Code unknown

"Dark Matters: Artists See the Impossible" pictures black ops, hidden cops, and shadow streams of puzzling information

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The CIA maintains a number of "black sites" around the world where suspected terrorists are "disappeared." You can get a recipe for Irish Eyes Chicken Pot Pie or instructions on how to commit suicide on the Internet. Thousands of starlings spontaneously converge in a suburb in Rome where Benito Mussolini once planned on holding an exhibition celebrating Fascism. I love having dreams. There are more than 130 revolving restaurants around the world.

These are all interesting tidbits. But what do they mean? While they may sound like the search results of indiscriminate Web surfing, all are factual elements found in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' "Dark Matters: Artists See the Impossible," curated by René de Guzman. Although organized around secrecy and the unexpected, this group exhibition deals more with what can be found than what is hidden.

Perhaps surrealist André Breton was predicting the future of curation with his juxtaposition of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table; today randomness rules, and connections are coaxed by the curator and forged by the viewer. This show exemplifies such a process. For example: Sergio Prego's video Black Monday (2006) is a mesmerizing parallax view of a small explosive going off in the artist's studio. You get every awesome angle, and the cloud is suspended midboom. (I always wondered if the tests at Bikini Atoll were done so more military personnel would have a chance to glimpse the aesthetic wonder that is the atomic bomb.) Kitty-corner from Black Monday is Heaven Can Wait (2001–ongoing), a video installation by artist team Bull.Miletic showing more parallax views, this time from revolving restaurants around the globe, including the Equinox at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco. Was it Steve McQueen who starred in The Parallax View, shot from the revolving restaurant atop the Space Needle? Or was Breton predicting the Internet and how randomness is curated into blogs? What was I blogging? I mean, saying?

It's well known that the CIA performs secret operations under fancy code names. Trevor Paglen has compiled a list — everything he could find, from Able Ally to Zodiac Beauchamp. "Dark Matters" includes a very tall wall full of them. The piece is called Codename (2001–07). Paglen told me he knows what a handful of the named operations are about, but if he talked to the wrong person, they might mistake him for a crackpot conspiracy theorist. Secret planes where? Extraordinary rendition what? Unmarked airplanes why? But Paglen is not a crackpot. He is an artist, writer, and experimental geographer. Information thus arranged and presented — what do we do with it? At this very moment, the CIA is torturing people at secret facilities in the name of our freedom. But what I want to know is, whatever happened to Bronski Beat? We do not want to think, much less believe, that the US government runs secret prisons. So we don't.

Robert Oppenheimer once said — or wrote, I forget — "It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them." I thought I used that quote in some other art review because I liked it so much. So I Googled "kurtz oppenheimer." What I got instead was a live-sex webcam chat. How many degrees to Internet sex? Not many. Listening Post (2002–06), by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, demonstrates as much. Spinal columns of digital screens climb from floor to ceiling. A suite of seven programmed actions culls live chats from the Internet, which scroll across the screens.

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