The Geometry of Conscience

One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences.
— Roberto Bolaño, By Night in Chile

It was only eighteen days after the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president appointed his commander-in-chief, that Salvador Allende, according to official Chilean reports, committed suicide in his presidential palace. The date was September 11th, 1973. In 1999, declassified documents by the United States government revealed the backing of Augusto Pinochet’s coup by then-President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, as part of their larger policy of Containment. Kissinger referred to Pinochet as a “friend.” This information came nine years after Pinochet’s seventeen-year reign, and two years before Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger, which limits its literary prosecution of war crimes to Kissinger’s involvement in Vietnam.

It is of course typical of regimes to restrict information. The voices of those who have the right to speak are deafening. It is one of many restrictions, which also include those on expression, movement, dissent, and imagery. Kissinger’s letters were part of 50,000 pages of documents declassified by the Clinton Administration as part of its Chile Declassification Project. Until then, the topic was a black zone. In the American Cone, meanwhile, statistics are unreliable. Some estimates say as many as 30,000 were killed by the Chilean government, and up to an estimated million were tortured. A 1992 truth commission uncovered documentation of 3,428 disappearances, introducing the term los desaparecidos ("the disappeared") to modern political lexicon.

Several more years later, in 2008, the first stone was laid in Santiago, Chile, for the Museum of Memory and Human Rights by President Michelle Bachelet, herself a victim of torture during Pinochet’s rule.

Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar was selected to build a memorial.

The Geometry of Conscience (Interior; Time Elapsed: between 0:00 and 1:00), Alfredo Jaar

It Is Difficult

It is difficult to document a dead zone of information, it is difficult, of course, to find voice after having none for so long, for stretches of silence too long might possibly help in finding something worth saying, but it is better, safer at times that is, to avoid saying anything at all. It is difficult. Even years after the fact, few of the desaparecidos have returned. It is difficult to tell their stories, or remind us of what happened, or bring our attention to what was lost when what was lost so often wasn’t noticed going missing. Giorgio Agamben, investigating the war crimes of another nation in his book Remnants of Auschwitz, wrote that “survivors bore witness to something it is impossible to bear witness to.” The truest witnesses, he argues, are all deceased: “Not even the survivor can bear witness completely…” An archive is instead constructed by those who have lived, who often carry with them the remnants of the deceased, that we might find new ways to bear witness, give way to “a different impossibility of bearing witness.” Our current language collapses in the face of new tragedies—Agamben sought to construct a new language—as does our gaze before that which we haven’t yet seen.

“We routinely confuse discourse for dialectics, information for knowledge, and media for mediation.”

In the process of documenting another project in Rwanda, Jaar lamented “the futility of a gaze that arrives too late.” At other times, according to David Levi Strauss’s essay on Jaar’s Rwanda Project, “the camera acted as a welcome buffer, an intermediary between himself and the all too unmediated things he was looking at.” It is a truism in life that it takes time to process tragedy, and it is no less a truism in art, as it often forms the first stage of healing. This is most evident in Jaar’s “The Geometry of Conscience,” buried beneath the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, in which the viewer stands in a ten-meter cube engulfed by sixty seconds of pure darkness. After some time, the facing wall begins to glow. Over the next thirty seconds, the figures of hundreds of desaparecidos reappear, their faces silhouetted from images stored by the humanitarian organizations that keep track of such things, rows and rows of them alternating with still more rows. Every other row contains images of the living, silhouettes of portraits stolen on the streets of Santiago and buried underground so that the living and the desaparecidos commune together for sixty seconds of silence and then out loud for sixty seconds of presence, such presence that after only a short time it’s blinding, deafening in its silence. Mirrors on the left and right of the installation project the faces and the attendants into eternity. Soon, the lights fade and the chamber returns to darkness, but it’s not really darkness because the viewer leaves after only three minutes with the trace still fading in her vision, which the artist believes then enters her consciousness through the optic nerve, at the very spot where the eye meets the retina and is blind. That which has disappeared assumes form as such: a memory. All throughout is silent.

The Geometry of Conscience (Interior; Time Elapsed: 1:00–1:30), Alfredo Jaar

“To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink,” the Chilean poet Roberto Bolaño wrote in an essay entitled Exiles. “To slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self.” The witness is a small person, at least compared to the desaparecidos, who are larger than the exile but forgotten. “Can it be that we’re all exiles?” To some degree, certainly. 

Complicity, likewise, is a matter of degrees. In another essay entitled “The Corridor With No Apparent Way Out,” Bolaño relays the story that also composes the climax of his novel, By Night In Chile—a deathbed confession of a priest who hid from the violence in Chile behind art. It's a true story, about a guest at the house of a Chilean writer and her husband from the United States (possibly a CIA spy) in the suburbs of Santiago:

One night a guest goes looking for the bathroom and gets lost. It’s his first time there and he doesn’t know the house. Probably he’s a bit tipsy or maybe he’s already lost in the alcoholic haze of the weekend. In any case, instead of turning right he turns left and then he goes down a flight of stairs that he shouldn’t have gone down and he opens a door at the end of a long hallway, long like Chile. The room is dark but even so he can make out a bound figure, in pain or possibly drugged. He knows what he’s seeing. He closes the door and returns to the party. He isn’t drunk anymore.

The poet who hosted the party then goes on to win numerous awards from leftist literary magazines. For Bolaño, the separation of political art and state-sponsored terror is composed of only a single corridor, which we navigate without full comprehension, and in which we find both suppression and expression. “This,” he concludes, “is how the literature of every country is built.” Its art, too.

Bolaño wrote these two essays while Pinochet sat in a London prison before his release in 2000. While he wrote, he wondered how many years until the next curfew. The literature and art of every country is built on deception and hope, complicity and exile. There are also all the degrees of the stages in between, and mediation between them.

There is a balance, then, that must be struck between silence and expression that is necessary for voices to be heard and also remembered. Gilles Deleuze wrote in Negotiations, “Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves.” This at least is true in France and the United States, where we routinely confuse discourse for dialectics, information for knowledge, media for mediation. As part of an effort to increase government transparency, President Barack Obama updated Executive Orders 12958 and 13292 with EO 13526, imposing an automatic declassification of materials after ten years, which can be extended up to twenty-five. How much time is enough for us to find our voices? How long before we lose the ability to express our torment?

Ironically, the Obama administration has been accused of maintaining the strictest control over images in the country’s history, from the refusal to disclose Abu Ghraib images to the censure of press photographers, which led thirty-eight news outlets to protest administration officials “as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens.” Henry Kissinger, like Augusto Pinochet in his final years, lives freely although he is now ninety-one. He has outlived Hitchens—and apparently his attempts at prosecution—and in recent history lamented the lack of “world order” in his 2014 book, World Order, and keynoted last year’s Oscar-nominated film, Last Days in Vietnam. His voice can still be heard shaping global politics.

For Chileans, Pinochet is no distant memory; he routinely becomes a topic of discussion, particularly in conversation with United States politicians. In 2003, Colin Powell responded to an interviewer: “With respect to… what happened with Mr. Allende, it is not a part of American history that we're proud of.” Similarly, President Obama visited Chile in 2011 and told reporters there that neither country should feel “trapped by their history.” With that, discussion of the matter, at least in the north, was closed.

The Geometry of Conscience (Exterior), Alfredo Jaar