“Covert Operations” at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

Rib, 2010, Jenny Holzer, installation view.
Photo: Chris-Loomis, courtesy: SMoCA

When artists double as political and social commentators, their dynamic with viewers changes. We are asked not just to approve of or dislike a piece, but to engage more thoroughly with its message or political stance. “Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns” asks a lot of us: First, it requires plenty of time to give the attention that’s due to the almost 40 multimedia pieces and installations filling the entire museum, all the while parsing ideas about American covert activities and surveillance tactics. Additionally, it asks us to keep our minds open to the possibility that the American intelligence apparatus in a post-9/11 world is still capable of arousing our fears and often, our disdain.

The 13 artists-including standouts Jenny Holzer, Kerry Tribe, Trevor Paglen and Hasan Elahi-form an international roster, with their eye on political hot spots here and abroad. In many instances, they have taken pains to request documents through the Freedom of Information Act-showing a doggedness akin to journalists-before transforming the information into an artistic statement. SMoCA curator of contemporary art Claire C. Carter, who has a background in political theory, praises the artists for their “powerful act of witnessing.” Carter’s three-year effort was partially supported by an Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award, which looks for shows that expand the boundaries of contemporary art.

The dazzling entrance piece to the show is Holzer’s Ribs (2010), an installation of 11 curved, neon-like LED signs bearing excerpts from declassified US government documents; the words roll on like a news crawl, with redacted names appearing as “XXXX.” Farther on in the museum is Phoenix yellow white (2006), Holzer’s seven-panel oil painting on linen reproducing the highly redacted (and obtained through FOIA) memo detailing American intelligence’s failure to identify a potential 9/11 suicide bomber who was enrolled in flight school in Arizona. The large blacked-out areas give off the appearance of mark-making when the panels are viewed as a painting.

Stretching along the back of the museum is what could be considered an anchor piece: Paglen’s Code Names (2007 – present), a long wall filled with continuous columns of pithy pseudonyms for covert operations like-“Icarus” and “Camel Hump”-which Paglen discovered through years of combing government papers. The black-on-white representation of the names accords with “black” for secret activities and “white” for publicly known ones. Paglen’s quest for truth and his resulting photographs and other works are fundamental to the premise of the show. Another strong piece of his is N5177C at Gold Coast Terminal, Las Vegas, NV, Distance ~ 1 mile (2007), a remarkable effort of staking out an airport known for top-secret military flights, then photographing the classified activities with a telescopic lens and high-powered binoculars from a mile away. And in the chromogenic print Untitled (Reaper Drone) (2010), a vast red sky has to be carefully scanned before it reveals a tiny drone on the right-hand side, a needle-in-a-haystack exercise that is not unlike Paglen’s investigative practices.

As much as “Covert Operations” draws us into compelling visuals, there is also an audio aspect that (literally) can’t be ignored. In David Gurman’s Memorial for the New American Century (2014), a bronze bell makes a mournful, tolling sound loud enough to be heard throughout the museum. The bell was installed specifically for this exhibition. Reminiscent of the Liberty Bell, it is connected through software and electromagnet gadgetry to iraqbodycount.org, which tracks violent civilian deaths in Iraq. The bell goes off once an hour, chiming once for each death, and the effect is jarring to anyone who connects covert activities to collateral damage.

Who are these terrorists that government agents and covert operators are so ardently tracking, “Homeland”-style? Kerry Tribe plays with the terrorist archetype in the 30-minute, 16mm black-and-white film Untitled (Potential Terrorist) (2002), an exercise in goading a reaction from us. She cast the film by asking 29 unpaid participants-all of whom self-identified themselves as having the facial characteristics of a terrorist-to stare into the camera for 60 seconds. Of course, they squirm, and so do we, yet unable to tear our eyes away. On the lighter side, relatively speaking, is Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience (2002-ongoing), in which thousands of digital photographs are projected onto a wall, also appearing on Sputnik-like orbs. It’s essentially the diary of an artist who’s out to prove he’s not a terrorist by recording all the mundane moments in his life, from unmade beds to toilets to food shopping, along with his ongoing GPS coordinates. Shortly after 9/11, the Bangladesh-born Elahi, who grew up in America, endured FBI interrogation and detainment while trying to prove his innocence. He figured if the government was going to conduct surveillance of his every move, he might as well have some fun with it.

Casting a shrewdly observant eye on surveillance activities closer to home is David Taylor of Tucson, Arizona, who spent many months embedded, in a journalistic sense, with the US Border Patrol as it fought drug trafficking and illegal migration in the Southwest. Pedestrian Fencing, Desierto de Altar/Yuma Desert (2009) is a mesmerizing bird’s-eye photograph of the border fence as it seems to trail off into infinity, while up-close lie the many swirling tire tracks that give away the place as a drop point for illicit activities.

SMoCA is letting “Covert Operations” run through its entire fall season, only the second time it has given such leeway to a show. But with the show’s intellectually challenging stance and its call for an investment of the viewer’s time, the risk is likely to pay off.