Guantánamo comes home

Instead of closing Guantánamo, Obama has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the h

Instead of closing Guantánamo, Obama has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the home turf.

It was cold but that didn't matter. Strings of coloured lights still dangled between lamp posts and for progressives across the world, Christmas was far from over. On 22 January 2009, just two days after taking office, Barack Obama issued an executive order that committed the White House to closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility within a year. "We are going to win this fight. We are going to win it on our terms," he said, and many of us believed him. The US president seemed once and for all to be ushering in a new morning for America, which, unlike Ronald Reagan's false dawn 25 years earlier, would see the country truly becoming "prouder, stronger [and] better". Sam Stein of the Huffington Post predicted that the "blotch on America's image abroad" would soon be wiped clean. Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said: "With the stroke of a pen, President Obama will make great progress toward restoring America's moral authority." How wrong they were.

I cite Reagan because he, more than any other US president, seemed to lay the groundwork for the nightmare of the George W Bush years. Reagan gave the international community - if such a community can be said to exist - a taste of what was to come in 1983, when he sent troops to the Caribbean island of Grenada following a coup. He called Grenada a "Soviet-Cuban beachhead" and justified the invasion of the tiny country (with a population of about 100,000) by invoking the major paranoia of those years: the red threat. When the United Nations condemned Reagan's "intervention" as "a flagrant violation of international law", he was unmoved. The president responded to the criticism with a tasteless quip: "It didn't upset my breakfast at all." The UN tried to pass a motion deploring the invasion but the US simply vetoed it. In 2002, Bush would cement this arrogant, dismissive attitude to international consensus and law with his national security strategy.

By moving to scrap Guantánamo Bay so soon after coming to power, Obama reassured his supporters, both within and outside America, that a dark chapter of US history was coming to an end. It was a powerful symbolic gesture that suggested that the rule of international law would be heeded once more by the White House. As the second anniversary of the Cuban camp's "final closure" date nears, however, some 170 prisoners remain imprisoned there. Eight inmates have died at Guantánamo since 2002. Two years ago, Dick Cheney claimed that the detainees were the "worst of the worst" and that the "only other option" to their unlawful incarceration was "to kill them" - yet, of the 770 held, more than 550 have been freed without charge. What's worse, over half of those still languishing in the camp's degrading conditions have already been cleared for release.

As we know now, Obama was and evidently is no cure for the US's addiction to rough "justice". I am convinced that his intentions remain noble; yet an administration must be judged not by its hopes alone (no matter how audacious) but by its actions and by what happens under its watch. In May, when Osama Bin Laden was executed by a team of commandos who had no intention of acting within internationally agreed legal protocols (even their presence in Pakistan was a violation of the country's sovereign territory), Obama confirmed that little has changed when it comes to American foreign policy. His vastly increased use of drone attacks, meanwhile, has led to the deaths of twice as many suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members as Bush imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.

On Thursday, the Senate passed the National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA), which, in effect, formalises the right of the military to arrest and indefinitely detain alleged terrorist operatives without trial, including US citizens. Obama was against the bill and the White House was expected to veto it; but, after what the lawyer Wendy Kaminer in the Atlantic called "cosmetic efforts to obscure the bill's threat to American[s]", the president signed it off.

The ambiguities of the NDAA's phrasing, as well as the broadness of what constitutes a suspected terrorist, has raised alarm on both sides of the political spectrum - Tea Partiers such as Rand Paul have bemoaned its passage in terms not dissimilar from those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. "The rights we lose now may never be restored," said Rand. "We could see American citizens being sent to Guantánamo Bay." Tom Parker, policy director of counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International USA, said on 15 December: "The NDAA provides a framework for 'normalising' indefinite detention and making Guantánamo a permanent feature of American life."

So much for the promise of 2009. Bush gleefully fashioned the US as a rogue state, publicly celebrating its illegal wars in a way that would probably have made even Reagan blush. Obama, for all his evident unease at the country's continued moral decline, has become the first president since the McCarthy era to pass indefinite detention legislation. Instead of closing Guantánamo, he has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the home turf.

Photograph: Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.