To See or Not to See: Beyond the Secrets and Lies
I’m not interested in what the president said at the press conference. I am interested in what he didn’t say.
A rhetorical fig leaf, the coinage "according to foreign sources" is a common tongue-in-cheek expression in many countries, Israel among them. Although it derives from a situation of legal obscurity, it is nevertheless used with distinctive clarity concerning the punishment for those who dare remove the leaf.1 "According to foreign sources" has become a prevalent expression in official briefings, the media, and academic discourse. It is habitually used to skirt censorial restrictions whose justification is security in the broadest and most unrestricted sense. It allows the speaker to evade responsibility for exposing forbidden information: They, the foreigners, claim so; it has all been said before.2
Nowadays, more and more information is accessible to more and more people. A great ocean of data is accessible on a myriad of platforms, such as the Internet or libraries, to anyone interested. Governments, armies, intelligence organizations, research institutions, and economic corporations, however, are still busy hiding and filtering information, and inundating the media and communication networks with false information. Governments and organizations have always kept the existence of certain sites, activities, names, and people secret. They have always exerted themselves to mislead us with regard to the existence of means, units, or operations. They have always ignored questions, distorted facts, or lied "in the best interest" of their subjects, the citizens; in the best interest of these, secret juntas and circles of privy seal guards have evolved. The modern nation state, and with it the big corporations—its flesh and blood—developed open hostility toward the transparency and availability of information. The modern state and corporation hate information by their very essence. They have committed themselves to hostility toward the freedom of information. They have created apparatuses for hiding, concealing, classifying, distorting, and silencing. They have backed—and continue to back—themselves with laws which enable them to persecute those trying to obtain and disseminate information.
Their ramparts stand on the firm foundation of a closely-knit doctrine which hides behind expressions and idioms such as "the best interest of the state," "interest of national security," "information better kept from falling into the wrong hands," "the right ranks," "the public is in good hands," "there is supervision," and so on. Fundamentally, this world view supports the "noble lies" a-la American Jewish political philosopher, Leo Strauss, and the argument in favor of "necessary illusions" made by American theologian and publicist Karl Reinhold Niebuhr. Both these men have had a crucial impact on the emergence of the neo-conservative ideology in the Western world, the US, UK, and Israel included.3
In recent years we have been repeatedly exposed to information clarifying what many have long suspected: states and corporations not only hide information from us; they and their messengers also lie to us openly, often in a manner which puts citizens, communities, and environments in real danger. In many countries, large budgets are channeled to "secret" or "confidential" projects and undertakings, which are unsupervised. Acts are taken in utter disregard of local and international law, let alone basic moral criteria.
On occasion, when the screen of lies and blackout is opened, it turns out that the claims about responsible supervision of these sites, organizations, and activities is also not entirely accurate. In early September 2011, MK Israel Hasson (Kadima party), former deputy chief of Israel’s General Security Services, said: "The public must know that the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has difficulty sustaining the monitoring to which it is committed. Today we cannot tell the public to rest assured because there is supervision."4 In rare instances when the supervisory structure itself is being scrutinized publicly, the discussion is carried out in general codes and descriptions. Thus, for example, when Yedioth Aharonoth reported that on September 6, 2011 a special emergency drill, "Operation Fernando," would be held at the nuclear facility in Dimona, "imitating a radioactive leak as a result of missile attack," it emphasized that "only a handful of senior defense establishment officials are privy to the drill’s scenarios and results."5 In other words, the public is not entitled to know. It can only count on those "who cannot tell the public," in the very same week, "whether there is presently supervision."
In a world in which the media betray their journalistic role—not to say, forsakes it altogether—the responsibility for exposing the facts, the budgets, the actions, and those responsible for the decisions and omissions is shifted almost entirely to the individual; to such professionals as Daniel Ellsberg, the man who in 1971 leaked the "Pentagon Papers" to which he was exposed in his capacity as senior defense analyst (see Ellsberg’s essay in the Maarav website dedicated to the exhibition);6 to soldiers such as Israeli Anat Kam or US Marine Bradley Manning, who is charged with sending thousands of classified and top secret documents to WikiLeaks;7 and to alternative media organizations such as ZNet,8 Independent Media Center,9 and others.
Self-described "democratic intelligence" agencies, primarily WikiLeaks10 and Anonymous11, as well as "ordinary" citizens, use the array of online networks to expose, gather, and disseminate information which countries and corporations would rather hide from public scrutiny. Although they are often outcast, persecuted, and even prosecuted and imprisoned, their activity is essentially democratic; it is the very heart and soul of democracy, in the deepest sense: presentation of the greatest amount of information to the greatest number of citizens, so they may restrict the absolute hold on power. As argued by Noam Chomsky in his classical essay, "The Responsibility of the Intellectuals," the responsibility is all mine, yours, ours. Exposing the truth, understanding it, comprehending the meanings derived from it, its dissemination—all these tasks must be expropriated from the big money-big power-commercial media cartel.12 (These issues are pursued by some of the texts at the Maarav website accompanying the exhibition).
The exhibition "According to Foreign Sources" sets out to explore what it means to observe, listen, and represent what we have been trained to accept as prohibited to gaze, knowledge, or presentation. The history of engagement with this subject in Israel and the world is very short.13 The exhibition addresses something which is not supposed to exist at all, at least not out in the open or in public consciousness; something whose nature, form, and contents are not entirely clear. The exhibition inquires how art—whose purpose (if it has one) is to show, voice, and represent— can confront the demand and commandment not to show. How can the invisible, the concealed, the confidential be shown? Can it be done without being punished? What does it mean to "reveal" a secret? Is it not the wish of artists to show? Or, perhaps, it is rather to expose and to contemplate the invisible?
The sixteen participating artists have opted for diverse aesthetic practices, tools, styles, media, materials, and contents to confront the subject. They unfold a wide range of possibilities to observe, reflect, examine, and represent that which is hidden, distorted, twisted, invisible; that which we are explicitly told is forbidden to see and show. Some turn a direct gaze at what they suspect to be—or what is, according to foreign sources—"found there." Others explore known phenomena without pointing a finger at a specific place or organization. Some confront the issue of seeing or not seeing, the act of vision itself (as well as its antithesis in the form of blindness or concealment). Yet others focus on a site, an action, or an organization, looking at those who conceal the information—those who wish to hide, to be a miraculous and monstrous oxymoron, to be invisible as far as you and I are concerned.
We—artists and viewers—demand to know. It is not only our right, it is also our obligation.
So here are some of these hidden and concealed sites, actions, and organizations, some responses to them, and some visual and acoustic reflections about them. Here are some modes of observation at what we are told is nonexistent, which nevertheless exists and is performed, at least according to foreign sources… Here are some attempts to look behind the screen of secrets and lies.
To Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg, who insist that the truth must not be kept a secret.
It has been a long ride to bring “According to Foreign Sources” together. The show, the accompanying Maarav website, and the seminar could not have been accomplished without the help, support, and encouragement of many individuals and organizations. I would like to personally thank the artists, both in Israel and abroad whom without their fascinating selection of works, the show would not be possible.
Thanks also to the conference participants and to all the writers who contributed texts to the exhibition website. The richness is all ours to enjoy. Many thanks to my wonderful assistant, Karmit Galili; to Atty. Michael Sfard for his professional and personal advices, and for the crucial essay he contributed to the Maarav website; to Ido Kenan who showed me how to navigate in the secret webs.
The project was made possible thanks to the full trust and close assistance of the incredible staff of the Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon: Galit Eilat who, before leaving her capacity as director, exerted herself to set the exhibition in motion; Eyal Danon, who has been accompanying the project for some two years—it has been a pleasure working with you; Ran Kasmy Ilan, who supervised the work peacefully and efficiently; Nir Sagiv, who somehow made the budget, artists, and various needs come together; Avigail Surovich, who is responsible for the on-line aspects, including the Maarav website; and Mai Omer, who handles equipment for the present and archiving for the future. Thanks to the translators, Daria Kassovsky (English) and Yasmeen Daher (Arabic), the editors Asaf Schurr (Hebrew) and Natalie Melzer (English) and the wonderful art director Guy Saggee, for their commendable work. Yael Schanan did the important work of researching and presenting the net-sources.
Many thanks to the Holon Municipality and especially Mayor Motti Sasson, who continue to insure that culture, even a critical one as offered by the Center, will be more than a mere slogan.
Thanks are also due to the Shpilman Institute for Photography (SIP) for help in producing the seminar and in bringing over and hosting Trevor Paglen in Israel: thanks to Shalom Shpilman and Dr. Romi Mikulinsky of SIP for their support of the project.
In the course of more than two years of working on the project, I consulted with many distinguished scholar, artists and colleagues. Profound gratitude is owed to Joshua Simon, Roee Rosen, Aïm Deüelle Lüski, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Žižek, Daniel Ellsberg, Trevor Paglen, John smith—for the conversations, email exchange, advices and criticism.
1. On the language, structure, and meaning of the laws concerning secrecy, censorship, etc., see Atty. Michael Sfard’s essay in the Maarav website accompanying the show. The site contains a PDF file with a selection of Israeli laws pertinent to censorship, secrecy, emergency measures, etc. My gratitude to Atty. Michael Sfard and Atty. Karmit Galili, my assistant in this exhibition, for putting together this important file.
2. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel apparently used this line of defense. In 1807, having completed his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel moved from Jena to Bamberg where he assumed editorship of a daily political newspaper, the Bamberger Zeitung. The censor instructed the paper be closed down after Hegel was accused of revealing the movement of the German forces that fought Napoleon’s army at the time. In his defense Hegel argued that he had drawn the information from another source, and that the things had already been published elsewhere. Thanks to Joshua Simon who referred me to this precedent. See note 74 in: Susan Buck-Morss, "Hegel and Haiti," Critical Inquiry, 26, no. 4 (Summer 2000), pp. 821-865.
3. The "noble lies," first discussed by Plato in the Republic are, according to Strauss, myths used by leaders to create an obedient society. Illusions are obviously necessary to "guide and educate" the "irrational" masses to the rational goals of the state and its allies. For a comprehensive analysis of the use of rhetoric and (mainly PR) apparatuses of lies, illusions, and false promises, see Noam Chomsky’s seminal book: Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (New York: South End Press, 1989).
4. Hasson’s assertions were reinforced by Knesset Chairman, MK Reuven Rivlin: "At times when the security issues are under political dispute between the committee chairman and the government, the responsibilities of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the supervisory powers of the Knesset over the security system and its functioning must be defined clearly." See: Jonathan Lis, "Mufaz was Furious: Netanyahu and Barak withheld information from MKs on latest Israel terror attacks," Haaretz website, November/September?? 4, 2011 [Hebrew]: http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1240568.html; for English, see: http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/netanyahu-and-barak-withheld-information-from-mks-on-latest-israel-terror-attacks-1.382480.
5. See Yossi Yehoshua, "Operation Fernando," Yedioth Aharonoth, September 2, 2011, p. 6 [Hebrew]. The drill was, as aforesaid, held two days later. Yehoshua reported it again in Yedioth Aharonoth, but, for some reason, was unable to provide any information whatsoever about the drill itself. The second report was practically identical to the first.
6. The Internet is full of information about Ellsberg, who also published a comprehensive book about the document-leaking affair. The online issue of Maarav dedicated to the exhibition contains Ellsberg’s essay marking the affair’s 40th anniversary, an event regarded by many as the beginning of the end of American involvement in Southeast Asia, see: http://www.ellsberg.net. For an elaboration, see: Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Viking, 2002).
7. For a discussion of the legal battle around the leaking affair and the public support for Manning, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradley_Manning; see also: http://www.bradleymanning.org. The American Defense Department demanded that Manning be tried behind closed doors and at a secret site, but human rights organizations and supporters of his act claim that if he should be tried at all, the trial should be open to the public.
8. See: http://www.zcommunications.org/znet.
9. See: http://www.indymedia.org/en/index.shtml.
10. On the history and structure of WikiLeaks, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WikiLeaks. Official site: http://www.wikileaks.org.
11. For an elaboration on the organization, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous (group. At the bottom of the essay you will find various sites among which the organization "capers."
12. Noam Chomsky, "The Responsibility of the Intellectuals," in American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Vintage, 1969). The essay was first published two years earlier in The New York Review of Books. Following the publication the magazine came under such a fierce attack by American liberals, that Chomsky was never invited to write in it again.
13. Noteworthy relevant exhibitions in Israel include "Fallout" curated by Galia Yahav and shown in April 2004 at the Midrasha Gallery in Tel Aviv following Mordechai Vanunu’s release from prison; "Forbidden" curated by Ami Steinitz in his Neve Tsedek gallery in 1998, which featured works censored or prohibited for display for various reasons; Jan Tichy’s installation "Facility 1391", first exhibited at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art in the Spring of 2007, which included a model and a sketch of a British police facility, considered, according to foreign sources, a "black hole"—an "unmarked" site of interrogation and torture near Kibbutz Barkai, and "Dimona", Tichy’s installation staged as part of the exhibition "Real Time" at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, where the Czech born artist operating in Israel presented a model and sketches of the Nuclear Research Center. Visitors were invited to take a copy home.
Additional texts written or translated especially for the exhibition are available at the Maarav website, in the special issue dedicated to the exhibition.