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A frightening take on the War on Terror at the IWM

9 September 2016

‘2001 black smoke from a tall tower seen across roofs and skyscrapers its twin to the left intact and a plane lightly tilted black silhouetted against the blue sky’. Laid out on a screen the colour of the infamous Guantanamo Bay detainee uniforms, as devoid of punctuation as it is of emotion, this statement conjures up an image that is now part of the collective psyche. The video piece sets the tone for Edmund Clark’s exhibition at IWM London, in which he merges documentary and conceptual practices to reveal the hidden side of the War on Terror, when state control pushes and sometimes shatters ethical and legal boundaries.

Many works in the exhibition look innocuous at first sight, and it is the very banality of their visual and verbal language that makes them so disturbing. The IWM exhibition coincides with the launch of Clark’s book, Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition, for which he collaborated with counter-terrorism investigator Crofton Black, to explore the secret detention and transfer to US custody of suspected terrorists. Documentary evidence is shown alongside photographs of sites that would seem ordinary, were it not for ominous captions such as ‘corridors connecting cells to interrogation rooms.’ An unexceptional suburban compound is rendered exceptional by its pixelated representation: at once aestheticised but also asserting the fundamental right to privacy, a right denied to detainees but respected for those enabling their transfer.

Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out. Camp 6, Mobile force-feeding chair; from the series Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out. © Edmund Clark; courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York

Camp 6, Mobile force-feeding chair; from the series Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out. © Edmund Clark; courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York

‘If the light goes out unexpectedly in a room, I am back in my cell’, a former detainee confessed to Clark. The series, Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out, presents the site of detention stripped bare of any extraneous feature, devoid of human presence, but for the signs of their absence (empty shackles, guards’ helmets, deserted tables). And yet, despite the detached minimalism of these photographs, the devil is in the detail: one might read as blood stains the rust marks on the concrete floor in the foreground of Camp 6, Mobile force-feeding chair. Equally sinister is a flower falling apart in a vase, like decaying flesh, in the home of a former detainee. He might have regained his physical freedom but this picture tells us that his spirit will remain damaged.

And indeed, the bleakness of their detention follows these men beyond their cell. ‘I will never forget what happened for as long as I live’ says a broken voice in Section 4, part 20: one day on a Saturday. This haunting video work plunges the viewer into a space of emotional confinement, where the contrast between image and sound increases the sense of unease. Cheerfully kitsch postcard images of kittens or flowery fields – the mail received by Omar Deghayes, a British detainee at Guantanamo – are screened in a loop, whilst disembodied voices enumerating the internment rules alternate with a heart-rending testimony of interrogation.

Letter from Sarah, a college student; from the series Letters to Omar. © Edmund Clark; courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York

Letter from Sarah, a college student; from the series Letters to Omar. © Edmund Clark; courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York

Letters to Omar further reveals the pernicious nature of the ‘behaviour management’ of detainees, played out in the uncertainty of their sentence, the vagueness of the communication from their captors, the brutality of censorship. Could anyone, one wonders, not break under the weight of such controlled seclusion?

The body of work Control Order House occupies the last two rooms of the show. These document the experience of ‘CE’, an individual placed under Control Orders, a form of detention without trial. The pages of his diary give CE a voice, but also reveal the indignity of tagging and curfew, and a numbingly repetitive daily routine. A looped film focused on CE’s lap as he sits on a chair, twiddling his thumbs, closes-in on this relentless monotony. A floor plan and elevation of the house places the viewer within the suffocating, ordered, controlled space. Equally immersive and no less claustrophobic is the final room, strip-lit and windowless, the walls covered with a prodigious installation of hundreds of photographs. The several snapshots of CE’s cat fail to bring lightness to this methodical, and exhaustive sequence of images, which reveals the overwhelming power of surveillance and scrutiny.

'Edmund Clark: War of Terror' featuring the series Control Order House. © IWM

‘Edmund Clark: War of Terror’ featuring the series Control Order House. © IWM

International law dictates that all detainees will be treated humanely in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. ‘Edmund Clark: War of Terror’ is a reminder of just how easily counter-terrorist measures of secrecy and censorship, the obliteration of privacy, systematic control and isolation can cross the line into institutional violence and psychological torture.

‘Edmund Clark: War of Terror’ is at the Imperial War Museum, London, until 28 August 2017.

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