An Interview with Jameel Jaffer

Posted: October 17, 2016 - 09:59 , by ROM
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Jameel Jaffer

With his talk at the upcoming 11th annual Eva Holtby Lecture on Contemporary Culture, part of the ROM Speaks series, constitutional lawyer and civil liberties advocate Jameel Jaffer will focus on the phenomenon of official secrecy. Zeroing in on the legal, political, and social repercussions of allowing democratic governments to withhold information about national security policy from the public. The ROM's Ann Webb recently talked with Jaffer about the interssection of art and secrecy. 

How do official secrecy and art intersect in contemporary culture?

Some of the artists whose work I find particularly compelling—Jenny Holzer, Trevor Paglen, Laura Poitras—share a fascination with official secrets. Some of Holzer’s Redaction Paintings are based on documents declassified under the Freedom of Information Act. Poitras’s film Citizenfour tells the story of Edward Snowden, the whistle- blower who was responsible for the most significant leak of classified information since the 1970s. Paglen took a series of chilling photographs of the once-secret CIA prisons in which agency interrogators tortured prisoners captured in the “war on terror.” The photographs are incredibly powerful. By exposing what was once secret, they reclaim a grim history that was withheld from us for many years.

It’s not surprising that these artists find official secrets intriguing. Every secret has a gravitational pull. As police officers know, one sure way to get a crowd’s attention is to declare that there’s “nothing to see here.” A document that’s marked with a censor’s black lines will seize your attention in a way that an unredacted document won’t. Anyone who has dealt with the news media knows that reporters circle secrets like moths circle a flame. Secrets draw us in. This is especially true of official secrets, which by definition belong to the privileged. To expose an official secret is to alter the balance of power between the governors and the governed.


Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of the ROM magazine.