Information of Note by Josh Begley

The Eye of the Law

By Nijah Cunningham

We said it before and it has to be said again: the law is not justice.1 This is a simple enough proposition. But the measure between life and death tends to fall on this distinction between the law in its many manifestations (e.g. the judge, the district attorney, the police, and the gun) and the call for justice. Josh Begley is aware of this distinction and uses his artistic practice to explore the limits of the legal system we live under and an elusive justice that is yet to come.

Begley makes data visualizations. He scrapes information off the web and creates visual interventions that blur the boundary between the seen and unseen. But Begley’s visualizations do even more. They expose the law’s impotence and unreason. It is only after realizing the law’s powerlessness that we become aware of the viscous means through which it seeks out its own self-preservation. Begley’s projects add to the remarkable work of visual artists who explore the moral-political dimensions of visibility and expose the complex systems that both govern the limits of the intelligible and maintain the parameters of possible claims of injury and redress. Yet, Begley is more preoccupied with the law’s construction of vision. He forces us to bear witness to the abstract operations that undergird the law’s claim to the capacity of sight. The question for Begley is no longer primarily a question about old and new visibilities, such as surveillance, but, instead, it is a question about the complex set of practices, relations, images, and imaginaries that that constitute the legal system’s faculty of seeing. This is the object of Begley’s concern and the source of what we might describe as a kind of realism. He is ultimately concerned with how the law’s sight becomes an evident and unquestionable fact. He forces us to slow down and ask how the law gained its capacity to see and contend with the operations that constitute that act of seeing.

Realism is just another word for describing how Begley’s visualizations distill and break open the component parts of images, data, and other forms of visibility. He tells us, “just as the best novels don’t have a singular point, some visualizations live in a space, a terrain. They are traversing the landscape of a question, trying to catch a glimpse of some fleeting thing.”2 For Begley, visualizations disrupt the normative logics of representation. To be sure, when he refers to the “best novels” Begley has Toni Morrison in mind. More specifically, he is thinking about the sensibility that animates her narratives as they strain the equivalence of time and history; reorder the past, present, and future shuttle between different points of view; and refuse closure. It can be said that Begley learned the art of visualization by thinking with Morrison. In Subject of the Dream, Begley moves from the page to the screen as he cuts and pastes different excerpts from Morrison’s novels to create a collage. He breaks apart and reassembles the text in order to conjure a subplot from the interstices of Morrison’s works. When we read Begley’s text, we discover the kind of polyvocality, shifting perspectives, fragmentary narrative, play of absence and presence, and refusal of closure that we find in Morrison’s writing. Morrison’s aesthetic sensibility inspires Begley’s testing of the visual interface of phones and computer screens and his experimentation with the long-scroll. Do we experience a story differently if there are no pages to turn? When we notice the different tones of the pages he pastes together are we made more or less aware of the original sources these excerpts came from? How does the collage transform our experience of the screen? Does the scroll extend the story or do we, with each scrolling gesture, stir up traces of the absent texts that make the story possible? Do we read the words strung together or are we meant to watch the variations of beige, grey, peach, and blue as they shift across the screen like reminders of the negative space that each excerpt has left behind? All of these questions emerge out the visual encounter that Begley creates in Subject of the Dream as he injects absence and uncertainty into a medium that is usually charged with a promise of verisimilitude. As the corny adage goes: seeing is believing. But belief is not only a question of what or why but also how. It is through reading Morrison that Begley learns the significance of composition in his works; how, instead of simply showing or explaining given facts, visualizations must interrogate the ways things come together. Good visualizations, like good novels, bring into sharp focus the fissures, breaks, and omissions that make any given story tellable. This, to my mind, is what it means to “travers[e] the landscape of a question.” And, if anything, what we encounter in Subject of the Dream is Begley’s first steps in the direction of a question that would eventually lead him to interrogate seeing as a self-legitimizing operation of the law.

The law is powerless when confronted by the call for justice. And it is precisely when an injustice reveals its mythical foundations that the legal system starts seeing things, starts looking for what can be made into evidence.

The photographs that make up Information of Note were among the documents from the New York Police Departments Demographics Unit leaked in 2011 that exposed a secret surveillance program that monitored American Muslims across New York City for almost a decade. Notice how Begley arranges the photographs. Placed side-by-side, the cars, storefront signs, awnings, and trees that cut across each photograph produce a mosaic-effect. There is nothing “panoptic” here. The mundane snapshots fail to cohere into a totalizing image. We do not see the target population of this program. In fact, the composition of Information of Note makes it difficult to apprehend what is captured inside the frame of each photograph. We have to come in close and almost press our faces on the work to notice where one photograph ends and the other begins. Ultimately, we encounter an accumulation of spaces in this work. Sidewalks, street corners, storefronts, front yards, driveways, and parking lots are all condensed into a circle. From afar, we notice placement of the color photographs vis-à-vis the black-and-white photographs. We see the faint outlines of concentric circles. An outer ring of color surrounds the black-and-white in the center, rendering Information of Note into a kind of mosaic of an iris and a dilated pupil. In this way, Begley assembles the photographs of NYPD’s secret surveillance program into a depiction of the eye of the law.

Information of Note is a brilliant response to the comments made by Chief Thomas Galati of the NYPD’s Intelligence Bureau in his deposition as part of the civil rights brought against the New York Police Department following the 2011 leak. In order to justify the surveillance program, despite the fact that none of the materials collected provided any leads, Galati gives a quick reading of one of the Departments Demographics Unit’s reports: “I’m seeing Urdu. I’m seeing [the police officers] identify the individuals involved in that are Pakistani […] I’m using that information for me to determine that this would be a kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in.”3 The eye of law transforms spaces into places of potential unlawful activity. Here, sight is mobilized to preserve the authority of the legal system and justify the secret surveillance program. Galati’s claim to this curious form of sight should not be confused with the act of reading.4 Rather, “seeing Urdu” sets into motion a complex operation in which the recognition of a spoken language transforms a space into a “kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in.” Elsewhere, Galati elaborates on this synesthetic process of transformation:

The language spoken at a location is a piece of information which can be useful should the NYPD be pursuing a terrorist, conducing an investigation, or trying to gather information about potential unlawful activity due to events occurring domestically or abroad. Among other things, under exigent circumstances, a unique language environment can help law enforcement officers choose which locations to visit first when search for an unidentified individual who has been reported.5

Information of Note demonstrates how the eye of the law creates these “language environments.” In Begley’s visualization, we see how Galati’s claim of seeing Urdu weaves the photographs together. Where we see a collection of mundane snapshots of random spaces the eye of the law sees a series of locations of concern. Begley demonstrates how the eye of the law “sees” by going beyond seeing in the service of justifying the law’s unlawful activity.

The eye of the law does not see a thing. Its purpose is to conjure things from the dark and produce evidence where there is none in the service of concealing what the law already knows about itself.

  1. See Nijah Cunningham and Tiana Reid, Blue Life, The New Inquiry, August 10, 2017
  2. Josh Begley, Setting Tangents Around a Circle, presented at Eyeo Festival, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 8, 2016.
  3. Thomas Galati qtd. in Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, NYPD: Muslim spying led to no leads, terror cases, Associated Press, August 21, 2012 (accessed November 8, 2017).
  4. My thanks to Daniela Gandorfer for her insight, advice, and her call for us to “rethink out modes of reading law” which have aided me in this engagement with Begley’s work. See Daniela Gandorfer, “Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, Law, and Synesthesia,” Nietzsche 13/13, November 5, 2016 (accessed November 8, 2017).
  5. United States District Court Southern District of New York, Declaration of Thomas Galati, Handschu v. Special Services Division 71, Civ. 2203 (CSH).