Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Killer Drone's Afghani Hive

[Image: From the BBC, Inside an Afghan US air operations base, 2008.]

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the US has been awfully busy slaughtering innocent civilians with routine aerial attacks meant for the Taliban in Pakistan’s autonomous tribal belt, thanks to the drone. Citing figures compiled by Pakistan’s interior ministry this media source reports that 301 civilians have been killed so far in 2008 while more than 240 others have been wounded.

“The News daily said most of those killed in 32 recorded incidents of missile strikes, drone attacks and one ground raid by the US forces were civilians.

According to the report, only eight US strikes hit the targets, killing 36 Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, while the remaining 24 strikes killed 301 civilians and 18 Pakistani security personnel.

Most of the attacks were said to go wrong because of the faulty intelligence provided by US local spies in the tribal belt, a known sanctuary of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters launching cross-border attacks on US-led international forces in Afghanistan.”

Despite Pakistan's earlier plea to have the killer drones called off, in what's been dubbed "the world's first mechanical proxy war," the killing continues. And for the time Pakistan appears to have acquiesced, but is still mulling its options.
To make their own case, the BBC was granted a little peak inside a secret US air base "somewhere in the Middle East" that serves as the killer drone headquarters, to try and illustrate the level of effort that goes into preventing civilian deaths.
Whether those numbers are accurate or not, no matter how you cut it, any civilian death is unacceptable in my view. According to the BBC, the numbers have tripled over the last three years – and for this there can be no justification. This is state of the art precision bombing?

The video is also on You Tube, but with embedding disabled.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


[Image: Via the New York Times. Photo: Fadi Arouri/Reuters.]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Portrait of Pirates

[Image: Photo by Associated Press.]

There is something striking about this portrait of recently captured Somali pirates being held at the Kenya Ports Authority Port Police station in Mombasa. How they are all lined up and seated together despite their detention, still as a tightly knit squad of nimble water thugs – only now without their boat, the necessary architecture for their crime. They’re formation appears much the same as I’d expect them to be perched down low in their little pirate dingy ready to pounce on the next vulnerable ocean liner that should pass through the lawless zone that is their territory.
It’s almost as if nothing has changed for them except their vessel has been literally pulled out from underneath their asses and they have only maybe barely realized it; even now, in the confines of a jail cell, they’re still without an inkling of what else to do – piracy was their livelihood, their instinct. They are now just fish out of water.
That’s probably an exaggerated reading of their faces.
But it’s interesting how those blue prison uniforms further emphasize their unity, inseparability, as if the deep sea blue material (a testament to their crime) has merely taken place of their boat itself; now held together only by sinewy threads of cotton; as if one tightly stitched entity had been arrested and not eight separate persons.
Perhaps even more critically, we are shown that the sea pirates are not just a loose string of single random incidents strewn across the region, or the world, for that matter, that we can bring together in a single police line up, but – as you have no doubt been reading the news – this issue is fast becoming a much more wholesome and costly threat to some extremely high stakes economic players who take great risk scooting their goods through that neck of the woods that is the enclave of “pirate polity.”
One other intriguing detail is the gridded concrete floor upon which this vessel-less outfit of gulf punks sits idly now, having replaced the ocean – once the terrain of their domain that afforded them great asymmetric platitudes and maneuverability within and off the grid to seize upon those lesser agile vessels of prize who are instead bound to the very rigidity of the ocean grid which defines the naval networks of global trade. Here, their craft has been taken from them and the landscape upon which they rest is an unebbing and waterless lattice of cold concrete slab, a symbolic flooring that visually enforces the notion of the state’s projective ability to render the global outlaws as subjects, or “prizes” of an all-powerful transnational cartography of state control.
Needless to say, unlike in this photo, their backs are hardly up against the wall.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Scarecrow Hacking at the Border

Activists in Tucson, Arizona have been placing life-sized cutouts of Maricopa County’s insidiously regressive anti-immigrant law enforcement officials around town on street corners and at intersections, including one of the chief of armed despicability himself, America’s self-described “toughest sheriff” Joe Arpaio, and another of a Border Patrol agent, presumed to depict Nicholas Corbett, who just recently faced a hung trial for the second time after being charged with the murder of Mexican immigrant Francisco Dominguez in January of 2007.

These figures appeared a couple of weeks ago, but have before in the past from what I understand, one of which this time presented the inexcusably white-ass Arpaio caught with his gun drawn at a Hispanic woman and child.

According to the news, the anonymous organizers sent a statement explaining their citywide public art protest by saying, "These men are intended to represent our nation's legacy of systemic violence and racism” and to “raise the level of awareness surrounding the illegal immigration law enforcement debate.”

Another set showed a border patrol agent (Corbett) pointing a gun at a Hispanic man on his knees with his hands in the air.
I'll I gotta say is, nice work! Good to see the so-called “scarecrow empire” being hijacked and used against itself towards some social justice right where it’s needed most, front and center on the border. Incidentally, the cutouts were taken down after being cited for a variety of reasons, “ranging from public safety to right of way concerns.” What? Hilarious.

[All images via Controversial art shows Arpaio holding people at gunpoint (with video)
Arpaio to Display "Day-in-the-Life" Photos in Scottsdale Exhibit and Charity Auction

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Redefining Walls

[Anywhere near El Paso? If so, coming up a little art exhibit at the UTEP Union Gallery called Redefining Walls, featuring a few local artists seeking to “interpret the U.S./Mexico relationship either by responding to the physical presence of walls or by portraying imagery that conveys human immigration and movement.” Might be worth checking out. Nov. 20 – Jan. 5, 2008/09. Related.]

Monday, November 03, 2008

When Voting Blocs Collide…

[Image: “American soldiers walked past a blast wall at Al Awad on the outskirts of Taji, Iraq, where the word VOTE has been spray painted, the day before the presidential election in the United States.” Photo: Joao Silva for The New York Times.]

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A Subtopian Rainbow Under Your Feet

[Image: City draws the line against feds, The Brooklyn Paper, 2008.]

A relatively innocuous borderline has been literally drawn smack dab in the middle of downtown Brooklyn, we are told, absurdly enough, a “de-militarized “zone” only about one foot wide” to be exact.
Apparently there is a little turf war going on between the city’s construction workers and the federal employees at the site of the new federal courthouse, where both contingencies are vying for use (and perhaps control) of the parking lot. Funny. The line was painted by the city to advise construction workers to respectively stay on their own side with regards to storing equipment, parking, etc.
Even though it appears there is nothing really contentious going on, it’s interesting to see that an actual line has been painted on the street to make perfectly clear where city authority ends and federal power takes over. “Until 9-11," the Brooklyn Paper mentions, "the street (Camden Plaza East) was open for drivers, who could use it as a straight shot from Downtown to DUMBO. But after the terror attack, the feds seized it, citing security needs.”
I don’t know, I kind of like that the line was painted, for whatever reason. Makes me want to cruise around the nation, going city-to-city, with maps of each, some GPS nav gear, and maybe one of those professional pavement stripers you see city dudes driving in the middle of the street converted into my very own personal borderline striping chariot, and paint more of them -- federal versus local geographic lines in the city.

Better yet, what if geography departments in universities across the country coordinated a nationwide semester curriculum, so that each class could be responsible for marking similar boundaries in their own state’s prominent cities. The universal assignment would be just that: to simply roll around downtowns everywhere and outline all of the little unknown, unseen boundaries that exist between federal and local aauthorities as they are territorially distributed, on the streets, over sidewalks, in front of courthouses, underground in secret tunnels, around bollards, behind secret DHS buildings, ICE detention centers, weaving together districts of federal offices and military recruiter outposts in meandering perimeters of nice wet paint, for all to see; not missing, of course, the secret NSA listening rooms harboring in phone company HQ buildings, or the TSA interrogation rooms within airports, the research labs bellied in even the most liberal universities, old industrial sites, toxic brown sites, mysterious test sites, even new border fence property acquisitions, or national landmark buffers, and so on.
I would love to see an army of students and their professors invading the city with hordes of pavement stripers scrawling the margins of various no-access zones like mad, leaving nothing behind but a fresh coat of visibly territorialized entrails in their tracks. Along these trails there would be collection meters so that people could pitch in a few pennies for more paint.
Maybe once finished tracing the perimeters of the fed’s sovereign landscape within America's urban heartland in a nice and glossy black, the next semester these cryptic pavement stripers reveal another colored urban geography: the corporate privatizations of public space in royal blue; the following semester we find the redacted acreage of seized public park space marked in harsh lines of cement gray, and the next one after that the nation’s CCTV metro-surveillance grids appear on the streets in red, and the newly designated ‘free speech and protest zones’ in pink, then the anti-homeless panhandling spheres pop up around ATMs in green, the restricted day laborer gathering spaces on various street corners and parking lots appear in yellow, and on and on and on.
In the spirit of Ronen and Francis’ illuminated borders projects, I’d love to bring these subtle and unmarked boundaries to the surface, in a kind of crisscrossing rainbow of longitudes and latitudes similar to the guiding lines you find in hospitals on the floors and along the walls, where separate colors lead you to different quadrants and different departments within the hospital; a kind of architectural navigation system for the institution's compartmentalized bureacracy.
People could then tour these rainbow grids at lunch, or on the weekends, and just take a little cruise of the hidden geographies of America’s urban landscape, along the way dropping a little spare change into the meters so all the kids could be supplied with fresh paint for next semester.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Great Walls of Fire

[Image: Neighborhood Watch, Detroit. Photo by Camilo José Vergara, NYT.]

Camilo José Vergara, author of American Ruins, spotted these signs and many others like them popping up all over Detroit’s derelict buildings just before this weekend, and posted them in The New York Times. “Starting in the early 1990s,” he writes, “thousands of these eyes were placed throughout the city in hopes of deterring the arsonists who came out on Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween.” A kind of citizen’s paper panopticon.
Sadly, I didn’t even know about Devil’s Night until now. Citing wikipedia here, Devil’s Night, for those who don’t know:

… is a long-standing tradition predating World War II, with anecdotal incidents occurring as early as the 1930s. Traditionally, youths in Detroit engaged in a night of criminal behavior, which usually consisted of acts of vandalism (such as throwing eggs at the homes of neighbors, scribbling on windows with bar soap, or stringing toilet paper in trees). These were almost exclusively petty vandalism acts, causing little to no property damage other than perhaps a damaged mailbox or eggs hardening on windows. These acts still go on today.

However, in the early 1970s a dark side of this holiday emerged and the vandalism escalated to more severe acts such as arson. This primarily took place in the city but surrounding suburbs were not entirely immune. Property owners unable to sell in the rapidly declining Detroit city housing market would use this night as an excuse to burn down their homes to collect insurance money. These incidents were blamed on Devil's Night hooligans, greatly adding to the notoriety of the night.

The crimes became more destructive in Detroit's inner-city neighborhoods, and included hundreds of acts of arson and vandalism every year.

According to this AP release, “At its peak in 1984, 810 fires were reported in Detroit from Oct. 29 to 31, fueled by, among other things, Devil's Night's growing notoriety and the city's large number of abandoned buildings.”

Even though the number of blazes has dropped off since then, due to buildings having been burnt down already or demolished over the years, and the large number of volunteers and law enforcement patrols that have mobilized through out the city, still “147 fires were reported last year for the three days ending Oct. 31, up from the 113 reported in 2006 and 121 in 2005.”
A new rise not uncannily timed with the spread of the national foreclosure crisis, perhaps. And, as Vergara reminds us, in desperate times people do desperate things, like burn down their own homes for insurance claims, for instance.
Angel’s Night, the activist core that has organized for years on Halloween in Detroit to spook off the burners, is expected to get about 50,000 volunteers to help patrol the streets over the weekend.
They’ve even organized an ADOPT-A-HOUSE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD program, where “Volunteers are asked to adopt a vacant house or commercial building in their neighborhood and watch that building from 6 p.m. to midnight during the three-day Halloween period (October 29-31).” Though, midnight might seem a little early to retire one’s vigilance.

I am not sure I can imagine 800 fires raging across my city simultaneously – even if an intensely crafted performance spectacle, that would still be utterly freaky. Where I live there would be a fire on every block. That’s a little too hell-on-earth here in tiny ass San Francisco. Nor can I imagine the impact fires have had on the Detroit landscape over the years (urban and psychological), or in disaster-stoked LA for that matter; or even the informal settlements around the world where fires from dodgy electricity lines flare up and burn communities to the ground over night.
Fires, man. So primal. Though, in another context, like Burning Man for example, arson is a completely cathartic experience. In fact, arson (in a manner of speaking) is the very point. Let it be no secret, as one who has attended Burning Man many times now since the late nineties, there is absolutely something completely liberating and cleansing, for lack of a better term, in setting your city on fire.
There is intense reflection in flames. Resolution. I never went through any sort of firestarter stage as a kid, more so just inclined to lose my stares for hours in a good campfire, but I do believe, on some profoundly rooted level, fire heals.
But, I’m hardly an expert on the psychology of fire, or where the curiosity of a child setting a fire is satisfied by the act of creating flames themselves, and when that crosses over into some other behavior where fire setting is used as a weapon, of some kind; but I couldn’t be more curious, the mind’s occupation with fire from the phenomenological to cultural to pathological to political and back again.

It might be an interesting project to research: the role of fire in human psychic development, cross-culturally, in relation to space and architecture. In some ways it might not be dissimilar from a fascination with building and demolition, both get at a burning desire for control. I don’t know. Is there an architectural fascination with fire beyond perhaps fetish? Or, is there a secret obsession with architecture in the mind of every pyromaniac? Who know, but, there is something in there to be said for objects as they occupy and dissolve in space, no?
Whatever. Either way, besides all of that, Detroit as a case study for the socio-cultural roots of arson, and not merely the psychological origins, seems deserving of more attention.

[Image: Flint, MI., Photo by Bryan Finoki, 2007.]

Nevertheless, I just found these signs striking. Maybe because the last time I was in Flint Wes told me about prospecting squatters who put For Sale signs with phone numbers in front of abandoned properties to try and swindle down payments on houses they don’t even own; or maybe it was that house with the "Human Sacrifices Needed" billboard plastered to it that sparked my interest here; or all those other lawns that were claimed by signs helping to elect a man by the name of Walling for mayor. The American landscape is such a playground for signs. I am quickly becoming obsessed with the notion of signage and am not sure exactly why. Something to do with the contrast between their literal language and their symbolic vocabulary for imaginary borders, and their various claims to entitlement, like colonial badges of honor, or something, I suppose -- signs are just so very curious.

[Image: Flint, MI., Photos by Bryan Finoki, 2007.]

And in light of an earlier post, I guess I couldn’t resist pointing out Detroit’s Halloween facades here.
According to this recent news dispatch, the number of fires on Halloween has been slightly down so far this year, compared to last.

The city's fire department counted 48 fires as of 3 a.m. Saturday morning, down from 54 the previous year, according to mayoral spokeswoman Meagan Pitts. Of those fires, 29 have been deemed suspicious, though Pitts was cautious to say that doesn't mean they were caused by arson.

But, some other strange thought just occurred to me. I imagined Halloween in Detroit from the point of view of the abandoned buildings themselves – the night the existence of old homes and storefronts, warehouses and informal shelters, are violently threatened by a dispersed mob of so-called “building lynchers” ready to raze their meek and ailing walls for good.

It might be easy to think that all that abandonment is more or less just blight on the surface, urban barricades to further development, debris from the past, and that either torched or demolished the city is better off slashing and burning its deadened landscape. Not that anyone here is espousing random arson as a means for wiping the slate clean, or regenerating urbanism.
But I can’t overlook the potential death of infinite memory that harbors in all these kindling places; the remnants of peoples’ lives that sit idle in these shacks now, like torn pages from some urban scrap book; time capsules of struggle laid out in an architectural graveyard where small and forgotten monuments of race, poverty, struggle, linger on a sprawling slab for vandals and their kerosene joy rides.
An odd proposal: what if the city identified certain buildings beforehand deemed for demolition, but rather than taking wrecking machines to them, they waited until Halloween and used them as a way to funnel and organize the arson towards a planned public ritual of building-burning in a controlled scenario instead? I know that defeats the purpose of vandalism almost entirely (and is probably totally ignorant of the subcultural motives that have fueled Devil’s Night), but I wonder, if the arson were written into the city’s urban planning strategy through the guise of potentially being an art project (as radical and ludicrous as that may sound), could the vandalism be somewhat channeled and defused that way? Further, could the vacant structures somehow be used to create, not just a pyro spectacle for the public (because, aren’t we all fascinated by fire and burning structures, to some extent?), but a more sincere cultural experience, an homage of sorts to the neighborhoods and communities there for whom these buildings have represented, a socio-urban catharsis, giving the decrepit structures and the memories contained within them a more noble death?

I know – sounds absurd – who cares about the death of such abandonment, about what the buildings need? A lot of these buildings hold tremendous value for the people there, with a litany of quiet historic narrative of personal and political struggle inscribed by them. I mean, isn’t architecture (no matter how pithy) the shell translation of cultural and personal memory? What psychological relevance does the Detroit landscape hold in the collective memory of the people there? What does it mean to want to burn one’s neighborhood down, or even preserve the abandonment for that matter; what does that satisfy; is it wrong, or is there an element of release in the arson that is crucial to Detroit’s future healing? I have no idea, I just wonder.
Maybe all of this is just too damned psychodramatic and paganistic and silly sounding, but could Halloween be turned into a night of celebratory tactical demolition, part cityworks’ project, part holiday spectacle, with a touch of cultural release thrown in for good measure? These sites could be the stages of incredible theater, dramas could be enacted at these burnings, stories could be told, ghosts of abandonment could be conjured and put to rest, scars of political struggle could be mended, demons purged, old neighborhoods freed of their psycho-urban wounds; it could be a kind of annual exorcism for Detroit’s collective psyche, a mass architectural funeral for the past.
Or not. This might, of course, actually just be totally ridiculous and inappropriate to even suggest, I am well aware of that, too.

In a book -- Devil's Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit -- written nearly two decades ago, Zev Chafets spoke with several Detroiters about their views on the conditions of the city, it’s violent history, and their lives in proximity to Devil’s Night over the years. I haven’t read it, but one quote stood out from an excerpt published in the New York Times back in the day:

“The bitter controversy over who is to blame for Detroit's problems may be insoluble, but to my mind, blame is largely beside the point. Detroit will either be helped or it won't. And that decision lies, first and foremost, with those who have the capacity to extend aid.

Money is one answer, but not the only one, and perhaps not the most important. What must come first is an emotional reconciliation that will enable the black polis to rejoin the American family and to accept help without feeling humiliated or being robbed of its political gains. This aid must be given not out of guilt, or fear, but with generosity and good will. If it is forthcoming, Detroit could well become the model for an American racial modus vivendi. If it is withheld, America's first black metropolis - and its white neighbors - may be headed for a Devil's Night that will never see the dawn.”

Indeed, it’s not just that the fires of Devil’s Night should be doused as quickly as they are started, but the cultural significance of what sets them off perhaps needs to be better understood. What is the message in Devil’s Night besides ‘just a bunch of senseless hooligans vandalizing their streets’ every year? What do the fires really mean? Is snuffing them enough of an answer? The fires certainly speak to much more than that.
If the underlying messages of the fires aren’t also heard somehow, then I wonder if Detroit may not just turn out to be a foreboding precursor to flames ignited across the country one day, or the world for that matter – besieged 21st century cities and suburbs driven to the point of burning themselves down, from LA to Paris, Baghdad to Rome.
Admittedly, I know very little about the political conditions that have underwritten the struggles of Detroit, described once as “America’s first Third World city”, but whatever has driven the evolution of the Devil’s Night phenomenon seems like hardly something lost to the past. Should current economic conditions have anything to say about it, and continue to persist on a global scale in devising mass segregations of wealth and poverty, urban and racial divide, then should we be surprised if these fires become new border walls in the future?

[All images of Detroit Devil's Night in the 1980s (unless otherwise noted) are courtesy of KSC711 at Smugmug.]