artist Jill Magid explores "Insect Jay" Bybee's vision for torture

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A Reasonable Man in a Box

Installation: collage, silkscreen text, video, sound. Dimensions variable. 2010.

Developed for the Whitney Museum of American Art's first-floor Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Gallery, A Reasonable Man in a Box takes its point of departure from the "Bybee Memo", a controversial 2002 document signed by Jay Bybee, Assistant Attorney General of the United States Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, and declassified by President Obama in 2009. The document discusses acceptable methods of "enhanced interrogation" of a high-level Al Qaeda operative, including the use of a confinement box. As Whitney curatorial assistant Nicole Cosgrove writes in the introductory text, "A Reasonable Man in a Box explores the perversion of reason, and the malleability of language and law. Using video, collage, and text, Magid transforms an international and political issue into a physical and intensely personal experience. The installation represents an artist's desire to engage a legal memo--and her government--in dialogue, and to unlock a closed system of clean-sounding legalese with a single rhetorical question." 

Detail from video projection. 2010.

I often think of the lobby gallery at the Whitney Museum as a place where visitors kill time while waiting for the elevator and where art goes to die. For now, it is a place where one goes to be tortured--or is it? In August 2002, two justice-department officials advised the CIA and President Bush on the use of "enhanced interrogation." At the Whitney, Jill Magid asks one to study their language and to experience the results. Is it torture? Ask, as the title has it, A Reasonable Man in a Box.

One may not feel very reasonable facing the projection on the far wall. One recognizes the object of terror from its curled tail and fur, although the roach-brown glow may evoke a New Yorker's familiar object of disgust. A scorpion of nearly human dimensions crawls along the floor, sometimes dipping or tunneling within. A reasonable man might find the promise of insects within the walls that much more frightening. Another wall holds selected or censored lines justifying torture of someone with pathological fear of insects. The rest of us will not be reassured.

The tortured legalisms are frightening enough all by themselves. The memo, signed by Jay Bybee and drafted with John Yoo, explains how to play upon a subject's expectations without taking responsibility for what the prisoner knows. And never mind what he experiences or how he reacts. Suppose the interrogator has silently substituted a mere caterpillar. Suppose the interrogator just happens never to have mentioned that the insect might or might not cause harm. See no evil, speak no evil.

Common law does not have to deal with torture, but it limits liability for damage or negligence, even to the point of death. When the law speaks of a reasonable man, it most often has in mind not the victim, but the cause of harm. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., put it, one can demand no more than reason, because of the impossibility of "measuring a man's powers and limitations." The Bybee memo goes through cold, concise contortions to make a prisoner's helplessness sanction unlimited power. This, no doubt, is why Yoo now teaches at a school as elite as Berkeley...

more about the installation here

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This page contains a single entry published on June 27, 2010 11:58 PM.

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