Oh, how we long for "a day after" now!1 I am drafting this essay from the Great Indoors on the Northwest side of Chicago on the ancestral lands of the Three Fires Confederacy in late summer 2020, when the US is in freefall after attempting a patchwork and ill-advised series of reopening plans, amid sustained revolutionary protests, and as the sedimented traumas of this past spring's sequestration have barely begun to register in the collective national consciousness. It's impossible to think of embodied vulnerability, social porousness, bodily interdependence, and the terror of contagion in the same way after the calamitous events of 2020.

"After the events of [blank]": we use this formulation ubiquitously in our speech, especially "after 9/11" that other world-bending moment that changed everything and yet nothing at all. That spectacular occurrence that refracted all of the unresolved horrors of the twentieth century's Global Cold War into the new millennium. Nearly two decades later, an ever-expanding global struggle of regulating, managing, and warehousing populations continues mostly unabated across the heterogeneous terrain of the Greater Middle East: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Niger, and beyond to say nothing of the numerous intertwined policing and security arrangements closer to home. It is difficult, if not impossible, to offer an appraisal of the astounding vision and strategic expanse of Washington's counterterror and counterinsurgent wars since 9/11. But it's clear that the logics of US counterterrorism and national security permeate the planet, underwriting an everlasting war: an "everywhere war"2 on the biosphere right on cue for the upheavals of 2020 that threaten to amplify and exacerbate planetary inequality and injustice. Like 9/11, the COVID-19 pandemic features a double accelerant effect: group-differentiated premature death and insecurity for the global racialized underclasses and staggering accumulations of wealth and safety for the shrinking global ruling classes. As Wendy Brown swiftly summarizes, the pandemic "intensifies existing vulnerabilities in a world ordered by the crude, careless powers of nation-states and capitalism."3

How might we amplify the creative strategies that contemporary artists and cultural producers employ in service of insurgent struggles to end forever wars on terror and imagine otherwise? The sensorial and tactile registers in the contemporary works of minoritarian and diasporic artists are antidotes to the atomizing tactics of US counterinsurgency warfare in the Greater Middle East. They offer queer feminist methodologies of rebellion and freedom.4 The radical experiments, sensuous knowledges, and freedom dreams of contemporary minoritarian cultural workers respond to the state of forever war. Turning to the expansive world-making knowledge practices of contemporary Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic artists what I call insurgent aesthetics inaugurates new ways of understanding the politics of security and freedom from the perspective of those most dispossessed by US war-making as well as their diasporic kin.5 Unlike artists who forged works in the diaspora after years of living in conflict zones marked by direct embodied experience with the US war machine and its client states, the majority of the artists I discuss here are instead diasporic subjects of surveillance societies in the West, differentially included within hierarchal orders of US gendered racialization and militarized security but not directly targeted by US imperial warfare.6

It feels especially apt to revisit some of their concerns now as an incalculable number of people are slowly starved of touch and intimate sociality in mundane quarantine (9/11/20 = exactly 6 months and counting for me). While clearly distinct from carceral confinement in imperial warfare, we are experiencing uneven levels of terror and separation by an airborne sickness whose differential effects have been swiftly weaponized by authoritarian regimes across the world to exacerbate planetary inequality, including most viciously within the US.7

And yet, even as global security-policing regimes have long facilitated murderous divisions and disorders, their forever wars also often produce the conditions of possibility for imagining an insurgent otherwise. For instance, despite the pandemic making touch and sociality ever more precarious and laden with risk, we are seeing the revitalization of powerful forms of coalition and sensuous affiliation in the US. We are witnessing the efflorescence of Black-led rebellion against the anti-Black carceral violence of the racial-colonial state. These race-radical freedom struggles are intersectional, internationalist, and multigenerational in scope queer and trans and feminist and anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist and anti-respectability and crip. A novel coronavirus has killed nearly 200 thousand people in the US alone, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, brown, and poor, as militarized police forces shoot tear gas to suffocate Black protesters and their accomplices working to downwardly redistribute breath on our streets across the nation.8 Could there be any more vivid an illustration of the necropolitical power of the racial state and its mortal claims to dominion over the insurgent body and its sensory states?

And yet in the face of so much spectacularized state violence, there is tenderness, abundance, and care in the air today too. We watch organizers putting their vulnerable bodies on the line for their comrades, passing out provisions like masks and hand sanitizer, rejecting liberal reformist disciplinary co-optations of their struggles, practicing mutual aid as they tear down white supremacist monuments and extinguish the cops and courts in our collective hearts and minds. These rebellious expressions of organizing represent urgent appeals to revitalize our collective political imaginations in the here and now and become more experimental in our tactics and strategies of insurgency against the global ends of the forever wars on terror and their domestic reverberations, which are felt most acutely through mass incarceration, mass deportation, and police violence in the US. Powerful abolitionist experiments and prefigurative practices abound, if only we could transform our collective frequencies to better respond to their call.

Turning the tide against endless warfare necessitates an embrace of the radical imagination and speculative thinking of visionary artists to transport us beyond what Achille Mbembe calls the "great chokehold" of the present.9 But so much of the popular and scholarly criticism on late modern warfare attunes so closely to the dominant strategies and technologies of national security that such work often has the unintended effect of making the state's frameworks and institutions seem monolithic and omniscient, even as that work seeks to assail war and empire. That global world order is, in fact, already fleeting, fragile, and always failing. Felicitous cracks have appeared in the surface of the US forever war's architecture that are being exploited by forms of fugitivity, refusal, and rebellion. Diasporic visual and multimedia artists who hail from societies besieged by war but live and labor in the heart of empire have made available new ways of knowing, sensing, and feeling that were once thought to be unimaginable.10


Cultural workers are producing what sociologist Asef Bayat calls "quiet encroachments," new tactics of protest that thrive in the underground and interstitial spaces to escape detection by the surveillance state.11 But often missing from prevailing accounts of art activism and criticism in the post-9/11 global war on terror era are the racialized bodies of minoritarian art practitioners themselves and their indispensable links to diasporic communities and social geographies most affected by US global state violence in the Greater Middle East.12 The insurgent aesthetics emanating from contemporary Arab, Muslim, and South Asian populations are vital to knowing the submerged histories of the forever war, not merely because these distinct minoritarian groups have survived but because their works clarify the critical terrain of an ideological struggle.

Take for instance the work of the Brooklyn-based contemporary art duo the Index of the Disappeared (comprising Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh). In Afterlives of Black Sites I: The Seen Unseen, the Index of the Disappeared offers an indictment of the visual and affective legacies of former CIA black site prisons. More than one hundred secret prisons across thirty countries were operated by the CIA as part of an extrajudicial kidnapping, interrogation, and torture program during the Bush II era of the forever war.13 In this project the artists embrace an even wider scope to suggest that, "any place that has been temporarily made invisible by (tacit or explicit) agreement to not see something that clearly exists can also be understood as a black site including 'temporary holding' zones used for extrajudicial interrogation, from Homan Square in Chicago to the Forward Operating Bases deployed by the US military."14 These artists evoke the ongoing enduring relation between the global wars on terror and the brutal domestic policing, surveillance, and imprisonment project perfected on racialized and migrant communities in the US, bringing to light the "blackness" and "blackworlds" of the domestic and global ends of contemporary US state violence.15

In a group show titled "Mining Warm Data" at the 2016 Dhaka Art Summit, the Index's Black Sites I grappled with the recent "dark pasts and presents" of US empire."16 As their first significant artistic collaboration in South Asia, the exhibit at the Dhaka Art Summit provided an opportunity to reroute the Index's venerable diasporic insurgent aesthetic collaboration in the US through a more intimate engagement with social geographies and nonwestern lifeworlds targeted by the global ends of the US forever war. The artists conducted field research in Afghanistan on former secret prisons and collaborated with local led and neon sign makers in Bangladesh in advance of the summit. The culminating installation included eight photo lightboxes; a signature series of watercolor portraits by Ganesh based on firsthand witnesses of the black sites; a short film by Ghani exploring how and why information that is widely known remains officially denied; and a large neon sign that pairs a poignant phrase from an official description of the first prisoner waterboarded by the CIA with the Bangla expression "covering a fish with greens," signifying an attempt to cover up something that everybody already knows.17 As viewers enter the installation's dark room, they are confronted by the blinding illumination of the neon sign, with its bluish hue, and the lightbox images, and are thus enveloped by the Index's long-standing aesthetic and conceptual concern with the interchange between visibility and invisibility and transparency and opacity.

Given the many open secrets of the forever war, including the use of black site prisons, the artists explore the war's discarded landscapes and built environments that are hidden in plain view. They speculate on whether it is ever possible to view the ruins of a former black site "without seeing it through the veil of its previous life in the unseen."18 In their field research, Ghani and Ganesh discovered that "the feeling of looking at a place that was once a black site but has now had any trace of that use removed or again hidden from view, is remarkably similar to the feeling of looking at a heavily redacted document. The surface opacity both frustrates the viewer who seeks concrete knowledge and underlines the importance of that which is concealed."19 If a surface refers to the outermost boundary of an object, the artists seek to penetrate that outer layer and conjure the innards of US empire lurking beneath. To replicate this sensorial disturbance, the Index used redaction patterns extracted from declassified documents, which they obtained from their long-standing archive about the geopolitical sites captured in photographs, to alter their images in the lightbox series. The aesthetic effect is a distorted and fractal view of the original landscapes photographed by the artists a "collective hallucination" that perfectly encapsulates what remains of knowledge in the wake of the forever war.

The Index's Afterlives of Black Sites captures the US security state's perennial preoccupation with officially denying that which everyone already knows, not least the many sites of carceral violence in its imperial wars. "Warm data" is an insurgent aesthetic strategy and reparative intervention that poetically limns the fissures, failures, and absences in visual archives of global military detention. What is hidden from view within the US state's production of imperial transparency is a new imperial sensorium, a sensuous world of necropolitics that enfolds and also engenders US civic life. The Index's warm data reveals how empirical ways of knowing political violence and war do not exist independently or outside the aesthetic and sensory modes that are equally central to the US forever war. This interplay between transparency and opacity comes alive on the surface of art objects in this latest collaborative work by the Index. Its multiplicity of perspectives on the disturbed visual terrain of former black site prisons evokes what Caren Kaplan describes as "not only the present absences but the absent presences . . . that a singular worldview cannot accommodate."20


To conjure the afterlives of black sites and forever wars is to imply that even as this imperial violence is not over and done, its shape and form have been transfigured. The forever war's flexible assemblage of tactics and strategies most certainly mutates by the day in the dystopian here and now.21 Despite decades of neoliberal security and warfare policies, the ascent of Trump, and the parallel rise of protofascist, authoritarian regimes and political movements across the globe, signals a continuation and amplification of securitized violence. The botched efforts at nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades combined with skyrocketing inequality, planetary destruction, and accelerated suffering across and within national boundaries all attest to the spectacularly failed nature of the twenty-first-century empire-state and presage the ends of the American Century. How might we rethink insurgent aesthetics and sensuous affiliations in the context of accelerated American imperial decline and the rise of Trumpism?

Trump is harbinger and architect of this imperial decline.22 His rhetoric lifts the veil of what has been long-standing policy. His reign over a militarized regime of lies presents a perfect encapsulation of the dominant sensorial life of empire: a sword of chaos, spectacle, duplicity, trolling, corruption, and catastrophe with a deeply gendered, racialized edge. The vicious inner and outer wars waged by the US are coming clearly into view. Under Trump, the US has greenlighted an immense number of airstrikes, bombings, massacres, special operation forces, arbitrary raids, and land grabs (both in the US interior and overseas) with unprecedented levels of civilian casualties; unchecked military arms deals with despotic regimes; and potential new alliances with authoritarian or antidemocratic leaders with names like Erdogan, Putin, Duterte, Conte, Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, and Modi. On the domestic front, we have already witnessed white supremacist and revanchist calls for Muslim bans, border walls, and militarized urban policing; child detention, sexual abuse, and family separation at the US-Mexico border; the billion-dollar business of migrant shelters; rampant government corruption; a proliferation of toxic ableist cis heteropatriarchies; attacks on the free press; an incitement to greater ecological chaos and devastation; and colossal cuts to social spending and government regulations, spurring ever more radical upward redistributions of wealth.

We know that this sort of gendered racial capitalist violence spikes when empires start to fall. Our historical moment is marked by the exercise of arbitrary inhumane state power trained primarily on those seen as outsiders to the empire-state. In this milieu, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, and anti-South Asian racisms are embedded in both the domestic and global contexts of US empire. This reality necessitates a relational approach that addresses US militarism and foreign policies that target these groups with state violence and other forms of militarized oppression overseas and with domestic forms of carcerality, including entrapment, confinement, deportation, and surveillance across a range of institutional sites within the US. At a time when so many are closely engaging with venerable Black-led demands to abolish the police and prisons across the United States, might we extend our freedom dreams to conjure the abolition of the US military and the broader global forever warfare state as well? We know that the police and the military are two faces of the same system of global repression and racial capitalism. Broadening our indictments of US domestic neoliberal racial regimes of security and policing to overseas wars and occupations across the Global South would reveal the inextricable links between the domestic and international contexts of US liberal warfare and its ruse of promoting safety and security around the world.23

The search for alternative imaginaries and anti-imperialist designs could not be more urgent. This is the vital contribution of insurgent aesthetics alongside a broader constellation of radical acts and freedom dreams: to imagine dissident modes of refusal, ungovernability, and fugitivity as the bases for a revitalized insurgency against the forces of neoliberal security and warfare.

A closer engagement with the creative practices of conceptual artists like the Index of the Disappeared compels us to think, feel, and imagine otherwise about the manifold violences of the social world. A queer feminist decolonial reading of their works of art allows us to better appreciate how the forever war's violently unfolding archives are repositories not only of data and information but also of collective affects and structures of feeling that can elicit subjugated knowledge about the lives of those dispossessed, tortured, and killed across the transnational theaters of contemporary US war-making. In the end, the Index's insurgent aesthetics open up other ways of knowing the carceral afterlives of war, destruction, and survival in the realm of contemporary art and culture. Their sensuous knowledge projects might further help us reckon with and reimagine anew our own intimate affective relation and collusion with the extraordinary renditions of US empire that are waged endlessly in our name.

Fig. 1: Index of the Disappeared, Afterlives of Black Sites I: The Seen Unseen, 2015-16. Overpainted neon. Commissioned and produced by Creative Time Reports, the Juncture Initiative at Yale Law School, and Samdani Art Foundation for the 2016 Dhaka Art Summit. Courtesy the artists (Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh), Creative Time Reports, the Juncture Initiative at Yale Law School, Dhaka Art Summit, and Samdani Art Foundation. Photo credit: Jenni Carter.
Fig. 2: Index of the Disappeared, Afterlives of Black Sites I: The Seen Unseen, installation view of light-box series and neon sign. Commissioned and produced by Creative Time Reports, the Juncture Initiative at Yale Law School, and Samdani Art Foundation for the 2016 Dhaka Art Summit. Courtesy the artists (Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh), Creative Time Reports, the Juncture Initiative at Yale Law School, Dhaka Art Summit, and Samdani Art Foundation. Photo credit: Jenni Carter.

Ronak K. Kapadia is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is author of Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War (Duke Press 2019) and working on a new book titled "Breathing in the Brown Queer Commons."


  1. Achille Mbembe, "The Universal Right to Breathe," translated by Carolyn Shread, "In The Moment" Blog of Critical Inquiry, April 13, 2020.[]
  2. Derek Gregory, "The Everywhere War," Geographical Journal 177, no. 3 (2011): 238-250.[]
  3. Wendy Brown, "From Exposure to Manifestation," LA Review of Books, April 14, 2020. []
  4. Ronak K. Kapadia, Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).[]
  5. I use the interpretive strategy and theoretical framework of "insurgent aesthetics" to analyze contemporary works of conceptual art across the South Asian and Middle Eastern diasporas as a coherent social, cultural, and political formation challenging the explanatory power of dominant expert knowledge about US empire and its forever wars.[]
  6. As outspoken critics of US forever wars, these contemporary artists have pursued often more privileged transnational art activist careers that are paradoxically upheld by US empire in global cities such as New York, Dhaka, Amsterdam, and Berlin. This complicated social location situates them differently from many of the racialized and dispossessed subjects of their artworks, including criminalized immigrant detainees and suspected enemy combatants who are forced to suffer the dividing brutalities of US empire as military targets either in the US, at US military prison sites, or in the Global South. For many of these artists, including those discussed in this piece, it is precisely their privileged lack of proximity to nonwestern populations and social geographies most ravaged by US global warfare in the Greater Middle East that haunts their insurgent aesthetic practices. Much of their artistic work reflects precisely on the hardened if tenuous line that divides them from violent conflict and its collateral afterworlds. One way I depict these artists' insurgency against their structural complicity with state violence, then, is in analyzing how they wrestle with their own structural participation in the post-9/11 forever war in their formal works as diasporic subjects estranged from the war's cruelest victimizations, even while simultaneously being racialized with these populations through the complex visual order of the forever war machine.[]
  7. My first published journal article was on the interplay between counterterrorism and contagion in the music of British Sri Lankan rapper MIA and her 2006 hit "Bird Flu." That piece was motivated by the emergent articulation of global public health surveillance programs with security panics over bird flu and swine flu in the late-Bush II era and in conversation with the scholarship of Nayan Shah, Priscilla Wald, Neel Ahuja, among others in American/ethnic/queer studies. Together, these biopolitical developments provide the discursive terrain in which to ask how existing US security apparatuses were being reconfigured to shape new assemblages of organizations, techniques, and forms of biopolitical expertise. At stake, and in contrast to this emergent "biosecurity" framework, were the aesthetic practices of artists like MIA, which I argued provided a critical moment of refreshment an opportunity to reactivate our political imaginations and conceptualize "contagion" anew. I offered an account of the sonic realm in MIA's work to argue that sonic processes of affective contagion, or "sonic contagions," make available alternative utopian possibilities that offer other ways of hearing and conceptualizing queer collectivity, belonging, and pleasure in the midst of the devastations wrought by security panics and warfare. See Ronak K. Kapadia, "Sonic Contagions: Bird Flu, Bandung, and the Queer Cartographies of MIA," Journal of Popular Music Studies 26, no. 2-3 (2014): 226-250.[]
  8. Like all wartime body counts, the COVID-19 death toll remains a hotly contested issue in the United States and globally. See, e.g., Denise Lu, "The True Coronavirus Toll in the U.S. Has Already Surpassed 200,000," The New York Times, August 13, 2020; and Josh Katz, Denise Lu, and Margot Sanger-Katz, "Tracking the Real Coronavirus Death Toll in the United States," The New York Times, August 19, 2020.[]
  9. Mbembe, "The Universal Right to Breathe."[]
  10. Insurgent Aesthetics examines how contemporary Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic artists in the US and Europe, including Mahwish Chishty, Wafaa Bilal, Naeem Mohaiemen/Visible Collective, Rajkamal Kahlon, Chitra Ganesh, Mariam Ghani, and Larissa Sansour, have grappled in their work with the neoliberal state of exception and the national security state's use of gendered racial violence. Across the book I explore insurgent aesthetic rejoinders to a distinct but interconnected range of national security and military practices across three major domains. In chapter 2, I read performance works that respond critically to US global military practices of outright killing via distance warfare and targeted assassinations through the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, in Af-Pak and Iraq. Chapter 3 examines the sensorial life of unlawful confinement in visual and installation art responses to US global military prisons and the related affective, ethical, and legal concerns over extrajudicial practices of torture, interrogation, and rendition at military bases and detention sites. In the final chapter, I turn to an important outpost of US neoliberal security and warfare, examining overt forms of settler colonial occupation through Palestinian diasporic visual art films produced in opposition to the US's client-state relation with the state of Israeli and the enduring Israeli Zionist settler colonial occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Together, these multiple sites of investigation do not offer an exhaustive survey of contemporary South Asian and Middle Eastern diasporic visual cultures in the forever war. Instead, I spotlight diverse but interrelated flashpoints of security and securitization to argue that an insurgent aesthetics can conjure sensuous modes of knowing and feeling the manifold fronts of the forever war.[]
  11. Asef Bayat, quoted in Sunaina Maira, The 9/11 Generation, 261.[]
  12. One notable exception that garnered international recognition in late 2017 was Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay, an art exhibition on display from October 2, 2017, to January 26, 2018, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. The exhibit was curated by Erin L. Thompson, Paige Laino, and Charles Shields and featured thirty-six paintings, drawings, and sculptures made by eight men who were being held at the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba. Four of the men have since been released. See "Ode to the Sea." For a digital version of the exhibition catalogue released by Postprint Magazine, featuring essays by Jericho Brown, Solmaz Sharif, Trevor Paglen, and others, see the special edition issue online. For more on the political and ethical controversies emerging out of the exhibition, including the Pentagon's decision to abandon years-long precedent of releasing security-screened prisoner art to the public and now calling that art US government property, see Fortin, "Who Owns Art from Guantánamo Bay?"; Hopkins, "I Can Get My Soul Out of Prison"; Rosenberg, "After Years of Letting Captives Own Their Artwork, Pentagon Calls It Property"; and Thompson, "The Art of Keeping Guantánamo Open." For comprehensive documents and research related to the roughly 780 people who have been sent to Guantánamo Bay prison since 2002, see "The Guantánamo Docket" in the New York Times.[]
  13. Between 2001 and 2008, the US government maintained an estimated fifty prisons to hold detainees in twenty-eight countries, in addition to at least twenty-five more prisons in Afghanistan and twenty in Iraq. See ACLU, "Accountability for Torture: Infographic." []
  14. "Afterlives of Blacksites I: The Seen Unseen." See also Spencer Ackerman, "The Disappeared: Chicago Police Detain Americans at Abuse-Laden 'Black Site,'" The Guardian, February 24, 2015.[]
  15. The US and UK militaries use the language of "blackness" to refer to highly classified military or defense projects that are not publicly acknowledged by government, military personnel, and contractors; these include so-called black ops, black sites, and stealth weaponry. On the conditions of blackness in historical and contemporary surveillance, see Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).[]
  16. The following close reading is drawn from the epilogue of Insurgent Aesthetics. The Index's piece was commissioned and produced by Creative Time Reports, the Juncture Initiative at Yale Law School's Schell Center for Human Rights and the Samdani Art Foundation, for the Dhaka Art Summit in early 2016.[]
  17. The phrase read: "His body limp, with bubbles rising from his full and open mouth." See installation views online at "Afterlives of Blacksites I." []
  18. See Mariam Ghani's artist statement on the Index of the Disappeared's Black Sites 1.[]
  19. Ibid.[]
  20. Caren Kaplan, Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 18.[]
  21. For more on how US wars on crime, drugs, and migrants have militarized law enforcement, expanded the prison industrial complex, and implemented a domestic war on terror and a deportation regime across the forever war period, see the first chapter of Insurgent Aesthetics.[]
  22. See Thomas Engelhardt, "The Real Meaning of Trump," TomDispatch.com, April 26, 2016.[]
  23. On the need to link a study of the domestic racial politics of US Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians to overseas wars and occupations in the Greater Middle East, see the introduction and chapter one of Insurgent Aesthetics.[]