BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 18 JAN 21

Did an Artist Rebrand the CIA?

With the US spy agency’s web redesign, Ian Bourland looks at the revolving door between the arts, entertainment and US policy

BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 18 JAN 21

The popular podcast Wind of Change was one of 2020’s runaway hits, and a fascinating diversion during months of isolation. In the series, journalist Patrick Radden Keefe travels the world, trying to prove the rumour that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) either wrote the 1990 metal-ballad ‘Wind of Change’ by the Scorpions, or convinced the band into doing it on their behalf. The song was an anthem for the fall of the Soviet Union, and Radden Keefe’s deeper message is clear: soft power – art, music, fashion – is a potent geostrategic tool. Whether the CIA is in the business of writing songs or making movies (see the CIA-sanctioned blockbuster Argo, 2012) isn’t the point. There has long been a revolving door between the art and entertainment worlds and that of US policy. Nelson Rockefeller famously dispatched MoMA consultant Lincoln Kirstein to Latin America on a mission that blurred the lines between business development, art collection and WWII-era intelligence collection. In the 1950s, the Leaders and Specialists Grant Program of the State Department cemented the reputation of the New York avant-garde. And when the architectural historian Donald Wilber wasn’t penning studies for academic imprints, he was helping to overthrow the Iranian government.

CIA old logo (left) and new logo (right), 2021. Courtesy: CIA

One wonders, then, why an organization acutely aware of the power of visual culture paid so little attention for so long to its official website. After all, the internet is a platform for movies, TV, social media, news and just about everything else, including, increasingly, the art world. It’s the water in which anyone born after 1980 swims throughout the day. On one hand, the CIA’s site (launched in 1998 and refurbished, it seems, in 2007 and 2013) looked until recently like something you’d see on the landing page for a university library: innocuous, schematic, very web 1.0 but without the vapourwave cachet that’s typical of the work by artists such as Hito Steyerl, Ryan Trecartin and, notably, Ryder Ripps (more on him later). This is unsurprising, given the agency’s status in the federal firmament – at once both part of an unwieldy bureaucracy and highly secretive. Like many things DC, federal websites are the opposite of ‘on trend’, revelling instead in workaday functionality and comfortably a decade behind the times. As Ripps himself pointed out to me in a recent email conversation, ‘If you can kill anywhere on earth via a few taps on a drone’s joystick, who cares what your website looks like?’

On the other hand, the Hollywood image of the CIA is not only digital savviness but also dystopian techno-futurism. If you were raised on the Jason Bourne movies or Homeland (2011–20) and the slick GUIs depicted therein, you could be forgiven for grudgingly admiring the (albeit fictional) aesthetic intentionality of the intelligence community – the surveillance software, satellite feeds and giant displays are cool, in a 24 (2001–14), soldier-of-fortune sort of way. And in the first week of 2021, the CIA turned heads with the launch of a new site that, indeed, conforms to filmic stereotypes with a more contemporary corporate flair. Clean all-over design, grid lines, bold contrasts of red and black, big buttons and considered photo content. In this sense, the site is more of a piece of the moment – if not bleeding edge, then in the realm of millennial user experience expectations. The rollout is consistent with moves in recent years to engage on networks ranging from Instagram to Tor. As the agency director Gina Haspell remarked, ‘We’ve come a long way since I applied by simply mailing a letter marked “CIA, Washington, D.C.”’

Argo, 2012. Courtesy: Warner Bros

As an art critic, I typically wouldn’t remark on website redesigns, but the Twitter hall of mirrors belched forth an art-world-adjacent ‘controversy’ in the days that followed. Some users paid particular attention to a fetching logo with jittery topographic lines reminiscent of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (1979) record sleeve; at least one other speculated on the identity of the ‘rebrander’, betting on … indeed, Ripps himself. Soon thereafter, Ripps posted, claiming the redesign as his work, because (according to GQ coverage) ‘a job is a job and i am an american, even though i have been to europe a few times.’ The CIA, in turn, roundly denied Ripps’s involvement (though they do not provide the actual name of the designer). According to a CIA spokesperson, ‘As CIA’s new website states, we’re looking for people from all backgrounds and walks of life to work at CIA, but this individual had absolutely nothing to do with our website redesign.’

It is now clear that Ripps was running with a joke that presented itself, but that he considers the totality of these interactions a form of artistic intervention itself. When I pressed him on the intent of what he calls RR ULTRA (2021) – a reference to 1950s-era CIA mind control experiments, Project MKUltra – he noted that, ‘The CIA piece … was and is absolutely sincere, not a joke. My intention was to reveal truths about our society. I successfully showed how emotional people want to believe fiction as fact (or fact as fiction), how the attention economy is fueled by these people, how the most powerful organization on earth can be mimicked and mimed, how sensationist clickbait is designed and the paradox of virtue.’ He further clarified that the project is not oppositional as such, and that he does notthink the CIA is “good” or “bad” – that’s a very simple way to see the world. The entire reason we have courts is because reality is murkier than any written law can define.’ That is, RR ULTRA seems to be more a case study in the operations of the very simulacral world that the CIA seems to be meeting on its own terms as it refines its recruitment and intelligence collection processes. The ensuing ‘controversy’, covered by so much ‘clickbait’, is at once the subject and form of the work.

Joy Division Unknown Pleasures
Peter Saville and Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, 1979. Courtesy: the artist and Factory Records

For my part, I’m wary of art that purports to be critical by relying on close mimicry or overt winking participation in systems of power. But then, I gather that Ripps is not going for polemicism – more a blend of curiosity and realism about the contours of the digital landscape. The CIA redesign was a case study, but RR ULTRA isn’t about the CIA as such. On the other hand, the Ripps intervention did give me occasion to look carefully at a site I’ve not seriously considered since my days using the CIA World Factbook (available to the public since 1971) to write term papers. In its Argo-ish way, the new site also has a ‘curated’ vibe, including artefacts and technologies like the A-12 Oxcart spy plane, which bring Langley to a mass audience while shoring up its mystique. I’ll also probably be back for its new content stream. I came for the internet art, and stayed for the dog-training tips.

Main image: A-12 Aircraft, 2021. Courtesy: CIA 

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).