WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART | JULY 1 – SEPTEMBER 12, 2010
If you needed any extra evidence that the Bush Administration lost all sense of decency in its pursuit of information believed to be hidden in the minds of terrorist suspects, then go see Jill Magid’s chilling installation, A Reasonable Man in a Box, curated by Chrissie Iles in the Whitney Museum’s first-floor gallery space. To enter the installation, you walk through the gallery’s open portal just off the main lobby, an opening narrowed in width for this installation, into a darkened room with a bare floor. On one wall, dominating the space, is a video projection of the shadow of an alarmingly large, presumably poisonous scorpion scurrying back and forth across the screen, surrounding you with the uncomfortable sounds of its clickety-clack movements. The net effect, of course, is that you feel that you are confined in a room—let’s call it a box—with the creature, whose oversized image is thus proportioned to the space. And just when you think the creature has maybe left the box, because it’s gone off-screen, an anonymous hand appears with a pair of tweezers to drag it back into your ken.
Now, you know—because you’re a reasonable person and you’ve just walked into the Whitney after all and the Whitney doesn’t have scorpions on its premises, or even if it did it wouldn’t put you in a box with them—that it’s just a video and you can walk out of the room at any time. But you don’t walk out, because on another wall you see cut-out excerpts, also oversized, from the notorious Bybee Memo, an analysis prepared by Jay Bybee of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, in which he responds to a C.I.A. inquiry as to just how far it can go in interrogating a high-level Al Qaeda prisoner without crossing the line into torture. The C.I.A. had come up with ten “enhanced” interrogation methods for this purpose, the most well-known of which was waterboarding. But another involved putting the prisoner in a box with an insect in order to play on the individual’s known fear of insects. Before doing so, and presumably to cover itself in the event of a later criminal investigation, the C.I.A. asked for the Bush Administration’s legal opinion whether it would constitute “torture” if the interrogators were to tell the prisoner that they “intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him,” but would in fact only place a non-stinging insect inside. Bybee counseled the C.I.A. that it would not at all be torture to do so as long as the C.I.A. did “not affirmatively lead [the prisoner] to believe” that a stinging insect was inside. Bybee explained that the legal definition of torture is causing severe pain or threatening to do so; the C.I.A.’s proposed course of action would therefore not be torture because “even an individual with a fear of insects would not reasonably feel threatened” with such pain if a non-stinging insect was in the box with him. In other words, even if the prisoner somehow came to believe on his own that he was threatened with harm from the insect, his belief would be “unreasonable” and thus not attributable to the C.I.A.
Of course, the illogic of the memo is that the C.I.A. only proposed such an “enhanced” method of extracting information because it already knew that the prisoner in question had an unreasonable fear of insects and the C.I.A. therefore hoped and intended him to feel the threat of pain or even death and to give up information to avoid that. Otherwise, what was the point?
But Magid’s installation trumps the already extensive scholarly criticism of the Bybee/Bush legal analysis with her own superseding and imaginative interrogation of us in the gallery box she created: we “reasonably” know that there is no harm threatened, just as Bybee’s “reasonable man” would supposedly know that he faced no harm; and yet we “unreasonably” remain edgy, apprehensive and, well, creeped-out, on a scale that must be a fraction of what a real prisoner would have felt. There is thus no wiggle room left allowing one to “reason” one’s way out of Bybee’s legal maze. If anything, the Bybee memo has its own scorpion sting; and Magid reminds us that if we think we’re safe from its rationalizations, an anonymous hand with tweezers stands ready to drag it back into play.
MICHAEL STRAUS is a Contributing Writer for The Brooklyn Rail as well as one of its Board members. He is also Chairman of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, past Chairman of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and a member of the Drawings Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.