The Art of Interrogation
A Field Guide for Female Interrogators
By Coco Fusco
New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008, 144 pp. $16.95, paperback
Reviewed by Jill Dolan
Coco Fusco’s A Field Guide for Female Interrogatorsis a project for the moment. Fusco uses a variety of styles and modesof address—from epistolary to parody, archival to imagistic—to offer asharply drawn objection to military women’s participation in thetorture and abjection of Muslim male prisoners in Iraq and at thedetention center at Guantanamo Bay. She cautions feminists aboutwomen’s misuse of power and presents an impassioned plea that weconsider soberly the abuses of a government willing to abridge humanrights and abrogate women’s equality to win the ideological battle ofits war on terror.
Fusco came to public attention as a Latina conceptual artistin the 1990s. She is known for devising politically insightfulinstallations and solo performances, as well as a popular body ofvisual-art scholarship about race, ethnic, and gender inequities, andthe cost of colonialism. A Field Guide for Female Interrogators draws on research Fusco conducted and the scripts she compiled for her performance A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in the New America and her film about interrogation training, Operation Atropos—both of which were selected for the 2008 Whitney Biennial. In a largely ironic style, the Field Guidecritiques the military’s sexual objectification of the female interrogators itemploys to taunt male terrorist suspects in highly eroticized interactions that the men’s Muslim religion considers anathema. While liberal feminists might consider women’s rise to modified military might something of an achievement, Fusco argues that in interrogation“rooms of their own,” women soldiers willingly parade before prisoners in alluring and provocative postures, creating a moral crisis that breaks these men down so that other, presumably male interrogators will be able to make them talk. Once again, the women’s work creates a precondition for the more important men’s work.
Fusco brings sardonic, self-righteous outrage to her critique. The Field Guide incorporatesparticipant-observation, an ethnographic technique that reports firsthand what it feels like to take part in an activity. Thus, Fusco joinedthe Team Delta workshop, a simulation camp run by ex-military men toprovide corporations, groups, and individuals with embodied experiencesof both sides of the interrogation process. Fusco’s performativetraining in the techniques she decries gives her argument anirresistible moral force. Her reenactments of interviews sherole-played under Team Delta instruction feel visceral and real. Tomake her case, Fusco also explores government papers and archives, andinterviews people who’ve served as interrogators or have been victimsof these brutal practices. She writes with knowledge and expertise,combining her research into the public record with investigations ofactions by principals and victims alike at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
Fusco frames the Guide’slengthy first section as a letter to Virginia Woolf, quarrelling withthe essentialisms of a Victorian feminism that sees women as inherentlynonviolent change-agents in the arena of war. Fusco exhorts feministsto understand that in an interrogation room, women may act no morebenevolently than men. The epistolary structure comes and goes in thischapter; Fusco’s direct address to Woolf sometimes disrupts the flow ofher otherwise forceful prose and obscures her elegant point. An FBImemo follows, warning that the military has over-reached its authorityin mistreating prisoners through humiliating sexual encounters at AbuGhraib. The memo seems real, as it’s written in governmentallanguage—complete with redacted phrases—that obscures more than itclarifies. Fusco doesn’t cite the memo’s source, which makes its trueprovenance ambiguous. But its form and style helps bolster her argument
Although she refers throughout the Field Guide toher “performances,” it’s not clear until the chapter “Our FeministFuture” that Fusco has publicly embodied these scripts, which mightmake the book confusing for readers unfamiliar with her work. “OurFeminist Future” describes her intervention at a symposium at theMuseum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, held on the occasion of twoconcurrent ground-breaking exhibitions of feminist art: “WACK!: Art andthe Feminist Revolution,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LosAngeles, and “Global Feminisms,” at the Brooklyn Museum. Fusco relatesthat she wore a military uniform to perform parts of her monologue A Room of One’s Own onher panel, drawing analogies between the military’s exploitation offemale sexuality under the guise of empowering women with the artworld’s tokenization of feminist work under the sham of women’sarrival. She says,
I decided to use my fifteen minutes on a MoMA podium toperform as a visitor from the US Army who had arrived to congratulatemy peers in the art world for their strategic containment of feminismand their effective use of women.
Fusco points out that neither presenting museum committed toa long-range program of buying women’s art, but accepted politicalkudos for one-off shows that, she argues, represented too little, toolate for long-excluded and ignored women artists.
Imagine Fusco in a military uniform speaking to a museumaudience that expects cerebral remarks from a panel of experts onwomen’s art:
Many of you here today may not have considered this, but themilitary and the art world are similar in many [ways]. . . . Bothinstitutions are guardians of this country’s sacred freedoms. We areboth hierarchical in structure and global in scope. We maintainamicable and productive relations with multinational corporations, andour operations run best when unsavory details remain far from publicview. We both know that the surest way to hide things is to put on agood show.
In fact, the military has learned a great deal from the artsabout how flashy spectacle draws public attention away from the lessuplifting aspects of our engagements. We have also taken a cue from youabout how to ensure press cooperation by limiting access to our specialevents to those in the media who share our views.
Fusco’s forceful, persuasive voice, incisive in its socialcritique and ingenious in the ideological connections she traces, comesalive for the reader.The Field Guide’s finalsection is perhaps most true to its purported genre. A series ofcolorful, cartoon-like drawings with boldface captions professes toillustrate proper interrogation techniques. In these pictures, anabject Middle Eastern man sits humiliated while a blonde white soldiertaunts him physically, unbuttoning her uniform, showing him herbreasts, lap dancing across his legs, and otherwise challenging hismanhood. The Abu Ghraib photograph of Private Lynndie England leading anaked prisoner on a leash haunts these unsettling images. But here, theinteractions take place out of context; illustrator Dan Turner drawsthe barest outline of a room’s walls and floors. The images float theinterrogator and her victim out of time, space, and history, allowingFusco to paint these practices as transhistorical and omnipresent.Although she’s fabricated this Guide, she says,
[M]any allusions have been made to various manuals detailingauthorized [interrogation] methods that have been used by the militaryand the CIA since the 1960s. . . . As part of my exploration of therole of female sexuality as a weapon in the War on Terror, I decided tocreate a manual that illustrates the sexual tactics that femaleinterrogators have been reported to be using. All the scenes in theillustrations are based on the testimony of detainees and eyewitnesses.Fusco establishes her authority by claiming real referencesfor her text. Although the book doesn’t literally document Fusco’sperformance A Room of One’s Own, it makes a performative gesture, one that leaves concrete pictures in the reader’s mind that might move her to action.
In fact, the illustrations provide the perfect coda to abook that Fusco hopes will proliferate images of these interrogationsand their implications. She argues that while the photographs publishedof prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib disgusted and outraged viewers, thosefew pale in comparison to the archive hidden from public view. Fuscoinsists that if people could see the photos now censored by themilitary and the White House, and if they could better picture thedegraded circumstances of prisoners and detainees, their shock andempathy would create a moral, ethical crisis that might change militarypolicy. She believes in the power of representation.
With President Barack Obama promising that he will close thedetention center at Guantanamo, one hopes that Fusco’s critique willsoon refer to past practices. Her Field Guildnonetheless clarifies that exploiting female sexuality to grillprisoners for whom sexual relations with women are morally fraught maycontinue to appeal to a US military as deeply sexist as it iscolonialist. The Field Guide, whichsports a “United States Central Command” insignia on its cover, will nodoubt continue to be a handy parodic reference, an ironic self-helpresource for women who crawl up the ranks of the military hierarchy ontheir backs, aided and abetted by a dominant power that still can’timagine them any other way.
Jill Dolan teaches at Princeton Universityin English Department and the Program in Theatre and Dance. She writesthe Feminist Spectator blog on arts and culture at www.feministspectator.blogspot.com.