ArtWe can neither confirm nor deny that this artist waterboarded CIA documents
In his new exhibition, artist James Bridle virtually simulates US and UK black sites, riffs on redacted CIA data and interprets "water damaged" documents containing things they don't want us to know.
Artist and activist James Bridle files a lot of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. He works obsessively with information technology, surveillance and drones, and recently, he has been filing FOIA requests for “all sorts of things.”
His latest exhibition “The Glomar Response,” now on at NOME Gallery in Berlin, is largely built upon the many ways that a Freedom of Information request can be viewed, and the many ways it can be used to obscure information.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.
You can submit a FOIA request to the agency’s FOIA Office, if the information you want is not publicly available. The request simply must be in writing and reasonably describe the records you seek. Most federal agencies now accept FOIA requests electronically, including by web form, e-mail or fax.
The show is comprised of a video that recreates restricted facilities and courts, visualizations of blind spots in redacted US and UK documents, and waterboarded documents related to a black site, that may have been used for waterboarding but, officially, the only evidence was "water damaged."
↓ Diego Garcia (Waterboarded Documents 001), 2015. James Bridle. Mixed Media, 119cm x 72 cm x 110cm. Photo: Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de
The Glomar Response
For 'The Glomar Response,' Bridle sent FOIA requests in multiple directions simultaneously. Some went to Transport for London (the city’s transportation bureau), and others to the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office (the UK government’s ministerial department for immigration, drugs and counter-terrorism that has recently been pushing for sweeping surveillance powers). The reason for this, Bridle says, is that although each agency redacts their response, the redactions occasionally differ, allowing Bridle to fill in the blanks.
This rarely happens in useful or informative ways, but Bridle says the little differences “reveal the human hand behind these decisions, a little glimpse into inter- and intra-agency policies and politics.” To more easily locate these differences, Bridle wrote a recognition program which visualizes the editing disparities.
It was in these redacted responses that Bridle first encountered the dread phrase “we can neither confirm nor deny,” otherwise known as the Glomar Response. Bridle calls it “one of the most perfectly crafted pieces of legalese in the English vocabulary.” Around it, Bridle believes, “swirls all of the uncertainty of contemporary life”, like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in action. It is the spirit of the Glomar Response that animates Bridle’s show.
Briddle's work engages with the invisible yet pervasive technologies that we encounter every day. Utilising a variety of platforms from software to social media, photography and installations, Bridle discusses how technology both affects culture and reproduces and shapes political power.
As an artist, reseacher, theorist and essayist, his work has been featured in numerous publications such as Wired, The Atlantic and he writes a regular column for the Observer. He is known for coining the term The New Aesthetic, a way of recognizing the language of the internet and digital culture being used in the real world. His exhibitions have further explored the cross-section of the virtual and the physical with pointed focus on surveillance culture and remote-controlled drone warfare. His artworks and installations have been exhibited in Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australia, and have been viewed by hundreds of thousands visitors online.
Animation by Picture Plane. Digital video, 5:28, 1920 x 1708. Commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, London. Seamless Transitions was supported by Nome, Berlin, and public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
In the show's centerpiece, Seamless Transition, Bridle virtually recreates the interior spaces of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission courtroom (used for the presentation of secret evidence), the Harmondsworth Detention Centre on the edge of Heathrow airport, and the Inflite Jet Centre, where people are flown out of the country in the dead of night.
“Each of these spaces is impossible to photograph either because of the law or the impossibility of access,” Bridle explains. “The only images we see of them are those provided by those who operate them, who can give their own impression of them. In order to make cogent arguments about them, we need to be able to see them for ourselves.”
Bridle and the architectural visualization and animation firm Picture Plane visited and sketched the exteriors of the sites, found planning permission documents on council websites, filed freedom of information requests, studied legal documents, interviewed eyewitnesses, and so on. They then fed the results into architectural models. Bridle describes this process as “reverse engineering, working back to the image from descriptions of it. Finally, we could produce accurate walkthroughs of spaces we had never visited, reconstructions not just of architectural space, but legal and social processes, using the technological tools at our disposal.”
In Fraunhofer Lines, Bridle visualizes (in flat format) redacted documents from the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture and the UK Information Commissioner’s reports on automated police surveillance. After gathering information via legal requests, investigative research and carefully formulated questions, Bridle fed the information into his custom redaction-recognition software.
The images, which are colorfully abstract chart-like visualizations, are named and patterned after the gap’s in the sun’s spectra discovered in 1814 by German physicists Joseph von Fraunhofer. Fraunhofer’s lines, as Bridle explains, “reveal the absence of certain frequencies of light reaching the earth’s surface, and pointed towards new methods of analysis and understanding.” The parallel here to redacted documents is clear — official information, like the full spectrum of light emitted by the sun, always has its gaps.
↑ Fraunhofer Lines 002 (TfL Emails January – March, 2013), 2015. James Bridle. Inkjet print, 120cm/80cm.
Total number of
Total number of
Number of backlogged
For the piece entitled Waterboarded Documents, Bridle doesn’t rely on freedom of information requests. The documents, which deal with the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) island Diego Garcia, a known CIA black site used for renditions and as a base for the U.S. government’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were gathered in various other ways. Some were leaked, others were discovered in archives or found in the ruins of Tripoli, where dictator Muammar Gaddafi made his last stand against the Libyan revolution.
↓ Chagos (Waterboarded Documents 002), 2015.
James Bridle. Mixed Media, 119cm x 72 cm x 110cm. Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de
After human rights groups found evidence that aircraft had landed on Diego Garcia as part of the rendition flights, the UK government admitted its involvement in the program, but insisted that only two planes stopped temporarily to refuel. After a U.S. Senate report confirmed the Diego Garcia CIA black site, the Tory chair of the Treasury select committee investigating the rendition program, Andrew Tyrie, called in the Foreign Office (FCO) for questioning. In testimony, the FCO minister Mark Simmons stated: "Records on flight departures and arrivals on Diego Garcia are held by the British Indian Ocean Territory immigration authorities. Daily occurrence logs, which record the flights landing and taking off, cover the period since 2003. Though there are some limited records from 2002, I understand they are incomplete due to water damage."
Bridle, aiming to satirically mock this convenient excuse, decided to waterboard the Diego Garcia documents that were publicly available; displaying them on chart tables that one might find on a ship, overlaid on the sailing charts of Diego Garcia and the Chagos archipelago.
Some documents he soaked in water, others in acetone, drawing a parallel between the water damaged documents and the detainees who, it can neither be confirmed nor denied, have been tortured with waterboarding at Diego Garcia.
"The Glomar Response"
Also known as Glomarization or the Glomar denial, this term refers an official response to a Freedom Information Act Request that "neither confirms nor denies" the existence of a document or the presence of specific information in documentation.
The first "Glomar Response" occured when a Los Angeles Reporter was seeking information about the Glomar Explorer, a salvage ship built by the CIA for the purposes of recovering a sunken Soviet Submarine. When a FOIA request was filed which asked for the CIA to acknowledge the program, the agency's official response was, "We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the information requested but, hypothetically, if such data were to exist, the subject matter would be classified, and could not be disclosed."
The name Glomar is a syllabic abbreviation for Global Marine, the company that was contracted by the CIA to build the salvage vessel.
Bridle says that the motivation was to illustrate the violence done to information and to the BIOT, “which ultimately and always leads to violence done to people.”
The violence of paperwork
“That violence includes not only the rendition and torture program, but the original depopulation of the islands, the ongoing refusal of the right of return of the native Chagossian people, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere that have used Diego Garcia as a base,” says Bridle, as well as “the NSA [and] GCHQ violations of privacy and human rights which are also based out of Diego Garcia... Other documents also show how contemporary networks — satellite communications, internet routing and the .io domain name — reproduce these imperial histories.”
In this duel of greater transparency versus greater opacity, Bridle sees no clear winner. The two sides are locked into a dualistic view of the world and its technologies.
Bridle believes that ultimately more knowledge cannot be the answer, but “rather a greater understanding of how that knowledge is constituted, and an accommodation with the deep uncertainty of that knowledge production.”
“The internet has never taught me that things are simple,” Bridle says. “Learning more always complicates the story — the internet is a monument to this fundamental uncertainty... We're being sold a lie about what technology reveals, and we must reject it from our own experience, so that we can formulate other ways of thinking and being. The choices which technology presents us are mirrored at the individual and the state level: what do we choose to see, and act upon? And how do we move past this binary?”
Disposition of all processed FOIA requests
Full Denial Based on
Use of FOIA Exemptions
Improper FOIA Request
Not an Agency Record
All Records Referred
Records Not Reasonably