Friday, July 22, 2011

When is a ransom not a ransom? Why, when it's "a fee for information leading to recovery", of course!

One senses that National Portrait Gallery director and former Tate employee Sandy Nairne might have been wiser to leave the case of the stolen Turner paintings alone instead of writing a book about it. The two pictures (left), stolen from the Kunsthalle Schirn in 1994, were eventually recovered in a shady deal engineered by the Tate with a little help from its friends on both sides of the ethical divide.

Art critic Waldemar Januszczak wasn't the only one casting a jaundiced eye over the Tate's deft recovery of the paintings in 2002 when they clipped the ticket on the insurance side and then paid a ransom to Balkan gangsters for recovery of the paintings. Oh, sorry, did I just say "paid a ransom"? I meant to say, "paid a fee for information leading to the recovery of the paintings."

But this is semantics. Everyone knows that a ransom was paid. It's just that neither Sandy Nairne, nor Nicholas Serota, or anyone else involved in the case, could possibly step up and admit that. It would be tantamount to encouraging further art thefts. And yet that's the exact outcome of the whole affair. Gangsters from Oldham to Odessa will have looked at that deal and thought "Yes, art theft DOES pay after all."

To pretend otherwise is not just disingenuous, it's downright stupid. He may have been vilified for it, but at least Henri Nannen had the guts to admit that he'd paid a ransom in 1962 to recover the stolen Riemenschneider Madonna.

Meanwhile, art crime publishing is the gift that keeps on giving, with everyone from former FBI cops to museum directors cashing in on the enduring public fascination with the genre by writing their "memoirs". And yet it's instructive that very few art cops (with the exception, it seems, of Messrs Ellis and Hill) have ever succeeded in recovering any of these really high-profile stolen pictures, while it seems that of those pictures that HAVE been recovered, more than a few (whisper it) were recovered through clandestine payments to the criminals or their representatives.

The brilliant BBC2 investigative documentary about the recovery of the Tate's Turners left some of us in no doubt that the Tate had paid a ransom to Balkan gangsters. Sorry, did I just say "ransom to Balkan gangsters"? What I meant to say was: "fees for information openly paid to shady international lawyers who then passed it to the Balkan gangsters."

Pull the other one; it's got bells on.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Artists and writers against CIA drone strikes

I recently attended a conference here in the UK that brought together painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic designers, computer animators, cartoonists, art historians, political activists and investigative journalists to explore ways in which the cultural community can help raise awareness of the increasingly frequent use by the CIA of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Many people are still under the illusion that Barack Obama's dislodging of George W. Bush ushered in a more humanitarian approach to American foreign policy — no more invading weaker nations, no more imposing 'democracy', no more militarised regime-change.

Au contraire. While Obama may have eschewed the gung-ho, boots-on-the-ground approach favoured by his White House predecessor, he has instead presided over an exponential increase in the use of covert drone strikes by the CIA.

Drones — unmanned, remote-controlled strike aircraft — are now the favoured means of eliminating Al Qaeda or Taliban militants as part of America's so-called War on Terror. They're operated from a bunker at Creech Air Force Base deep in the Nevada desert, just a few miles from the gaming tables of Las Vegas.

Creech's drone operators (right) go to work in the morning and from the comfort of their armchairs, using a Nintendo-style joystick, direct their deadly payloads across to Waziristan in the north-western territories of Pakistan. Their targets have been pre-identified by CIA-paid spies and informers working undercover on the ground. At the end of their shift, the air force drone-jockeys leave their air-conditioned bunker, pick their kids up from school and head home — just another day at the office.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Waziristan, the remote-controlled drones have delivered clusters of Hellfire missiles with hugely destructive consequences. Evidence gathered by local Pakistani researchers reveals that for every putative militant or extremist killed by the drone missiles, some ten or fifteen innocent men, women and children are killed.

Drones hunt in packs. After they hit a target, often one drone is left behind to hover before striking again when local people come to search for survivors or to retrieve and bury their dead. More often than not, all that remains are unidentified body parts or the odd blood-stained flip-flop.

This indiscriminate killing, occurring beyond sight of the world's media, is serving to radicalize the very people it seeks to 'protect' from the Taliban and Al Qaeda, stirring up anti-American sentiment and effectively acting as a recruiting sergeant for militant forces.

So what can artists and others in the culture sector do? Well, this week sees the opening of 'Gaming in Waziristan', an exhibition at London's Beaconsfield Gallery of photographs by Noor Behram.

Behram has managed to reach the sites of 60 drone strikes, in both North and South Waziristan, in which he estimates more than 600 people were killed (full Guardian story here). The exhibition, which opens on Tuesday, July 19, features pictures from 27 different drone strikes.

As the Guardian reported this morning, Clive Stafford Smith, head of campaigning group, Reprieve, has initiated a lawsuit along with a Pakistani lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, seeking to bring to justice those responsible for civilian deaths from drones.

"I think these pictures are deeply important evidence," Stafford Smith told The Guardian. "They put a human face [on the drone strike campaign] that is in marked contrast to what the US is suggesting its operators in Nevada and elsewhere are doing. They show the reality of ordinary people being killed and losing their homes, not senior al-Qaida members."

Another illustration of how effective artists and designers can be in raising awareness of drone warfare can be seen in The Ethical Governor (below), a caustic parody by the Butler Brothers of a US training film. (With thanks to John Butler):

More on drones:

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Guardian report of Clive Stafford-Smith and Reprieve's legal challenge to the CIA here

The brilliant writing of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad on Al Jazeera here

Artnose story here