Even if you knew all about this string of secret American prisons and torture centres (I did not), this book may engulf you no less. The subject matter may also account for Black’s serious demeanour. It’s a dark subject, and he’s been wearing it now for six years.
Does it have, I ask bluntly, a campaigning purpose? Is a point being made that we’re supposed to ‘get’?
‘Not as such,’ says Black. ‘It doesn’t explain itself on purpose and I’m not campaigning. Rather, we’re trying to convey the appearance of disappearance. How does a government conceal by revealing, and reveal by concealing?’
I chance on a page that cannot but be troubling. An American document listing a whole series of methods of torture – this is the CIA remember, not Gaddafi’s Libya or Saddam’s Iraq. They are described as ‘Specific Unauthorized or Undocumented Techniques’ and include ‘Handgun and Powerdrill; Threats; Smoke; Stress Positions; Stiff Brush and Shackles; Waterboard Technique; Mock Executions; Use of Smoke; Use of Cold; Water Dousing and Hard Takedown.’ Worse than what is said, however, is the large block of redacted text in the middle. We are left to ponder what greater horrors it lists - presumably even more extreme techniques than enduring a mock execution that the victim does not know to be ‘mock’.
The fine art aura of the book is a brilliant move and speaks to Black’s own background. After a joint-honours degree in English and Classics at LMH, he then interspersed cataloguing jobs for independent booksellers and an Islamic art gallery in London, with a masters and then a phD at the Warburg Institute, exploring the influence of Jewish and Arab ideas on Renaissance Christianity, focusing on the Italian Pico della Mirandola. Finally, he found himself on a post-doc at Berlin’s Freie university, but via a friend began a volunteer research project for Reprieve, and later the Bureau.
I'm warming to all this because it's exactly the sort of crazy zig-zag that Oxonians seem to specialise in. How does medieval and Renaissance philosophy mesh with defending the putative rights of
Guantánamo Bay detainees?
Demonstrators at the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 in Washington DC
‘I like arcane language systems,’ is Black’s reply, an oblique reference to the language of the CIA, and also to how scholars interpret medieval incunabula. The term ‘extraordinary rendition’, for example.
Black says that before Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, 9/11, the term was not in common use. Historically, he believes that it was used to refer to the movement of slaves from one state to another. Since the ‘war on terror’ it has been used by the CIA to denote extra-judicial detainment of terrorist suspects. Black turns the verb to disappear on its head: to be disappeared. He writes: ‘Disappearing people is banned by international and domestic laws of almost every country in the world.’ You want to say, ‘illegal arrest’, but that is an oxymoron because arresting someone is a legal process. Moreover, Black’s deeper point lies beyond. As he puts it: ‘extraordinary rendition is not merely extra-judicial. It is covert, hidden.’
It is also a matrix of the mundane, as pointed out in a peerless closing essay by London University architect and professor Eyal Weizman. One photo is of a lovely, white timbered American structure with SUVs parked out front, housing an aviation contractor. In another, a swimming pool in a hotel in Palma de Mallorca. These images do not take you into a dark secret as such. The rendition team that stayed at that hotel travelled under aliases, not in itself such a big deal. A Spanish Police inquiry showed later that ‘they ordered shrimp cocktails and several bottles of wine.’ We are reminded that prisoners were shuffled around the world in the aviation equivalent of Rolls-Royce Phantoms, Gulfstream private jets, as a cost to the US tax payer of $8,500 per flying hour. There is an intriguing, voyeuristic quality to the documents.
But if there is a ‘point’ this is precisely it, says Weizman, who ventures that whereas in the past banal logistics were in the background, to get weaponry and soldiers up to the front, today they are the fighting. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘military logistics are at the front, having become the operation itself.’
So, where does this end? The CIA network of overseas torture facilities, the first hastily constructed in Thailand in 2002, ended with the sale of the Lithuanian warehouse back to the Lithuanian government in January 2007. But the impact of the book points to deeper truths, such as Weizman’s consideration that the Lithuanian warehouse is an architectural redaction, a generic shell; a mask if you will. As such, the whole book is a meditation on the materiality of the covert, about what is disclosed and yet what is still hidden.
Weizman points out immediately that no society can operate without secrets. But there is a broader view currently doing the rounds, that ex-Snowden, ex-Wikileaks, there are no more secrets, as if the internet has laid everything bare for all to see. If this book is any guide, that view is manifestly naïve.
Obama’s much touted intention to close Guantánamo Bay has not been realised, notes Black. ‘It’s easy to talk about human rights, but I’ve learned that they only really exist for people who don’t need them.’ He adds that most legal cases about rendition remain unfinished. Governments are experts at deflecting, evading, avoiding. They will selectively place just enough information in the public domain to make it seem that enough has been done. ‘These are typically human stories with no resolution,' Black reflects. In at least one case a prisoner was returned by the CIA to their home country, and promptly committed ‘suicide’.
The authors land their own punch. The book’s cover is in fact a section of court transcript later revealed, redacted some more by the authors themselves – the only words left visible: negative publicity.
Crofton Black, Edmund Clark, Negative Publicity, Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition
Aperture/The Magnum Foundation, 2016, £50
Images from ‘Negative Publicity’ will be included in an exhibition of Edmund Clark’s work at the Imperial War Museum, London, from July 28 2016 to August 28 2017.