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


Blogger  said...

Thousands of homeless citizens would consider the box to be a palace.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Subtopia said...

Given the housing crisis, half the world might see this as a palace one day, especially if it comes with the truck - and as long as it runs on alternative fuel.
though, in all seriousness, thousands of homeless people wind up in a jail cell over and over again already, as part of their normal existence since homelessness has become increasingly criminalized in the states.
so, just because it has a roof, bed, and toilet, doesnt necessarily make it appealing.
besides, there is something insulting in that comment, as if a prison cell should appeal to those desperate for a home. i am sure you were just thinking of it purely as a structural box out of the context of detention, but i dont think we should be surprised if 99% of the world's homeless population decided to turn this down.
i think i'd rather build my own shelter than ever accept this. how about you?

2:43 PM  
Blogger Connor Wingfield said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:00 PM  
Blogger Connor Wingfield said...

ya, i agree, you might want to think twice about considering any sort of institutionally owned vehicle/box a palace.

check out chinas new paddy wagon

10:04 PM  
Blogger Sara Koopman said...

see also the daily show's take on this project on june 10th at

bryan - what do you make of that redecorating? :)

5:47 PM  
Blogger Subtopia said...


that was hilarious. loved it.
the makeover is hysterical. also, blurs more the creepy insinuations of american housing as a form of detention, public housing as prisons, jail cell as pop architectural product, gitmo as something we can dress up and make into anything we want. gitmo as something we can reevise to fit our needs.
thanks for mentioning this!

4:13 PM  

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