Coco Fusco's 'Operation Atropos': Fantasy Interrogation, Real Tension
By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: May 30, 2006
To some people political art means protest art: slogan-slinging, name-calling, didacticism, an unaesthetic thing. But in the trauma-riddled early 21st century, after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, with a continuing war in Iraq, political art can be something else: a mirror.
At White Columns in Chelsea, the artist Harrell Fletcher has photographically reconstituted a museum display he saw on a visit to Ho Chi Minh City last year. The pictures in the original display documented the Vietnam War — known in Vietnam as the American War — as seen from a Vietnamese perspective. Mr. Fletcher presents the images as he found them. They are beyond horrific.
New paintings by Jenny Holzer at Cheim & Read in Chelsea are silkscreen reproductions of recently declassified United States government documents related to Abu Ghraib prison and to the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and to interrogation procedures used at both. The words, unaltered except for magnification, add up to a stupefying archive of official violence.
Interrogation is also the subject of "Operation Atropos," a new video by Coco Fusco, which makes its East Coast debut tonight at the City University of New York Graduate Center. (The screening accompanies the center's exhibition "Image War: Contesting Images of Political Conflict," organized by the Whitney Independent Study Program.)
The idea for the video began when Ms. Fusco, an interdisciplinary artist who teaches at Columbia University, was preparing a performance piece in which she assumed the character of a female interrogator at Abu Ghraib. She realized that to continue the work, she needed training in interrogation techniques. Through an Internet search she found a source of instruction: the Prisoner of War Interrogation Resistance Program run by a private concern called Team Delta, based in Philadelphia.
The organizers of the program are former members of the United States Intelligence Agency and self-described specialists in the "psychology of capture." In its original form the course was used to train elite soldiers to resist interrogation if captured, and to extract information from political prisoners. Reconceived for the private sector — police officers, private security personnel and psychological researchers are among the clientele — the program is a grueling four-day immersion in methods of physical and mental persuasion, with the participants playing both captive and captor.
The course is offered only to groups, so Ms. Fusco solicited volunteers to join her. Six women, three of them former Columbia students, accepted the invitation. (It cost about $8,000 for the group; Ms. Fusco picked up the tab.) She also arranged to have the course videotaped, with the artist Kambui Olujimi as director of photography.
As the 50-minute video opens, Ms. Fusco is reading aloud from a briefing that laid out the ground rules for the ordeal ahead, clearly amused by the portentous language: "You will experience physical and psychological pain." The women share a piece of secret information they will do their best not to reveal under duress.
The course begins. The women are riding in a van through the woods in the Poconos when masked men stop them at gunpoint and direct them to strip to their underwear for a search. The women's clothes are exchanged for Day-Glo orange coveralls; their heads and faces are covered with blackout hoods. They are led, handcuffed, through the woods.
The make-believe nature of all this is periodically reinforced as "enemy soldiers" drop out of character to be interviewed about their work. Even so, a sense of real tension starts to build. Mr. Olujimi's darting, probing, camera work helps to create it. So does the sustained image of the women being pushed, prodded, forced to their knees, yelled at and insulted by the all-male interrogation team.
At one point, an interrogator explains to the camera that a particularly effective technique for breaking down resistance is to make a captive think that unless he or she yields information, another prisoner will be harmed. When this situation is simulated, one of the women in the group starts to cry. The psychological pressure is working. Fiction translates into emotional fact.
Another woman also starts weeping. But it turns out she is doing so deliberately, using the ploy of feminine vulnerability to avoid divulging her secret. The ruse works. Later, when the women are relaxing after their stint as prisoners, Ms. Fusco confesses that she had had to stop herself from laughing at some of the dialogue her interrogators delivered. As the film ends, she and her colleagues take turns interrogating their former captors, learning to do to others what has been done to them.
So what kind of political art is this? It isn't moralizing or accusatory. It's art for a time when play-acting and politics seem to be all but indistinguishable. "Operation Atropos" is reality television with the cracks between reality and artifice showing. It's in the cracks, Ms. Fusco suggests, that the political truth is revealed.