Secret Histories | “Covert Operations” Takes Us Inside a Brave New World

Artwork: Trevor Paglen, N5177C at the Gold Coast terminal, Las Vegas, NV, Distance ~ 1 miles, 2007, from the series “Limit Telephotography,” 2005 ~ ongoing. Chromogenic print, 40×50 inches, courtesy of the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco; Metro Pictures, New York; and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne.  © Trevor Paglen.

“People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” Aldous Huxley observed, ominously portending the Digital Age that has taken hold. Since 9/11, we have entered into a new age, one in which our privacy is being eroded without our knowledge or consent, as we find our lives becoming more and more embroiled with the Internet.

Also: Secret Histories | “The Resolution of the Suspect” Examines the Lethal Art of Portraiture

Orwell’s vision of Big Brother has arrived in full, as telecommunications companies including Verizon, Google, Microsoft, and YouTube have been reported to work hand-in-hand with the NSA, while platforms like Facebook have partnered with the state of Israel to monitor posts. Just this week, Yahoo admitted to complying with a classified United States government directive, searching all of its customers’ incoming mail for specific information at the behest of the NSA and the FBI. It is not known what information officials requested other than “a set of characters.”

Kerry Tribe, Untitled (Potential Terrorist) (stills), 2002. 16mm black and white film; 30 min., dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and 1301PE, Los Angeles. ©Kerry Tribe

Kerry Tribe, Untitled (Potential Terrorist) (stills), 2002. 16mm black and white film; 30 min., dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and 1301PE, Los Angeles. ©Kerry Tribe

Covert-Operations_high-res-cover-3D_RADIUSBOOKS-535x420Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns (Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art/Radius Books) delves into the brave new world we unwittingly inhabit, a place where every detail of our life can be traced and tracked by persons unknown, even down to our footsteps when we carry a cell phone.

Exploring themes of secrecy /disclosure, violence, power, subterfuge, surveillance, territory, geography, and the visible/hidden, Covert Operations uses legal, traditional research methods and resources such as the Freedom of Information Act to collect unreported information through the works of artists such as Ahmed Basiony, Thomas Demand, Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0, Jenny Holzer, Taryn Simon, David Taylor, and Kerry Tribe.

Trevor Paglen, Five Classified Squadrons, ongoing. Five fabric patches, framed, 15 1/4 x 32 3/4 x 2 1/4 inches overall.

Trevor Paglen, Five Classified Squadrons, ongoing. Five fabric patches, framed, 15 1/4 x 32 3/4 x 2 1/4 inches overall, courtesy of the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco; Metro Pictures, New York; and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne. © Trevor Paglen.

Artists, unlike journalists, have greater latitude in exploring a subject as complex as this; they are not bound to ideals of objectivity and thus can take a more critical, nuanced approach to their subjects. Thus they are able to add another level of understanding to the conversation, one which the media often misses in its rush to be “first” to “break news” to the populace.

Take the work of Egyptian artist Ahmed Basiony (1978-2011) and the piece titled “30 Days of Running in The Place” (2010-2011). The work consists of two films. The first, produced in 2010, was made from information taken from sensors that he wore inside a hermetically sealed spacesuit, while he ran in place for an hour every day for 30 days. The second film features footage from the Egyptian Revolution, which he documented from January 25-28, 2011.

Ahmed Basiony, 30 Days of Running in the Place (still), 2010-2011. Two-channel color digital video installation with two-channel soundtrack; run time and dimnensions variable. Footage from the 2010 performance of 30 Days of Running in the Place and the 2011 Tahir Square protests, edited by Shafy El Noshokaty, courtesy of the Basiony Estate. ©Basiony Estate.

Ahmed Basiony, 30 Days of Running in the Place (still), 2010-2011. Two-channel color digital video installation with two-channel soundtrack; run time and dimensions variable. Footage from the 2010 performance of 30 Days of Running in the Place and the 2011 Tahir Square protests, edited by Shafy El Noshokaty, courtesy of the Basiony Estate. ©Basiony Estate.

On the second day of the Revolution, Basiony wrote on his Facebook page, “You know, this is our last chance for dignity, the last chance to change the regime that has lasted the past 30 years…believe me, there is but one very small step left… If they want war, we want peace, and I will practice proper restraint until the end, to regain my nation’s dignity.”

The footage ends on the third day of filming, known as the Friday of Wrath,” while Basiony was filming security forces and military police beating protestors, shooting them with rubber bullets, and spraying them with tear gas. After being struck in the neck and face by rubber bullets, Basiony collapsed, only to be hit by a police car after he was lying on the ground. He died for his country, and left behind a body of work that speaks to his courage to use his art as the vehicle to stand for justice, no matter the cost.

Ahmed Basiony, 30 Days of Running in the Place (still), 2010-2011. Two-channel color digital video installation with two-channel soundtrack; run time and dimensions variable. Footage from the 2010 performance of 30 Days of Running in the Place and the 2011 Tahir Square protests, edited by Shafy El Noshokaty, courtesy of the Basiony Estate. ©Basiony Estate.

Ahmed Basiony, 30 Days of Running in the Place (still), 2010-2011. Two-channel color digital video installation with two-channel soundtrack; run time and dimensions variable. Footage from the 2010 performance of 30 Days of Running in the Place and the 2011 Tahir Square protests, edited by Shafy El Noshokaty, courtesy of the Basiony Estate. ©Basiony Estate.

All of the works featured in Covert Operations remind us of this: the fact that standing against tyranny is a tremendous risk. We are more vulnerable than we know and this is why we cannot bury our heads in the sand, only to leave the rest of our bodies exposed.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.