From a recent performance at The Whitney Biennial. Photo by Eduardo Aparicio.
Coco Fusco is a New York-based interdisciplinary artist and writer. She is the author of English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas, and editor of Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas, and Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self (with Brian Wallis). Her work on military interrogation was selected for the 2008 Whitney Biennial.
“In the guise of a CIA manual, Coco Fusco’s provocative A Field Guide for Female Interrogators offers an unflinching look at women’s role in the military and at America’s use of torture in the War on Terror”– (from the book’s back cover copy).
Do you remember the moment you decided that the next step for you was to undergo an undercover interrogation training camp in order to learn firsthand how American interrogators conduct their business? Can you describe the moment? What mental dots were connected?
I wanted to meet and have interactions with real military interrogators in order to develop a character for a solo performance. I did some research into courses available on interrogation and found out about Team Delta — they had links on their website to clips from a TV program they had done in Britain and after watching, I decided to contact them.
For readers who haven’t yet read, A Field Guide for Female Interrogators, can you describe some of the tactics you experienced during your interrogation training? And how did you move forward in your daily life knowing this information and having these visual memories?
The course involved immersive simulation. We played prisoners of war and our teachers played the interrogators. Each group member was interrogated several times so we got a taste of what these tactics feel like. Then after the simulation part of the course, we spent a couple of days in a classroom analyzing tactics and learning how to use them.
I’m not traumatized by the memories – I actually found the entire experience very interesting and illuminating. I think I have a better understanding of current political debates about interrogation and torture as a result of the experience. POW Resistance Training and interrogation training are pretty standard for soldiers. Any physically and psychologically demanding job involves stressful training, whether you are in the police academy, the military or professional sports.
Many Americans assumed the women in the sexual violence at Abu Graib were just following orders and were victims of the system. How does your investigation clarify this assumption and the military’s use of women?
Seeing all women in the military as victims makes it easier on all of us as Americans – if they are not responsible for what they do, then we aren’t responsible for the actions of our government either. I find that politically and intellectually lazy. Americans need to grow up and admit that as adults we are responsible for what we do, and so are soldiers in uniform. That does not mean that I fail to recognize that orders to engage in abuse came from above — I believe they did, and I would argue that all those involved in authorizing abuse at Abu Ghraib should also be held responsible.
It is true that many people in the military, men and women, are victims of sexual harassment. It is also true however, that sexual aggression is part of military culture and that historically the military has done much more to cover up sexual abuse by its members than to punish them. I also found in my research that the military is capitalizing on the growing presence of women in the armed forces and deploying tactics that involve using female sexuality as a weapon is one of the ways using women soldiers as women.
Do you think many women may have voted or are supporting Hillary Clinton because they’re standing by the essentialist view and the view of Virginia Woolf described in the book â€“ that women are essentially peace makers? What do you have to say to this view point?
Excuse me? Clinton voted in favor of invading Iraq! She’s now changing her tune to make herself look different from McCain.
Congratulations on being featured in the 2008 Whitney Biennial. What kinds of feedback have you received? Do you have a special tactic for handling any negative reviews?
People are generally impressed when artists are included. It is definitely a good thing for one’s career. I have gotten some nice comments from colleagues about the work of mine in the show. As for negative reviews, I just avoid paying much attention to them. I don’t make art in order to be loved by everyone, nor can I expect to be applauded all the time.
You also taught at Columbia. What do you feel is your recurring message to students pursuing their artwork and/or a career in the arts?
In general I try to let students know that while it can be difficult to survive in the arts, there are many benefits. It is surely a good way to have an interesting life and come in contact with a lot of very eccentric and unusual people. I do believe that staying afloat as an artist over a long period of time is much harder than many young artists realize.
Do you remember what you considered to be your first piece of artwork? What was it and who did you show it to, if anyone?
I used to create performances with my brothers when I was a kid. We would perform for family and neighbors. I performed a good deal in high school, too, in lots of musical comedies. I made a film in college that was pretty bad, but I was involved in a collective interventionist performance against a former head of the CIA who visited campus and I am still proud of having been part of that action.
Do you have any upcoming projects? Anything you would like to add?
I’ve had a really busy year and am just bringing a series of projects about the military to a close so I don’t know what the next move will be.