Camouflage by Suzanne Treister

Rendering the Evidence

By Giulia Bini

Being a machine is not a condition one can easily bear.

Suzanne Treister seems to embody the very nature of those mechanisms that are at the forefront of the debate concerning the breaking of global surveillance or financial rules, namely algorithms: a human in constant “high frequency,” a sophisticated mind. She is able to deal with an incredible amount of data, at the same time transforming and mixing information with an apparently irrational drive.

In technocratic society, in reality, she’s able to detect the pragmatic / operational structures through which systems and programmes of control perform their tasks and act on society, while at the same time researching the subterranean forces that accompany history in its unfolding.

Reflecting of the chameleonic and complex nature of the world, her artistic production covers a wide spectrum of disciplines, methods, systems of knowledge and belief – ranging from cybernetics to the military and the scientific.

Her commitment to investigative practice has its roots in her biographical background. Of Polish-Jewish origin, Treister grew up in a family whose members had been persecuted, faced exile and concentration camps during World War II.

Her father’s career, running a defense equipment spare-parts business, may also throw light upon her interest in researching the military.

Camouflage (2013) consists of selected pages from U.S. governmental documents overlapping with watercolour drawings.

The work is therefore situated at the intersection of the artist’s investigative practice and her drawing/painting practice – a liminal position reflective of that of Treister herself.
Having worked on video games since the late 1980s, but uncomfortable with the post-modern atmosphere of the time, she felt a proximity to artists such as Mark Wallinger or Susan Hiller, who “wanted their work to investigate the world more directly.” 1 At the same time, the need for a critical stance towards technology also led her to step back from media art, returning to other media such as drawing or painting.

The four works shown in the exhibition Evidentiary Realism are part of a series of 34, presenting documents which the artist downloaded from the internet, containing information on United States Department of Defense programmes such as the Global Information Grid (GIG) and NetOps, and on which she superposed watercolours.

The GIG is an all-encompassing communications project enabling “the secure, agile, robust, dependable, interoperable data sharing environment for the Department where warfighter, business, and intelligence users share knowledge on a global network that facilitates information superiority, accelerates decision-making, effective operations, and Net-Centric transformation.” 2

The works on view in the exhibition are composed of documents dating from the period 2005-2008. 3

The selected pages supply a lexicon of what can be considered an “organizational complex,” 4 illustrating the mechanisms of the contemporary controlled digital epoch:

Under the focus of the GIG Architectural Vision, are those technologies enabling Major and Radical Improvements to existing capabilities – so called disruptive technologies.
Under the focus of the Net – Centric Environment we have: Integration, efficiency, effectiveness of constructive interdependence achieved by moving from a platform to the Net – Centric environment.
From the Department of Defense NetOps Strategic Vision (December 2008), the key words are: Superior decision making, shared understanding, agile force synchronization.5

Treister’s attraction to evidence of global surveillance is not coincidental. Influenced by her father’s “obsession with cross-referencing,”6 in 2000 she worked on the website of his company, dealing with NATO materials, which were the origin of her mastering of military classification systems.

When Edward Snowden’s files were revealed in 2013, Treister already had knowledge of the NSA project called Total Information Awareness (later renamed Terrorism Information Awareness) a programme dating back to 2003. Treister had worked on the former before Snowden’s leak, which is why Snowden’s data didn’t constitute a surprise for her.

Camouflage proposes an active, constructive engagement with evidence, which goes beyond a binary understanding of it.

If on the one hand we have the “exposure” of evidence, on the second layer of the work, that of the drawings, what we find is what we could consider a rendering of evidence. While pointing to the camouflaged nature of the operation in question, the watercolour drawings also camouflage the evidence, paradoxically sabotaging its very function as proof.

Suzanne Treister notes: “By copying and repeating the motifs of the U.S. government documents in watercolour over each whole page I am in effect translating them into art, translating their meaning into a different register, that of art, and all its concomitant ramifications, from object of transcendence to market product.” 7

What the post-fact era requires is therefore an investigative practice, allowing the disclosure of organizational complexes that characterize the rise of technocracy, while at the same time dealing with the inner forces of control societies, thus revealing that “blurring of belief systems,” which is precisely what Treister’s vision and presentation of reality proposes.
The basic actual facts testified by the documents-as-evidence, albeit camouflaged, remain operative, pragmatic, real. 

The watercolours on the surface, portraying clouds with antennas, arrows and cones, patterns, planets and stars, are the ambivalent carriers of the art register, acting as alarms or alerts of the facts the artworks are evidence of.

  1. See Suzanne Treister’s essay From Fictional Videogame Stills to Time Travelling with Rosalind Brodsky 1991 – 2005, 2004 (last access January 2017).
  2. NSA Documents Leaked by Anonymous, June 7th, 2013 (last access January 2017).
  3. For an example see: U.S. Department of Defense: Information Enterprise Architecture (DoD IEA) Version 2.0, July 2012 (last access January 2017). In terms of data gathering, there had been article in the Wall Street Journal in 2008 which clearly described the NSA’s TIA programme and which Treister had exhibited at Raven Row in London in 2012 (last access January 2017).
  4. The organizational complex” is defined as “architecture’s immanence within a network of networks” or “the aesthetic and technological extension of what has been known since the early 1960s as the ‘military-industrial complex’”. Martin, Reinhold: The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media and Corporate Space, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003, pp. 3-4.
  5. CAMOUFLAGE/ GIG-AV_V1_2007_P29 / Page 29 from the pdf: _7_GIG Architectural Vision – 200706v1.0.pdf (2007), CAMOUFLAGE/ N-CEJFC_V1_2005_P18 / Page 18 from the pdf: netcentric_jfc-1.pdf (2005), CAMOUFLAGE/ NetOpsSV_2008_P1. Page 1 from the pdf: DoD_NetOps_Strategic_Vision.pdf (2008); CAMOUFLAGE/ NetOpsSV_2008_P3_1. Page 3 from the pdf: DoD_NetOps_Strategic_Vision.pdf (2008), my emphasis.
  6. Cf. Luckhurst, Roger: What Happens in the Gaps: An Interview with Suzanne Treister, 2009 (last access January 2017).
  7. Email conversation with the artist, 30.01.2017.
<