Scottsdale Exhibit 'Covert Operations' Looks At Timely Issues

Published: Friday, October 10, 2014 - 2:04pm
Updated: Friday, October 10, 2014 - 2:08pm
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(Photo courtesy of the artist and 1301PE, Los Angeles. © Kerry Tribe. Photo by Chris Loomis)
Two museum guests watch the Kerry Tribe artwork: Kerry Tribe, Untitled (Potential Terrorist), 2002. 16mm black-and-white film; 30 min., dimensions variable.
(Photo courtesy of the artist. © David Gurman. Photo by Chris Loomis)
David Gurman, Memorial for the New American Century, 2014. Bronze bell cast 1905; SMS citizen reportage data from

"Well, there are known knowns, there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns – that is to say we know there’s some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know."

That bit of logic comes courtesy of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2002. That line, and all of the events following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, are the basis for an exhibit at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s called “Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns.” And, it hits you right away.

A bell is part of the exhibit – each hour, it rings once for each Iraqi civilian who’s died that day because of violence.

Claire Carter, the Curator of Contemporary Art at SMoCA, said the piece, called “Memorial for a New American Century,” is connected to a website, which updates the number of Iraqi civilian deaths.

"The bell is hundreds and hundreds of pounds, it has this gorgeous, resonant sound. It’s a call to mourn, and it imparts that somber significance  - it’s also very demanding. It requires you to stop and reflect," Carter said.

Carter said most of the pieces in the show have been on display in solo exhibits. And even though she considers it a historical show, almost all of the pieces are from 2005 or later. One of the exceptions is set to look like an interrogation room. It’s a 16 mm film showing images of people who answered a casting call for people who looked like terrorists.

"As you sit here and you look at this piece, you not only have to reflect on your own judgments – ‘that person, that woman doesn’t look like a terrorist,’ wait, why do I think that? You also have this other complicated question, which is ‘how does this person self-identify as a terrorist?’" Carter said.

Carter said she wants those questions to make visitors stop and reflect. But for the answers, she said, we’re on our own.

"The artists do not provide one answer and one political perspective, but rather, they have appeared as observers, and it’s as if they’re reporting back to us," she said. "Ultimately, what all of the work in this show is trying to do is really look at a complex set of situations really dispassionately and prompt questions. I think the show does that really well."

Artist David Taylor’s photographs are taken at the U.S. Mexico border. He said generally, art and politics have an uneasy relationship.

"When we expect art to function in an activist mode, it often-times runs up against the contradictions of the marketplace and the viewership that most ordinarily gravitates toward museums and galleries," Taylor said

Taylor said many of the artists in the show have been able to navigate that, by taking on timely subjects. The exhibit looks at surveillance, intelligence and trafficking, among other issues.

“Covert Operations” will be on display at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art through mid-January.


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