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Enter Restricted Government Areas in Virtual Reality

In his new exhibition, James Bridle attacks governments’ cultures of “We can neither confirm nor deny” secrecy.

James Bridle Interview - Seamless Transitions from The Photographers' Gallery on Vimeo.

Whether he's subverting brutalist architecture with symbolic banners calling for an occupation of the cloud, or describing “algorithmic citizenship” in Citizen Ex, writer and artist James Bridle has time and time again proven himself a creative thinker surfing the bleeding edge of technology. His ability to navigate technology, politics and culture, distilling the three down to an artistically consumable whole, makes Bridle an extremely vital voice in our ever-digified cultural sphere.

For The Glomar Response, his first solo exhibition at Berlin’s NOME Gallery, which opens July 24, Bridle tackles an uncertainty he sees in contemporary life; one where governments and corporations use code to keep secrets, while activists use the very same tools to expose them. To penetrate and visualize “enclosed and classified spaces”—redacted texts, hidden networks, and legal architectures—Bridle made use of law, research, code and virtual simulations.

Fittingly, Bridle takes his exhibition name from the US government’s invocation of the “Glomar response,” a statement issued discussing matters of national security: “We can neither confirm nor deny.”

Bridle told The Creators Project that the The Glomar Response started, as so much of his work often does, with Freedom of Information requests. Not surprisingly, Bridle noticed the Glomar response frequently popping up in the official replies to his requests.

The exhibition features Seamless Transitions, a virtual simulation of three spaces of immigration judgment, detention and deportation in the United Kingdom, created by Bridle and leading architectural visualization firm Picture Plane. The two digitally recreate the Special Immigration Appeals Commission courtroom (used for the presentation of secret evidence), as well as the Harmondsworth Detention Centre on the edge of Heathrow Airport, and the Inflite Jet Centre at Stansted, where Bridle said people are “flown out of the country in the dead of night.”

Fraunhofer Lines 001 (Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program), James Bridle, 2015

“Each of these spaces is impossible to photograph either because of the law, or the impossibility of access,” Bridle tells The Creators Project. “The only images we see of them are those provided by those who operate them, who can give their own impression of them.”

To simulate the courtrooms, Bridle and Picture Plane visited the locations and briefly sketched them. For other spaces, they interviewed eyewitnesses, found planning permission documents from council websites, filed freedom of information requests, and studied legal documents pertaining to the spaces. All of this material was then fed into architectural models to virtually replicate accurate walkthroughs of the restricted spaces.

Still from Seamless Transitions

With Fraunhofer Lines, inspired by German physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer’s 1814 discovery of sunlight that never reached earth, the redacted document visualizations appear as flat images. A variety of sources supplied the redacted documents, including the UK Information Commissioner’s reports on automated police surveillance and the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture.

Fraunhofer Lines 003 (MPS Emails, April 2013 – February 2014), James Bridle, 2015

The Glomar Response also includes a pair of tables featuring waterboarded documents dealing with websites and domain names tied to the British Indian Ocean Territory. A region depopulated by force in the 1970s, its largest island, Diego Garcia, was later used by the US military as a base for America’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and as a CIA black site and rendition transit point. Bridle waterboarded his documents to mirror UK government claims that water damage rendered records of 9/11 flights out of Diego Garcia “incomplete.”

“These are my obsessions, but the mechanisms through which I investigate and explore them are open to anyone,” Bridle says. “I don't have a set of answers or even a set of universally applicable strategies to pass on.”

Nevertheless, Bridle hopes that his exhibition triggers some debate about how to change Glomar response culture.

Fraunhofer Lines 004 (Information Commissioner’s Reports, 2008-2012), James Bridle, 2015

James Bridle's The Glomar Response is on display at NOME Gallery from July 24 through September 5, 2015.

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