Redacting reality: Art exhibition about what the government doesn't want us to know

0 Posted by - May 23, 2008 - Blog, Installations, Visual art
Jenny Holver's Redaction Painting(s)

Jenny Holver

How can a democracy work if the citizens don’t know what the government is up to? Access to Information – the little rules that manage the sticky territory between what the government thinks we need to know and what the government is actually up to – is all about organizing the public imagination. It’s an intellectual game of hide-an-seek. The government hides and we seek, and it begs questions about the foundations of trust in democratic systems of governance.

For Reasons of State takes this tricky bit if state business on directly. The exhibition, which opened on May 16 at The Kitchen, explores government secrecy and censorship. Installations involve a myriad of information technologies – surveillance video, voice mail, 16 mm film, photography. From Ed Halter’s review at

Ben Rubin’s Dark Source (2005) offers a bank of microfiche readers displaying copies of documents that appear to be nothing but hand-scrawled bars. During a 2002 security snafu, Rubin was able to acquire the software code for Diebold’s controversial voting machines, but then blacked out each line–in accordance with corporate trade secret laws– before exhibiting it. Rubin’s self-imposed censorship mirrors Jenny Holzer’s Redaction Paintings (2006) mounted nearby, comprised of enlargements of classified US government documents released via the Freedom of Information Act, still containing large swathes of darkness … Lin + Lam’s Unidentified Vietnam (2003-Present) series recreates a sloppy card catalog from the Library of Congress’s collection of hundreds of propaganda films produced with the help of the American government for use in South Vietnam, while Mark Lombardi’s Neil Bush, Silverado, MDC, Walters and Good c. 1979-90 (2nd Version) (1996) serves as an example of the late artist’s obsessive sketches of conspiracy-style flow charts linking together powerful individuals, government bodies and corporations in tightly-bounded nests of sometimes inscrutable interconnections.

As art expands its territories of investigation, we can begin to see new ways of coming to terms with the social and political complexity of the times. Art can interrogate the ways and means of power — the political institutions, political reasoning, political moralities — and transform them into accessible, visual stories and experiences.

A congressional investigation is one thing – say, a 4000 page type-written manuscript documenting some abuse of authority – an art exhibition is another. If a grade school class can be amused for a short time while rummaging around in the uncertain dustbin of what is, what should be and what is not a state secret (as compared to how they might respond to a 4000 page report), I say more artists into the fray.

The transformation of what government is and does into public art is long overdue.

Leave a reply