The War on Terror is meant to protect us from those who want to do us harm, and that’s a good thing. But its methods are a murkier issue. British photographer Edmund Clark is among the artists (and journalists) goading us to ask a lot more questions about those methods, and their effects on society, culture and our democratic ideals. The International Center of Photography is currently exhibiting work from his various projects about the War on Terror in a show titled “Edmund Clark: The Day the Music Died.”
With little accountability or oversight, governments (ours and others) have subjected foreign terror suspects to “extraordinary rendition,” “enhanced interrogation,” and indefinite detention. The bureaucratic apparatus is shrouded in secrecy by design, but it raises legal, ethical and moral questions. Straddling the boundaries between documentary and fine art, Clark has been photographing the bits and pieces of the apparatus that inevitably surface: the airplanes used for renditions, former detention sites, redacted legal documents and letters from prisoners to their families. The power of Clark’s work resides in the tension between the banality of the images and the harsh human interactions they only suggest, leaving much to the viewer’s imagination.
The exhibit, Clark’s first major museum show in the U.S., comprises photographs, video and installation work from several projects he has undertaken in the last decade. “Negative Publicity,” for instance, “confronts the nature of contemporary warfare and the invisible mechanisms of state control,” he explains in the project summary. Working with counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black, Clark followed a paper trail left by private businesses that provide prisoner transportation. The resulting series “recreates the network that links CIA ‘black sites,’ and evokes ideas of opacity, surface, and testimony in relation to this process: a system hidden in plain sight.” An earlier project, called “Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out,” “evokes the process of disorientation” and long-lasting psychological effects of the interrogation and incarceration techniques used at the prison. Some might say: “So what? They’re terrorists.” In fact, so many Guantanamo detainees have turned out to be innocent men who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the complexities and inconvenient details of the War on Terror tend to be buried by ideology and propaganda.
Clark tries to dig beneath all of that. He peers through the cracks wherever he can find them, presenting the War on Terror in imaginative and evocative ways, and encouraging us to question what we think we know, how little we’re told, and how it is fundamentally altering who we are as a society.
Edmund Clark: The Day the Music Died
Through May 6
International Center of Photography
New York, NY 10012