Art and Terrorism Symposium Review

On Saturday 27th February 2016, the Sackler Research Forum at the Courtauld Institute of Art hosted a day-long Symposium on Art and Terrorism, a collaborative event organized by Professor Julian Stallabrass and Dr. Anna Marazuela Kim of the Courtauld Institute, and Dr. Noah Charney and Lynda Albertson of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA). Bridging disparate sectors and audience, the event brought scholars of image and violence into dialogue with practitioners in the field of conflict antiquities and the destruction of cultural heritage, and featured the premiere of a UNESCO-funded film on Syria and the work of an award-winning photographer on sites of extraordinary rendition.

The event was also captured on storify.

Session I by Gene Borkoski (BA1 student, Fine Art, Central Saint Martins) 

The first session covered topics ranging from IRA art heists to the Freudian uncanny, and set up several problematics that were developed further throughout the day. Courtauld professor Julian Stallabrass, who co-organized the event and presented later in the day, chaired the session.

Noah Charney, a co-organizer of the symposium and founder of ARCA, opened the session by giving a Very Brief History of Art and Terrorism.  The starting point for this history was that art crime is an “under-served area within criminology” due to the fact that most of the information in the case files is missing. (Michael Will of Europol elaborated on the challenges of investigating art crimes during the second session).

Palmyra Destruction by IS in Damascus, Syria

Palmyra Destruction by IS in Damascus, Syria

Charney went on to explain that art crime, as it pertains to terrorism, generally falls into one of two categories: iconoclasm and selling stolen art to raise funds. Illustrating the former category, Charney pointed to members of the Irish Republican Army scratching “IRA” into the surface of Rubens’s The Adoration of the Magi, and to the Taliban dynamiting the Buddhas of Bamiyan. As examples of the latter, he mentioned Rose Dugdale and Martin Cahill stealing old masters paintings, and touched on Mohamed Atta’s unsuccessful plan to sell antiquities as a means of raising funds for a plane to fly into the World Trade Center. (Mike Giglio and Sam Hardy presented on the illegal antiquities trade in more detail during the second session.)

Charney ended his presentation by giving examples of valiant efforts to protect cultural heritage from destruction, including museum staff in Timbuktu smuggling manuscripts out of Mali, and museum staff in Bagdad strategically confronting inevitable destruction by placing less valuable artifacts in prominent locations, thus sparing objects considered to be more valuable. (Giovanni Boccardi of UNESCO presented on the preservation of endangered cultural heritage in the third session.)

The first casualty of 9/11, Father Mychal Judge (Ground Zero Pieta(

The first casualty of 9/11, Father Mychal Judge (“Ground Zero Pieta”)

Jennifer Good, Senior Lecturer in History and Theory of Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, presented next. Good’s topic was Totalizing Narratives of 9/11, and she focused on photojournalistic and memorial images from the aftermath of 9/11. Good posited that within these images a redemptive, transcendental narrative emerged as a way of rationalizing feelings of despair left in the wake of the attacks.

Two of her examples included an image of Friar Mychal Judge (the first recorded fatality) who was referred to as “Ground Zero Pieta,” and the cross that was recovered from the rubble of the gigantic towers, “as if waiting to be born from the destruction.” The human-sized cross, Good suggested, came to redeem the Towers’ “purposeless giganticism” (quoting Lewis Mumford) that made them a target.

Good concluded by suggesting that both the enormous towers and their incredible destruction were uncanny in the Freudian sense. In the aftermath of the attacks, Americans thus turned to religious narratives “to make the un-tolerable tolerable.”

Anna Marazuela Kim, Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Courtauld, co-organiser of the event, later session chair, addressed The New Image Wars. Kim focused on the long-standing link between violence against bodies and violence against figurative art that represents, or even presents, bodies and persons.

Drawing parallels between IS and the Protestant Reformers, Kim pointed out that both groups were adept at deploying new technologies to disseminate their message through images. During the Protestant Reformation that technology was printing, presently it’s the Internet, but the underlying tactic is familiar, as she demonstrated by showing an IS image of a Jordanian pilot being burned in a cage next to a Reformation image of a bishop being burned at the stake.

Bishop Hooper's execution, 1555

Bishop Hooper’s execution, 1555

Kim also drew parallels between the Christian imperative against desecrating icons and the Islamic imperative against representing the Prophet Muhammad. Turning to Charlie Hebdo, Kim suggested that cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad are offensive not only because they represent the Prophet, but also because of how he is presented, given that such images are understood to contain the real presence of the Prophet. It is therefore a category mistake, Kim argued, to reduce affective images to an issue of “free speech,” as happened in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting.

What is “new” in the new image wars or “visual terrorism”, Kim concluded, is that the images merge and become fused with the flow of our consciousness more readily than ever, and, citing the images of Palmyra being blown up with people tied to its columns, the images do so with a violence that constitutes a form of violation.

Francesco Rutelli, Former Italian Minister of Culture and former Mayor of Rome, was the fourth and final speaker in the first session. Rutelli focused on “iconoclasm as a matter of power.” As a starting point, he described Napoleon’s quest to fill the Louvre with the best masterpieces to demonstrate France’s cultural superiority.

Rutelli made two main points. First, the history and biography of objects matters; he cited the case of the Goddess of Morgentina, a 5th century BC Greek statue, which made its way to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles under questionable (mob-related) circumstances, and was recently returned to Sicily, as an example of the rectification of improperly removed cultural heritage. And second, the intentional destruction of art and artifacts sends a powerful message about power and cultural dominance. Therefore, restoring sites of destruction is more than symbolic gesture, but a crucial moment in the ending of a war.

Session II by Sarah Farman MA (MPhil student, University of Bristol)

The second session, chaired by Noah Charney, featured Mike Giglio, investigative journalist and war correspondent based in Turkey; Michael Will of Europol; and Sam Hardy, an archaeologist who researches cultural property crime. The combined presentations offered personal perspectives and information about facets of the trade in stolen art and antiquities, especially in a war zone such as Syria.

The Tel Abyad (Turkey-Syrian) border. Photograph by Mike Giglio (2015)

The Tel Abyad (Turkey-Syrian) border. Photograph by Mike Giglio (2015)

Mike Giglio gave the human overview and reasons for the looting of cultural antiquities in Syria today and the link to survival. The trade in antiquities fuels a wartime economy. The business structures of emergent, armed groups since the collapse of the infrastructure of the country are self-supporting in part due to revenue obtained from trafficking stolen artefacts. Equally for the ordinary people having to adapt and survive in this present chaos, the sale of a piece of antiquity can buy food to feed an often-extended family. Objects are smuggled across the border not just as part of a financial trade between dealers but also hidden in the personal effects of fleeing refugees. Such objects are currency for trade and barter for refugees on the move through other countries. The desecration of Syria’s cultural sites and disappearing of objects is damaging to the cultural and human psyche and, as Giglio stated, the looting of artefacts has become a microcosm of the conflict.

Following on from this fascinating insight into the human side of such trafficking was Michael Will of Europol and a former Chief Inspector investigator in the field for the Berlin C.I.D. He is now based in Rotterdam, Holland having joined Europol in 2013. Will gave an interesting outline to the organization explaining that it acts more as an advisory and supportive vehicle for the twenty-eight Member States (aka MS) of the European Union. Officers at Europol are drawn from all the MS. Major issues that perhaps hinder them from carrying out and collating more investigations information is lack of funding – a typical problem today.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo – 1300 years old. Still from The Quake by Matteo Barzini (2015)

The Great Mosque of Aleppo – 1300 years old. Still from The Quake by Matteo Barzini (2015)

Sam Hardy of the American University of Rome presented an interesting insight into the problem of fake cultural artefacts being sold via the Internet – even Skype – adding to the dilemma of “conflict antiquities”. Lack of concrete evidence is the primary problem. Hardy defined the difference between state- driven trafficking (imperialism) for example, the British Empire, Ottoman Empire, and German Third Reich (Nazis) and non-state led trafficking that is the present situation. Across Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine and Yemen the looting and illegal sale of cultural arts and artefacts, especially antiquities, is widespread and hard to control. Armed groups exploit this often for their own violent objectives. Getting governments to regulate trafficked sales, fake or not, is a problem too as offloading the problem to the discretion of auction houses, for example, is an easier path to take. Some cultural property is looted to order from Afghanistan to Honduras to the EU. Selling fake items is not difficult along with disinformation. Sam Hardy’s blog is an interesting read with an (open access) article on state-organised trafficking.

Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque – 800 years old. Still from The Quake by Matteo Barzini (2015)

Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque – 800 years old. Still from The Quake by Matteo Barzini (2015)

Session II ended with the UK premiere of a short but powerful UNESCO film, The Quake (2015) by Matteo Barzini of the Feel Film Production and music by Ennio Morricone. A poignant music and visual collaboration as narrative about the Syrian war and the destruction caused to both people and cultural sites.

In summary, it would seem that although cultural looting takes place outside of wartime it seems to accelerate when conflicts ignite and perhaps the greatest concern is what will be left in the aftermath.

Session III by Dr Anna Marazuela Kim (The Courtauld)

The third and final session, chaired by co-organiser Anna Marazuela Kim, featured three papers unified by a focus on photography and issues of representation, bringing into compelling dialogue case studies within the domain of insurgency.

Julian Stallabrass presenting

Julian Stallabrass presenting

Julian Stallabrass, writer, photographer, curator and lecturer who publishes widely on documentary photography and war, presented a paper titled Representing the Iraqi Resistance. Stallabrass began with the provocation that the definition of those constituents who fought against the US invasion and occupation of Iraq was itself heavily contested. Were they terrorists or a resistance movement, the remnants of the old regime, foreign insurgents, or a new Iraqi force?

Given this politically charged issue, the very act of representing them photographically entailed a certain risk: it was an act that could eventuate in being targeted by US forces or accusations of collaborating with the enemy. Bringing into comparison images from independent photojournalism versus those in embedded photojournalism, as well as images used by members of the resistance themselves, Stallabrass probed the political and representational limits of the civic medium of photography.

The second presentation featured award-winning photographer Edmund Clark, the author of acclaimed books on Guantanamo and Afghanistan, among others. Clarke’s work compellingly links history, politics and representation, particularly focusing on spaces of control in the global “war on terror”. In an extremely thought-provoking, and at times disturbing, presentation, Clarke described his most recent project, Negative Publicity, co-written with counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black. A collection of photographs by Clarke and redacted documents from court cases gathered by Black, the work engages the nature of contemporary warfare, making visible the otherwise “invisible” mechanisms of state control. The focus of the current project, Negative Publicity, is the representation of what is called “extraordinary rendition”:  the disappearance of persons, without legal process, into a network of secret prisons organized by the US Central Intelligence Agency from 2001-2008. As part of George Bush’s sanctioned war on terror, prisoners were taken to ‘black sites’ around the world, where many of them were subjected to torture. As Clarke notes, some were eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay or released, while others still remain unaccounted for.

Negative Publicity book cover

Negative Publicity book cover

In order to recreate this covert network and its operation, Black and Clark traveled worldwide to photograph former detention sites, detainees’ and pilots’ homes, and government buildings implicated in this activity. Unlike the highly graphic images that emerged from Abu Ghraib, Clarke’s are eerily empty of figures. Moreover, violence is not represented, but rather implied via its erasure, much like the redacted documents in which the photographs stand in productive dialogue. Rendered with extreme clarity, the often banal subject matter plays upon ideas of opacity, surface, and testimony in relation to this process, to reveal a system “hidden in plain sight.” In ‘showing,’ in a negative way, what cannot be seen, the work raises important questions regarding the limits of photography, and also challenges traditional notions of representation in an age of increasingly secret, invisible, state control.

Rounding out the session on photography, Neville Bolt, specialist from the department of War Studies at King’s College on communications in conflict and foreign policy with a wide-ranging and distinguished career in TV, journalism and advising governments, gave a conceptually-demanding paper titled Iconic Photographs & Geopolitics. Bolt began from the premise that while millions of images circulate each day in the global media space that connects social media to more traditional outlets like television and the press, occasionally some acquire “iconic status”, linking a local event to higher moral, perhaps even universal, beliefs. These iconic images have come to represent the way terror events are understood in the popular imagination.

Neville Bolt presenting

Neville Bolt presenting

In order to probe more deeply the nature of this linkage between iconic images and moral sentiment, Bolt analysed in depth two photographs which seem to belong to the same genre and to yield the same effect, but are in fact instructively different: the image of an alleged jihadist executing a prisoner, and a refugee child washed up on the shore in Turkey. On the surface, it would seem that both images are concerned with moral outrage. Through a subtle analysis, Bolt argued instead for a distinction between moral outrage, which is other-directed, and shame, a self-reflexive response. The image of the terrorist puts into play a binary of us and them, provoking moral outrage against the implied perpetrators, while the child invokes a sense of corporate shame. In both cases, Bolt argued, such iconic images have the potential to reach into the very heart of geopolitics, “threatening the liberal conscience”.

The symposium ended with a panel discussion, following a keynote by Giovanni Boccardi, Chief of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit of UNESCO’s Culture Sector. In a paper titled UNESCO’s Global Action to Protect Cultural heritage Under Threat, Boccardi described the scope of UNESCO’s current actions to protect heritage under threat; the challenges it faces in this ever-expanding and volatile arena; and areas of work to be explored through partnering with other International Organizations and stakeholders outside of the culture sector.

Unite 4 Heritage / UNESCO

Unite 4 Heritage / UNESCO

As Boccardi explained, a rapidly evolving global scenario and the continuous and increasingly violent manifestations of cultural cleansing, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, that include not only deliberate attacks against cultural heritage and widespread looting, but also persecutions against minorities and the expressions of their cultural identity, have highlighted the close link between culture, security and human rights. This situation is questioning many of the assumptions on which UNESCO, the only UN Agency with a mandate for the protection of culture, was operating. The Organization needs therefore to reassess its strategies and approaches. This is being done not only to protecting culture for its own sake, but also to ensure that culture’s potential for building resilience and social cohesion is harnessed in humanitarian and peace building efforts. Building on its wide range international legal standards, which need to be more streamlined and operationalized, UNESCO has recently adopted a Strategy and is in the process of engaging with new partners to deal with these unprecedented challenges. The strategy has two main objectives, which are: the strengthening of Member states abilities to prevent, mitigate and recover the loss of cultural heritage and diversity as a result of conflict; and the incorporation of the protection of culture into the scope of humanitarian action and security.