‘Don’t Embarrass the Bureau’ borrowed its title from the acclaimed 1972 novel by author and former FBI agent Bernard F. Conners. The book’s title refers to one of the fundamental protocols that all agents – according to Conners – have to follow when on duty: ‘Whatever happens, never ever embarrass the Bureau.’ Curated by Matteo Lucchetti, this exhibition adapted the FBI’s protocol, but with the imperative to do just the opposite. Presenting ten contemporary artists and collectives, Lucchetti mined a long and proud tradition of ‘disloyal’ artists. The show demonstrated the continuing relevance of these tactics of embarrassment today, when the workings of organizations like the FBI are as omnipresent and devious as ever.
The selection of artists reflected the fact that the urge – or perhaps need –to embarrass intelligence agencies is a global one. Obvious choices like The Yes Men and Bureau d’études were avoided in favour of a fresh, if somewhat uneven, mix of works. Greeting the visitor in the entrance hall was the monumental installation Civil Servants (2009) by Chinese artist Song Ta. The piece comprised over 1,000 sheets of yellow A4 paper on which Song had drawn caricatures of Chinese officials, accompanied by their personal data including private addresses and telephone numbers. Displayed next to these drawings was Ta’s short video Kids (2011), in which the artist asked the information desk at a local zoo to call for members of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party in Guangdong Province over the PA system, as though they were lost children.
Nearby, The Whole Truth (2012) by Lawrence Abu Hamdan invited viewers to sit down, look at themselves in a mirror and listen, through a set of headphones, to members of the biometrics industry explain how voice analysis is used as a lie detection method by governments as well as insurance companies. Behind the mirror was Hamdan’s The Freedom of Speech Itself (2012), which specifically references the use of this method in the UK to determine the authenticity of the accents – and hence places of origin – of asylum seekers. Though Hamdan’s material was conceptually strong, it could have been presented in a less dense, more straightforward way. In comparison Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson’s video Lobbyists (2009) gives a clear insight into the workings of those who play politics in the corridors of European power. Through the artists’ use of narrative – with a text commissioned by the journalist Tamasin Cave and music by Icelandic reggae group Hjálmar with British actress Caroline Dalton – the video effectively and with humour exposed the strange workings of the intricate communication network that makes up this culture.
According to Lucchetti’s catalogue text, the exhibition aimed to address the fact that the internet and modern communications technologies have provided the world’s intelligence agencies expanded means of surveillance, as well as offering a platform to activists like Edward Snowden and Aaron Swartz. But the show itself seemed strangely devoid of pieces dealing with the digital workings of networked intelligence. A relevant example would have been the duo UBERMORGEN.COM, which, since the early 2000s, has produced a series of works exposing digital workings – from the software used in US elections to eBay’s mining of user data and Amazon’s tinkering with copyrights. Tsila Hassine’s and Andrew Norman Wilson’s recent hacks of Google would also have been salient examples here. Though Lucchetti’s selection of works seemed to ignore the digital field completely, the exhibition was dedicated to the memory of Swartz – a fact that seemed to confirm Claire Bishop’s 2012 diagnosis of a ‘digital divide’ in the contemporary art world.
That said, ‘Don’t Embarrass the Bureau’ was well researched and obviously timely. In line with the recent anthology Disrupting Business: Art & Activism in Times of Financial Crisis (edited by Tatiana Bazzichelli and Geoff Cox, 2013) it argued for the increasing importance of exposing the machinations of various mass surveillance systems. The cases of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Snowden and Swartz show that the consequences of such disobedience can be monumental. And while none of the artists included here ran a comparable risk, the exhibition did serve as an appropriate homage to those who are at the brutal mercy of the Bureau and its ilk, and an apt encouragement to the rest of us to be disloyal to its protocols.
First published in Issue 165