Index of the Disappeared (ongoing)

Index of the Disappeared, a collaboration with Chitra Ganesh (ongoing since 2004), is both a physical archive of post-9/11 disappearances and a mobile platform for public dialogue.

As an archive, Index of the Disappeared foregrounds the difficult histories of immigrant, ‘Other’ and dissenting communities in the U.S. since 9/11, as well as the effects of U.S. military and intelligence interventions around the world. Through official documents, secondary literature, and personal narratives, the Index archive traces the ways in which censorship and data blackouts are part of a broader shift to secrecy that allows for disappearances, deportations, renditions and detentions on an unprecedented scale. The Index collection is built on the work of others actively engaged in political and legal challenges to the policies we track, and draws on radical archival, legal and activist traditions to select, group, and arrange information. While the Index has become quite staggeringly comprehensive over the years, covering everything from black sites to Bagram, corporate surveillance to contract translators, Pelican Bay to the Pentagon Papers (and much, much more), the point of the Index is not to collect everything relevant that is released into the public domain, but to sort through masses of information to retrieve and preserve small bits of significance, and then to make the connections that allow others to understand that significance.

Index of the Disappeared: Parasitic Archive
Index of the Disappeared: Parasitic Archive, vinyl cling, 66 x 35 inches, installed at NYU’s Kevorkian Center, 2014

The Index archive circulates in several different forms. The full archive can be installed as a reading room in a gallery or community space, as in the lobby gallery at UBS headquarters in 2007. Primary source materials from the Index collection can be combined with secondary materials selected from an existing archive or library, with the combined materials installed in an environment re-designed by the Index, as in our Parasitic Archive installations at the Buffalo Public Library (2010) and NYU’s Kevorkian Center (2014). Finally, a themed selection of materials from the Index can be installed as a site-specific ‘exploded archive’, as in our Codes of Conduct installation, focused on military codes and transgressions, at the Park Avenue Armory in 2008.

Index of the Disappeared: Codes of Conduct
Index of the Disappeared: Codes of Conduct, site-specific installation (slideshow, sound loop, documents, shredded documents, office supplies) at the Park Avenue Armory for Creative Time’s Democracy in America, 2008; click image to view more installation shots and sample slides

As a platform, the Index presents discussions on ideas and issues related to the materials it archives and draws upon materials in the archive to create text-based, site-specific works installed in a range of physical and virtual spaces, including galleries, museums, universities, community centers, libraries, conferences, publications, windows, the street, the internet, and the mail. These visual forms of public dialogue are designed to confront audiences with the human costs of public policies, challenging them to re-consider the abstractions of political debate in specific, individual terms. Recent projects along these lines include the print project Introduction to an Index for the Radical History Review’s 9/11 anniversary issue (2011); the web project The Guantanamo Effect for Creative Time Reports and Alternet (2013); the window installation Watch This Space for the Kimmel Windows Gallery at NYU (2014); and the Secrets Told installation for the A/P/A Gallery at NYU (2014), reproduced for Border Cultures part 3 (security, surveillance) at the Art Gallery of Windsor (2015).

Index of the Disappeared: Secrets Told at Art Gallery of Windsor
Index of the Disappeared: Secrets Told (laser-cut hanging folders, documents, screw-hooks, chalkboard paint, chalk) at Art Gallery of Windsor for Border Cultures Part 3 (security, surveillance)

At the beginning of our work on Index of the Disappeared, we realized that the critical discourse in which we wished the work to participate did not yet exist. So a significant part of the Index’s work as a platform has been aimed towards creating, and then building up, that discourse. This work includes a number of critical essays, a discussion series, and most recently, a two-day international conference on radical archives at NYU. Mariam’s theory of warm data, which was first developed for the Index web project How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database in 2004, and refined with the essay “Divining the Question: An Unscientific Methodology for the Collection of Warm Data” in 2005, coincided with a rise in scholarly interest in affective archives. In recent years we have also collaborated with platforms like Creative Time Reports to disseminate Index texts, web projects, and discussions to wider audiences, partnering with them on, for example, podcasts of the Radical Archives conference and a conversation on US prison policy from California to Cuba with human rights lawyers Alexis Agathocleous and Ramzi Kassem.

Index of the Disappeared: Watch This Space
Index of the Disappeared: Watch This Space, window installation (vinyl cling, vinyl lettering, banner prints, barbed wire, video loop, drawings, posters) at NYU Kimmel Center, 2014; click image to view more installation documentation

An index can be a trace, a signpost, an indicator or a measurement. Our Index begins in the gaps where language ends; that is, in the records of absence and absence of records where official language fails and new languages must be developed in its place. The Index in its most material form, the archive, preserves and presents the traces of redactions and erasures in the official record, alongside the words of the original actors and witnesses of the histories it explores. For the Index, the gaps in those records are not flaws in the archive, but rather the key to its organization. We configure the bits of information remaining in the public domain in order to make visible the missing links, the submerged body of secret information below the simple surface. Presenting the Index archive as an artwork-in-progress, constantly re-adapted to the specific sites in which it is installed, encourages visitors to approach it not as researchers seeking facts but rather with the critical awareness that the ‘facts’ they encounter are in flux, defined and redefined in relationship to time, to their context and to each other.

Index of the Disappeared: Parasitic Archive
Index of the Disappeared: Parasitic Archive (vinyl cling, vinyl lettering, library books, document binders, videos) at the downtown Buffalo public library for Art of War, 2010; click image to view more installation documentation

At the same time, the Index archive’s steadily increasing mass is a visceral measure of the slow and steady creep of the troubling policies it chronicles, through every echelon of our society and every facet of our culture. In our own research with these materials, we have tried to probe the texts for productive breaks and slippages, moments where language escapes from official to unofficial registers, from public to private domains, from political to poetic testimony. These moments become the extracts and fragments of the Index, literal signs and visible trails that we circulate in the wider world – as the free postcards available in every Index installation, as the short texts that introduce each section of the online archive in The Guantanamo Effect or annotate the images that circulate in our print projects, and even assembled into found poetry in the text “Notes on the Disappeared.”

Introduction to an Index
Introduction to an Index – print project for Radical History Review, 2011

Our most recent body of work is a legal, visual and historical inquiry into the afterlives of former black sites, supported by a residency at the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School. The term “black site” is currently understood to refer to a secret prison operated by the CIA as part of their extrajudicial rendition, interrogation, and torture program, active between 2001 and 2009. However, any place that has been temporarily made invisible by (tacit or explicit) agreement to not see something that clearly exists can also be understood as a black site – including “temporary holding” zones used for extrajudicial interrogation, from Homan Square in Chicago to the Forward Operating Bases deployed by the US military. When a site becomes a black site, a place becomes a non-place. Real buildings, people, and territories are rendered invisible through a sort of consensual hallucination. What happens when this process is reversed? When a place begins to insist on its reality, despite the contracts that mandate its existence as nothing more than a rumor, how do those buildings, people and territories emerge from the black? Is it ever possible to look at a former black site without seeing it through the veil of its previous life in the unseen?

Index of the Disappeared, Black Sites I: The Seen Unseen
Just Off the Bagram Road, from the series Black Sites I: The Seen Unseen, 2016; click to view more GIFs

When we tried to answer these questions by conducting our own field research in Afghanistan for Black Sites I: The Seen Unseen, we discovered that the feeling of looking at a place that was once a black site, but has now had any trace of that use removed or again hidden from view, is remarkably similar to the feeling of looking at a heavily redacted document. The surface opacity both frustrates the viewer who seeks concrete knowledge, and underlines the importance of that which is concealed. In order to make the photographs we produced more faithful to that experience, we redacted our own images, using redaction patterns extracted from declassified Index archive documents about the places in the photographs, to produce the final series of 8 lightboxes. As shown at the Dhaka Art Summit in 2016, The Seen Unseen also included a series of watercolor portraits based on some of the most important witnesses of the black sites; a film exploring the circumlocutions through which information that is widely known remains officially denied; and a neon sign that pairs a phrase from a description of the first prisoner waterboarded by the CIA with the Bangla phrase “covering a fish with greens,” signifying an attempt to cover up something that everybody already knows.

Index of the Disappeared, Black Sites I: The Seen Unseen
Black Sites I: The Seen Unseen overpainted neon installed at Dhaka Art Summit, 2016; click to view more installation images

The Index archive is based in Brooklyn and is open for research by appointment, when it is not in circulation elsewhere. Email the studio if you have research to conduct in the archive.