- Notes on Class, Labor, and the Moving Image, catalogue essay, Not Working: Artistic Production and Matters of Class, Kunstverein München + Archive Books, Berlin (September 2020).
- Toward a Comparative Futurism – Revised and Extended (December 2019). #timetravel
- Toward a Comparative Futurism, catalogue essay, Cosmological Arrows, Bonniers Konsthall + Art and Theory Publishing, Stockholm (August 2019). #timetravel
- National Identity Meets Digital Nativity: On the Works of Shabahang Tayyari, Canvas Magazine, No. 15, vol. 14 (July 2019).
- On the Installation Shots of Contemporary Art Exhibitions, catalogue essay, thing, aura, metadata. A poem on making., Parallel Platform, PhotoIreland Foundation, Dublin (July 2019). #instashots
- Shilpa Gupta and Zarina at Ishara Art Foundation, review, art–agenda (June 2019).
- On the Works of Morteza Ahmadvand, Ghazaleh Hedayat, and Sahand Hesamiyan, catalogue essays, The Spark Is You, Parasol Unit, London and Venice (May 2019).
- CAD Conspiracy: Pattern Recognition in Contemporary Art (with Bahar Noorizadeh and Chris Tegho), video-essay installation with Generative Adversarial Networks (2019–ongoing). #instashots
- Ethics of Time Travel: Toward a Comparative Futurism, lecture, The Twilight Symposium: Science Fiction Inside Colonialism, e-flux journal + La Colonie, Paris (February 2019). #timetravel
- Peer Pressuring the Past, Future-Fictioning the Present: On the Films of Bahar Noorizadeh, brochure text, Governing Machines and the Future of Futures, Mercer Union, Toronto (October 2018).
- “What Was Gulf Futurism” (with Ahamd Makia), in ZIGG: Superficial (October 2018). #timetravel
- A Butterfly Effect Across the Chronosphere, lecture, Armen Avanessian & Enemies #30: Ethnofuturisms, Roter Salon, Volksbühne, Berlin (September 2018). #timetravel
- Ethnofuturisms (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2018). #timetravel
- Notes From the Attic: Displaying the Material History of the CIA, Cabinet, issue 65 (Fall 2017–Winter 2018).
- A Postcard from Tehran, Spike Art Quarterly, No. 57 (September 2018).
- Tehran Behind the Screen, Domus, No. 1027 (September 2018).
- Instrumental Xenotation, blog post (September 2017).
- The Politics of Surplus: An Affirmative Strategy of Resistance, coursework, Goldsmiths, University of London (August 2017).
- Objective Hyperreality vs. Hyperobjective Reality, blog post (July 2017).
- Despotic Ophidiophobia, blog post (July 2017).
- “Post-Capitalist Desire”, in The Fisher-Function (London: EGRESS, 2017).
- This Is the Sea, Isn’t It?, catalogue essay, This Is the Sea, artmonte-carlo, Monaco (April 2017).
- The Contract of Identification with Pain or A Child’s Instantaneous Desire for Aging, blog post (February 2017).
- 🚨💭, blog post (January 2017).
- The Exhibition Whisperer, Spike Art Quarterly, online (January 2017). #instashots
- The Aesthetics of Afterlife, blog post (November 2016).
- August 3, 2016: After Pak Sheung-Chuen, blog post (August 2016).
- Trans-Temporal Perspectives, PNYX (an autonomous imprint of Architectural Association, London), issue 24 (June 2016). #instashots
- An Alternative Entry in Five Moves, blog post (June 2016).
. . . the rebirth of a non-neologism, a heretical transvaluation . . .
Realized in collaboration with Armen Avanessian and published by Merve Verlag, this volume includes contributions by Fatima Al Qadiri, Monira Al Qadiri, Sophia Al-Maria, Aria Dean, Kodwo Eshun, Steve Goodman, Anna Greenspan, and Karen Orton. It also includes the introductory essay “Ethnofuturisms: Findings in Common and Conflicting Futures.”
This anthology should by no means be considered exhaustive, but only a first step toward a new field of research that might once be called Comparative Futurism.
This essay was published in Not Working: Reader, accompanying the exhibition “Not Working: Artistic Production and Matters of Class” at Kunstverein München (September–November 2020).
“… to draw out some relationships between… the topical decline of class in contemporary art; the increasing rise of the moving image in contemporary art; the digital turn of the experience economy, and how it plays into contemporary impressions of labor by obscuring expressions of class; the historical role of the filmic medium in the management of labor; as well as attempts at toying with how these relationships are upheld in a highly self-centered image of the status quo.”
The Reality, Contrary, and Special Effects of Ethnofuturisms …
This essay has been in the making since October 2017, and different versions of it have been presented in various forms and published in various contexts, including the few mentioned at the bottom of the essay. This is the final version (December 2019) which only demands further work to be done in the field of Comparative Futurism.
Image: Still from Donnie Darko (2001) by Richard Kelly.
This essay was published in the accompanying volume to Cosmological Arrows, a group exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm (August–November 2019) exploring the works of contemporary artists who engage with science fiction as a medium, a source of inspiration, or a site of critique.
Ethics of Time Travel: Toward A Comparative Futurism: An earlier draft of this essay was presented at Art After Culture, “The Twilight Symposium: Science Fiction Inside Colonialism,” organized by e-flux journal in collaboration with
La Colonie, Paris, February 2019.
What, then, would be a geo-specific futurity? [Or, what is it that constitutes the geo-specificity of futurity?] And how would it contribute to possibilities for thinking about the future as such, which can again and again get instantiated in particular futures? There might be a clue in a review of those futurisms that together carry a variety of navigational agendas with regard to different regional micro-histories and technocultural orientations. They provide different outlooks upon the horizon of change, endurance, and survival. Accordingly, the attempt to set up a framework of comparative futurism hopes to not only find some shared patterns of imagining the future among a constellation of practices, but more particularly to form imaginative patterns that allow for sharing the future as such and in all its plurality––a planetary politics that is often hindered by tensions between conflictual imaginaries and instantiations of the future here and there.
[As a preliminary move] this study draws the sample contours of a comparative futurism in an “ethnofuturist” register, which is set to resonate between the scales of the ethnoracial and the techno-universal. Ethnofuturisms simultaneously contain understandings of a terrestrial spectrum, an inter- or supranational order, as well as the planetary infrastructures that are required for such ensemble. Attending to the rhythms of change on various scales ranging from the individual to the collective, from the human to nonhuman, and from the natural to the naturalized, ethnofuturisms strive to leave behind the stagnating either-or of multiculturalism and ethnopluralism. In other words, ethnofuturisms respond to an intensified condition where “the only truly alien planet is Earth,” while the “future is here” and has already arrived on Earth, “it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” Ethnofuturisms address the question of planetary chronopolitics in terms of future imaginaries immanentized on an alien Earth. By tying ethnic and racial diversity to the universal impulses of technicity, ethnofuturisms reflect on the ways in which processes of alienation in fact intersect with and perhaps mutate the processes of anthropogenesis, or hominization. Ethnofuturisms investigate the Human status (as distinct from nonhuman, subhuman, superhuman, etc.) through a look at the history of technocultural traditions from the vantage point of immanent futures. The inquiry into the Human status is often carried out via some sort of reverse engineering: Ethnofuturisms begin by asking whether alienation, as in the effects or residues of dehumanizing mechanisms, can be repurposed in the direction of becoming not the other but another human being.
Ethnofuturisms can be considered as emancipatory movements that take the possibility of change seriously only if they seek to abolish the conditions that made it not only possible but also necessary for them to evolve.
These observations manifest the need for techno-biopolitical transformers, the (in)human residents of mutating nation-states, and the (non-)subjects of ethnoracial differentiation to reclaim, repurpose, and radicalize the means and conditions of alienation and indifference. For this, further work needs to be done on the principle of comparison, and its counterpart of combination, in order to navigate futures and futurisms beyond the scale of the ethnos, moving on to the cosmos [as in a Cosmofuturism] as well as registering the xenos [as in a Xenofuturism].
A shorter version of this essay was published in Canvas Magazine, no. 15, vol. 4 (Jul/Aug 2019).
Scrolling through over five thousand posts and reposts on Shabahang Tayyari’s Instagram page can take a lot of time. In the course of regular shitposting, some images crop up regularly. There are several posts in which large italicized letters are set against royal blue and chartreuse green backgrounds, filling the frame with phrases like, “Country of Pistachios and Losers,” “Country of Saffron and Sycophants,” and “Country of Rugs and Whores.” Elsewhere, similar compositions are overwritten with different lines: “Country of Allah and Kitties,” “– of Dumb and Dumbers,” and “– of Peppers and Sperms.”
Tayyari is an artist, writer and curator from Karaj, a city in the suburbs of Tehran. His homegrown exercises in meme-making couple a dark sense of humor with a contested sense of belonging. His way of addressing the riddle of identity is to situate it as a riddle that might seem solved once everyone, no matter where from or what their background, posts the same viral image on the same online platform. His Instagram roster of verbal and visual miscellany displays fascination and frustration with certain modes of identification and agendas of representation in contemporary art, vernacular culture, and popular avenues of digital circulation. He approaches these categories and their respective practices with both apathy and drama, which, though perhaps cynical, carries a bold sense of entitlement. This is negativity conceived as a task, post-internet pessimism at full force.
Tayyari’s references include the Bauhaus via Josef Albers, whose color theory has long been a fixture of visual arts studies in Iran. Yet his approach sarcastically takes on notions of digital enchantment — “I’m gonna build a Mosque on Tumblr” — and professional disillusionment: “Let’s be MFA Forever.” In another image, Tayyari shows a detail of a work with the Thatcherite slogan “There Is No Such Thing As Society”; and elsewhere, he features solid colors inscribed with texts like “Art Basel Chechnya” or “Kabul Biennial.” All of this presents an aloof critique (if not outright mockery) of inter-scalar agendas of representation, from a particular location toward a trans-regional or global horizon. Targeted in his work are the social media mandates of efficiency and mobility, which demand an image be recognizable in under two seconds, regardless of context or authorship.
At the same time, Tayyari inspires us to ask: How does provincialism survive the internet? Is it possible that contemporary art is particularly functioning as a conduit for the persistence of provincial standpoints? Maybe the internet and contemporary art can be used interchangeably in these questions. This is about how art professionalism mobilises technological affordances on a planetary scale while cultivating a focus on micro-situations, points of origin, and background stories. This might speak to how one simultaneously inhabits various scales. But it certainly points to how planetary operations can allow for the smooth movement of ideas and currencies without altering the segregated or isolated materiality of certain locations and subjectivities.
In their essay on “the role of provincialism as a major aesthetic and infrastructural component in the history of twentieth-century modernism and its transformation into contemporary art as we know it,” David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi argue that “provincialism has actually been neoliberalized.” To explain this they set up a correlation between abiding disparities in institutional and educational access and an individualized, hyper-competitive mode of sociality. “While twentieth-century modernism was so often characterized in its different national guises by the formation of avant-garde movements, the sociality of contemporary art is that of a dispersed network of competing individuals who never cohere into a historical subject with the capacity for collective resistance.” Tayyari responds to this set of problematics by attempting to gather tokens of belonging and identification within and across different cultures or subcultures — and on different scales and platforms. He then shows how these narratives, once having achieved the status of legible representation, start feeding into orders of dividuation and competition, market-driven interaction, and commercialization.
For the past few years, Tayyari has been exhibiting works and curating shows often at Delgosha Gallery in Tehran. His most recent solo exhibition there, Bored Family 2, was in December 2017 and included a collection of wall pieces in different mediums and materials. As if a blockbuster proudly announcing its comeback, the title of the show references Tayyari’s previous solo exhibition at the gallery in 2016. The main leitmotif of the works was a set of Rorschach-like shapes laser cut on cardboard, a material that invokes packing and moving from one place to another as well as the handmade props often used in street protests. Their graphics derive from the logos of black and death metal bands, like Darkthrone or Defeated Sanity, laid over another to form “something gothic,” as Tayyari puts it. Each might also resemble “an old sign carved on the walls of a cave.” These tentacular and slimy forms are built upon a mix of pseudo-organic imagery, religious iconography, and ornate calligraphy, all held together in a state of semi-symmetry. The oversaturated cluster of marks carved on the surface also suggest something like a mask, concealing what lies beneath — as does a nickname on an online forum.
As is often the case with Tayyari’s work, a curious air of anecdotes surrounds the graphics, adding to the inherent esotericism of metal. From an aesthetic and social viewpoint, being able to decipher a metal band’s logo qualifies a person as being in the know. As a teenager in early 2000s Karaj, Tayyari saw metal aesthetics as a matter of fashion and lifestyle. Despite not having much familiarity with the breadth of the genre, its musical lineages, or even the content of lyrics, he saw it as a way to “make an identity out of something I had no idea about.” And after all, It wasn’t as if he could have gone online — or anywhere in Iran, for that matter — to buy a ticket for a metal gig, since the genre is widely associated with satanism. Tayyari and his friends found that hilarious but also useful as a means to connect with the local underground and even cultivate their own groupies.
Among the venues that Tayyari has been frequenting for years is a “game net” owned by a friend in his neighborhood. LAN computer gaming centers, once booming local businesses, are often left to circles of friends who gather to socialize, smoke, drink, listen to black and death metal, and play Counter-Strike or World of Warcraft. They usually play against each other, as slow internet speeds make it difficult to play online. “They see you, they shoot you, and it’s only then that you get to see them,” Tayyari explained. “That’s how slow it can get.”
Stratification within networks is also reflected in the verbal elements of Tayyari’s work, which include quotations credited to “unknown” sources. Some are in fact crude translations of slogans from TV commercials, like “with Iran Radiator who goes to cave.” Another, which reads “sea of sorrow has no shore,” is taken from a modern Iranian poem by Rahi Mo’ayyeri. In the 1960s, it was adapted by the popular musician Habibollah Badi’e for a song by Banoo Roya. As Tayyari writes in his text for the exhibition, the sentence can often be found in prison tattoos, or as a lyrical phrase commonly cited in Telegram groups. But highlighting translation as a means of alienation rather than communication brings poetics back to the surface.
The contours of the landscape suggested by the “cave” and the “sea” find more definition in another laser-cut caption, “in our colony depression is an option.” It sounds odd enough to be a translation, but isn’t one. It is additionally odd because while Iran or, in fact, ancient Persia is remembered in history as a once colonizing force, it has never been an actual colony. But perhaps there is another geographical imagination at work, as cities such as Karachi, Qandahar, and Bangkok are summoned in other works of the series, suggesting a trans-regional horizon that radiates from within cloistered localities. In the background of musical subgenres that emerged in the late 1970s, the provincialism problem is nominally addressed via an evocation of non-Western trajectories that branch off historical postmodernism. In this, Tayyari looks for peculiar instantiations of the cultural ur-logic of today’s communicative consumerism, as figured on a regional register, as an intermediate between local and global scales. It is not a matter of whether depression was opted in for by locals or exerted upon by a global force. The point seems to be that a community can be depressed and yet cultivate a sense of agency, perhaps the agency to conceive of an option. Instead of a direct nod to postcolonial histories of exploitation and alienation, the sentence makes a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that even the worst of all shared feelings, figuratively speaking, can function as a basis for upscaling one’s sense of belonging and cohabitation, particularly in a way that might obliterate the material basis for undesired feelings.
Somewhat similarly, some theoretical takes on black metal situate it as a “negative form of environmental writing bearing on a world that has become blackened.” The works in Bored Family 2 reflect an approach that is both sarcastic and post-apocalyptic. Their poetics gesture toward some ruinous compositions that seem to have outlived the delicate and complex structures of inherited modes of networked communication, of collective identification and representation. This amounts to a form of the gothic within information architectures and the cultures they uphold. By tracing the aesthetics of “info-goth” in existing local, regional, and global networks, Tayyari showcases the disparities within them, and punctures his own coming-of-age narrative.
Furthermore, neon tubes and throwing arrows dot the white walls; dull lines of light are undermined in the overlit white cube and a primitive technology takes aim at haphazard targets. These elements seem to extend the chain of aphorisms that address the absurdities of internet trajectories. Other works in the series include small prints overlaid with gouache paint, gesturing toward the aesthetics of advertisement. Facial mask meets corpse paint, replicating the story of fringe identities assimilated into mainstream consumer culture. A line on the tubes of facial mask reads, “microwave was a psycho mom.” This phrase reflects unreasonable entanglements between the histories of domestic violence and modern household appliances, evoking the tragedies that pop up on millions of news feeds more often than one would or should expect.
Tayyari also makes zines, mostly color laser printed on regular A4 paper and folded in half. Some pages from these publications look like sketches, similar to those on his Instagram, for larger works. They are easy jokes that have that memetic charm to pass from hand to hand, whether on social media, as a modest, small-circulation collectible, or later from one curator or dealer to another. The venues and means of online communication are not simply carriers of what is already created offline. They are the sources, if not resources too, of Tayyari’s activity, and their aesthetics continue if there would be enough reasons, or resources, to materialize them IRL. Such extents of liquidity both point to a generational ability of adaptation as well as a survivalist approach necessitated by precarious conditions of living –– Delgosha, after all, specializes in painting, which is still a relatively much easier medium to sell. As Anselm Franke and Anna Teixeira Pinto have pointed out, survivalism might in fact naturalize the conditions of precarity in the digital age, rendering them inevitable. In this sense, they speak of the “digital native,” a post-internet poster child that inhabits the aforementioned double bind of liquidity, as a figure that “masks a sociopolitical loss (the decline in living standards) as an evolutionary gain (millenials have an adaptive advantage).” They continue, “these figures reconcile the imperatives of self-reliance and individualism with the current social immobility and cultural atavism via a universalization of survivalism and the weaponized psychology from which it springs.”
However, what sets Tayyari’s practice apart is exactly a cynical approach toward universalist agendas, found not least in the professional protocols of global contemporary art, including the fair and biennial formats. His focus is more on the maneuvers that are and can be shaped across an ongoing shift from national identity to digital nativity, to cross Hodge and Yousefi’s analysis with Franke and Pinto’s observation. There is a key parallel between Tayyari’s treatment of metal and how Chechnyan art moguls, for instance, might treat contemporary art via Art Basel. The parallel between the persistence of provincialism and the formation of “the ‘tribal’ martialized imaginary of the self-fashioned digital natives in the urban jungle” is accounted for from a non-universalist and particularly regional viewpoint. He demands us to not see his work in a post-internet lineage that flows from New York to Berlin to Athens and then to Tehran. Neither is his reference to a regional viewpoint limited to a given image of the Middle East. Instead, Tayyari propels us to use the tools at hand to conceive of other geographical imaginations and think of unheard-of trans-regional junctions that can account for other links between global registers and lived localities.
- David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi, “Provincialism Perfected: Global Contemporary Art and Uneven Development,” e-flux journal #65: Supercommunity (May-August 2015).
- Scott Wilson, “Introduction to Melancology,” in Melancology: Black Metal Theory and Ecology (London: Zero Books, 2014).
- Anselm Franke and Ana Teixeira Pinto, “Post-Political, Post-Critical, Post-Internet: Why Can’t Leftists Be More Like Fascists?,” Open! (September 2016).
This lecture was delivered at “The Twilight Symposium: Science Fiction Inside Colonialism” organized by e-flux journal and
La Colonie, Paris, February 2019.
Toward A Comparative Futurism: A revised version of the manuscript for this talk was later published in the accompanying volume to Cosmological Arrows, a group exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, August–November 2019.
Published on the occasion of Bahar Noorizadeh’s solo exhibition Governance Machines and the Future of Futures at Mercer Union, Toronto (Nov 2019).
Excerpts from my contribution to Ahmad Makia’s artist edition ZIGG: Superficial, November 2018.
[To Ahmad] Your remarks made me think of, once again, the necessity to question existing vocabularies and reinvent their future anteriority, realizing their functioning as hyperstitional entities, bringing about new normals, indeed. However, we often and mostly cannot but stay with existing vocabularies and familiar tropes and try to reinvent them from within. A new terminology is in fact a non-neologism or a heretical transvaluation, only appearing after the fact. So, while questioning the nature of facticity, we need to engage with unprecedented facts that can reiterate and reinforce past neologisms anew, or fulfill their future-oriented inherence. In the words of Kodwo Eshun, in his Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture at Goldsmiths in 2017, this is to retro-currently join the thread of those (non-)neologisms that
“are actually forms of life… The names of and for aesthetico-political positions that operate by disagreements and differentiations, that make claims that must be argued. Each of these is not so much a term as a war of and over interpretation, a stance that aims to intervene in cultural politics, that fashions itself to articulate discontent, to focus despair and depression into theories to live by, theories that are embodied, theories that live in us, and through us, and with us, and on us.”
Recently, at the launch session of Ethnofuturismen at Volksbuhne in Berlin, I addressed such “forms of life” through the notions of “temporal climates” and the “chronosphere.”
Each temporal climate has its prevailing time patterns, which constantly influence and are influenced by other climatic times, their histories as well as the velocity and frequency of the course of their events. To follow the routes of transformation that tie various temporal climates together is to move along their exponential divergence from initial conditions, that is, from supposedly localized situations to planetary scales, while remaining enmeshed within a mutating earth system whose transformation can be neither attributed to a single cause nor a single set of effects. This, of course, requires us to challenge the constructed linearity of historical causation to begin with, as well as the unilateral and progressive movement of time, and question the geometrical politics of such and similar abstract models in relation to the realities of our times and times to come. Moreover, “timelines” and their associated epistemologies need to be stretched sideways, letting the “planes of temporality” and “layers of time” unfold and spread out, in order for us to be able to come into terms with how little we know of our historical horizons, soon enough before they get totally closed on us, and raise our collective sensitivity toward the complex chronometries of life and labor across life forms.
“Advection” is the term used in meteorology to explain the transfer of heat or matter by the flow of a fluid, especially horizontally in the atmosphere or the sea. To couple this term with the formulation of “temporal climates” is in fact to arrive at another familiar trope, the butterfly effect, which emerged from within hard sciences and has since appeared in fields as far as extreme fiction, as well as late capitalist spoken language, given how chaotic we routinely feel the world has gone.
What I tried to address in terms of ethnofuturisms are phenomena that exist and exert their force in the manner of a butterfly effect across what, again, could only suggestively be called the “chronosphere.” This is to suggest the very complex materiality as well as the planetary expanse of temporal resources, similar to what is at stake in the currently critical condition of other terrestrial resources as well as fluid and atmospheric elements. All this demands to be collectively addressed, as that which we all have something at stake in. In addition to the aggravation of climatic and environmental conditions worldwide, and to hint back at my there’s also the “AirSpace”, according to a 2016 article on the popular media outlet The Verge, which stands for how the spaces we pass through and occupy internationally are increasingly becoming the standardized product of corporate tech firms –– the “same old same old” of Starbucks, Airbnb, and so forth… “This new geography is the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live or co-work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere we go.” AirSpace is, therefore, an instantiation of the “infrastructure space” of 21st-century life. Accordingly, there could be the notions of AirTime and Infrastructure Time… Is there any moment we can find ourselves off the “airtime” of contemporaneity across our social-mediatized lives? Following the environmental and political crises of recent times, what would be the viable modes of engagement with today’s shared time-crisis? If the distinction between public and private spaces has been de facto “undone” by the machinations of an infrastructure space, then what are the temporal connotations of this undoing? How could we begin addressing our “public time” today?
The hyperstitional artifact of the “chronosphere,” or infrastructure time, or AirTime, is designed to address the realm through which temporal advection is regulated, that is, the horizontal transfer of the “heat or matter” of time, in all its fluidity, across our planetary history.
So let’s rephrase and repeat in order for a definition to emerge: Ethnofuturisms are those phenomena, traditions, movements, and practices that tend to address the latent coordinates of shared time patterns and temporal paracommons by means of facilitating and intensifying, technically accelerating, butterfly effects across the planetary chronosphere.
Displaying the Material History of the CIA
Published in Cabinet 65, Fall 2017 – Winter 2018.
“No single man makes history. History cannot be seen, just as one cannot see grass growing.” The CIA’s online Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room quotes Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. The room features ninety-nine declassified documents, disclosed in 2014, that describe the agency’s covert program to facilitate the first publication, in 1958, of the novel in its original Russian. These documents appear on the website alongside millions of additional pages of material that will appeal to history buffs and UFO buffs alike.
Doctor Zhivago only appeared in Russian after English, French, Italian, and German translations had already earned it international esteem. The original, legendary samizdat has since been the object of intense study. But it was only in 2009 that journalist and broadcaster Ivan Tolstoy made allegations that the CIA had used the novel as an instrument of soft power by enabling Soviet citizens to read it. His book The Laundered Novel: Doctor Zhivago between the KGB and the CIA is crowded with claims and speculations that we know, in hindsight, to be only partially true, such as the suggestion that the agency influenced the Nobel Committee’s decision to award its literature prize to Pasternak, also in 1958.
The Zhivago example would make a perfect plotline for a classic pulp tale about the craft of intelligence, illustrating the shift from the hot, wartime climate of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the early 1940s to the Cold War–era CIA. Procedures for the public disclosure of unreleased government records were instituted as a result of the bloody proxy wars in southeast Asia some two decades later, with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed into law in 1966. The statute, which has since gone through numerous amendments and revisions, is still shot through with a comprehensive raft of exemptions. And with Executive Order 13526, issued in 2010, even information that meets the criteria for availability under FOIA can be exempted and reclassified upon reevaluation.
Taking one step back into the CIA’s sitemap, we arrive at the Library, where the earliest posts date back to April 2007, the year conspiracy theorists succeeded in their fifteen-year-long quest to declassify the “family jewels,” described by the agency as “almost 700 pages of responses from CIA employees to a 1973 directive from Director of Central Intelligence James Schlesinger asking them to report activities they thought might be inconsistent with the Agency’s charter.” On the day of their release, the then-director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, wryly stated that “most of it is unflattering, but it is CIA’s history.” Parts of this history had already leaked right onto the front page of The New York Times in 1974 when Seymour Hersh published his article on the “huge” project of domestic espionage against antiwar forces and other dissidents.
Back on the website, another Library subpage leads to the Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI), a CIA department researching the agency’s very own history, along with methodologies of the intelligence field at large. The department publishes Studies in Intelligence, a peer-reviewed periodical founded in 1955 and containing both classified and unclassified content. Sourcing material for this journal is greatly facilitated by the department’s main mandate: administering the CIA Museum.
Founded in 1972, and occupying three corridors in two buildings at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the museum is not open to the public. Access is granted only to the staff, official visitors, and those occasional reporters who succeed in obtaining security clearance.
Toni Hiley, the museum’s curator for the past fifteen years, directs the “collection, preservation, documentation and exhibition of intelligence artifacts, culture and history”—as well as the Fine Arts Commission program, which has been running since the 1960s—to “bring the agency’s history into life.” The eight hundred exhibits on display range from art works and archival prints to weapons, espionage machinery, insignia, fake film scripts, and even boot hooks belonging to William J. Donovan, the “Father of Central Intelligence” and the founder of the OSS. That is only the tip of the twenty-eight thousand items sealed in this vast collection, drawing on which the museum frequently develops exhibitions, mounted off-site in partnership with other institutions in order to “promote a wider understanding of the craft of intelligence and its role in the American experience,” again according to the website.
More than two hundred of these artifacts are highlighted online, accompanied by concise, often enigmatic and tight-lipped, captions and embedded in a framework of multifarious tags, categories, stories, and dates; some of these items are also linked to the agency’s YouTube channel for a more dynamic follow-up. Branded as a chance to “Experience the Collection” online, the experience is more comparable to an infinite Feed of disclaimers. “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet,” posted @CIA on 6 June 2014, at 10:49 am, shortly after signing up. A catchy and effective PR manoeuver, indeed—and the agency has since been regularly embedding links to an “Artifact of the Week.” Similarly, the official Flickr profile dates back to 2011, and holds an album titled “All CIA Museum Artifacts,” though it contains only 168 images in total.
However, a huge pool of captioned stuff cannot readily amount to a perceptible sense of history. In 2014–2015, CSI published a guide to the CIA Museum and its collection, a companion to all the mediating anecdotes and interactive interfaces. In its preface, A Curator’s Pocket History of the CIA notes: “History can be studied in more than one way. … Museums are where you discover history by studying things, that is, artifacts, in context. … We start with what we have in the collection and use artifacts to reconstruct the history of the Agency. The result is more impressionistic and less linear than other histories.
The Pocket History is apparently the first in a series of publications titled Notes from Our Attic, which “tells the story of the CIA through artifacts illuminating history in a way words cannot alone.” The attic turns out to be a particularly apt space to invoke for such a project. In the mid-1600s, the term began to be used to refer to an element of the classical façade—a low decorative wall right above the main cornice at the top of the entablature. By late eighteenth century, attic came to mean the interior space enclosed by such a structure; only then did the attic, that spooky room right below the roof, come into being. This move from an architectural order related only to the surface of a building to a repurposed, functional space behind the surface seems comparable to certain tropes of clandestine activity, where things are instrumentalized beyond their manifest appearance, as if an unprecedented space has been opened up behind their obvious skin, a space filled up with covert functions. Repurposed things have itchy skins, hence the utility of persistently scratching their surfaces to expose hidden intentions. The Pocket History is a guide to the question of how alternate, covert spaces are produced beneath the surface of ordinary objects when they are repurposed. But it is also a guide to the question of when, to the historical timing of these subterfuges and of their public disclosure. And moreover, it is an apologia for the why, o ften flaunting the logic of the ends justifying the means.
Well chronicled in the Pocket History is how it took only a few decades to go from Secretary of State Henry Stimson shutting down the US Army’s “Cipher Bureau” in the 1920s because it was wrong for “gentlemen” to “read each other’s mail,” to the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Allen Dulles declaring in the 1950s that “when the fate of a nation and the lives of its soldiers are at stake, gentlemen do read each other’s mail.” An image of a vest-pocket paperback copy of the Russian edition of Doctor Zhivago, published during Dulles’s tenure as director, is featured in the Pocket History, with the caption sternly quoting from Tolstoy’s book: “Pasternak’s novel became a tool that was used by the United States to teach the Soviet Union a lesson.” Expressing no direct endorsement or objection in the face of this allegation, the caption ends by simply noting the official declassification of related activities in 2014.
There is much retrofuturistic technology to be discovered here There might be a miniature camera hidden behind a brooch or button, or a bird for that matter. The Pigeon Camera, devised by the Office of Research and Development (ORD), was used during the still-undisclosed “pigeon missions.” It was small and light enough to be carried by the bird, which flies much lower than a satellite or an aircraft, and delivers more detail than other “imagery collection platforms.” Another initiative of the ORD was the Insectothopter, an eavesdropping Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in the shape of a life-sized dragonfly. Robot Fish “Charlie,” on the other hand, was an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) developed by the Office of Advanced Technologies and Programs. Equipped with certain communication and propulsion systems and remotely controlled, such aquatic exploration too was aimed at perceiving more and more terrains of nature as bearers of intelligence.
But the more modest examples also look more cunning. Take the pair of gold cufflinks that DCI Richard Helms presented to case officer George Kisevalter upon his retirement in 1970. Embossed with the Pallas Athena helmet and a small sword, it was one of two identical pairs designed by the Chief of Station Peer de Silva, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, after his alma mater’s “Duty, Honor, Country” crest. The other pair belonged to Pyotr Popov, a major in the Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU), codenamed ATTIC. Stationed in Vienna and then in East Berlin, Popov wore the cufflinks from 1953 to 1959, always looking for the other pair—worn by an assignee allocated by Kisevalter, his handler—in order to confirm a bona fide connection with the CIA.
Categorized as Bodyworn Surveillance Equipment, the dress code for clandestine activity is “inconspicuous.” The artisans, technicians, and engineers working at the Office of Technical Readiness (OTR) make sure that all accessories and clothing are carefully crafted to stay unremarkable, to help an intelligence officer dissolve into the ordinary appearance of a public body. The caption for “The Well Dressed Spy” reads, “Intelligence officers … know that quality and craftsmanship have been ‘built in’ to their appearances.”
Low-tech accessories can also help you avoid contact altogether. “Dead Drops” are containers, either too unimpressive or too repulsive to attract a second glance, left at prearranged locations. Two examples are a tubular spike, easily pushed back into the ground, and a taxidermied rat, with a cavity opened up in its abdomen. Similarly, a couple of things with the organic look of corms, rhizomes, or some other kind of underground stem are titled Seismic Intruder Detector Devices, “designed to blend in with the terrain”—layers of relay sedimented deep into nature by the craft of intelligence.
The Pocket History’s last chapter on “9/11 and After” ends with a double-page image showing the scale model of the Abbottabad Compound, where Usama Bin Ladin was tracked down and killed. This model is an identical double of another kept at the Pentagon, watched in the White House Situation Room while the raid was unfolding. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) not only modeled the compound but made a life-sized mock-up of it too, to better train soldiers for the raid. Soldiers interviewed after the operation in May 2011 said that during the raid, they felt like they had been there before.
The craft of intelligence stands out from the natural order of things only retrospectively, either when blown apart by the disastrous force of an ill-fated operation, or when the prescheduled end of a given time frame is met—or when some simulation is revealed as a precursor to a future assault that has already ended. Nature serves as a camouflage for the silent growth of history. History, in return, alters nature in the fashion of retroactive legislations – to be treated as always having had effect. It amounts to the craft of sending public time spinning in a rearward direction, always looping back to the present from a forced revision of the past, again and again, one declassified thing after another, one raid after another.