Dismantle the Platform

Kiley Bense
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The video begins quietly, with a single quotation floating on a black background: “While my company and the museum have distinct missions,” it reads, “both are important contributors to our society.” An attribution appears below the words: “Warren B. Kanders, CEO, Safariland Group, Vice Chair, Whitney Museum of American Art.”

The next frame is of chaos on the Tijuana–San Diego border. Plumes of tear gas race across a dusty landscape, coils of barbed wire glint in the sun, and everywhere people are fleeing, scarves pressed to their faces. The footage is jerky and intense; you feel as if you’re stumbling beside them, caught in a hazy barrage unleashed by the agents on the US side of the border.

The narration, rendered in David Byrne’s soothing voice, draws the connection between this scene, in November 2018, and the opening quotation. The tear gas canisters deployed in Tijuana were manufactured by the Safariland Group, which makes equipment for military, law enforcement, and security purposes under the slogan “Less Lethal Solutions.” Because you are standing in a darkened room, closed off by a thick curtain, in a gallery that is part of the Whitney’s Biennial exhibition, you understand why this through-line—from violence to power to money to moving image—matters here.

What is more perplexing is what Byrne says next, after reminding you again that Kanders is the vice chair of the Whitney’s board of trustees: the museum commissioned this film.

Titled Triple Chaser after the name of the type of three-part tear gas canister that Safariland sells, the film is curious as a form of institutional protest, in that it was presented and intended as art sanctioned by the museum. The film—made by the London-based human rights and environmental research group Forensic Architecture in partnership with Laura Poitras’s Praxis Films—not only informs its audience, it challenges them to consider the funding sources for the Whitney’s pristine premises, and as such it functions as a means to center the Kanders controversy for the museum’s visitors. The film came out in the wake of months of protests against the museum and its connection to Warren Kanders and Safariland. In July 2019, Kanders resigned from the museum’s board.

When the Whitney invited Forensic Architecture, in February 2019, to present at the Biennial, the museum may or may not have guessed that the group would use the platform as an opportunity to protest that platform’s funding. But it’s not surprising, given Forensic Architecture’s focus on human rights violations and the growing belief among activists that museums must be held publicly accountable for the money they accept from high-profile donors. In a press release for the film, Eyal Weizman, the director of Forensic Architecture, spoke about the need to disrupt the way cultural support “burnishes” the reputations of donors with “symbolic capital.”

When I first stepped into the Forensic Architecture screening room in summer 2019, I was mesmerized by the video’s jarring juxtaposition of music, color, and fear. In the third section, Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs plays as various configurations of tear gas canisters, digitally painted neon pink and green and blue, flash against a series of frenetic patterns. The pictures were produced by a machine-learning algorithm written to help Forensic Architecture’s researchers locate images of Triple Chaser canisters in photographs from around the world so that they might better understand where Safariland’s tear gas was being used, and how. As the music soars, we hear a list of the symptoms that tear gas and tear gas canisters can cause when they come into contact with human skin, eyes, noses, and mouths, among them bronchial spasms, difficulty breathing, disorientation, blast injuries, pulmonary and cerebral edema, and convulsions. The dramatic music and the pulsing, candy-colored imagery fuse into a kind of eerie beauty, making the film’s recitation of physical harm all the more unsettling.

When the music is over, we see scenes of people fleeing from the tear gas canisters’ toxic release in Turkey and Peru and Iraq and Yemen and Canada and Palestine, among other places, each frame shrinking to a rectangle until the screen becomes a patchwork of panic. Still, the viewer feels a sense of remove, carried over from the clinical recitation of medical side effects, especially as the camera zooms out, blurring each contorted face and heavy footfall into a constellation of data points meant to convey not individual but collective injury.

In the film’s final section, the narrative turns to the case of Sierra Bullets, also produced by one of Kanders’s companies, and their use by the Israeli Army against Palestinian protesters in Gaza. Here, we watch a young man in jeans and a T-shirt, holding his phone aloft in a crowd, presumably recording the scene, a way of watching back. There’s a sharp pop and spattered red as a bullet tears into his leg and he collapses to the ground. The first time I saw it, I was sure I must have imagined this moment. While the rest of the film maintains an air of detached calm even as it unspools footage of violent unrest and muffles the cries of protesters with the soft cadence of Byrne’s voice, this moment is much more intimate and graphic. Those few seconds of sudden blood—when the pain of the man on the screen is acute and we can’t turn away—feel like a gut punch.

It feels that way because Triple Chaser does not seem to be focused as much on the human suffering Safariland’s products have caused as on the process of creating a tool that might prevent more of that suffering in the future—hence the time devoted to explaining the methods that Forensic Architecture employed to teach its computers how to see. But the film is also trying to teach its viewers how to see. In an interview with Artforum, Weizman spoke about the “double meaning” of the word photo-sensitivity, which appears in the film in a warning to viewers prone to seizures, before the parade of bright tear gas canisters floating and falling across the screen begins. “All our work is based on our sensitivity to information in photographs,” he said, “a sensitivity we try to share with the algorithm.” In its last minutes, the film comes closest to its goal of asking us to absorb and reflect on what we have seen. After the repetitive lull of the algorithm’s imagery, the audience is shaken awake by the footage from Gaza, wrenching us away from digital abstractions and toward the real human cost inflicted by the products that Kanders’s companies manufacture. Instead of reducing that cost to a series of thumbnails, as happens earlier in the film, here the camera lingers, and what we are ultimately seeing more clearly is the museum itself—and its complicity, the ways that the institution provides moral cover for anyone with pockets deep enough to buy it. This litany of coughing and stumbling and suffering—this is what paid for the edifice you’re sitting in, for those sunlit balconies where you pose for photos, for shiny floors and stainless walls, for new exhibits and tour guides and amenities. Kanders said that his company and the Whitney are both “important contributors to our society,” but what’s actually true is that Kanders’s involvement with the museum allowed him to argue that at least some of the money he made from selling weapons helped to build something worthwhile, to create rather than to destroy.

Forensic Architecture’s video reminded me of a work in the Whitney’s collection that I saw when the museum first opened in its new building downtown: Fred Wilson’s 1991 sculpture Guarded View. It consists of four headless black mannequins, arrayed in similar poses and wearing the security guard uniforms of four New York City museums, including the Whitney. The sculpture demands, wordlessly, that visitors refocus their attention, that they reevaluate their field of vision and think harder about what museums offer and what they obscure. It is a striking work, one that has stuck in my mind for years, snapping into my head almost every time I cross the threshold of a gleaming museum lobby. Forensic Architecture’s project succeeds when it forces us to look, in the way that Guarded View does, asking us to expand our field of vision, to consider the structures of power that prop museums up, and to recognize who is invited in and who is walled out. Instead of asking viewers to gaze outward, away from the museum, Guarded View wants us to look around the room we are currently standing in. Triple Chaser takes the opposite approach toward a similar goal, turning our attention to scenes of distress far from the museum’s premises in the hope that we’ll walk out of the screening room and see the institution anew.

After I watched Triple Chaser for the first time, as the shock of its final sequence wore off, a feeling of unease set in. This feeling intensified on a later visit to the Biennial, when I saw two girls take a cheerful selfie on a bench in front of Pat Phillips’s mural painting Untitled (Don’t Tread on Me), which grapples with the legacy of American state violence. Behind their pouty photo loomed Phillips’s depiction of a huge tear gas canister, obscured only by the slats of the fence that dominates the painting’s foreground. I wondered how many viewers of Triple Chaser at the Whitney were disappointed by its disjointed lesson in artificial intelligence, and whether the final spectacle of broken bodies and so much pain was enough to draw their attention away from the competing screens in their hands.

It is hard not to wonder whether Forensic Architecture’s inclusion in the Biennial did not involve some element of hand-washing on the Whitney’s part; by installing this video within its premiere exhibition, the Whitney can claim to have confronted its troubling connections to dark money, when the truth is that there is still more reckoning to be done. As Hyperallergic pointed out in 2019, Kanders was not the only member of the Whitney’s board with ties to defense contractors, weapons manufacturing, and right-wing causes, and the others have retained their seats. As the museum provided cover for Kanders, Triple Chaser provided cover for the museum.

What made the difference at the Whitney last year wasn’t Forensic Architecture’s film, for all its righteous intentions. Kanders’s resignation was brought about by months of grassroots organizing, culminating in an announcement from a number of Biennial artists that they intended to withdraw from the show (Forensic Architecture among them). The protest succeeded when those invited to make use of the Whitney’s platform threatened to dismantle that platform instead.

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