Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns

  • A photograph of a black ball hanging from the ceiling. It has multiple screens sticking out from it. The view is from below, looking up at all the screens.

    Hasan Elahi
    Orb, 2013
    72-channel digital color video installation, three elements
    72 inches in diameter each, installation dimensions variable
    Courtesy of the artist
    © Hasan Elahi


  • A 2D picture of a suspicious transaction between a Hummer vehicle and a sedan. The scene is dark; a single figure is the lookout for the transaction. At the top left reads "Corridos" in comic book style font, which means " a ballad in traditional Mexican style."

    Anne-Marie Schleiner and Luis Hernandez-Galvan
    Corridos (still), 2005
    Interactive video game in arcade installation
    Dimensions variable
    Courtesy of the artists
    ©Anne-Marie Schleiner and Luis Hernandez Galvan

  • Two columns—one displays video game stills and the photographs of men in fatigues at desks. A video displays images of war: tanks and stereotypical bad guys. The army men study the simulations.

    Harun Farocki
    Serious Games I: Watson is Down, 2010
    Two-channel digital color video projection with sound
    Eight minutes
    Dimensions variable
    Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery, New York
    © 2010 Harun Farocki

  • A photograph of a hand holding a Blackberry phone that displays a compass pointing towards a blue tin barrel. The image seems to have been taken in a desert. To the right, overlaid on the photograph, is a close-up of the Blackberry's compass display.

    Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0
    Transborder Immigrant Tool, 2010
    Multimedia installation with modified cellular telephones
    dimensions variable
    Courtesy of the artists
    © Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0

  • A sky of bright red rising to deep blue, with light and shadows casting rich contrast. Barely visible on the right hand edge where the red and blue meet to form purple is a small black speck: a drone.

    Trevor Paglen
    Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010
    Chromogenic print
    48 x 60 inches
    Courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco; Metro Pictures, New York and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne
    © Trevor Paglen

  • Eleven LED signs are lined up in a row, each sign curved outward from the wall to the floor. The lights bring a blue and purple glow to the dark room housing the installation. The word "ELECTROLYTE" is visible on all eleven signs.

    Jenny Holzer
    Ribs, 2010
    LED signs with blue, red, and white diodes, text from US government documents
    58 ¼ × 5 ¼ × 5 ¾ inches each
    Courtesy of the artist and Cheim Read, New York
    © 2010 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay

    As we pass the second anniversary of shocking revelations about widespread, international data collection, security and privacy have become everyday concerns. Covert Operations is the first survey of work by artists who are responding to the uncertainties of the post-9/11 world. They employ the tools of democracy to bear witness to attacks on liberty and to the abuse of power: they reveal previously unreported information and government actions that may limit civil rights.

    These artists probe subjects that range from classified military sites and reconnaissance satellites to border surveillance; from terrorist profiling to narcotics and human trafficking; from illegal extradition flights to nuclear weapons. Jenny Holzer examines the complicity and the individual actions behind human rights violations. Harun Farocki and Taryn Simon pry into the hidden institutional structures and economy of the United States’s intelligence community, or the “black world.” David Taylor photographs the US/Mexico border to raise complex issues of immigration, border security, human and drug smuggling, and environmental impact. Trevor Paglen reveals covert worlds: CIA agents’ passports, patches worn by US military personnel who conduct “black” ops, and military satellites and drones stationed high above the earth. Hasan Elahi responds to his wrongful placement on the terrorist watch list by voluntarily documenting his every movement. The exhibition also includes works by Ahmed Basiony, Thomas Demand, Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0, David Gurman, Anne-Marie Schleiner and Luis Hernandez Galvan, and Kerry Tribe.

    Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns was organized by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

    This exhibition is made possible by an Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award. The Exhibition Award program was founded in 1998 to honor Emily Hall Tremaine. It rewards innovation and experimentation among curators by supporting thematic exhibitions that challenge audiences and expand the boundaries of contemporary art. Additional support for the exhibition catalogue was provided by Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation.
    The presentation of Covert Operations at the San Jose Museum of Art and the related community programs are sponsored by Donna Dubinsky and Leonard Shustek, the Frank-Ratchye Family Foundation in honor of Jenny Holzer, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Melanie and Peter Cross, and McManis Faulkner. Mobile technology for visitor engagement and feedback has been made possible by in-kind support from the app CrowdPoll.

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    Program Partners

    The following Bay Area organizations have partnered with SJMA to present programs related to Covert Operations.