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David Birkin

David Birkin, Existence or Nonexistence,
from the project Severe Clear,
Skywriting over New York City, Memorial Day 2014.
Courtesy of the artist.

Severe Clear, 2014

Eyes Only, 2014

This past year, I staged two public performances in New York. The first involved skywriting the words “EXISTENCE OR NONEXISTENCE” above Manhattan on Memorial Day weekend. The second, on Veterans Day, saw an aeroplane circle the Statue of Liberty’s torch towing a banner that read “THE SHADOW OF A DOUBT”. These unannounced and seemingly spontaneous events were part of a project called Severe Clear, inspired by a letter the CIA sent the American Civil Liberties Union rejecting their Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the US government’s classified drone program. The letter states that the agency can “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence” of records responsive to the request.

Unlike the Pentagon, the use of unmanned aircraft by the CIA for the purposes of targeted assassination is unofficial. This classified program remains unconstrained by judicial or congressional oversight, even in such extreme cases as the targeting of American citizens.

My interest lies in the wording of the CIA’s rejection letter. A line composed in pure bureaucratic prose, it tells us, in precise terms, nothing, except that the absence of affirmation does not imply it exists. Whatever “it” may be.

The phrase “shadow of a doubt” refers to an impossible burden of proof, an unattainable degree of truth and a jurisprudential ideal. It also contrasts sharply with the scant evidence used to authorise “signature strikes”, in which suspects need not be identified at all, and are targeted based on suspicious patterns of behaviour alone. The existence or nonexistence of “collateral damage” is increasingly becoming a subject of contestation.

On the day of the skywriting, I went to the summit of the Empire State Building and took a photograph, facing south toward the new Freedom Tower. This tension between the social, economic and ideological conceptions of freedom and empire is, for me, an important part of the work.

Barely a week after the phrase appeared above the New York City skyline, the CIA officially launched into the Twittersphere with its maiden message: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.” A coincidence? Perhaps. A sly public relations move? Most definitely. Humour and hubris make pernicious bedfellows.

David Birkin

The artist wishes to thank a/political for their support

David Birkin is an artist based between New York and London. He was an ISP fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art and is a graduate of Oxford University and the Slade School of Fine Art.

Birkin started out photographing subjects on the periphery of conflict, such as the training of female journalists in Kabul, the founding of Afghan Film, and conscientious objectors during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, before starting the Speakers’ Society: a non-profit lecture series for art and politics. In 2009, he was awarded a bursary by the National Media Museum and a graduate scholarship by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Birkin was the recipient of the 2010 Sovereign Art Prize (Barbican, London) and the 2012 Celeste Prize for Photography (Museo Centrale Montemartini, Rome), and was an artist-in-residence at Yaddo and at the Art & Law Residency in New York. He has performed in films by Nathaniel Mellors for the ICA, Tate Triennial, British Art Show, Hayward Gallery, Venice Biennale and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and narrated the English translation of Chris Marker and Alan Resnais‘ 1953 film Les statues meurent aussi at the French Institute in London.

Talks and exhibitions include the Courtauld Institute, The Photographers’ Gallery, Saatchi Gallery, Paradise Row and Trolly, London; The Institute for Ethics, Law & Armed Conflict, Oxford; the Solyanka State Gallery, Moscow; Tallinn Kunstihoone, Estonia; Gervasuti Foundation, Venice; Dumbo Arts Center, Brooklyn; and MoMA PS1’s Rockaway Dome. Birkin presented a solo exhibition at The Mosaic Rooms in London in 2015.

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