Confronting Documentation of the US War on Terror

February 4, 2019 - All

Sorry, your browser doesn’t support embedded videos. This project was born out of a love of metadata and a concern for the visibility of human rights violations by the US government under the War on Terror. Confronting Documentation of the US War on Terror takes existing metadata about US government documents collected by the nongovernmental organization the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and re-presents it in new ways to confront the viewer with aspects of the original documents that might not be immediately visible without that metadata. Pratt Institute’s Programming for Cultural Heritage course gave me the Python scripting knowledge I needed to work with the ACLU’s Torture FOIA Database API ( to access the documents and data they have collected via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. I used the ACLU’s “full node” API call option, run via a for-loop in Python, to write and save JSON files with the full information from each database record. I then parsed these in Python to extract just the metadata elements that I wanted to display in the project. For this project, I chose to focus on the metadata element of the document descriptions written by ACLU staff/archivists. I imported metadata elements into content nodes in a Drupal-backend website and used the Drupal “Slideshows” module to turn them into a looping slideshow of document summaries. Long term I plan to utilize the full array of metadata generated by my original Python scripts in different ways for future projects as well. This project is inspired by the artist Jenny Holzer’s work with many of these same documents, such as in her “Redaction Paintings” series, where she presents reproductions of US government documents related to human rights abuses in the War on Terror at different scales and rendered in different mediums, enabling viewers to see the documents in new ways and providing space for reflection about what the documents have meant to human beings and recent history. When seeing her work, I have always felt that it helped me to see these documents in a different way than if they were simply held in my hands as a stack of paper.

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