Vice President Richard Bruce "Dick" Cheney liked to have the temperature set at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. He requested "Diet Caffeine Free Sprite." He wanted decaf coffee brewed and waiting for him in his hotel room. He needed every television set turned to Fox News. We know about Cheney's personal preferences because a hotel employee leaked the Vice President's hospitality requirements to The Smoking Gun Web site.
Under the Bush administration, the U.S. government, among other things, spied on its own citizens. Those invasions of privacy — and worse — were an example of what Dick Cheney called "the new normalcy." Interesting how that invasion of privacy can cut both ways, huh, Dick? You don't mind if I call you Dick, do you?
Inspired by Cheney's quote, "The New Normal" at DiverseWorks contains a collection of post-9-11 works that address issues of privacy in the 21st century. Curated by Michael Connor and co-organized with Independent Curators International and Artists Space, New York, the show contains a provocative, if occasionally uneven, collection of works.
"The New Normal"
DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 713-223-8346.
Through February 20.
Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's Vice Presidential Downtime Requirements (formerly titled Band Rider Series: Dick Cheney (2008) presents a mock-hotel room featuring all of Cheney's requests. (I'm thinking this is the first time Fox News has played nonstop at DiverseWorks.) But the idea behind the work ends up being stronger than the execution. It doesn't quite seem hotel room-like. The furnishings feel off and scavenged together, like a not terribly upscale bed and breakfast. That kind of thing really has to be pitch-perfect to work, and the room probably should have been enclosed, rather than just set up in the gallery.
Just presenting the document might have been enough, as Trevor Paglen did for Six C.I.A. Officers Wanted in Connection with the Abduction of Abu Omar from Milan, Italy (2007). The artist framed copies of the passports of the CIA agents allegedly involved in taking Omar and sending him to Egypt for torture. (An Italian court has since awarded Omar one million Euros for the abuse he suffered.) The passport copies were indirectly obtained from the hotels where the alleged agents stayed. Looking at the blurred images, trying to make out faces, you wonder who these people are. Is the smiling, supposedly Texas-born, "Maria Luana Baetz" the face of abduction and torture?
Hasan Elahi's Tracking Transience: Position and Tracking Transience: Evidence (2007) is the logical result of Dick Cheney's "new normalcy." Elahi has put his life online for all — and primarily the FBI — to see. Elahi, an art professor and widely traveling artist, was detained at the Detroit airport after 9-11 and questioned by the FBI. The people who rented him a storage space had reported the Bangladeshi artist as an Arab hoarding explosives. The detailed information on the peripatetic artist's PDA saved him, and he was released. But Elahi was repeatedly questioned over the next six months, passing a three-hour lie detector test.
Fearing the whole fiasco might start all over again, Elahi began to notify the FBI of his trips abroad. Then he stumbled upon the idea of posting all of his personal information in real time, his whereabouts reported via GPS tracking, his debit card charges, pictures of the food he ate, the coffee he drank, the restaurants and even the bathrooms he visited. He uploaded all of the information to his Web site so that not only the FBI, but anyone else, could track him. It was also a kind of an insurance policy — if he was "disappeared," people would know.
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Elahi got a lot of press for his project. Maybe you saw him on The Colbert Report or heard him on NPR. What's especially intriguing is the way — to employ an incredibly overused phrase — the artist has integrated his art and his life. This isn't just an amusing conceptual project; there is real fear underlying it.
Dick Cheney likely admires the security measures at Israeli checkpoints, where men crossing bare their chests or expose their midriffs to armed soldiers. See: No gun, no bomb. Whatever the ultimate security concern behind it, the ritual is disturbingly like making a dog roll over on his back, exposing his neck in a show of his submissiveness. Students going to class, people going to work and even ambulances racing to hospitals all must pass checkpoints.
Sharif Waked's video Chic Point (2003) presents young men modeling fashions the artist pointedly (and ironically) designed to meet the needs of checkpoint crossers. The footage is interspersed with stills of abdomen-baring men at checkpoints. Striding to the camera, a handsome young man sports a business suit, the jacket cropped high above his navel. Another wears a traditional thobe, altered with an additional open collar at mid-torso, the better to search him. Another man wears a sleek black shirt with a roman-shade front. He pulls a string and it rises to expose a scarred belly. A T-shirt with a revealing fishnet-like design looks like police-state fetish wear.
Adjacent to Waked's piece, Jill Magid's suffers greatly in comparison. Magid has done some provocative work, including a project for the Dutch Secret Service that was subsequently confiscated by that agency. But Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy (2006-07), Magid's attempt to explore the American police state or state of police, seems silly, narcissistic, classist and exploitative. The premise behind it boils down to, "Ooooo, look, I'm this educated, international artist, and I met and hung out with a working-class cop, and he gave me a bullet, and I took a picture of myself wearing his shirt and not much else." Give me a break. There is a novella to accompany the photos, and the bullet sits in a vitrine. You can't really read the novella, but there is more info online at www.lincoln-ocean-victor-eddy.net. None of it did much to improve my opinion of the work. Now if she could draw Dick into her web, that might be something.