Hood (Various designers)
From the curators: The hood intersects with violence in myriad ways; often of rudimentary design, it is a highly charged object that traverses the boundaries of public and private, seen and unseen, and acts that are witnessed–or are not. At the most basic level, a full-head hood is designed as a means of sensory deprivation; it can amplify the threat of imminent-yet-unseen violence or, for onlookers, it can mitigate the effects of such violence writ large on the wearer’s face. The practice of hooding has been linked, both historically and in the popular imagination, to capital punishment–particularly by hanging, and in some cases, by firing squad–where the condemned (and often the executioner) wear some form of hood. Hooding plays a prolific role in the related, shadowy practices of torture, a fact engraved on the public consciousness through images like the infamous photographs of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The hood has also been used to voluntarily conceal identity in preparation for enacting certain forms of violence, as evidenced by the white hoods worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan or the common balaclava used by terrorists and larceners. Certainly vastly different in intent, but nevertheless part of its history, hood designs also proliferate among the consensual BDSM community.
When I was a journalist covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I watched American soldiers in the field put unused, empty sandbags over the heads of prisoners. As soon as someone was detained their hands were zip-tied and an empty bag would be slipped over the prisoner’s head. Similarly, friends and colleagues—Iraqi, Afghan, and American—who were kidnapped by insurgents reported being blindfolded and hooded. In both cases this served the very functional purpose of disorienting and blinding the prisoners, making them more docile and unable to escape.
When the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib were released, the iconic image was that of the hooded prisoner ready for mock electrocution. These images conveyed the multiple functions of the hood: disorienting, minimizing prisoner mobility, while also dehumanizing the prisoner and simultaneously shielding the sensibilities of the torturers—and, by implication, us, as the audience that views the photographs.
In public execution, the hood, or sometimes just a blindfold, shields the eyes of the condemned. But, as was the case with the use of hoods during torture at Abu Ghraib, the hood’s censorship and disorientation works both ways. Not only is the prisoner blinded, so, too, are the practitioners of violence and the citizens of the empire shielded. The hood depersonalizes and thus sanitizes the gruesome spectacle of public execution and torture by shielding the audience and executioners from the pain, fear, possible defiance, and humanity revealed on the prisoner’s face.
In Discipline and Punish Michel Foucault traced the historical transformation of punishment from a violent public spectacle attacking the body during the late 17th century, into a hidden practice of reshaping the criminal’s subjectivity through incarceration and various forms of micro-regulation starting in the early 19th century. This is the historical transition from the executioner’s scaffold to the prison cell.
The two styles of power and the two scales of operation are not mutually exclusive. The hood is both antiseptically technical and spectacularly horrifying. It is both practical and a highly theatrical form of humiliation. It is a direct control of the body and a micro-practice of power that reaches into the prisoner’s subjectivity by disorienting and demoralizing; stripping them of one of their most important and human faculties: the ability to see.
The hood suggests a technical relationship between institutions and the body, rather than a relationship of vengeance between people. The aesthetics of the hood attempts to abstract and reshape a relationship between human beings into a relationship between institutions and categories: the state, the sovereign, and the criminal, the enemy, the condemned.
In that the hood dehumanizes and makes individual people appear more interchangeable, it effectively pushes the hooded person into their proscribed political category. But, most importantly, the hood protects the executioners, the torturers, the perpetrators from the physical and psychological pain they are inflicting on other people.
Its main function is to blind, but in doing so it antiseptically blots out the final proof of the horror of punishment, torture, and execution.