Why keep a record of pain?
Wounds on the skin or the psyche, lesions, lacerations, bruises and bumps, assert a kind of presence, a reminder that we exist, feel. Who wouldn't want to avoid them, but if we must endure pain, accumulations of these cuts are maps to that territory of damage. Healing is still not erasure but another kind of accretion, a layer of memory. Even removal of pain requires an acknowledgement that it exists. Forgetting is of course inevitable, but what of denial? It is one thing for the wounded to ignore her wounds, but quite another for the injurer to refuse, to scrub the evidence.
How then to access the wounds whose maps have been destroyed?
Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani began their collaboration in the aftermath of September 11 with Index of the Disappeared, an archive of worldwide web of detentions and disappearances, of renditions and deportations. A collaboration that spans geographies, techniques, and disciplines whose primary purpose is to present, record, track, and interrogate torture and detention practices of U.S. military and intelligenc1 around the world. Supported by the Creative Time Reports and the Juncture Initiative at Yale Law School, Ganesh and Ghani presented Black Sites I: The Seen Unseen (2015-16) at the Dhaka Art Summit in February 2016, an extension and latest iteration of their collaboration.
'Black sites' refers to structures, building, facilities, secret prisons, holding zones used for extrajudicial torture, rendition, interrogation, and detention programme run by the CIA and its allies around the world. Territories of unacknowledged wounds –like the surface of our skin or soul, the surface of the earth contains traces of these horrors, pulsating with and leeching shards and fragments of distress and agony. The earth as witness.
For Black Sites, Ganesh and Ghani used mixed media from video and neon signs to light boxes with Duratran prints to assemble what one could only experience as a trove of elaborate yet banal atrocities. There were aerial shots of former sites, some with makeshift structures such as shipping containers as torture cells, others, empty compounds. Images of barbed wire boundaries, military paraphernalia were layered with redactions from declassified documents resulting in an appearance of unfinished jigsaw puzzles.
But do they really hide anything? Even highly redacted documents with words and sentences gouged out, disfigured and maimed, cannot help but transmit a larger truth, which is why the Bangla neon sign in the exhibit went straight for the jugular: Shaak diye maachh dhaka ( 'covering a fish with greens' in translation).
These sites operated in an extralegal zone of secrecy speckled across North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia in a network of evasions and perversions of systems, of language, yet unspectacular to any observer of state operations in general or the CIA in particular. Secrets, unconfirmed yet known, when known, denied, when evidenced, justified. With Black Sites, Ganesh and Ghani perform a refusal, especially when there is not only a systematic counter narrative, but also actual physical erasures. In an interview during the Summit, the artists compared attempts to erase the remnants of these sites to textual redactions, paralleling their substance as well as aesthetic form.2 Like the fragmented texts, denuded black sites teem with menacing echoes of their malignant past. And this is exactly what the architects of these sites would rather not have you see, that map to the territory of damage. Besides, some of these sites have closed, but functionally they are far from over, as they circulate, proliferate, and mutate in an ever-expanding network of state control. There are several layers of wounds here: the practices themselves and the system and those that undergird that; official bans and denials marking a dispossession, disallowing the wounded to inherit their pain; continued dispersal of these practices in different forms and guises. Black Sites then is against these defacements and effacements. Ganesh and Ghani's work is not an accounting for the past as much as it is breaching the present – exposure is never enough but it is never felt as necessary and urgent.
'And I believe that my last visitor / Will not be an eyeless bat / Coming at midnight. / My last visitor must be daylight.' – A Letter from Prison, Sameeh Al Qassem.3
- Many of these torture and detention programmess are outsourced to client states and private contractors.
- Safina Radio Project, Dhaka Art Summit Edition. 2016. http://alserkalavenue.ae/en/event/3df4153b-c7e3-11e5-8b71-f23c9161897b/index.php
- Poetry of Resistance in Occupied Palestine. Translated by Sulafa Hijjawi. Ministry of Culture, Baghdad, Iraq. 1968. http://www. 24grammata.com/wp- content/uploads/ 2014/07/PoetryOfResistance_Sulafa_Hijjaw-24grammata.comi_.pdf
PARSA SANJANA SAJID teaches at Independent University, Bangladesh and Jahangirnagar University. She's the co-convener of Bayaan Collective and a novice here: https://www.instagram.com/semipreciousmetal/.