Points of Proof    (2005-9)

two single-channel videos (rts 35:00 and 26:05); series of captioned photographs; interactive website; postcards

Points of Proof grid      

Points of Proof was originally commissioned by the new Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan -- one of the largest and most concentrated Arab American communities in the United States -- for their inaugural exhibition. I flew to Detroit to shoot Points of Proof in March 2005, as the REAL ID Act was being debated in Congress, the media, and the many other arenas of the immigrant rights struggle. The Act, which strips illegal and temporarily legal immigrants of the right to a U.S. driver’s license and sets new, near-impossible standards of proof and credibility for asylum claims, was passed just before the exhibition opened in May. Points of Proof thus reflects the situation in which increasingly large numbers of American immigrants find themselves by asking viewers and interviewees to reduce their American identities to a single point of proof – points being the system used by a number of state DMV bureaus to rate different documents for their effectiveness as proof of identity.

Detroit Postcard      

To make the first version of Points of Proof, I invited 30 new and longtime Americans in the Detroit area to answer the question: If someone questioned your right to call yourself an American, what is the one story, object, image or document you would offer as your proof? In the resulting video, their surprisingly complicated and difficult answers are interwoven into a series of conversations that throw into relief the subjective and volitional nature of identity, the difficulty of pinning the constantly shifting idea of America within strictly national borders, and the question of proof as defined more by belief than by the material evidence at hand. In the video, the question of proof quickly raises other questions -- Is geography destiny? Does culture extend beyond citizenship? Is proof finally a question of faith and belief or does it depend on the material evidence at hand? -- whose answers are equally contested and complex.

Polaroid: Rana      

During the six-month run of the inaugural exhibition at the Arab American National Museum, In/Visible, Points of Proof was shown as a single-channel video on a monitor with a grid of postcards featuring the same question asked in the video hanging on the wall beside it. Visitors to the exhibition at the AANM, and subsequent shows in LA and New York, were provided with pencils and invited to add their answers to the collection of and debate on proof. Given free (anonymous and unmoderated) rein, these postcard respondents range from bitter to idealistic to hilarious. Thanks to a 2006 Longwood Digital Matrix commission, a web-based version of Points of Proof, which includes captioned Polaroids of people interviewed for the video as well as scans of all the (125+) postcards completed to date, launched in December 2006. The project can also be re-staged in other cities and communities. A new edition was produced in Buffalo in 2007-09, commissioned by the nonprofit CEPA Gallery with a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation Artists + Communities grant. The Buffalo edition was based on interviews with members of the local chapter of the SEIU 1199 health care workers' union, which has a long history in Buffalo, and with both teachers and students at the Grover Cleveland High School's ESL (English as a Second Language) division, which caters primarily to the children of Buffalo's large community of refugees and asylum seekers. Again, video and photographs produced during a period of artist-mediated engagement were supplemented with postcards through which viewers could directly engage with, interject into and annotate the materials I had produced. The photographs from the Buffalo edition can be seen here and here and a text about Points of Proof and warm data collection can be read here.


a variable site-specific installation/performance in collaboration with Nini Hu
with bed, embroidered linens, wallpaper, false wall, microphone, digital recorder, and childrens' books (recording sessions) and audio recordings, false wall, quilting foam, fabric, speakers, and CD players (listening systems)

Security Blanket recording sessions 1      

Security Blanket is an ongoing project in two parts:
recording sessions and listening systems.

The recording sessions are staged in installations that recreate the familiar security of a childhood bedroom. Participants visit the room one at a time and are invited to lie down on a small white bed made up with flowered linens, read the questions in a book waiting on the pillow, and whisper their answers to a tiny hole in a false wall panel cloaked by the pattern of the room's antique floral wallpaper.

Security Blanket recording sessions 2      

The book contains a series of questions about the different meanings and associations that we assign to the word "security," and as visitors progress through the questions, the act of whispering in a private, "safe" room leads their answers closer to the intimacy of confession than the self-consciousness of interview. These confessions are, however, being recorded by a microphone directly behind the false wall, cabled to a concealed, voice-activated digital recorder.

Security Blanket listening wall with kneeling listener      

The security secrets collected during recording sessions are then presented through listening systems. These installations are freestanding false walls inserted into a space, or tunnels existing onsite, which are padded with quilting foam and soft cream fabric, so that a visitor leaning against a wall is met by a comforting embrace reminiscent of a favorite blanket. The wall is also pierced with small holes around which its full softness is pulled into concavity, as if by a tiny vortex. From a few feet away, the wall seems to be indistinctly whispering. When visitors lean into the wall and put their ears right up to the holes, they can hear individual security confessions, almost as if secrets were being whispered directly into their ears. You can listen to a short excerpt of a mix of security secrets by clicking here (1.4 MB mp4 sound file).

Security Blanket listening wall      

In the two versions of the project presented to date (for the 2005 d.u.m.b.o. festival and Smack Mellon's open studios) the recording and listening sections of Security Blanket have been staged separately. For future iterations we would like to explore the possibility of configuring an installation where recording and listening are happening simultaneously, either in the same space separated by a literal wall, or in two different spaces linked by radio transmission.


a data collection and public dialogue project in collaboration with Chitra Ganesh, with a traveling library, prints, portraits, postcards, videos, web project, and 'zine

Index install doc      

Index of the Disappeared is an ongoing, collaborative, community-based inquiry into the human costs of public policy; the erasures and absences created in real lives by the secrecy and suppression of documents and data; and the role played by language -- not just as spoken by but as spoken about and around communities -- in defining (and potentially re-defining) the rights, struggles, and public perceptions of immigrants in the United States. It has developed over a period of several years in several different forms: a video (How Do You See the Disappeared?); a web project (How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database); an offshoot/nested project including video, prints and postcards (Points of Proof, see below), a series of critical texts and artists' text projects published in various on- and off-line venues; a series of imagined portraits; a 'zine (Index of the Disappeared: Catalogue #.100) with contributions from other artists working with parallel ideas; and finally an installation in the form of a library, Index of the Disappeared, which archives all the previous forms of the project, collects all the documents about and interventions in the immigration debate that we have accumulated over the years, adds a series of books that connect those primary documents to broader ideas and issues circulating in contemporary society and culture, and also serves as a site for the writing and archiving of additional alternative histories.

Special interest list      

The Disappeared project began in 2003 as a response to the extreme situation of the special interest detainees, a group of more than seven hundred immigrants, mostly Arab and South Asian Muslims, who were detained by the INS on immigration violations immediately after 9/11/01, classified as "special interest" and remanded to FBI/DOJ custody on the supposed basis of potential connections to the events of 9/11, and finally deported almost three years later -- without ever being charged -- after pressure from human rights watchdogs and an internal DOJ investigation revealed that in almost every case, the special interest classification was derived from pure racial profiling and had no basis in logic or evidence. Advocacy for the special interest detainees was made especially difficult by the blanket gag order applied to their cases by the Department of Justice, which prevented anyone connected with the special interest cases from talking about them, and allowed the DOJ to both block the detainees and their lawyers from knowing the charges or evidence being brought against them, and also to refuse to release their names to the media. Instead a series of lists were disseminated into the public domain in a carefully controlled progression: first a list where almost every identifier was blacked out, then a list where everything but the detainees' nationalities was censored, next a list that revealed the violations for which they had been detained. The blank spaces where these immigrants' names, and the American lives and family ties they represent, had been erased became screens onto which all the fears of the moment could be projected.

Disappeared thumbnail      

The first installment of the project, the video How Do You See the Disappeared (2004, rt 9:28 min), analyzes current U.S. immigration law, a decade of case histories, and media coverage of detention & deportation within the experimental, elliptical framework of a search for the traces of the disappeared in the documents that surround and enclose them, in order to question how the language of the system is implicated in the disappearances it produces and argue for the necessity of a new language to counter this lack. The video contrasts a visual accumulation of official texts with a voiceover and series of punctuating images that carefully and deliberately scale the political back to the personal, the abstract to the specific, and the foreign to the familiar.

disappeared web thumbnail      

The video also served to introduce and prepare the web project How Do You See The Disappeared? A Warm Database, which launched on Turbulence.org in December 2004. At this stage of the project, we identified a new strategy: to create alternative systems for collecting stories from the immigrants whose lives as individuals are lost in the abstractions of legalities and headlines, and to develop from those stories new terms and languages through which the issues of the immigration debate can be framed. The Warm Database designed for Turbulence serves three purposes: as an annotated guide for the uninitiated to and through the mountains of documents that surround detention, deportation and immigrants' rights; as a resource for and call to action; and as the starting point of a data collection project designed to span multiple communities and languages. In this web-based phase of the project it takes the form of a warm data questionnaire that anyone who has been affected by detention and deportation is invited to fill out (a solidarity version is also provided). The warm data questionnaire is designed to be voluntary, anonymous, and public: diametrically opposed to the questions asked during government processes like special registration, and to elicit data that will be the opposite of the cold, hard facts held in classified files. Some of the questions we asked ourselves while designing the database were: What describes you but could never be held against you in a court of law? What would be the right questions to ask to know you without knowing your name?

Index install doc      

In 2005, we translated the documents and data systems of the web project offline and brought them together into the physical library Index of the Disappeared, together with a series of prints, portraits and postcards we had been producing; a collection of case histories, reports, laws and legal briefs, media coverage, and ephemera from post-9/11 activism; and books that connect issues in immigrant rights to the broader currents of secrecy and surveillance, civil liberties, human rights, the prison industry, the war on terror, economics and globalization, and the art of resistance. The library has cold and warm sides, each with space for reading and writing.

The latest versions of the library de-materialize its literal form by using images, documents and text fragments from the Disappeared archives to surround and confront the viewer with unexpected transformations of both familiar and unfamiliar information.

zine thumbnail      

For the first installation of the library, at LMCC's Cities, Art & Recovery conference on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, we produced the first issue of a 'zine also called Index of the Disappeared. Like the library, the 'zine features contributions from other artists who have been working around the issues of detention, deportation, disappearance and immigrants' rights, including Jenny Polak & Dread Scott, the Visible Collective, Raj Kahlon and Joan Linder. We welcome contributions to the library, website, and future issues of the 'zine: contact us at archive[nospam]@kabul-reconstructions.net with ideas, links, or suggestions.

See documentation of more recent versions of the Index.