Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns

  • Image

    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


  • Image

    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

  • Image

    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

  • Image

    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

  • Image

    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

  • Image

    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.