Guantánamo Public Memory Project

Art & GTMO: Manufacturing Visuals to Represent the Invisible

Fig. 1, from “Virtual Guantanamo” (2007) [i]

Fig. 1, from “Virtual Guantanamo” (2007) [i]

Last year, John Filostat, spokesman for Joint Task Force Guantánamo, announced that the military would stop informing the public about GTMO detainees who go on hunger strike. “The release of this information serves no operational purpose and detracts from the more important issues,” Filostat explained. The decision to stop disclosing this information, formerly used as a way to gauge conditions at Guantánamo, further conceals daily life in the already notoriously shrouded prison. [ii]

I spent the semester working with Sarah Atwood on a project exploring the orange jumpsuit as the symbol of GTMO and, simultaneously, as the symbol of US incarceration. Working on this project, and spending so much time with visual representations of GTMO, has made me think about the relationship between art, reenactments, models, simulations, and what is real. Representations of GTMO are especially relevant because, as the recent decision to secrete hunger strikes demonstrates, our access to this space is increasingly limited. I’m interested in exploring how artist’s representations attempt to fill the gaps.

In 2008, Artist Steve Powers installed a life size waterboarding diorama at Coney Island. Powers dressed one animatronic mannequin as a GTMO prison guard and one as a detainee in an orange jumpsuit. The “Waterboard Thrill Ride” acknowledges how omnipresent “waterboarding” is in our post-9/11 discourse and, simultaneously, how little we understand it. “Robot waterboarding became a way of exploring the issue without doing any harm,” Powers explains. “It’s the perfect Coney Island distraction — it’s not quite delivering what it offers, but it’s putting a unique experience on the table. And it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to look in there and say: ‘That’s really what’s going on? That’s crazy.’” [iii]

That same year, Nonny de la Peña and Peggy Weil created a virtual representation of GTMO in the virtual world, Second Life. One journalist describes his experience in virtual GTMO:

The last thing I notice before I am hooded is that I’m shackled to the floor of a military cargo plane. I hear it take off. Or land. I can’t tell. A man shouts, “Shut up!” and I hear a violent blow, but I don’t feel anything. Finally, sunlight seeps through the fabric of my hood. I hear footsteps on gravel. Are they mine? Everything goes black again. Next thing I know, I’m on my knees on the floor of an outdoor jail cell in Guantánamo Bay. I’m given an orange jumpsuit to put on. [iv]

On the one hand these types of projects, like more traditional activism, seek to raise awareness. But they also try to offer something  regular activist mediums cannot. They attempt to give us sensory experiences that are otherwise inaccessible. Through playful demonstrations, they want to create feelings, visceral reactions, and visuals of the invisible. [v]


Posted by Katie Lambright – PhD student at University of Minnesota, Department of History


[i] “Virtual Guantanamo,” September 19, 2007, video, YouTube.

[ii] “Guantanamo detainees’ hunger strikes will no longer be disclosed by U.S. military,” Washington Post, December 4, 2013.

[iii] Ariel Kaminer, “Coney Island Sideshow Has Guantanamo Theme,” New York Times, August 5, 2008.

[iv] Julian Sancton, “Click Here for Torture,” Vanity Fair, April 10, 2008.

[v] In October, the Guardian released a short animated film, depicting the force feeding of GTMO detainees. Mustafa Khalili, the Guardian’s multimedia news editor, explained, “We had these heart-rending words describing the goings-on inside Guantánamo but no visuals. The big conundrum was: how do we do this?” Like the “Waterboard Thrill Ride” and the digital rendition of GTMO in Second Life, Guantanamo Bay: The Hunger Strikes navigates closed access with artistic  representations.


Creative: Picture Projects & Tronvig Group