Can We See Torture?

By Joshua Craze

The memorandum that Jenny Holzer has painted in THE WHITE HOUSE 2002 GREEN WHITE is one of hundreds of documents that collectively constitute the archival record of America’s War on Terror.1 These documents are often heavily redacted. Over the last decade, they have been slowly released into the public record following Freedom of Information Act requests made by the media and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). For journalists and researchers like myself, these heavily redacted documents are crime scenes, and we are the detectives. Hidden amid the black of the redactions are the facts we have pieced together to reveal the story of the American government’s use of detention, extradition, and torture. The very forms that are enabled by the memorandum Holzer painted were signed in secrecy by president George W. Bush on February 7, 2002.

In our investigations as researchers, the redactions themselves are obstructions that hide the truth. Their materiality disappears from news articles and reports, as redacted documents are digested and turned into sources of information. Journalists have to write about content, not absence, and describing redactions is outside their purview. No matter how opaque the redactions make the document, the journalists’ end product is the same: four hundred words of precise prose that puts the redacted document’s revelations in context. Words and narrative replace the mysteries of dealing with documents that are often more absences than presences.

It is through such articles that the public gains access to the redacted documents. For although these documents are in the public realm, most of the public has not seen them: there are too many documents, and we have too much to do. Making sense of them is a task left to specialists. The public reads reports of torture in the newspaper, shakes its head in disgust or nods in agreement, and goes about its day. We read only the summarized content and not the redactions, which remain hidden in the documents.

As long as I have been reading these documents, Jenny Holzer has been painting them.2 In painting them, Holzer removes the documents from the media cycle and turns them into objects of contemplation. Her work refuses the journalistic reduction of these documents to mere sources of information and insists that there is something to be seen in the redactions themselves. Instead of filling gaps in our understanding, the paintings replicate the omissions of the documents. In newspaper articles, accounts of detainee abuse are always placed into frameworks of meaning: Were human rights violated? Can torture be justified by ticking time-bomb scenarios? Is waterboarding really torture? Holzer’s paintings suspend these questions and insist that, despite all we know about the War on Terror, we have yet to understand. If the redacted documents that Holzer paints make the truth invisible—a series of heavy black marks on paper, obscuring dates and names—then Holzer’s paintings of these documents make this invisibility visible and ask us to dwell in it.

Her paintings thus take a position inverse to that of the US government, which asserts that these documents are nothing but content. This attitude is exemplified by the government’s response to the ACLU’s decade-long struggle to force the disclosure of approximately 2,100 images showing the abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. As of the beginning of November 2017, the government has released only 198 of these photographs.3 Bad things happened, the government says. They happened. There’s nothing to see here. For the government, all these documents are written in the past tense: they are merely sources of information about events that no longer have a hold on the present.

Yet people linger in front of Holzer’s paintings, despite assurances that the stories of the War on Terror now belong to the past. It is striking that so many of the people visiting her exhibitions of these works react as if the paintings were the documents themselves. Discussions around the artworks are as often about the details of the US detention program as they are about the texture of the paint. For many viewers of Holzer’s work, this is the first time that they have seen such documents, though what they are viewing are paintings on a gallery wall. It is only when the documents have been transformed into painting that they become visible as documents and are not reduced to sources of information only comprehensible to specialists.

It is important to be precise about what one encounters in these paintings. No one goes to an art gallery to connect the dots in their understanding of the War on Terror. Holzer’s paintings are not a total history, and the documents she paints are fragments of an already-redacted documentary record. Rather, what one encounters, when staring at her paintings, is the form of the documents themselves. The stories that the media publishes about the War on Terror can be horrifying, but they are comprehensible. An arrest. Detention. Torture. The subjects have names. The reasons for their detention are evaluated. There is a quote from the White House press secretary.

Holzer ruptures these narratives by letting the documents speak. In some, names are redacted, while in others, only lines of speech remain, cut away from any recognizable subject. The identities of the characters of the documents are often unknown and act out scenes that are variously painful, terrifying, and absurd, but that have no referent. When I first looked at Holzer’s paintings, I scrambled to contextualize them and give names and places to the scenes unfolding in the artwork. It was a mistaken attempt. Context dulls the impact. One’s work, in front of the paintings, is to be an absurdist journalist—to find meaning and significance in the documents as images.

The real characters of the paintings are the documents themselves. Holzer cites their sentences and, in so doing, decontextualizes them, allowing the viewer to encounter them on their own terms, outside a media narrative that reduces the stories of the detainees to figures in the calculus of national security. Bureaucratic reports and detainee testimonies alike stand in front of us, demanding to be looked at by a world that would otherwise too quickly pass them by.

Holzer turns words into images so we can read them, as if for the first time.

  1. I wrote a longer essay on these documents for the New Museum’s Temporary Center for Translation (Summer 2014). See Joshua Craze, A Grammar of Redaction (last accessed November 14, 2017)
  2. I wrote a longer essay on Jenny Holzer’s redaction paintings, which takes up some of the themes of the present piece. See Joshua Craze, In The Dead Letter Office, in Jenny Holzer: War Paintings, ed. Thomas Kellein (Cologne: Walther König, 2015), pp. 13–21.
  3. Eliza Relman, Pentagon Releases 198 Abuse Photos in Long-Running Lawsuit. What They Don’t Show Is a Bigger Story, February 5, 2016 (last accessed August 16, 2016)