Curated by Olivian Cha and Eli Diner
Exhibition closing reception: Sunday, January 11, 6pm - 9am
January 9 - 11, 2014
A bronze plaque. It has traveled a ways to be here, on this Upper West Side façade, where, with Goudy letters, it discloses the offices of the American Literary Historical Society. Before its appearance in Sydney Pollack's 1975 Three Days of the Condor, the plaque was on a townhouse on Capitol Hill in the source novel, Six Days of the Condor, published a year before. The book's author, James Grady, has acknowledged that his inspiration—the very seed for his story of murder and paranoia in the CIA—was a similar bronze plaque that he would pass every morning and evening when, during his senior year of college, in 1971, he lived in Washington as a Sears Congressional Journalism Intern—however that plaque marked the national headquarters of the American Historical Association, the country's oldest and largest professional organization of historians.
A move, then, from D.C. to New York, from text to screen. But also, significantly, from history to something like literature—history (to be confused neither with literary history nor historical fiction). Though really a front for an office of lowly analysts in some subdivision of the CIA, the American Literary Historical Society captures something of what these analysts actually do. As an exacerbated Robert Redford/Condor explains:
Listen. I work for the CIA. I'm not a spy. I just read books. We read everything that's published in the world, and we... we feed the plots—dirty tricks, codes—into a computer, and the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, new ideas. We read adventures and novels and journals. I... I can—Who'd invent a job like that?
Who wouldn't?! The critic's dream: that world historical events or life itself should depend somehow on her readings. Though at the same time it amounts to a rather petty vision of the critic-as-bureaucrat, feeding books into computers. At least that's how it is in the movie. The novel's office has no computers; just old-fashioned reading and writing reports.1 But then in the novel—unlike the film—nothing is actually uncovered through these textual analyses, no plot to overthrow regimes in the Middle East; instead, it turns out some corrupt agents are taking advantage of the logistical infrastructure used to ship all these books around for drug smuggling. The quick score, petty profits and corruption of Grady's original are translated by Pollack and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. into regime change, resource scarcity and ultimately—and accurately—the State in a muddle over how best to serve Capital.
There are other discrepancies—some of which grow out of the compression of six days into the three—but we need not dwell on these. Elisions and ellipses, I suppose, are welcome in a story about faint traces, the unseen and the illegible. One nagging point of incoherence running through the whole project does demand brief consideration: why would bad guys, spies or whoever choose to publish their secret plans—however they have hidden them, whether in code or in some kind of fictionalized form? To what end?2 Though some would have us believe that the work of the American Literary Historical Society somehow echoes the old slogan of the New Historicists—historicizing texts and textualizing history—clearly the lesson of the Condor is you never understand what you've read.
We strongly disagree. And we hope that our own adaptation of this book–adapted-for-film clears up some of the confusion.
1. Just as the novel, informed principally by movies, dreams itself a film, so the film fantasizes a computerized narrative, more efficient even than the strict methods of Hollywood storytelling.
2. In 2008, best-selling author and former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley published Comrade J.: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America after the End of the Cold War based on his interviews with former KGB agent Sergei Tretyakov. Among the latter's revelations was that KGB generals had seen Three Days of the Condor and, convinced that the CIA was undertaking more extensive analytic work, set up NIIRP (Scientific Research Institute of Intelligence Problems of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB). As in the film, the analysts worked in a secret office behind a bronze plaque, this time engraved with name All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Systems Analysis. Tretyakov's story produced some amused and facile commentary on life imitating art, though, in fact, the work done by NIIRP, like that undertaken by analysts at the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies, mostly involved combing through periodicals in search of hints about, say, the location of nuclear arsenals, rather than reading spy novels for the secret plots.
But what can you do? People just love these historical quirks. Though, of course, the really quirky fluke of the Condor was the near simultaneous release of the film and the implementation of Operation Condor, the U.S. campaign of political persecution, torture and terror, carried out with our dictators in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, resulting in the murders of perhaps 60,000 people.
Blue Glove (Production Still)
Lycra spandex, acrylic on canvas, hand broom, long blade scissors, plastic skull, paint spattered bottle, acrylic triangle, Armature wire
85 x 59 1/2 x 11 inches
Body Double (X)
DV to Digital Betacam
epoxy, rubber and clothing
48 x 18 x 9 inches
23 x 14 x 4 inches
72 Hour Three Days of the Condor
35 mm film transferred to digital file, time processing