Weird Deer

A New Privacy

Dear Michael (Making Visible the Invisible)

June 19th, 2007 · No Comments

Osama Bin Laden’s name sounds almost quaint now, doesn’t it?

After the Bush Administration has submerged and supplanted it in favor of Hussein, Zarqawi, Moktada, and countless others? After the Bush Administration itself has lost Osama’s highest profile analogues, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, etc.?

And yet, Osama Bin Laden’s name still has totemic power, so to be waiting on its appearance at the Central Library here in Seattle feels illicit. Especially since I will have been the cause.

About an hour ago, I checked out Bin Laden’s collected speeches, “Messages to the World,” from the Central Library, so soon this information will appear, floating above the reference librarians’ desk on six LCD screens, as part of George Legrady’s art installation “Making Visible the Invisible.”

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I don’t picture pandemonium when it happens. No one will run shrieking from the building. No one will call security. Maybe a wry smile or two will appear. A chuckle. No terror. After all, it’s just information. And Legrady’s art won’t reveal my name, only the book I’ve checked out.

But since “Making Visible the Invisible” was installed in 2005, I’ve found its just information terrorizing. Its public revelation of quasi-private data is, in my mind, a metonymy for our government’s surveillance of its citizens. A pantomime of the invisible oppression.

This feeling, admittedly, seems a little silly, a little behind the times and overblown, like saying “if we can’t _____, then the terrorists have already won.” A passé joke told by an increasingly deranged person.

There’s been a palpable public exhalation, a feeling now that it’s all been a bad dream, after all. The Democrats have won back Congress, the Republicans have been chastened, the neo-cons and warmongers of all stripes have been revealed as misguided failures. The lurking menace of the USA PATRIOT Act seems surely to be on its way out, receding into the laughable dustbin of history alongside Toby Keith, John Poindexter, and self-righteous flag worship.

Right?

It’s this lingering question that makes Legrady’s art so menacing and eerie, like a joke about rape told at a debauched frat party. It’s not the art’s simple premise (displaying the library’s otherwise unseen data) nor its four straightforward visualizations (Keyword Map Attack, Vital Statistics, Floating Titles, and Dewey Dot Matrix Rain), none of which are any more dynamic than your average screensaver. It’s Legrady’s synchronization with our time that makes his installation so compelling.

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We are under surveillance. Bright orange surveillance.

According to the USA PATRIOT ACT sections 215 and 505, the FBI and the CIA can have access to the data from the Central Library, and they can use this data to help prosecute terrorism, or any “clandestine intelligence activity” they deem to be terrorism-related.

In 2002, when the threat of surveillance seemed most acute, and civil libertarians of any kind most helpless, Legrady’s banal screens would have seemed even more like hysterical realism.

Then, the Village Voice uncovered that the Bush Administration was using algorithms to “predict” terrorists from consumer data like that stored in grocery store frequent buyer cards and on travel websites (one “prediction”: terrorists often order pizza and pay with a credit card). And every few months another person seemed to be telling about being put on the airline watch list without any explanation or recourse, their lives not ruined necessarily but horribly complicated by suspicions generated from bits of random information, accumulated piecemeal over time to tell a story.

But that’s all on the wane, right?

When Dick Cheney emerges to spin the new evidence that the Pentagon and CIA are issuing National Security letters to banks, that they’re expanding their already legally suspect domestic surveillance, it feels desperate, like a last gasp for these overreaching Big Brothers. And the fact that the FBI is admitting its overarching surveillance means it’s got to stop.

Right?

Maybe.

Sitting in the Mixing Chamber at my black computer terminal, CENLIB5014, watching the checkout data float by on Legrady’s art, I think the government jacking up the surveillance level might be like landlords jacking up the rent. There’s no reasonable hope it will ever go back down.

“Elizabethtown 12:17 pm,” “Fortunate Son 12:22 pm,” “Mysterious Tadpole 12:26 pm” “Let There Be Suspects 12:31 pm.”

Legrady says this installation can create a “living picture of what a community is thinking.”

“The Portable Nietzsche,” “Dumpy the Dumptruck,” “Absolutely the Best of Classic Rock.”

I wonder what it means, what algorithm the Bush Administration has for cities, and what living pictures they can come up with.

Since all writing is “clandestine intelligence activity,” and all pursuit of knowledge not in service of the dominant agenda can conceivably be construed as terrorism, I wonder, what messages am I sending to the government? What kind of story have I made?

XO,
Travis

Tags: George Legrady · Making Visible the Invisible · Michael Labenz · Osama Bin Laden · Seattle Central Library · Travis

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