this relates to force-feedings at military prisons, a practice that is considered to be torture by almost everyone except the US military. If imposing food on hunger strikers is torture, then what light does that shed on this experiment?

Time: How do academics spend and justify their time to themselves and their peers? One might sympathize with the biologist’s impulse to mitigate the harm of solitary confinement (another form of torture), but unfortunately the time spent developing a visual palliative is also time that becomes instrumentalized by the carceral system to extend, justify, prolong, and cement the administrative practices of solitary confinement. (And it is also time NOT spent on dismantling prisons). Examine the writing of the Oregonian’s reporter, Bryan Denson, and it is clear that the very act of investing time in developing a sedative technology (be it a pharmaceutical or an image montage) is time that underscores the notion of the inmate’s “incorrigibility,” thus implicitly justifying the unjustifiable practice of solitary confinement.

Authorship: Who takes images of nature and for what? How do images go from National Geographic’s possession and become part of the carceral system? Did the photographers consent to this usage? (I’m reminded of bands who object to the use of their music in war). [N.B.: says Brook: “Nadkarni, along with National Geographic documentary-maker Tierney Thys sourced nature videos. Many came from the NatGeo archives: Big Sur, New Zealand, Costa Rica, mountains, rivers, forest, tropical beaches, underwater reefs, roaring fires and a couple dozen other videos.”]

Media architectures: A lot has been said in the recent years about a campaign to ask architects to boycott the design of the worst forms of incarceration — namely execution chambers, solitary confinement, and supermax. The campaign against prison architecture is noble, but unfortunately too few people in architecture take it seriously. When it does get discussed in public or in print, it is often a way to bring “both sides” —the carceral designers and the boycotters— into a visible debate. I’ve had a lot of issues with this “both sides” framing because the result is a version of titillation viewing, i.e. a “serious” version of Montel Williams that entertains but ultimately gives legitimacy to torturers. What the Blue Room begins to suggest is that audiovisual projected media is now also becoming a part of that same architecture business of incarceration, with many of the same overlaps of making incarceration more “humane”. Perhaps one way to approach The Blue Room is through the platform of the prison boycott and relate the usage of images back to many more forms of architectural and spatial control that perpetuate torture.

Death: Someone sent me a clip from Soylent Green that bears disturbing similarities to the Blue Room,

Presumably the message with Soylent Green is that making solitary (somehow) less cruel is merely a way to extend the pace and temporality of death itself inside prison, or in the words of this friend, “euthanasia theatre lite.”

I’ll leave it at that for now…

November 21st: on Surveillance and Space, at the Oakland Museum


I’ll give a very informal talk —though on a deadly serious subject matter— at the Oakland Museum of California. This talk is based on previous research events with Demilit (see Archipelago podcast and Macro City tour + review). The plan is to chat about the telegraph lines and their continuing structuring force in the contemporary city by analyzing a centrally located telecom hotel. I’ll be exploring the centralizing forces in the urban realm and the everyday ways in which historic legacies interact with surveillance. [image above is an untitled work from the Rossman Collection, via the OMCA].

Details // Pop-up Talk: Javier Arbona on the Architecture of Surveillance | Friday, November 21, 2014, 7–7:30 pm | This in-Gallery pop-up talk takes place during Friday Nights @ OMCA, featuring Off the Grid food trucks, live music, and more. | Included with Museum admission. During Friday Nights @ OMCA, from 5 to 9 pm, admission is half-price for adults, free for ages 18 and under. Admission for OMCA Members is always free. More info at OMCA.

Lots of THANK YOU’s to: Demilit’s Bryan Finoki and Nick Sowers (my collaborators), as well as Martha Bridegam and John Elrick for consultations on this project; thanks equally to Suzanne Fischer at OMCA, and also to Léopold Lambert and Xiaowei Wang for sparking events that created space for this investigation to happen. The Oakland Security Cloud continues as a longer-term performance and investigation, and will also be presented at the AAG 2015 in Chicago as part of a panel I’m co-organizing with Lindsey Dillon called Bases, Bunkers, and Ports.

More info at OMCA.

On working with the SEIU

As a former faculty who was a part of working w/ the SEIU, I am jotting a quick note to voice a few concerns I have wrt emails bouncing around from the admin and some adjucts at the California College of the Arts.

1. When the president and the provost take a position of “wait and see” and “not yet” about the SEIU vote, they are meddling in a decision that is none of their business, and their meddling is a sign of disregard toward faculty. They might adopt a cautiously neutral tone, or not directly endorse those positions (just put them out there as “ideas”), but their position is not neutral.

Union representation is not and never would be in their interest. We form unions precisely because of *our* interests, not theirs and the trustees’.  Don’t ask them what they think.

2. The admin will bring attention to meager improvements or to how slightly better CCA is over other schools. Great! All that and more. Is a couple hundred bucks enough to appease you when the president makes about half a million?  The point of being unionized is to have bargaining rights and better teaching conditions (ultimately, indeed, a better environment for students). They might make it sound like they can do everything unionization promises w/o actually having a union, but they can’t give you collective rights. You create those outside of the admin.

3. Do you think the union is brusque or aggressive? Have you ever met the labor attorneys your bosses hire? IOW, *any* union… AFT, UAW, etc will be tough if they have managed to survive this far. Don’t expect a cocktail hour at the bargaining table.

4. Again, as I have written elsewhere, the SEIU is an establishment union; it is actually quite mainstream and conciliatory with business, at the end of the day. *They donate $$ to the Democrats, after all!*  If you are going to vote against the SEIU, do it in order to form something *better* than SEIU, not worse. Are you prepared to volunteer to form a more radical, independent union (amongst dispersed adjuncts)? If you are not committed to work for something more radical, then I humbly urge you to stick with the SEIU.

5. Admin and faculty senators are fond of pointing out that the SEIU represents janitors. This is a classist discourse. What difference does it make? I respect janitorial staff enormously and janitors have worked tirelessly for their rights. I’d be proud to be in a union w/ them.

6. There is also a common refrain that the SEIU is not experienced with academia. But what gets negotiated in a contract rides on the faculty which the faculty body elects as part of the negotiation team. The union can also get high on its power — if faculty sit back and let them run the show.

7. Words like “collegial” and “open” will also be deployed like stealth weapons to dissuade faculty from acting to demand their rights.

8. Admin will be against unions because they are worried that all their workers will follow. The security guards, the bus drivers, the janitors, the computer staff, and so on. Let them worry and fret and deliberate on *their own time* and not meddle with *your rights* to unionize. Also…Stop letting the admin waste your unpaid time on meetings that have zero decision-making power riding on them. 

9. Artists and art workers have a long history of labor insurgency. The great work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles is a testament to this, not to mention her affinity with the workers who do the unwanted, messy maintenance work of garbage and cleaning. (This is something I learned from teaching with David Gissen in the lecture halls of CCA). It’s frankly time to reclaim that history and this connection to the struggles against structural oppression. Neither yes or no is a clear path to retaking that fight. Faculty have many more oppositional and creative tools at their disposal than what admin or union bosses would have them think. All paths lead to more struggle and more work. But my plea here –as someone who started going to meetings with the SEIU back in January (we’ve had plenty of time, btw)– is to make the decision based on organizing and on engaging deeper with that struggle, rather than on the reasons espoused by the voices for “civility” and milquetoast “cooperation” and “collegiality.” If it were my vote, I’d vote yes.