Civil Liberties

The Guantanamo Effect: A Constant Reminder of America's Role in Perpetrating a Global War

A special interactive report helps us understand the barbarity of Guantanamo.

Photo Credit: Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, Screenshot of The Guantanamo Effect, 2013

The U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay has, over the last 11 years, become much more than a place. In the sphere of U.S. domestic politics, it is an irresolvable problem over which pitched partisan battles have been fought. Its continued existence is a snarl in the larger geopolitical fabric, an irritant that constantly recalls the role of the United States in theorizing and proliferating a state of global war.

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At the same time, the camp at Guantanamo and the people imprisoned within it have become bargaining chips used by the United States in structuring its informal state-to-state relationships. For example, in 2005, the United States paid for the construction of a new block of Afghanistan’s Pul-e-Charkhi prison in return for the Afghan government’s agreement to imprison and try detainees transferred from Guantanamo to Afghanistan. Most important, Guantanamo, which originally served the Department of Defense and other government agencies as a “battle lab” where new strategies for the “global war on terror” could be tested, has developed into a set of principles that are now enshrined in U.S. law. This doctrine visibly surfaces in a now-declassified appendix of the U.S. Army Field Manual on Interrogation (rewritten in 2006 to reflect experiments with new methods at Guantanamo), but remains hidden in the classified JTF-GTMO Standard Operating Procedures that have nonetheless influenced detention operations everywhere from Bagram to Abu Ghraib to the Indiana Supermax prison known half-jokingly as “Guantanamo North.” This emergent code of conduct deploys covert and extralegal surveillance, imprisonment, torture and killing to persistently separate and mark out a particular group of people from the rest of humanity. The Guantanamo code has proliferated like a self-replicating virus in various permutations across the globe, ultimately circling back to spread within our own borders through the tandem expansion of drone strikes and surveillance based on “imminent threat” rationales, and extreme isolation programs in domestic prisons.

While specific debates over the territory of Guantanamo and the fates of the people still imprisoned there remain urgent, larger discussions of Guantanamo qua policy or politics must admit the broader reach and influence of Guantanamo the idea.

In this commissioned web project for Creative Time Reports,the experimental archive Index of the Disappeared—our collaborative, ongoing exploration of the costs of post-9/11 detention, secrecy and disappearance—provides a portal into some of its current research, centered around Guantanamo as both a reality in place and an idea in circulation. Like the physical archive maintained by Index of the Disappeared, this web project uses idiosyncratic categories and descriptors to trace new relationships between existing documents, and pays close attention to slippages in usage of language and definition of terms as well as omissions, ruptures or oddities in the records. A given strand of research might highlight anything from the assurances against torture proffered by the Ben-Ali and Qaddafi governments in order to secure individual transfer agreements for Tunisian and Libyan detainees, to the link between three reported suicides at Guantanamo in 2006 and an affidavit about “dryboarding” filed at a Charleston naval brig during the same period, to the refusal of Democratic senators to sign a Senate Armed Services Committee report on recidivism.

This digital archive has been visualized as a rhizomatic, relational, hyperlinked card catalogue. Each card stack contains one topic card, under which are tabbed subtopic cards. When a topic card is clicked, a related image or image sequence appears (including courtroom drawings, portraits and other images created for the Index, and diagrams from official documents and military field manuals). When a subtopic card is clicked, a detail view of the card appears, revealing a text fragment that has been abstracted from relevant documents in the archive. When the text card is hovered over or clicked, an informational card will appear (if more information is available). Each informational card contains notes on its subject, cross-references to other topics and subtopics and a series of links to relevant items from the Index archive or related online projects: primary source documents, first-person narratives, reports or analysis by third parties and/or audio recordings. The linked information represents a broad cross-section of publicly available archival resources—a mix of the official and the mundane that includes autopsies, affidavits, correspondence, interviews, invoices, legal analysis, media accounts, NGO reports, transcripts, testimony, treaties and more.

Again like the Index’s physical archive, this web project is an open-ended work, which will change from week to week as more resources or layers are added, reflecting the emergence of new information in the context of existing information. We do not pretend to possess a complete understanding of Guantanamo and all of its effects. But we hope to map our present understanding of both the “known knowns” and “known unknowns” that flow in and out of Guantanamo Bay, while gesturing toward what still remains in the realm of “unknown unknowns.”

Click here to navigate the artists’ interactive archive You'll need to enable scripting in your browser preferences while on the site for full functionality. For visitors with older versions of Firefox (18.9 or earlier), we recommend the add-on “PDF.JS” for in-browser PDF viewing.



Mariam Ghani was born in 1978 in New York. Her exhibitions and screenings include dOCUMENTA (13) [2012], the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011), Sharjah Biennials 10 and 9 (2011, 2009), National Gallery, Washington DC (2008), Tate Modern, London (2007), EMAP, Seoul (2005), Liverpool Biennial (2004), and transmediale, Berlin (2003). Public projects have been commissioned by Creative Time and the Arab American National Museum, among others. Critical texts have appeared in FUSE, Viralnet, Pavilion, Sarai Reader, Radical History Review, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. In spring 2012 she collaborated with Afghan Films and the media archive collective to launch a digitization project in the Afghan Films archive.

Chitra Ganesh was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, where she currently lives and works. Her drawing, installation, text-based work, and collaborations seek to excavate and circulate buried narratives typically excluded from official canons of history, literature, and art.

Ganesh’s work has been exhibited widely at venues including the Brooklyn Museum, the Queens Museum of Art, the Asia Society, Bronx Museum of Art, Exit Art, White Columns, Momenta Art and Apex Art in New York. International venues include the Gwangju Art Museum in Korea, Fondazione Sandretto in Italy, Nature Morte in India, Montehermoso Center in Spain, and ZKM in Germany. Her works have been featured in several publications including the New York Times, Flash Art, Art Asia Pacific, and Time Out New York. Ganesh is a 2012 Guggenheim fellow, and her work has also been recognized with grants from the Astraea Foundation (2004), NY Community Trust (2006), New York Foundation for the Arts (2005, 2009), Printed Matter (2009), the Art Matters Foundation (2010) and the Joan Mitchell Foundation for Painters and Sculptors (2010). Her work is represented in prominent international collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, San Jose Museum of Art, Saatchi Collection (London) and Devi Art Foundation (New Delhi), amongst others.