Monday, June 30, 2008

In the Wake of The Devil's Breath

[A sad and hellish account of the San Diego wildfires in October, 2007 that claimed the lives of several migrants who were trapped in the valleys while attempting to cross back and forth across the border. UCTV put together a powerful video that speaks not just to survivors and those who lost loved ones, but to some tragic humanitarian and bureaucratic failures that may have cost lives. More than anything, it's just another painful reminder of the kinds of stories that haunt the migrant through the vicious passage that is the borderland. Media coverage here: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 (Thanks Jav!)]

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Baghdad's Teetering Floors

[Image: A U.S. Army soldier secures a checkpoint at the wall that separates southern Sadr City from the north, in Baghdad / AP photo, Baghdad's walls keep peace but feel like prison, 2008.]

If anyone knows where to find a complete map – or, as complete as possible – of all the security walls and separation barriers that have been (and are) being devised within Baghdad by American forces, I’d love to see it. I have found a few maps of some separate districts, but it seems like there must be a project out there tracking this more comprehensively.
Anyway, I say this because a recent article for USA Today reports on another wall that began construction just a couple of weeks ago around the neighborhood of Hurriyah. “The new wall ties into two existing walls to prevent Shiite extremists from coming and going at will — and presumably from smuggling in arms,” we are told.
Just a few days after construction was underway, however, a truck bomb exploded killing 68 people there. So, again, I scratch my head, and ask – do the walls prevent violence, or just seem to trigger it?

[Image: The Baghdad Table, by Edra Tarazi.]

In addition to the 3-mile-long wall in Azamiyah, a wall in Amariyah, and the new one in Sadr City, the article mentions the district of Doura, which apparently “has so many walls and observation towers that some parts resemble a maze.”
Nowadays there's hardly a street in Baghdad without a wall — or a cheaper substitute like barbed wire, palm tree trunks, mounds of dirt or piles of rocks. They're even used to control pedestrian and vehicular traffic in risky areas. – USA Today
There isn’t much else in the article you probably don’t already know, for instance how the walls “block access to schools, mosques, churches, hotels, homes, markets and even entire neighborhoods — almost anything that could be attacked,” the reporter suggests. They “also lead to gridlock, rising prices for food and homes, and complaints about living in what feels like a prison.”
NPR covered the devastating challenges the barriers pose for local economies last week.

[Image: Labyrinth, the game.]

Baghdad is starting to remind me a lot of that old wooden board game Labyrinth, I think it was called, or, maybe it was Tilt-A-World. The one you angled two wooden platforms back and forth with rotating knobs to maneuver a little steel marble through a maze of walls without dropping it into a hole. Ultimately, it was a game of delicate touch, floor balance, and tactical wall hugging. Advancing the marble required a strategy of resting it in a sequence of corners, or hold-outs, until you were ready to carefully slope the board again and make a run rolling the it along a fragmented edge hoping to reach another little bunker to pause once more.
It was a labyrinth of baby steps and well timed wall crawls, and playing it was a test of nerves since it took a steady hand to ever so gently pitch the platforms together in a combined direction that would roll the marble precisely where you wanted it to go. I imagine it like trying to diffuse an IED with your bare hands. One faulty overturn or misadjustment, and you were dead.

But, it’s almost as if Baghdad has been turned into a mortal-sized version of this game since everyone and everything in the city now moves according to a system of blast walls, security barricades, revolving iron gates, military checkpoints, bunkers, IEDs, car bombs, etc. Perhaps, in this case, the American and Iraqi forces have their hands on one of the dials, while the sectarian militia groups collectively have their hands on the other. Wrestling for control of the city, Baghdad is in a constant state of imbalance and instability, subject to ceaseless shifts of power, while its civilians teeter on the edges of sudden death much like the innocent steel marble whose slippery fate rests in the hands of the war lords.
But, don't you think it will take more than the weight of all these walls to bring balance to Baghdad's teetering floors?

(Thanks to Mike for the link!)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shipping Justice

[Image: The Guantanamo Cell Tour on Flickr.]

Making its rounds through cities across the U.S. is a peculiar orange box loaded onto the back of an unassuming flat bed truck. Down long stretches of American highway, past pruned coastlines and through hectic downtown intersections, it waits to be lifted on an off again by pulleys and parked in some of the most highly visible public places the nation has left to offer.
On the side of it in bold black lettering reads, COUNTER TERROR WITH JUSTICE.
So, just what is being delivered exactly? A battle box of anti-terrorist commandos on an urban training mission? A frightening new automated turret to be mounted on the side of a building? Is it toxic? Should it have a Wide Load sign attached even though it is no bigger than a humvee?

[Image: The Guantanamo Cell Tour on Flickr.]

The box is 10-by-6-foot, with an eight foot-high ceiling. Inside nothing exists but cold white walls, a platform with a measly mattress, a stainless steel toilet/sink fixture, a florescent light, and a slitted window to meet the bare minimum requirement for a human’s right to natural light.
Needless to say, the bright crate isn’t delivering a diplomatic gesture of internationally prized oranges. And thankfully not a menacing experimental crowd control robot, either. It’s actually a scaled replica of a maximum security prison cell at Guantanamo Bay where detainees are known to spend up to 23 hours a day in total isolation.

[Image: The Guantanamo Cell Tour on Flickr.]

Just to get a better sense of time here (and because I'm obsessed with time and detention myself right now having spent 12 of the last 24 months of my life lying on the floor dealing with this ridiculous back injury of mine): on average, I’ve read that a detainee spends 14 months imprisoned at Guantanamo before they are generally either released and deported, or re-detained elsewhere. Granted that’s not every detainee, and not every detainee spends time in a maximum security cell, either. But, at 31 days a month, and 23 hours a day, that’s roughly 9,982 hours spent in this cell. What effect does that have on a human being? Especially when that person is deprived of any sort of legal rights; what if that person turns out to be completely innocent of any suspected terrorist involvement?
Well, it’s all a part of Amnesty International’s Counter Terror with Justice campaign and their Tear It Down project, a global initiative to raise awareness around the issue of illegal U.S. detention and rendition demanding the closure of Guantanamo Bay. But it also calls attention to all of those immigrants, refugees, radicals, innocents, and God knows whoever else who's been abducted and detained without legal recourse, or anyone else’s knowledge but the government’s.
The Cell Tour began this year as a traveling exhibit designed to encourage visitors to experience the conditions of isolation, if just for a moment, and then to share their impressions in a video message through a touchscreen recording device situated on the wall in place of a mirror over a sink.

[Images: From this QTVR of the Replica Cell.]

I personally love this project. Can you imagine Subtopia not being on board here?
Anyway, as intriguing if not more so than the campaign is the symbolic implication of the replica cell itself, as if it were a mobile unit of detention being put on real display at a trade show or something, selling its exportability, strapped down on the back of some shipping vehicle as simply as any old box of trade goods, or a prefab architecture kit of parts that could be ordered online, transported in a week, assembled and put to use in your city, your country, your backyard.

[Image: The Guantanamo Cell Tour on Flickr.]

The exhibit, perhaps inadvertently, I see as a revelation of this hazardous notion that American justice is a deployable prison cell that can be made cheaply on time and at any time, shipped anywhere in the world day and night, and dropped off on doorsteps here and abroad when and wherever the global arbiters of detention see fit. It’s a satire on the gross brand of justice and the model of (il)legal space that the U.S is pushing around the planet right now (think the Gitmo Courthouse, the Rule of Law Complex in Baghdad, you know – inflatable commodities of justice).
This pseudo cell just resonates with so many other layers of interest and concern that come to mind around all of this: shipping containers as political denominations of spatial currency, and the flexibility of an architectural production of justice space; incarceration as a shippable product; and, the significance of this single unit of captivity as being something that exists as part of a larger configuration both just off the shores of international legality, and, as a measurable, profitable, cubic dimension of detention sitting on the very frontiers of America's last refuges of democratic space.

[Image: Counter Terror with Justice at the Washington Monument.]

That is to say, the Cell Tour isn’t just a means to direct our attention to the detention facilities far removed from our view, but is a wake up call to the concerns of the very state of activist space in America itself. Has the public square, the shopping mall, the tourist area, the protest zone, just been converted into an informal detention facility itself? Is the citizen a captive of the privatization of public space; a financial inmate indebted to the shopping mall; a detainee of the heavily policed and redacted streets of public activism?
The project weighs in on more levels than one, and I can’t wait until I am healthy again, and until the Gitmo Cell replica comes to my town so I can go leave my own little message in there.

For more:

Amnesty International's Tear It Down Campaign (Ending Guantanamo and U.S. Illegal Detentions)
Counter Terror With Justice Activist Blog
The Cell Tour Vlog
The Guantanamo Cell Tour on Flickr
Counter Terror with Justice's photostream
QTVR of Replica Cell
Guantanamo Cell Replica Displayed on Mall - Washington Post
A night in Guantánamo, Staying in a replica cell, with no waterboarding included by Jeff Inglis.
Guantanamo museum and other tales of extraordinary rendition at Helga de Alvear gallery in Madrid

Don't forget: Walkthrough Gitmo: the de-restricted fortress / Camp 7 & the Platinum Captives / An Exceptional Paradise / Guantánamo and the Border Exodus / A Mini-city for Trying Terror / Gitmo Courthouse Compound goes bye bye

Monday, June 23, 2008


[Image: "US/ELLOS," a sculpture by artist Davis R. Birks at the Puerto Vallarta Arte Contemporáneo 08 in Mexico. Photo: Davis R. Birks, LATimes, 2008.]

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Perpetual Motion War On Terror

[Image: Photo by Saad Khalaf, IRAQ: Bird's eye view of an empty, wounded city - LATimes, 2007.]

Stumbling upon this photoset in the LA Times the other day of Baghdad seen from above during a citywide curfew, I’m particularly struck by this relatively unextraordinary photo of a Blackhawk helicopter’s shadow passing over Tahriat Square.
Not knowing anything about this square or the neighborhoods that spoke off around it, it looks like any other shot of a routine aerial patrol cruising over the mean streets of Baghdad ‘round the clock for insurgent movements and suspicious activity. This spot, for all I know, could be anywhere in the city and a notorious mainspring for violence; or, it could be one of the most peaceful places on the planet, who knows?
I guess what I see is not only a circular park but a representation of Iraq’s capital city laid out in its entirety in the form of some sort of urban timepiece; the way the paths cross and pass through and the trees line the periphery at even intervals spaced apart, it’s as if Baghdad has been reorganized into a kind of contemporary shadow clock haunted by the specter of foreign invasion and neverending conflict.
Certainly, I’m reading way too much mumbo jumbo into this, but, there is the war machine lodged in the cradle of civilization; its precision blades rotating and sweeping violently across the face of modern Baghdad like Leviathan clockhands that have seized control of history and time itself. Somehow superior to the sun’s own momentum this shadow of war remains fixed at the center of Baghdad’s image and place in time right now. The Blackhawk’s crusading swords dissect the airspace of Iraq’s temporal sovereignty delivering a chronographic-like stoppage of time across the city as the Gods of War have seen fit to hack the moment – and as if the entire metropolis were completely calibrated to the time/space dials of U.S. occupation.
However, despite curfew the Blackhawk – bound to the sky in circuitous patterns of panoptic centrifuge – is what also keeps the gears of time constantly spun. Looping barely above the earth day and night the war machine’s black glove turns a great balance wheel back and forth upon which the entire city rests. As such, Baghdad is like the militarized pacemaker for endless conflict always oscillating in and out of stability; it is a city tectonically wound over and over again for a perpetual motion War On Terror.
Look at the photo once more though and you may find it’s not even Baghdad at all. Listen carefully. Overhead the Blackhawks are circling. Nearly everywhere now from San Diego to Afghanistan the skies are filled with these propellers and others just like them synchronizing the invisible gear trains of conflict across every time zone. They are the symbolic clockworks of a wartime economy, and this image to me just seems like a giant time stamp for it all.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Inertia Gems

The latest issue of Polar Inertia has been posted, and as usual there are some stunning collections of photographs there, from formidable swimming pools abandoned by water to serial Palm Springs trailers and the absurdist pontifications that come across America's billboard Church signs. Mac's archive is insane. This one, from a set by photographer Christophe Abrassart is, I believe, of the remains of the Atlantic Wall at Normandy built by the Germans during WWII to fend off attacks by the allied forces – the wall being one of the most ambitious chain of strategic fortifications ever built lining the Atlantic coastline all the way from Norway to Spain.

Another fascinating gallery, of perhaps another type of equally fascinating bunker system, which surely deserves more of our attention, captures what’s still in place of the old Men’s Club 45 lingering “on the western edge of Monterrey, Mexico.” This rather innocuous buidling, we learn, was “among the region’s most notorious “tolerance zones,” or government-permitted red-light districts,” up until fairly recently when it was finally forced to shut down. Despite it’s name, photographer John Sevigny tells us, “it was not a single nightclub, but a walled-in complex of strip bars, seedy hotels and brothels visible from the main highway that serves as a gateway to Mexico’s northwest.”
Of course there’s lots more retinal tease at Polar Inertia. Check it out. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, Ted Kane produced a book, Polar Inertia: Migrating Urban Systems published by RAM, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. So, go have a looky look.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Inside 61, 600 sq. ft.

So, about 70 people made it out today to protest Blackwater's new border facility in Otay Mesa, Ca., an old warehouse that's been converted into a shooting range and training grounds. Currently, it's been configured to mimic a small ship in order to prep the Navy with better counterterrorist tactics. NBC was there and produced this quick video with a special peak inside. Check it out.

On that note, here is an extract from a forthcoming collaboration Angela (archive: s0metim3s) and I have been working on that seems appropriate for the moment.
"[Preemption] ... Around 1,000 square miles of the Californian desert is given over to modeling the warzones of the Middle East. Here, as with other police/military training environments, they tackle calamity in an amusement park of unrest, insurgency and its abatement, architectures both elaborate and artful, designed solely for the purposes of being conquered and reconquered. As the accessories of the doctrine of preemption, these spaces are accompanied by a growing number of university research laboratories which engineer preliminary superstructures suspended in conjectural disaster, or simulate emergency landings and training flight paths under fake duress, or teach of non-linear dynamics and Deleuzo-Guattarian war machines. These arcade-labs of war prepare for conflict under the principle of continuous adaption, train flexible military units moving not only to protect boundary lines but through terrains marked by the threat of catastrophe. These are instructional handbooks of preemption made manifest as simulated cities, malls and oilfields, aiming to transform soldiers from grunts to self-managed risk-assessors, to move the border with them through chaotic environments. Seeking to relocate warfare within the paradoxical condition of preempting the emergence of the unpredictable they, as with recognition technologies, are elaborately armed and lethal signals of failure."
[Previous coverage of Blackwater here, here, here, uh... here, and here... oh and here, too.]

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Blackwater's Border Bypass

[Image: A shooting range at a new Blackwater training facility is seen Thursday, June 5, 2008, in San Diego. (AP Photo).]

Last month Blackwater sued city officials in Otay Mesa after they refused to issue final occupancy papers without a vote by the planning commission, even though building inspectors had already rubber-stamped the necessary permits. As you may have read, lawyers for the city said the company deceived inspectors by applying for various permits under different names of affiliated contractors instead of filing a single comprehensive application to open a counterterrorism training facility practically yards from the border. Just last Wednesday, a District Court Judge ruled in favor of Blackwater saying the company was not required to seek any sort of special approval since the neighborhood is already zoned for appropriate vocational school use.
Facing the deadline of a fat Navy contract already in hand, Blackwater seems to have won this one. Or, at least temporarily. The “vocational training center” in Otay Mesa is open and has been immediately put to use training the Navy on special counterterrorism tactics. After being run out of Potrero by the local community there who vehemently opposed Blackwater’s plan to turn 824 acres of their precious Valley land into a shooting range, the man child merc company decided to deploy their tactics even closer to the action along the highly sensitive border with Mexico. Ray Lutz, coordinator for Citizens' Oversight Projects (COPs), had this to say in response to the audit report of Blackwater’s permits provided by the City of San Diego on June 6.
"The audit report completely sidestepped the most important issue: how Blackwater used the various permits and multiple identities to allow processing of the mercenary-type training facility under rubber-stamp 'Ministerial' review instead of allowing the public to review and approve their plans under 'Discretionary' processing. Finally, suing the city in federal court to force the permits to be issued steps far over the line of propriety, a blatant violation of traditional local control traditions. The character of Blackwater can be seen in these actions. This is not the sort of operation we want in this county, whether it is in Potrero or in Otay Mesa."

Obviously, Blackwater wasn’t confident about applying for the project straight up, which makes me wonder, had they done so would they have been able to garner approval going through the fully vetted public process? If not, what does this say about that old paradox that I seem so obsessed with, about politics and space mutually constituting one another? Was it the fact that this is a controversial facility that more or less required deceptive political tactics for its realization; or, is it the deceptive politics that ultimately paved the way for the training facility?
Nevertheless, the feds obviously have Blackwater’s back while padding their pockets with gobs of cash, and now the question remains, what exact role will Blackwater fulfill as the fastest growing private military company in the world setting up camp right on the U.S.-Mexico border?
Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater’s public scrutinizer number 1, wrote another relentlessly expository piece for The Nation, showing us further the vast trenches Blackwater seems to have in place to help root them politically, economically, and militarily, as a new top war profiteering dog on the block.

Let me quote him at length:
In September it was revealed that Blackwater had been "tapped" by the Pentagon's Counter Narcoterrorism Technology Program Office to compete for a share of a five-year, $15 billion budget "to fight terrorists with drug-trade ties." According to the Army Times, the contract "could include antidrug technologies and equipment, special vehicles and aircraft, communications, security training, pilot training, geographic information systems and in-field support."

Such an arrangement could find Blackwater operating in an arena with the godfathers of the war industry, such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. It could also see Blackwater expanding into Latin America, joining other private security companies well established in the region. The massive US security company DynCorp is already deployed in Colombia, Bolivia and other countries as part of the "war on drugs." In Colombia alone, US military contractors are receiving nearly half the $630 million in annual US military aid for the country. Just south of the US border, the United States has launched Plan Mexico, a $1.5 billion counternarcotics program. This and similar plans could provide lucrative business opportunities for Blackwater and other companies. "Blackwater USA's enlistment in the drug war," observed journalist John Ross, would be "a direct challenge to its stiffest competitor, DynCorp -- up until now, the Dallas-based corporation has locked up 94 percent of all private drug war security contracts." The New York Times reported that the contract could be Blackwater's "biggest job ever."

As populist movements grow stronger in Latin America, threatening US financial interests as well as the standing of right-wing US political allies in the region, the "war on drugs" is becoming an increasingly central part of US counterinsurgency efforts.

And that’s really only the tip of Jeremy’s revelatory iceberg. He talks about the company’s diverse range of services that’s allowing them to fill the need and niche of many approaches to the War On Terror, from counterterrorism, to counter narco insurgency, aviation, to other militarization projects that could be used domestically like the Grizzly, or their border blimps. More alarming, he breaks down Blackwater’s connections with the CIA and their latest moves to privatize the intelligence industry with a secretive project called Total Intelligence Solutions. I’ll stop there and let you go read it for yourself to get the specifics. Scahill is a bad ass so look for an updated softbound edition of his bestselling book soon, and while you are at it, and go meet him at this protest tomorrow outside the Otay Mesa facility.

[Image: Chris Curry, The Virginia Pilot]

From Subtopia’s concern, Blackwater’s down there on our precious border, flaunting their services to any enforcement agency who will buy them, and getting their trigger-happy fingers ready to pilfer the war machine’s great megacontract jar, and we can only speculate what this will spell out for the future of border violence, profiteering, privatization of enforcement agencies, and forthcoming spatial projects down there where obviously Blackwater has managed to bypass the public process.
According to this AP report, “the pride of the facility is the mock warship area, where shipping containers are outfitted with red lights to simulate an onboard emergency and speakers blare clanking background noise during exercises.”

“On Thursday, workers were reinforcing a maze of wooden walls appended to the cargo containers at the request of city inspectors, who are still reviewing Blackwater's application to use the simulated ship area under an amusement-park ride permit, Bonfiglio said.”

[Image: The Blackwater Grizzly / Is that one of the tents from the Raymondville Immigration Detention facility, in the background? Nah, looked like it though for a second.]

I’ve ranted on this a little already before, but one of the most poignant comments came from San Diego City Councilmember Ben Hueso, who represents the 8th District where the project is located. He said, "This is a private company that would profit from instability and insecurity at the border. It's their motive and it's their interest that we have conflict and that we have problems at the border. The more there are, they more they'll profit. This is why we do not want private companies engaging in national security objectives. It is a complete conflict of interest when you mix corporate profits with community benefit."
And so now it looks like Blackwater will sink its claws deep into the War On Drugs, as a kind of expanded War On Terror campaign, 'cause there's always a war to be fought, right? Where would America be if they weren't out fighting some war? May as well fold them all into one, beef up the contracts, treat everyone as a terrorist. What will Chertoff plan next? More privately run immigrant prisons? In addition to the 670 miles of border fence, a dozen new surveillance drones, expanded mileage of newly revised virtual border fencing, let me guess, a roving wall of Blackwater mercs filling in the gaps across the 2,000 mile stretch? Since he wouldn’t be using the state’s Army to do this, maybe Bush could still claim that the U.S. isn’t technically militarizing the border?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

ME$EX 2008

Should you happen to be in Amsterdam on the 15th of June I’d like to encourage you to go check out the annual Bazaar festival, titled this year the “Middle East Stock Exchange.”
Beyond politics, beyond ideology: what are the hard trends in the Middle East? What is the future of the economy of the Middle East, of oil, urbanization, and security in the region? A series of 20 minute visual briefings by experts and analysts from the financial and corporate sector. Who wins, who loses? The Bazaar 2008 provides you with quick data, ready made analyses, and strong anecdotes to bolster your talks and thinking on the region.

In what future would you invest your money? Put your money where your mouth is on the MESEX future market and join the development of the Social Intervention Fund.

I was very flattered to have been invited as a keynote speaker to present something on the urban syntax of militarization and security in the Middle East, even though I am hardly an expert on the matter. This would have marked Subtopia’s first official overseas gig. But, sadly, due to my persistent ailing back, I will be unable to make the trip.


The Bazaar is an initiative that was begun 4 years ago by the Dutch development organization HIVOS, in collaboration with the Green Left party ‘Groen Links,’ the Peace movement IKV Pax Christi, and the office for social engineering Partizan Publik. The festival is a platform and breeding ground for alternative voices from -- and about -- the Middle East, mixing art, culture and politics. In previous years, the Bazaar organized an Afghan peace talk simulation for politicians, a satellite interview with Hezbollah, a Palestinian Hip Hop concert, displayed the wreckages of the Baghdad book market bombing on the Amsterdam Leidseplein, published a magazine on cultural politics and the Middle East, and facilitated countless debates, interviews, talks.

Hosting the ME$EX are Petra Stienen, a diplomat and writer, and writer/ journalist Bahram Sadeghi. On the ticket:

Rani Rajji (Activist, Architect, Journalist Beirut/Dubai)
Matthijs Bouw (Director of One Architecture)
Max Rodenbeck (Chief Middle East Correspondent for The Economist)
Leo Kwarten (Middle East Consultant for Shell)
Mariko Peters (MP Green Left Party)
Egbert Wesselink (IKV PAX Christi)
Marcel van der Heijden (Hivos)

Following the speakers will be a mini documentary film fest showing what looks like some good works, none of which I have been familiar with up until now: Rising Gulf, on this rapid modernization process which is taking place in this part of the Arab World, Satellite Queens, or, Behind the Scenes of a Prime Time Arab Talk Show, and A Way Out of the War on Terror, a portrait of Alistair Crooke, the founder of Conflicts Forum – an international movement which engages with Islamist movements broadly.

Needless to say, I'm really bummed I won't be there meeting these people, engaging the dialogue, learning from some real experts on the development of the Middle East. Next time. So, if you’re around go check it out. And, you know the routine, report back and let us know what you thought.