April 1, 2009

Demands On Washington


Tyler Green turned his critical shredder on the National Gallery's new group of Thomas Demand photos depicting his life-sized re-creation of the Oval Office:

The result is a photographed stage set of a stage set used by the United States and its presidents to project and wield power. In a way, Demand has found his ideally reflexive subject. As such, if the NGA wanted to own a Demand, it's the perfect suite.

But therein lies the disappointment: Demand is a minor academic conceptualist whose use of specially constructed sets to examine memory and to question photographic truth was long ago wrung dry. Ultimately Demand's Oval Offices look like a kind of illustration -- the exact sort of intentionally temporal decoration a magazine would logically commission to illustrate a story.

I'm not as down on Demand's work as Tyler is, and I think there's more to the questioning of "photographic truth" that he probably does. Demand's works have always seemed to me to be about the construction of photographic likeness or verisimilitude, simulation, which is not at all the same as truth. In no small part, they're about themselves as well, and the deadpan absurdity of their construction.

Sure, the "aha! it's paper!" moment is fleeting at best, but that's no different from any number of visually transformative conceptual artists, whether it's Vic Muniz, James Turrell, Roni Horn, or Charles Ray. It should be a hook, an in to the work, not the end in itself, and I think Thomas clears that hurdle.

And I don't mind that the photos were commissioned by the NY Times Magazine; and his use of the terms "illustration" and "decoration" are needlessly prescriptive and pejorative, especially coming so soon after Tyler's own near-mandate that museums have the responsibility to be pursuing politically charged work. [Hold that thought.]

If there's a problem for me with Demand's Oval Office photos, it's the way their "ideal reflexivity" seems so predictably perfect for the National Gallery. Washington is a city obsessed with itself and its own importance, and I can't imagine how gigantic photos of the epicenter of power could be read here as anything other than adulatory. Actually, it's not the reading so much as the institutional presentation that's the problem.

Because context matters, and taken in the context of much of the Demand's work, I'm not sure if these Oval Office photos are quite the monuments to itself Washington might think they are.


Demand's critical interest in photographs is inseparable from what MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci called, "his reassessment of the narratives of twentieth century history."Unlike the instantly recognizable stage set of the Oval Office, many of Demand's works re-create the generic, banal, unrecognizable sites where uncomfortable History was made: Bill Gates' Harvard dorm room where he hatched his software plans; the fleabag hotel where L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics; Jeffrey Dahmer's apartment hallway; Leni Reifenstahl's personal film archive.


And his reassessment marches right on into the present. Kitchen, 2004 [above], was based on soldiers' snapshots of the compound where Saddam Hussein was captured. Demand's last show in New York, in 2007 consisted of re-creations from the artist's own memory of investigative visits to the cramped offices of Niger's embassy in Rome. The show was titled "Yellowcake," and the embassy was the source of the obviously forged documents claiming that Iraq was seeking to build a nuclear bomb, the evidence that George W. Bush called the "smoking gun."


Are we connecting the dots yet? Demand's Oval Office photos created in the last weeks of the Bush administration are not flat explorations of symbolic power; they're re-creations of the scene of the crime. And now they're hanging in the National Gallery. If we look at Demand's photos and see nothing more than "The Presidential familiar -- it's in news photographs nearly every day," the failure of memory is ours.

Acquisition: Thomas Demand's 'Oval Office suite' at NGA [man]
Thomas Demand, "Oval Office," November 25 2008 - January 17 2009, Sprueth Magers []
"Yellowcake," November 3 - December 22 2007 at 303 Gallery []

Bush & co copied their torture techniques from the freakin' Communists? Are you kidding me? No, you are not. Where's Hoover when we needed him?

WASHINGTON — The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of “coercive management techniques” for possible use on prisoners, including “sleep deprivation,” “prolonged constraint,” and “exposure.”

What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.

The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.

China Inspired Interrogations at Guantánamo [nyt]
PDF: “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War”, 1957 [via nyt]

"Bush's last round of golf as president dates back to October 13, 2003, according to meticulous records kept by CBS news."

So glad to know the media is so meticulous. That's almost two months after the August date Bush claimed to have stopped golfing.

Bush: I quit golf over Iraq war [afp/yahoo]

P.S.: The complete quote from the title, "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive." was made on a tee in Kennebunkport on Aug. 4, 2002. ["Before Golf, Bush Decries Latest Deaths In Mideast |
Upcoming Holiday to Be No Vacation From Strife", washpost

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by producers from Backlight, an investigative documentary TV series on the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO. They were trying to locate and interview Scott Sforza for a program set for the 5th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. [I'd tried and failed to contact Sforza for my Cabinet Magazine article about his work last summer.]

The episode aired the other night, and it's online now, and well worth the watch, even if you don't speak Dutch; most of the talking heads--including me--speak English.

It's amazing on many levels, not the least of which is the sheer impossibility of an in-depth, retrospective investigation called "The Selling Of The War" ever airing on an American news network. VPRO focused in on a couple of very specific elements of stagecraft, manipulation, and deceit from 2003: Colin Powell's UN speech; the White House-built stage at the CENTCOM media center in Doha, Qatar; and the Coalition press conference where Gen. Tommy Franks announced the invasion, which had a controversial--and damning--Dutch hook.


I did my Sforza fanboi spiel about human wallpaper, and it turns out that among the human wallpapers Franks pulled on stage and introduced as a Coalition partner was a Dutch colonel, Jan Blom [on the far right above]. But the Netherlands were not part of the Coalition. The guy was a NATO public affairs officer, who was grabbed at the last minute to provide balance and camo variety to the backdrop. Naturally, word of the scandal that erupted in Holland after Blom's appearance has not yet penetrated the American heartland.

The two guys in the middle were Franks' equals from the US' actual Coalition partners, Great Britain and Australia, who were only told at the last minute by a White House operative that they would not be participating in the press conference. The guy on the far left was another prop, a Public Affairs guy from Denmark. So the stagecraft managed to simultaneously insult and dissemble. That's Rumsfeld's new lean&mean Army!

Perhaps it's really a minor point, but it's just one of many that show how deceptive and manipulative the administration was in the crucial period of the run-up and the invasion. Again, try to imagine a US network news show of any kind devoting 30 minutes to pull apart such a lie. [Actually, it's probably half that time; there was a great deal of time devoted to former Powell Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson's explanation of how the UN WMD speech came together, something that has been covered in the US.]

So anyway, happy anniversary!

Program page: Tegenlicht: De Verkoop van een Oorlog []
Watch the episode online via real player [vpro]


Modular, prefab, minimalist, outdoor space, nice matte finish, shipping containers... Just slap a couple of solar panels on the roof and get a book stylist in there to add a Moholy-Nagy monograph to the coffee table, I think we have our January cover!

Under Siege, Blackwater Takes On Air of Bunker [nyt]

Deborah Scranton got embedded reporter credentials, but her documentary, The War Tapes was largely shot by US soldiers in Iraq using camera equipment she provided. She did much of her directing remotely via IM and email reviews of Quicktime dailies. Here's 's a portion of 's discussion of a typical scene, where the troops guard a convoy of supplies being operated by Halliburton subsidiary KBR. The scene provides an indelible insight into the day-to-day situation the troops face, and the complexities that underlie every passing mention in the news about "IED's" and "convoys":

KBR sells the swag to the government (meals, haircuts, styrofoam plates for $20+ bucks a pop) and to the troops. There's a great scene of soldiers packed into KBR's amply stocked commissary after a hard day of escorting. They're there to buy DVDs, Pringles, Becks beer, and soft drinks from KBR. Suddenly, you realize that every copy of "Armageddon" and every bottle of Mountain Dew was trucked in through the same hellish corridor as the cheese.

"The War Tapes" doesn't tell us how the war is going, or speculate about the probability of success. Instead, it shows us how much blood and treasure is spent to deliver a single convoy of cheese to an American camp just a few miles outside of Baghdad. The implication is clear but unspoken: The Americans don't control the main roads around key bases. The fight to keep Camp Anaconda supplied is a war unto itself.

Citizen soldiers, citizen media: The War Tapes [majikthise via robotwisdom]
Two of the soldiers, Sgts Jack Bazzi and Stephen Pink, were on Fresh Air last Thursday []


How stoked are you that AirArabia, the JetBlue of Sharjah, UAE--best known to real estate brokers as "Dubai Adjacent"--used the South Park Character Generator for the little characters on their website?

Each time you reload the site, you get a new one, so collect'em all! [via gridskipper, who went to Dubai, and all he didn't get was this lousy t-shirt]

November 8, 2005

First, I'm trying to imagine what kind of fundraiser one would find both David O. Russell and George W. Bush. But allowing for that possibility, I have to say I was surprised to hear this anecdote:

[Three Kings] director Russell ran into candidate George W. Bush at a Hollywood fundraiser in the summer of 1999 and told him that he was making a movie critical of his father's Gulf War legacy. "Then I guess I'm going to have to go finish the job, aren't I?" the younger Bush replied.
From J. Hoberman's review of Jarhead in the Village Voice

According to an LA City Beat interview last year around the time of I Heart Huckabees, Russell met GWB at Terry Semel's house in July 1999. DOR called Semel "an opportunist who was jumping off Clinton and onto the Bush bandwagon at the time." Of course, now we call him the CEO of Yahoo.

"Not an hour goes by that we do not spend a lot of time thinking about the people who are actively suffering."
- Michael Chertoff, DHS Secretary, in the aptly names White House Rose Garden. [As NYT: White House Anxiety Grows, Bush Tries to Quell Political Crisis]

"We're making progress."
-GWB, a million times on The Daily Show [, anyone have the video?]

"I think about Iraq every day. Every. Single. Day."
- GWB, a US-EU press conference. [transcript,]

"I want them to know that there's a flow of progress. We're making progress."
-GWB yesterday at NO airport []

March 8, 2005

Ed Halter has a interesting take on how two Iraq documentaries may rehabilitate the image of the much-criticized embedding process as a means for creating accurate historical documents of the war. [Of course, that that's not at all how it worked out with the TV news embeds is also just fine with the Pentagon.]

Gunner Palace's making-of experience is better known now, although Tucker has been rather specific in saying he and his crew were not officially embedded with the military unit they covered.

Ian Olds' and Garrett Scott's crew for Occupation: Dreamland, however, was embedded with a unit in Fallujah; it was just slacker oversight because of the timing and the distance from Baghdad's bureaucracy. Anyway, two Dreamland-related quotes jump out at me:

the film slogs through time alongside them, in resolute vrit scenes of you-are-there surrealism.


"When we looked at what we shot," Olds recalls, "we realized that it looked like anything from the news, if you just took one moment at a time. So making the documentary was really this process of creating a context. Because the images we had were essentially the same images, but they played out longer, so you were given the context, and you knew the people involved. And all of a sudden, it seems like something that you've never seen."

Over There: Documentarians bring the real war back home [vv]
Occupation: Dreamland screens next week at SXSW []

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Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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