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Insurgent Aesthetics: US Military Detention and the Sensorial Life of Empire

Ronak K. Kapadia, University of Illinois, Chicago


Over the past two decades, the United States has engaged in an immense data collection project on racialized “Muslim” populations not just in its endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the US and around the world. How have US-based Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic multimedia artists grappled with these new tactics of global counterinsurgency warfare and the gendered racial violence of the national security state in their aesthetic practices?

This talk investigates the critical and social potential of contemporary visual and installation art by Rajkamal Kahlon, Mariam Ghani, and the Index of the Disappeared. Kapadia will focus on these artists' incorporation of newly released government documents detailing widespread abuses in US military practices of torture, interrogation, kidnapping, and rendition. The artists affix warmth, heat, and touch to otherwise “cold” data, thereby transforming the bureaucratic and administrative violence of the regulatory security state into an imaginative queer archive of the disappeared. Kapadia argues that the insurgent aesthetic appropriation of these declassified, but highly censored reports illuminates an alternative index of “warm data,” a way of conjuring the absences and sensory distortions in official records of military detention and warfare. This talk will explore how insurgent aesthetics utilize the torture archive as raw material for creative intervention, and in so doing, will offer a more imaginative account of security and the sensorial life of empire.

Ronak K. Kapadia is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and affiliated faculty in Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Kapadia is completing his first book, Insurgent Aesthetics: Race, Security, and the Sensorial Life of Empire, which analyzes the contemporary US global security state in the Middle East and South Asia. The project specifically re-orients attention toward what he terms “insurgent aesthetics,” an alternative articulation of minoritarian knowledge produced by those populations most devastated by the effects of US global warfare. At once an examination of the influence of US national security culture and its permanent wars on contemporary art practices, the book also reveals the freedom dreams and radical imaginings of the Muslim International before and after the global war on terror. Kapadia’s writings are published or forthcoming in Asian American Literary Review, Journal of Popular Music Studies, South Asian Diaspora, and edited volumes that include: Shifting Borders: America and the Middle East/North Africa (Ed. Alex Lubin, AUB Press 2014), With Stones in Our Hands: Racism, Muslims, and US Empire (Ed. Sohail Daulatzai and Junaid Rana, U Minn Press 2016), and Critical Ethnic Studies: A Reader (Duke UP 2016). With Katherine McKittrick and Simone Browne, Kapadia is co-editor of the special issue on race and surveillance for Surveillance & Society. Official event page is here.