Wednesday, April 29, 2009

pain and interrogation

I hope you can tear yourself away from the Swine Flu sweepstakes. As mentioned last week, I wanted to share some text from Elaine Scarry's book - The Body in Pain. A lot has been written and discussed in the last week regarding the torture memos. Unfortunately the media has a new headline to chase with the Swine outbreak but I think more on the nature and structure of torture fits in quite nicely with our neo-Medieval lives.

The following transcript is from from chapter one of Scarry' s book - basically pages 28 - 38. I've skipped through this so hopefully that doesn't impair your reading or offend the author. My intent is to share passages that have truly spoken to me. My hope is that this will generate discussion among more scholarly peers regarding the subject. And maybe some book sales for Scarry?

Pain and Interrogation:

Torture consists of a primary physical act, the infliction of pain, and a primary verbal act, the interrogation. The first rarely occurs without the second. As is true with the present period, most historical episodes of torture, such as the Inquisition, have inevitably included the element of interrogation: the pain is traditionally accompanied by the “Question”.

The connection between the physical act and the verbal act, between the body and voice, is often misstated or misunderstood. Although information sought in an interrogation is almost never credited with being a just motive for torture, it is repeatedly credited with being the motive for torture. But for every instance in which someone with critical information is interrogated, there are hundreds interrogated who could know nothing of the remote importance to the stability or self-image of the regime. Just as within a precarious regime, the motive for arrest is often a fiction, and just as the motive for punishing those imprisoned is often a fiction (the men, although locked in their cells, watched and applauded the television report that a military plane had crashed – Chile), so what masquerades as the motive for torture is a fiction.

It is crucial to see that the interrogation does not stand outside an episode of torture as its motive or justification: It is internal to the structure of torture, exists there because of its intimate connections to and interactions with the physical pain.

Intense pain is world –destroying. It is for this reason that while the content of the prisoner’s answer is only sometimes important to the regime, the form of the answer, the fact of his answering, is always crucial.

Physical pain always mimes death and the infliction of physical pain is always a mock execution.

“The question” is mistakenly understood to be “the motive”; “the answer” is mistakenly understood to “the betrayal”. The first mistake credits the torturer, providing him with a justification, his cruelty with an explanation. The second discredits the prisoner, making him rather than the torturer, his voice rather than his pain, the cause of his loss of self and world. These two misinterpretations are obviously neither accidental nor unrelated. The one is an absolution of responsibility; the other is a conferring or responsibility; the two together turn the moral reality of torture upside down. Almost anyone looking at the physical act of torture would be immediately appalled and repulsed by the torturers. It is difficult to think of a human situation in which the lines of moral responsibility are more starkly or simply drawn, in which there is more compelling reason to ally one’s sympathies with the one person and to repel the claims of the other. Yet as soon as the focus of the attention shifts to the verbal aspect of torture, those lines have begun to waver and change their shape in the direction of accommodating and crediting the torturers. This inversion, this interruption and redirecting of a basic moral reflex, is indicative of the kind of interactions occurring between body and voice in torture and suggests why the infliction of acute physical pain is inevitably accompanied by the interrogation.

It is only the prisoner’s steadily shrinking ground that wins for the torturer his swelling sense of territory. The question and the answer are a prolonged comparative display, an unfurling of world maps.

This display of worlds can alternately be understood as a display of selves or as a display of voices, for the three are close to being a single phenomenon. The vocabulary of “motive” and “betrayal”, for example, is itself an indication of a perceived difference in selfhood: to credit the torturer with having a motive is, among other things, to credit him with having psychic content, the very thing the prisoner’s confession acknowledges the absence of and which the idiom of “betrayal” accuses him of willfully abandoning. The question and answer also objectify the fact that while the prisoner has almost no voice – his confession is a halfway point in the disintegration of language, an audible objectification of the proximity of silence – the torturer and the regime have doubled their voice since the prisoner is now speaking their words.

The interrogation is, therefore crucial to a regime. Within the physical events of torture, the torturer has nothing: he has only an absence of pain. In order to experience his distance from the prisoner in terms of “having” their physical difference is translated into a verbal difference: the absence of pain is a presence of world; the presence of pain is the absence of world. Across this set of inversions pain becomes power. The direct equation, “the larger the prisoner’s pain, the larger the torturer’s world” is mediated by the middle term, “the prisoner’s absence of world”: the larger the prisoner’s pain (the smaller the prisoner’s world and therefore, by comparison) the larger the torturer’s world. This set of inversions at once objectifies and falsifies the pain, objectifies one crucial aspect of pain in order to falsify all other aspects. The obliteration of the contents of consciousness, the elimination of world ground, which is a condition brought about by the pain and therefore one that once objectified (as it is in confession) should act as a sign of the pain, a call for help, an announcement of a radical occasion for attention and assistance, instead acts to discredit the claims of pain, to repel attention, to ensure that the pain will be unseen and unattended to.

When one human being recognizes the incontestable legitimacy of another human being’s existence, he or she is locating the other’s essential reality in one of two places – either in the complex fact of sentience or in the objects of sentience, in the fact of consciousness or in the objects of consciousness.

A political situation is almost by definition one in which the two locations of selfhood are in a skewed relation to one another or have wholly split apart and have begun to work, or be worked, against one another.

Image: Richard Ross

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

for Peggy Noonan - a review of Torture Law

I keep meaning to finish a transcription from the excellent book, The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry, which has a section about torture and language that I think is quite useful for today. She analyzes the political consequences of deliberately inflicted pain - particularly in the case of torture.

So for now, I'll point to the basic primer generously provided by Phronesisaical:
The United States Constitution: Due process is guaranteed by the 5th Amendment (1791). "[C]ruel and unusual punishment" is outlawed in the 8th Amendment (1791). Torture is prohibited by federal law in Title 18 of the United States Code, Part I, Chapter 113C, § 2340A. Torture:
(a) Offense.— Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life. (b) Jurisdiction.— There is jurisdiction over the activity prohibited in subsection (a) if—
(1) the alleged offender is a national of the United States; or
(2) the alleged offender is present in the United States, irrespective of the nationality of the victim or alleged offender.
Torture is defined in Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C, § 2340. Definitions:
“torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control....
A war crime is defined in Title 18, Part I, Chapter 118, § 2441. War crimes (c):
(c) Definition.— As used in this section the term “war crime” means any conduct—
(1) defined as a grave breach in any of the international conventions signed at Geneva 12 August 1949, or any protocol to such convention to which the United States is a party;
(2) prohibited by Article 23, 25, 27, or 28 of the Annex to the Hague Convention IV, Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, signed 18 October 1907;
(3) which constitutes a grave breach of common Article 3 (as defined in subsection (d)) when committed in the context of and in association with an armed conflict not of an international character; or
(4) of a person who, in relation to an armed conflict and contrary to the provisions of the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices as amended at Geneva on 3 May 1996 (Protocol II as amended on 3 May 1996), when the United States is a party to such Protocol, willfully kills or causes serious injury to civilians.

(d) Common Article 3 Violations.—
(1) Prohibited conduct.— In subsection (c)(3), the term “grave breach of common Article 3” means any conduct (such conduct constituting a grave breach of common Article 3 of the international conventions done at Geneva August 12, 1949), as follows:
(A) Torture.— The act of a person who commits, or conspires or attempts to commit, an act specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control for the purpose of obtaining information or a confession, punishment, intimidation, coercion, or any reason based on discrimination of any kind.
(B) Cruel or inhuman treatment.— The act of a person who commits, or conspires or attempts to commit, an act intended to inflict severe or serious physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions), including serious physical abuse, upon another within his custody or control...
(D) Murder.— The act of a person who intentionally kills, or conspires or attempts to kill, or kills whether intentionally or unintentionally in the course of committing any other offense under this subsection, one or more persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including those placed out of combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause...
(G) Rape.— The act of a person who forcibly or with coercion or threat of force wrongfully invades, or conspires or attempts to invade, the body of a person by penetrating, however slightly, the anal or genital opening of the victim with any part of the body of the accused, or with any foreign object.
(H) Sexual assault or abuse.— The act of a person who forcibly or with coercion or threat of force engages, or conspires or attempts to engage, in sexual contact with one or more persons, or causes, or conspires or attempts to cause, one or more persons to engage in sexual contact....
Among other instruments and treaties of international law, the United States is party to:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
The Geneva Conventions,
The American Convention on Human Rights (signatory only),
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and
The UN Convention Against Torture.

continue reading ...

so much emotional cartography

I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more about emotion mapping. This project looks great and a you download the book.

information aesthetics:

The (44MB freely downloadable) book Emotional Cartography - Technologies of the Self [] is a collection of essays from artists, designers, psycho-geographers, cultural researchers, futurologists and neuroscientists, brought together by Christian Nold, to explore the political, social and cultural implications of visualizing intimate biometric data and emotional experiences using technology. The theme of this collection of essays is to investigate the apparent desire for technologies to map emotion, using a variety of different approaches.

Probably the best known emotion maps are the ones resulting Bio Mapping project, a community mapping project in which the Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), a simple indicator of the emotional arousal, is recorded in conjunction with one's geographical location. By combining the emotional responses of over 1,500 people over a period of 4 years, several "Emotion Maps" were generated of the city in which the participants roamed around.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

J.G.Ballard 1930-2009

Another huge literary loss. Read the LA Times obit here.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bushwick Open Studios - register now

Here's an artist opp. for you:

Bushwick Open Studios Registration is Open!Come out and get details at the Meeting/Anti-meeting at English Kills.


Join us this Friday, April 17th for the Meeting/Anti-meeting: a casual way to meet other artists and organizers, ask questions about the festival.

Computers will be on hand to register.

This is also a chance to pay the registration fee with cash or check instead of Paypal.

Cheap drinks will be provided.

Friday, April 17th, 7-9 pm
@ English Kills Art Gallery
114 Forrest Street, Brooklyn, NY 11206

My Certain Fate - a series of interviews

As mentioned, I'll be participating in an upcoming group show curated by Timothy Buckwalter. Over at Timothy's site, he's been posting his conversations with several artists about their relationship with music and art. If you're a music head and artist or both, I think you might find some kindred spirits.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

things from above

via Timothy Buckwalter

Matvey Levenstein with Phong Bui

Dealing with some deadlines and thus the lack of posts over the previous days. One thing of note is a great interview at the Brooklyn Rail with artist Matvey Levenstein. I met the artist at a residency a few years back and he is quite an engaging speaker with a fascinating story. Some solid areas covered in the interview - see his current one-person exhibition at Larissa Goldston Gallery, on view from April 2nd to May 9th.

Rail: I read Susanna Moore’s essay in your catalogue at your first show at Larrisa Goldston a few years ago, and she mentioned that you admired Ingres, and that you don’t trust any expressionistic impulses. Actually, one of the first books I bought was the Dover Edition of Ingres with a small text by Vincent Price, the actor, in which he wrote, “Ingres, in correct pronunciation, should be like the word ‘angry’ without the ‘y.’” Isn’t that perfect? [Laughter.] It stuck in my mind forever. In any case, a lot of credit has been given to Ingres because of what Robert Rosenblum described as his coolly disciplined and warmly sensual style. Picasso recognized in his paintings the acute visual perception that accommodates the abstract order. But David, his teacher, was just as radical: by adopting classical relief, he reduced the use of perspectival recession while maintaining the atmospheric effects and making the linear contours more pronounced—like figures across the picture plain.

Levenstein: Yeah, David can be thought of as kind of a punk reaction to the sophistication of Baroque and specifically Rococo painting. In any case, with the exception of “The Death of Marat,” I don’t like David and have always preferred Ingres. Ingres, I think, was both more complex and perverse as an artist when he combined Baroque sensuality with abstracted forms. Ingres is still fascinating to me.

Rail: I agree. We identify with his terrific and expressive distortions of form and space, which opened up another possible language to Cubism, the curvilinear structure that allowed Picasso to break away from his previous analytical and synthetic phases. In some ways I believe this was what de Kooning discovered. We can see that response in his standing and seated figures from 1938 to the greater dismemberment of the body in “Pink Angel” of 1945. Which actually, thinking of de Kooning’s sometimes garish palette, full of harsh contrast, blue, pinkish tones against bright orange and ochre, reminds me that it appears you deliberately heighten certain local colors in such objects, perhaps more with the last group of paintings than this new one. In a painting entitled “Still Life” (2002), there were predominant green and violet pillows set in the middle of the turquoise blue arm chair, against the cadmium yellow wall in the back, or “Couch (Self Portrait)” (2004), with the Buddha’s head in ultramarine blue lit from behind, and the deep cadmium red couch on which your silhouetted figure sat on the far right. Is that a fair reading of those paintings?

Levenstein: I was using color as a way to figure out what is considered flat and what is spatial. To tell you the truth, while looking at de Kooning, I was also looking at a lot of Italian Mannerist paintings. This idea of combining a flat shape of either neutral color or black with a very bright color was crucial for me. How can you get black to be both the shadow and the local color at the same time?

image: Brooklyn Rail/drawing by PhongBui

Thursday, April 09, 2009

My profile on updownacross

I've recently had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with art blogger (
and neighbor) Joann Kim of updownacross. She's just posted a profile piece on me here and at Greenpointers blog. Joann is hoping to get some dialogue between artists in the Greenpoint established with a grand vision of developing some public platforms for them as well. Very commendable. Please be sure to make Joann's blog a daily read.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Meet the Wittgensteins

This is a fascinating read at the New Yorker. Cross posting from Phronesisaical:

In the New Yorker, a review of Alexander Waugh's new book on the Wittgenstein family. More Wittgenstein biography here.
[Karl Wittgenstein's] youngest child, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, once asked a pupil if he had ever had any tragedies in his life. The pupil, evidently well trained, inquired what he meant by “tragedy.” “I mean suicides, madness, or quarrels,” replied Ludwig, three of whose four brothers committed suicide, two of them (Rudi and Hans) in their early twenties, and the third (Kurt) at the age of forty. Ludwig often thought of doing so, as did his surviving brother, Paul. A budding concert pianist when he lost his right arm to a Russian bullet, in 1914, Paul was imprisoned for a time in the infamous Siberian fortress where Dostoyevsky had set his novel “The House of the Dead.” Ludwig later claimed to have first entertained thoughts of suicide at around the age of ten, before any of his brothers had died. There were three sisters: Gretl, Helene, and Hermine. Hermine, the eldest child (she was born in 1874; Ludwig, the youngest, arrived fifteen years later), and the guardian of her father’s flame, never married. Helene was highly neurotic, and had a husband who suffered from dementia. Gretl was regarded as irritating by most people, including her unpleasant husband, who committed suicide, as did his father and one of his aunts. Bad temper and extreme nervous tension were endemic in the family. One day, when Paul was practicing at one of the seven grand pianos in their winter home, the Palais Wittgenstein, he leaped up and shouted at his brother Ludwig in the room next door, “I cannot play when you are in the house, as I feel your skepticism seeping towards me from under the door!”...

In the Wittgenstein family, it was not the philosopher who was the unworldly one. Ever since childhood, the last-born Ludwig had had a passion and a facility for mechanical things. At the age of ten, he constructed a working model of a sewing machine out of bits of wood and wire; while serving in the Austrian Army, he demonstrated a more dangerous practicality by improvising his own mortar in the field. After leaving school, Ludwig studied engineering in Berlin, specializing in hot-air balloons, and then moved to Manchester to work on aeronautical engines; in 1910, he patented an improvement in propeller technology. It was then that he heard of Bertrand Russell’s work on logic and decided to study with him in Cambridge.

Russell found him to be a tormented soul, unsure of his own abilities and unsure whether to be an engineer or a philosopher. Russell soon decided that Ludwig was the most perfect example of genius he had ever known, and persuaded him not to continue with engineering. “We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother,” Russell told Hermine. But he feared that his new pupil was on the brink of suicide, as he explained in a letter to his mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell. Ottoline wrote back that hot chocolate would calm Ludwig’s nerves, and enclosed a packet of cocoa tablets for Russell to give him....

Thursday, April 02, 2009

another sign for changing times

Via: Kazys Varnelis/aggregat456:

951b130958bbf7ace9a02600610610781eba9df9_m.jpg (via Madsbjerg)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Mass Firings of Faculty at Parsons The New School for Design

Things just get better and better! Now mass firings at Parsons New School of Design. Hrag Vartanian and have the ins and outs.

via Hrag:
This would be ugly under any circumstances but it is particularly ugly in this economy. It is also particularly hypocritical –and socially irresponsible– for an administration and a school that prides itself on its progressive history to take it upon itself to undermine a union so capriciously.

Some background:
You may have heard or read about some of the chaos that surrounds President Bob Kerrey’s stewardship of the New School. The New York Times and The Village Voice (see links) have written about it extensively. There have been multiple firings of Provosts, a vote of no confidence in the president, student occupations of campus sites and overall considerable unhappiness amongst the students and faculty.

[links: NY Times (1, 2), Village Voice (1)]

Despite all this the Fine Arts Department enrollment has been consistently increasing these past five years. The department has been healthy and the community of students and faculty has been lively and progressive.

These firings are part of a larger restructuring of the Fine Arts program aimed at moving away from a focus on art making and contemporary art theory. These curricular changes were arrived at without consultation of part-time faculty and in an atmosphere of fear and secrecy, similar to the nature of the initial reasons for the full-time faculty’s December 2008 vote of no-confidence in President Bob Kerrey. The firings are paired with demotions of senior faculty who have distinguished reputations and many years of service at the New School and Parsons, and the promotions of faculty with less seniority, against union rules.

We wrote a letter condemning these actions and more than 90 percent of the Fine Arts faculty signed it. (Some could not be reached precisely because this was all done during the spring break) As the present administration fears more additional negative press it is our hope that you will join our efforts to reverse these actions by writing an email to the addresses listed below. We have included the original text that our Fine Art faculty sent as its petition. Please feel free to cut and paste from it for your email.

We would also be grateful if you pass the word on to any other concerned academics, artists, union members or –especially– members of the press.

Please identify your email in the subject line: “We stand opposed to the mass firings at Parsons”


  • President Bob Kerrey:
  • Provost Tim Marshall:
  • Parsons Interim Dean Sven Travis:

Transcript of original petition:

We the undersigned hereby affirm our opposition to the summary firing of our valued colleagues from the Parsons Fine Arts department. These fellow teachers and artists have given their time and energy to Parsons for many, many years. They, like all adjunct faculty at Parsons, have worked many hours beyond their contractual commitments and have provided scholarship, skill and guidance to countless students. Furthermore to not rehire faculty in this economic climate is both cruel and socially irresponsible.

While we support the innovations of the school of Art, Media and Technology we cannot do so at the expense of our colleague’s livelihoods. We therefore insist upon an immediate reversal of aforementioned summary firings.

image: NY Times

passing icon- Helen Levitt

From the NPR obit (which features a swell slideshow): "In the 1930s and '40s, Levitt would wander the streets to document the lyrical quality of daily city life. In an era of social radicalism, she set out to make commentary on the plight of the working class. But after seeing the photographs of Cartier-Bresson for the first time, she realized that photography could be art, and that realization informed her work for the rest of her life."

From NYTimes obit: "In Ms. Levitt’s best-known picture, three properly dressed children prepare to go trick-or-treating on Halloween 1939. Standing on the stoop outside their house, they are in almost metaphorical stages of readiness. The girl on the top step is putting on her mask; a boy near her, his mask in place, takes a graceful step down, while another boy, also masked, lounges on a lower step, coolly surveying the world.

“At the peak of Helen’s form,” John Szarkowski, former director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, once said, “there was no one better."

hat tip: T.Buckwalter
/ Image: Helen Levitt

Office of Blame rising

I was quite pleased to see a mention of the Office of Blame over at Paddy's AFC! The project is the brainchild of artists Carla Repice and Geoff Cunningham, The Office of Blame (OBA) highlights a few fieldwork samples from their archive of blame forms and recorded conversations.

During the presidential elections, I blogged about the project a couple times as they made the rounds of the conventions. I even had the surreal pleasure of subbing in one da
y here in NY. I'm happy they are getting a much deserved bigger platform. It's a fantastic project with huge potential to screen the national mood and the ghosts that haunt each of us.

Image via: OBA