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David Birkin discusses his ‘Severe Clear’ performances in the skies above New York … and the suspected CIA response

“…barely a week after the phrase appeared across the New York City skyline, the CIA officially launched into the Twittersphere with its maiden message: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.” A coincidence? Perhaps. A sly public relations move? Most definitely.”

This past year, I staged two public performances in New York. The first involved skywriting the words “EXISTENCE OR NONEXISTENCE” above Manhattan on Memorial Day weekend. The second, on Veterans Day, saw an aeroplane circle the Statue of Liberty’s torch towing a banner that read “THE SHADOW OF A DOUBT”.

Shadow of a Doubt (2014), Severe Clear, David Birkin

Shadow of a Doubt (2014), Severe Clear, David Birkin

These unannounced and seemingly spontaneous events were part of a project called Severe Clear. It was inspired by a letter the CIA sent the American Civil Liberties Union rejecting their Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the U.S. government’s classified drone program. The letter states that the agency can “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence” of records responsive to the request.

The use of unmanned aircraft by the Pentagon is official and constitutes a key component in the military’s increasingly automated arsenal. But their use by the CIA for the purposes of targeted assassination is unofficial, despite widespread reporting in the press as a result of White House-sanctioned leaks. This classified program remains unconstrained by judicial or congressional oversight, even in such extreme cases as the targeting of American citizens — like Anwar al-Awlaki, along with his 16 year old Colorado-born son and 17 year old cousin. Yet because of a tautological redefinition of the term “combatant” to include all military-age males in the vicinity of a strike zone (unless explicit intelligence posthumously proves them innocent), many such civilian casualties go uncounted.
If truth is one of the first casualties of war, so is the vocabulary that sustains it. As Orwell states in his essay Politics and the English Language, “…political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” My interest lies in the wording of the CIA’s rejection letter: a linguistic somersault that takes legislative precision and spins it into a kind of esoteric, existential rhetoric. Like a line from Kafka composed in pure bureaucratic prose, it tells us, in the most precise terms, nothing, except that the absence of affirmation does not imply it exists. Whatever “it” may be.

Severe Clear (2014) David Birkin

Severe Clear (2014) David Birkin

The act of decontextualizing this phrase, and transplanting it from a legal document into something as ethereal and ephemeral as clouds in the sky, opens it up to multiple readings. Seen from below, some passers-by construed the words as a theological proposition, while others assumed it to be a meditation on the existence of UFOs: a not entirely inappropriate response considering the rapid proliferation of drones populating our skies over the past decade. These varied and often fantastical interpretations underscore the nebulous nature of the government’s response. The realisation that this was in fact carefully worded legalese came as a surprise to many.

Severe Clear, David Birkin

‘Severe Clear’ performance social media reactions

Memorial Day and Veterans Day are public holidays that commemorate the lives of Americans who have died or served during wartime. They are resonant dates given the implications of drone warfare, which amount to a reduction in the number of U.S. casualties, contrasting with a steady creep in the number of undocumented casualties in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The phrase “shadow of a doubt” refers to an impossible burden of proof. In civilian courts, juries are asked to convict or acquit on the grounds of “reasonable doubt”, since it is all but impossible to prove anything beyond the shadow of a doubt. As such, it signifies an unattainable degree of truth and a jurisprudential ideal. It also contrasts sharply with the scant evidence used to authorise so-called “signature strikes”, in which suspects need not be identified at all, but may be targeted based on ostensibly suspicious patterns of behaviour alone. The existence or nonexistence of “collateral damage” is thus increasingly becoming a subject of contestation.

On the day of the skywriting, I went to the summit of the Empire State Building and took a photograph, facing south toward the World Trade Center’s new Freedom Tower. This tension between the social, economic and ideological conceptions of freedom and empire is, for me, an important part of the work. In addition to my own documentation, word of the event spread across social media thanks to the number of people who posted images online, and a supportive tweet from the actor and political commentator Stephen Fry to his seven million followers.

Then, barely a week after the phrase appeared across the New York City skyline, the CIA officially launched into the Twittersphere with its maiden message: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.”

A coincidence? Perhaps. A sly public relations move? Most definitely. Humour and hubris make pernicious bedfellows.

David Birkin, 19 February 2015

David Birkin’s first public solo exhibition Mouths At The Invisible Event is on show at The Mosaic Rooms until 1 March 2015. Plan your visit here.

David Birkin: 'Mouths A The Invisible Event' exhibition. Photo Andy Stagg

David Birkin: ‘Mouths A The Invisible Event’ exhibition. Photo Andy Stagg

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