To mark the end of the year, the Rail’s Art Books editors, Ben Gottlieb, Phillip Griffith, and Greg Lindquist, and Managing Director Sara Christoph each selected a notable book from the past year to share with our readers. This is not a list of the best books of the year. Instead, it is an informal survey meant to highlight the diversity of art book publishing now.
Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition
(Aperture/Magnum Foundation, 2016)
Why does this book exist? It is a reaction—to policies enacted under George W. Bush’s presidency and carried out with the assistance of various foreign governments and private U.S. businesses; to the euphemistic, even punning obfuscations of the legal language of the “global war on terror”; to the wider public’s lack of access to information about the concrete, breathing consequences of this linguistically sanitized effort; and, perhaps more than that, to our lack of feeling for it, to the utter intangibility of an endeavor so broad and ill-defined and yet so consequential and horrific to the lives of a mostly untold multitude. Negative Publicity is a collaboration between counterterrorism researcher Crofton Black and photographer Edmund Clark; together, they seek to reveal the Bush administration’s policy of extraordinary rendition, under which some unreleased number of suspected foreign terrorists have been disappeared by the CIA into a network of secret facilities to be imprisoned, interrogated, and in many instances tortured. We still do not, and may never, fully know what happened to them, or even who many of them were.
Black and Clark’s collaboration begins with these gaps in public knowledge: for four years, Clark tracked down and photographed a variety of locations detailed in the artifacts unearthed by Black’s research—mostly bureaucratic dealings, documenting financial transactions, legal proceedings, and other mundane vestiges of bloodless business matters. The photographs themselves are frank and unsentimental, typically depicting spaces that have fallen into disuse: former sites of disappearance, the unoccupied home of a detainee. United with Black’s documents, these sources together attempt, with varying levels of coherence (many of the reprinted primary documents are partly or wholly redacted—these obscurantist black lines seem to have become a branding for the war on terror), to create narratives out of lacunae, using residual traces of the CIA program’s past efforts as markers. To some extent, the book succeeds, illuminating certain quotidian realities of this authoritarian fantasy. But for the most part, the program, and the lives it ruined and the business ventures it buoyed, remain unknowable: Black and Clark’s tireless investigations keep trying to pull it into focus, but somewhere—in the book’s documented and intimated gaps of redactions, legality, and empathy—it always escapes. This book exists not so much to fill in all these gaps, though certainly it tries, but to point out the moral and political failures that enable them, still to this day and well into the future, to endure.