The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MOCA) is in the broken industrial town of North Adams. The town’s main factory Sprague Electric, which made capacitors, moved its operations to Juarez (Mexico). The buildings for the factory became the art gallery. The town was devastated by the move of the factory, which was the main employer.
In a cavernous part of the old factory, the artist Liz Glynn presents a powerful exhibit - The Archeology of Another Possible Future - where shipping containers and wooden pallets suggest the world of globalisation, a world of technology and no work. There is a whiff of nanotechnology and of machine learning. On a catwalk about 18 feet off the floor there are three 3-D printers churning out materials for our lives. There are, however, no people in the exhibit. This is a planet without people.
On the ground outside one of the containers, a ceramic globe lies shattered. It suggests the broken world - a world made small by technology and a social world broken by the end of a certain kind of work. On a blackboard inside one of the containers, Glynn has written, ‘Do we really need further advances in technology? Does technology give you more control over your life or does it take control away from you?
There are no answers here. The exhibit ends with aluminum surgical stretchers. There are no bodies on them. But they indicate death.
On another floor, Glynn’s story is picked up by the artist Jenny Holzer. Holzer has read deeply into the archive of the War on Terror. Thanks to the persistence of organisations such as the National Security Archive, the US government was forced to hand over redacted versions of interrogations and pathologist’s examinations from Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray. Holzer took these document and painted them with oils onto linen on large canvases.
These paintings are striking. They are memory books of the War on Terror, now seventeen years old. One painting is of a document from 16 September 2001. It is a memorandum from the Director of the CIA. The subject line is striking - We’re at war. The third paragraph of the memorandum sets the tone: ‘There can be no bureaucratic impediments to success. All the rules have changed’. All the rules have changed.
No such urgency greeted the War on Jobs - the globalization of labour that resulted in the destruction of North Adams. There is little urgency for the opioid epidemic that has wrought havoc in and around North Adams. The War on Terror drew in men and women from these broken towns to join the US military and go fight other men and women from other broken towns. There real concerns were set aside.
Reading the documents that Holzer has painted points us to the terrible violence of the War on Terror. The autopsy reports are terrible, particularly those from Iraq. One of them, from December 2003, says that an Iraqi man (born 1947) ‘died while in US custody. The details surrounding the circumstances of his death are classified’. Under ‘Cause of Death’, the medical examiner has written, ‘Asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression’. The ‘Manner of Death’ is straightforward - Homicide. Another report, from April 2004, is about an Iraqi (born 1957) who ‘died while in US custody’. This man faced ‘blunt force injuries and asphyxia’. The ‘Manner of Death’ for him is the same - Homicide. There are many of these paintings, produced out of the hundreds of such documents. There was never any public accounting of this violence, barely any of these interrogators or soldiers were brought to justice for their acts of homicide.
Holzer’s paintings - the size of them, the graphic nature of the documents - argue against forgetting. But they also remind us of the small acts of resistance by the men and women who get swept up in the madness of US imperialist wars. One document about the interrogations in Guantanamo’s harsh prison introduces us to one prisoner who refused to be subdued. He would not wear the regulation slippers and would force his military escorts to step into puddles of water since he would refuse to go around them. And, he would irritate his guards by singing Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’: Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, Not but ourselves can free our minds.