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Inside "The Clandestine Reading Room"

POSTED ON: October 30, 2014

The Clandestine Reading Room (installation detail) by Dolsy and Kant Smith A'07, 2014

The Clandestine Reading Room (installation detail) by Dolsy and Kant Smith A'07, 2014

Kant Smith A’07 and his brother Dolsy Smith contributed one of 17 commissions for the exhibition Monument to Cold War Victory, currently on view through November 7 in the 41 Cooper Gallery. Their installation, The Clandestine Reading Room (2014) testifies to the history of state surveillance in place since the Cold War, and provides methodological tools to counter the burgeoning surveillance industry in the US. Stamatina Gregory, associate dean of the School of Art, talked with Kant on the project and on two upcoming associated events: a workshop on making Freedom of Information Act requests (Thursday, November 6, 4pm, 41 Cooper Gallery) and a panel on declassified information featuring critical scholars and activists (Friday, November 7, 6pm, Rose Auditorium).

What prompted you and Dolsy to respond to the call for proposals for Monument to Cold War Victory in 2012? How did it relate to your existing practice?

Contrary to the contradictory notion the name "Monument to Cold War Victory" suggests, the call for proposals articulated a skeptical perspective on popular notions of Western ascendancy and triumph. This dovetailed with my interest in critiquing attitudes and practices reflecting such chauvinism in the United States, particularly where security or military action is concerned. For my collaborator (and brother), Dolsy Smith, a poet and research librarian, the material coincided with his interests in the privatization of information and radical forms of pedagogy. While the Cold War era is not always a ready frame of reference for those of my age and younger in this country, the Cold War was instrumental in shaping the present cultural and political landscape; and is essential to understanding the contemporary conflicts we explore through our work. To quote Dolsy: "Neoliberal apologists celebrate the end of the Cold War as "victory": as the conclusion to a contest between repressive, imperialist regimes that was decided not, of course, in favor of freedom and justice, but in favor of the old, essentially feudal order whose greed and grimace have always lurked behind the mask of modernity. Capitalism ate its other and absorbed its power, growing stronger and more openly repressive."

You graduated from the School of Art in 2007. Can you relate any of the subjects you are working with in the installation (civic duty as artistic position, the exponential growth of surveillance culture, the capitalization of data, and readings as a critical and resistant practice) to your undergraduate experience?

I moved to New York City to attend Cooper Union in 2001, a few weeks before 9/11. While the Clandestine Reading Room seeks to trace the trajectory of U.S. government surveillance from the Cold War era to the present, the transformations to the city, country, and indeed the world brought about largely by the "War on Terror" have been dramatic and disturbing. As the broader context for my experience as a student, these developments to some extent demand an art practice that responds directly and immediately to political and material needs. The approach of Professor Doug Ashford (and by extension his ground-breaking work with Group Material in the face of the AIDS crisis) was hugely influential in this regard. Tell me a bit about the FOIA workshop and your panel on declassified information. 

Why would you encourage students to attend?

On November 7th the Clandestine Reading Room is hosting a panel exploring issues of freedom of speech, association, and the press in the face of the security-industrial complex that has grown by leaps and bounds since 9/11. This will be an informative and compelling event, reflecting the groundbreaking revelations of recent years. Among others, panelists include: Kevin Gosztola, a journalist acclaimed for his coverage of the Chelsea Manning trial; Lisa Lynch, co-founder of the Guantanamobile Project; and Ryan Shapiro, whose innovative FOIA research on surveillance of the animal rights community branded him "a threat to national security" by the FBI.

The FOIA workshop, led by FOIA expert Nate Jones of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, will introduce the Freedom of Information Act -- one of our most important pieces of legal leverage against an overzealous government -- as a tool for research. The history of FOIA is studded with startling revelations, from the extent of the FBI's counterintelligence activities against activists and others, to the involvement of the CIA in foreign insurgencies and military coups. But FOIA has been used by historians, activists, and others to throw back the veil not only on abuses of power, but more generally, on important matters of historical fact that would have otherwise remained hidden from public knowledge. Artists and others interested in twentieth-century history, politics, activism, social movements, etc., will benefit from a greater appreciation of the methods and scope of FOIA. This workshop is a rare opportunity for many journalists and lawyers, much less the general public; however we are reserving a number of RSVPs for Cooper Union students. Students should reserve a seat through our website.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.