Index of the Disappeared, a collaboration with Mariam Ghani (ongoing since 2004), is both a physical archive of post-9/11 disappearances and a mobile platform for public dialogue.

As an archive, Index of the Disappeared foregrounds the difficult histories of immigrant, ‘Other’ and dissenting communities in the U.S. since 9/11, as well as the effects of U.S. military and intelligence interventions around the world. Through official documents, secondary literature, and personal narratives, the Index archive traces the ways in which censorship and data blackouts are part of a broader shift to secrecy that allows for disappearances, deportations, renditions and detentions on an unprecedented scale.

The Index collection is built on the work of others actively engaged in political and legal challenges to the policies we track, and draws on radical archival, legal and activist traditions to select, group, and arrange information. While the Index has become staggeringly comprehensive over the years, covering everything from black sites to Bagram, corporate surveillance to contract translators, Pelican Bay to the Pentagon Papers (and much, much more), the point of the Index is not to collect every relevant item released into the public domain. Rather, we sort through masses of information to retrieve and preserve small bits of significance, and then make the connections that allow others to understand key points of significance, trauma, and resistance.

The Index archive circulates in several different forms. The full archive can be installed as a reading room in a gallery or community space, as in the lobby gallery at UBS headquarters in 2007. Primary source materials from the Index collection can be combined with secondary materials selected from an existing archive or library, with the combined materials installed in an environment re-designed by the Index, as in our Parasitic Archive installations at the Buffalo Public Library (2010) and NYU’s Kevorkian Center (2014). Finally, a themed selection of materials from the Index can be installed as a site-specific ‘exploded archive’, as in our Codes of Conduct installation, focused on military codes and transgressions, at the Park Avenue Armory in 2008.

As a platform, the Index presents discussions on ideas and issues related to the materials it archives and draws upon materials in the archive to create text-based, site-specific works installed in a range of physical and virtual spaces, including galleries, museums, universities, community centers, libraries, conferences, publications, windows, the street, the internet, and the mail. These visual forms of public dialogue are designed to confront audiences with the human costs of public policies, challenging them to re-consider the abstractions of political debate in specific, individual terms. Recent projects along these lines include the print project Introduction to an Index for the Radical History Review’s 9/11 anniversary issue (2011); the web project The Guantanamo Effect for Creative Time Reports and Alternet (2013); the window installation Watch This Space for the Kimmel Windows Gallery at NYU (2014); and the Secrets Told at Border Cultures part 3 (security, surveillance) at the Art Gallery of Windsor (2015) and Black Sites 1: The Seen Unseen at the Dhaka Art Summit (2016).

At the beginning of our work on Index of the Disappeared, we realized that the critical discourse in which we wished the work to participate did not yet exist. So a significant part of the Index’s work as a platform has been aimed towards creating, and then building up, that discourse. This work includes a number of critical essays, a discussion series, and most recently, a two-day international conference on radical archives at NYU. Mariam’s theory of warm data, which was first developed for the Index web project How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database in 2004, and refined with the essay “Divining the Question: An Unscientific Methodology for the Collection of Warm Data” in 2005, coincided with a rise in scholarly interest in affective archives. In recent years we have also collaborated with platforms like Creative Time Reports to disseminate Index texts, web projects, and discussions to wider audiences, partnering with them on, for example, podcasts of the Radical Archives conference and a conversation on US prison policy from California to Cuba with human rights lawyers Alexis Agathocleous and Ramzi Kassem.

An index can be a trace, a signpost, an indicator or a measurement. Our Index begins in the gaps where language ends; that is, in the records of absence and absence of records where official language fails and new languages must be developed in its place. The Index in its most material form, the archive, preserves and presents the traces of redactions and erasures in the official record, alongside the words of the original actors and witnesses of the histories it explores. For the Index, the gaps in those records are not flaws in the archive, but rather the key to its organization. We configure the bits of information remaining in the public domain in order to make visible the missing links, the submerged body of secret information below the simple surface. Presenting the Index archive as an artwork-in-progress, constantly re-adapted to the specific sites in which it is installed, encourages visitors to approach it not as researchers seeking facts but rather with the critical awareness that the ‘facts’ they encounter are in flux, defined and redefined in relationship to time, to their context and to each other.

At the same time, the Index archive’s steadily increasing mass is a visceral measure of the slow and steady creep of the troubling policies it chronicles, through every echelon of our society and every facet of our culture. In our own research with these materials, we have tried to probe the texts for productive breaks and slippages, moments where language escapes from official to unofficial registers, from public to private domains, from political to poetic testimony. These moments become the extracts and fragments of the Index, literal signs and visible trails that we circulate in the wider world – as the free postcards available in every Index installation, as the short texts that introduce each section of the online archive in The Guantanamo Effect or annotate the images that circulate in our print projects, and even assembled into found poetry in the text “Notes on the Disappeared.”