In 1996, the US Department of Defence released declassified excerpts of a manual entitled, The Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual. The manual had been a standard textbook for students at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA); an American military training academy set up in Panama in 1946, which trained Latin American soldiers using techniques that were compatible with United States military customs and traditions. The manual is specifically concerned with interrogation techniques, and advocates the use of fear, beatings, false imprisonment and executions. More than 60,000 Latin American soldiers have been trained at the School of the Americas, and in all, 11 dictators have attended its courses – among them, some of the region’s most notorious human rights abusers: dictators, death-squad leaders and even drug traffickers. Despite a truly shocking list of human rights abusing alumni, US army officials identify these men as “a few bad apples”, and the school still exists today.
This military training manual is an institutional record: part of an archive, one generated by the actions and processes of the implementation of power – the bureaucracy of warfare. Archives are time and space bound, perpetually connected to events in the past, yet they can also be carried forward into new circumstances where they are re-presented and used – evoking Hal Foster’s description of the archive as a place of creation: “a move to turn excavation sites into construction sites.” Here, the manual is deconstructed and re-presented with fresh meaning. Pasted over its pages are photographs from the University of Milwaukee Photography Archive – taken by two early to mid-20th century American geographers: Isaiah Bowman, and Eugene Vernon Harris. Bowman and Harris were using photography to chart, map and document Latin America on behalf of the American Geographical Society, and the US Foreign Service respectively, shortly before the formation of the school.
Except Bowman and Harris’ images are also presented in edited form and paired with extracts of text from the manual. The language of imperialism is deconstructed, an air of suspicion and mystery is created; people are physically removed, and attention is drawn to banal objects that become menacing: attempting to convey the mindset taught to these young soldiers. As we move through the images, a dark, almost poem-like narrative forms, things are covered up, and layers overlap. All the while the implements and materials of bureaucracy are present – post-it notes, highlighters and office paper provide a sterile juxtaposition to the disturbing passages of the manual.
This editing process can be associated with the “performance” that archivists enact on the archive. Hal Foster describes the nature of archives as at once “found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private.” There is no fixed meaning of any archival document: we may know the action that created the trace, but its present and future meanings can never be fixed.
Ultimately, the work seeks to challenge and comprehend the way in which we understand not only the archive, but also the historical past in the present, whilst demonstrating that contemporary geo-political issues are often incredibly complex and historical. It seeks to do this not through indictment or emotional blackmail, but rather by attempting to create an emotive and informative encounter with the viewer.
George Selley is a London based photographer, filmmaker and researcher. George currently teaches photography at the Fine Arts College, in Camden. He is a recent graduate of MA Photojournalism & Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication. His work has been published in Dazed, Huck, The British Journal of Photography, Artpress and Fisheye Magazine, among others. In 2017, George was one of the first photographers to receive the Paris Photo Carte Blanche Student Award. More recently he was a finalist in the Prix HSBC Pour la Photographie 2019 and the Felix Schoeller Best Emerging Photographer Award 2017. He has been exhibited all over Europe and the United States. His 2015 documentary Study Drugs was selected and screened at the 2015 American Public Health Association Film Festival, in Chicago. George is a co-founder of the Carte Blanche Collective and a member of Inpro.
Yuliya: I’m wondering: how can we learn from the past – in particular for example from this story that you reveal – in order to build a better future? We think we learn from the past, but doesn’t history just repeat itself? What’s your opinion on that in relation to this work?
George: For me, the history of the school and the manual is associated with a kind of damaged and twisted memory that is very much broken. I think the whole idea behind the work is to take those remains and rearrange and re-interpret them somehow – not necessarily by adding something new, but by working with what is already there and trying to see it in a different way, to challenge the contemporary historical narrative, to understand the nuances and complexities of the school and the wider repercussions that are linked to it.
In his essay On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin talks about the historical materialist, whose role, he says, is to move away from the contemporary historical narrative as much as possible. He says that the historical materialist must “brush history against the grain.” I think this is a perfect phrase for explaining what I mean by somehow re-arranging and re-interpreting the remains of a damaged and twisted memory.
Yuliya: So how do you relate particularly to a future-oriented archive?
George: I think of Kabakov’s garbage dump, which constantly devours and preserves, but also continually generates something new – this is what I understand as a fertile archive … Archive as a place of creation – it preserves things but it also continually generates something new. It is like turning excavation sites into construction sites. I think that’s very much relevant to my work, but also to our collective project.
Yuliya: George, for you, what is the connection between political and personal?
George: What a question! Actually, when we discussed it, we came up with other questions from that question rather than answers. I mean, what do we mean by political? Almost anything can be political, and it reminded me of something that Brecht said: a belief that art should not be political is in itself a political statement. But if I was to try and answer the question in relation specifically to my work and this project, I think I would probably speak about methodology and process, and also about starting points. I think it’s very relevant to talk about how it came into being. In the case of this particular body of work, the starting point was an invitation to take part in this wider collaborative project by people who had been or who have family members who had been personally affected by the story and by the repercussions of the school.
I felt this kind of responsibility and a kind of privilege that these people thought I had something to add and offer – despite the fact that I’m not Latin American and I don’t have any overly obvious personal connection to the story or the school. And that really made the work and the process very intense and very personal for me. It became very personal, because I was so touched. And I think maybe in a sense they provided the personal aspect, while I – through my previous work around the US manipulation of Latin America – provided some kind of a political aspect, but through the process of working together those boundaries of who provided what became all mixed and merged in a very constructive way.
In terms of process and methodology, the starting point for a piece of work for me is always something quite tangible, and when I say “tangible”, I mean something that exists or existed – a document, a photograph, a historical event; a story or injustice of some kind.
Yuliya: We discussed before the idea that everything is political, and we have this saying that even if you are not interested in politics, politics will be interested in you somehow.
George: Yes, choosing not to be aware of it is in itself a political stance.
Yuliya: From the viewers’ perspective, what does it mean to find this kind of material not in an archive and state institutional context, but in the artistic context? I mean, what are you aiming to produce as an effect on the viewer by putting it into this artistic context?
George: I think that even though we live in a time when information is more accessible than ever before, people still don’t really engage with this kind of stuff. You know, you can download all these materials and you can look at Freedom of Information requests, you can also make your own freedom of information requests. There are lots of things that we can access, but they are all very text heavy, and it’s a very specific kind of a person that actually downloads this kind of stuff – usually white, middle-aged men. And so, I think there’s something about taking them out of those contexts and putting them into a different context. And there are many settings in which this can be done that make it more accessible somehow.
We were talking before about Tim Hetherington’s Trojan horse theory – almost enticing the audience into re-framing and re-contextualising the material in a way that makes it more likely that someone may engage with it. And it’s not just in artistic settings that this can be done – we, as a collaborative project, have done this in many ways, like taking the work to places where atrocities happened in Latin America that were conducted and controlled by graduates of the School of the Americas, going back to those villages and those places and creating some kind of exhibition or collaboration or just a discussion with people there about what happened, sharing material with them and then sometimes receiving new material from them that maybe we didn’t see before. It’s a kind of intervention, a way of bringing these things into a collaborative discussion. But they shouldn’t just be done in artistic settings, because the art world is in itself a very inaccessible world, so we are trying to bring things into the public discourse and make it accessible.
Yuliya: How about the artistic methods you use by creating collages ?
George: The images are pasted over the text. It is a kind of attempt to deconstruct and sabotage the language of imperialism – break it up literally, physically, challenge it. I think it’s a good way to present the work because people can engage one at a time – it’s somehow more impactful than, for instance, having the images on the wall. I’m interested in how other people think it can be interpreted.
Yuliya: But it’s also related to this question about the gestures of an archive such as revealing, which is one of the important concepts of your work from the intellectual and conceptual point of view, but also folding and unfolding – the physicality of the work. How do you relate to these gestures?
George: There was a nice sentence in the article that we shared with each other where Hal Foster describes archives as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private, and that there’s no real fixed meaning of any archival documents – we might know the action that created the trace, but its present and future meanings can never really be fixed. In other words, something new is constantly being revealed and things are always being re-interpreted and re-arranged. There’s a very obvious link with collage and these words that we’re using: revealing, folding and unfolding. In terms of collage, this is a kind of physical reconceptualization.
Yuliya: Another concept from this article that all of us found so interesting was the gaps in an archive – that it’s very difficult to direct towards the future, when certain information somehow disappears.
Søren: I just thought it was interesting to think about the importance of what’s not in the archive. Just because the material isn’t there doesn’t mean that it’s not important. It’s always important for an archive to acknowledge the missing information. George talked about how almost everything is available, but then it’s maybe not so important that things are available, but it’s the structures which decide how they become available and how they become apparent to you that are the really important part. What digital ways do we find to explore information and knowledge that opens up and reveals these structures, and how do these digital structures hide information in their own way ?
Yuliya: Hiding is also a gesture related to an archive.
George: I think that’s very related to what Walter Benjamin said: who chooses where the gaps should be, which bits are important and which bits are not important in our construction of history? And I think that the project very much tries to show that geopolitical issues are often incredibly complex and they’re very historical and that perhaps things are not always as they seem. And that we have a very simplified idea of history and that maybe we lose some of these nuances that can be found in these gaps.
The sound above is an amalgamation of songs known to be currently or historically used by the US Military for interrogation purposes. The Human Resources Exploitation Training Manual (a US military manual used to teach interrogation techniques to students at the School of Americas) talks extensively about the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners and interrogatees. The manual advocates the use of sensory control – whether a deprivation of the senses, or an overload of unwanted sensory stimulus: such as very loud music played continuously. The idea behind such techniques is to prevent any form of routine developing in the prisoner, with the aim of ultimately inducing “psychological regression”: a loss of autonomy, a reversion to an earlier behavioural level.
I have taken a selection of these songs, randomly corrupted the files in an editing software and then channelled them through an analogue synthesiser before recomposing the sound into its current form. The sound becomes swamped, the violence hidden within the status of the songs selected – an attempt to create a sinister representation of the sound of state violence and torture.