George Selley, A Study of Assassination

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by The Eyes (here). Binder with metal fasteners (25x30cm), 192 pages, includes a small booklet, reproductions of archival documents and press cuttings, black and white photographs, and color photomontages. In an edition of 750 copies. Design by Pete Jeffs and the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: George Selley’s recent photobook A Study of Assassination is an intriguing example of how a photography project can grow out of archival research. Following one thread after another, Selley pieced together the details of a covert history of American influence in Central America in the 1950s, and then used that backstory as a jumping off point for his own photographic explorations, including photomontages that incorporate some of the source material and staged recreations of some of the tactics and techniques described in the documents. The result is a multi-layered compendium of information and artistic re-interpretation, delivered as an overstuffed briefing binder of intermingled materials.

Selley’s journey began with a secret CIA manual originally published in 1953 and then later released in 1997 as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. “A Study of Assassination” (the document) is as matter-of-fact as its title suggests. After a short series of definitions, classifications, and justifications, it methodically outlines the various planning steps and killing techniques that an assassin could choose from: “manual” (by hand), “accidents”, “drugs”, “edge weapons”, “blunt weapons”, “firearms”, and “explosives”. It’s a surreally dry how-to handbook (which has been reproduced as small booklet), filled with relative merits, meticulous details, common mistakes, and practical suggestions; it’s also a text that provides incontrovertible evidence that the CIA was in the assassination business.

The manual was released as part of a larger collection of CIA files relating to an effort called the Guatemalan Destabilization Program. The main thrust of the covert operation was to overthrow the recently democratically-elected leader of Guatemala, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Guzman was unpopular with the United States partially because his governing platform included a series of large scale land reforms, and an offer to buy back much of the land being used to cultivate bananas by United Fruit (roughly one fifth of the country). United Fruit (later called Chiquita) was an American company, with wide ranging interests in Guatemalan shipping, railroads, ports, and other infrastructure. To protect those interests, Arbenz was portrayed as a communist and a Soviet puppet (this was the height of the Cold War), and in the summer of 1954, CIA mercenaries toppled Arbenz and installed Carlos Castillo Armas, who was more receptive to US demands.

Selley’s photomontages leverage a trove of visual material surrounding this period, including photographs of leaders on both sides, promotional materials and advertisements from United Fruit, reproductions of various documents, newspaper articles, and briefs, and other ephemera. United Fruit’s marketing materials aimed to make bananas fun and approachable, using humor, sexiness, cartoons, and the charisma of the Brazilian star Carmen Miranda to drive sales. Selley remixes these images with photo fragments of dying citizens, political faces, military reviews, and street protests, turning the light-hearted fun against itself, in a manner similar to Robert Heinecken’s Vietnam War-era magazine interventions. Even some of the redacted documents end up as of part of the collages, the assassination texts and marketing blurbs overlapping in unsettling ways.

Selley also takes the archival material in another direction, taking the instructions from assassination manual and making shadowy black and white photographs of an actor re-enacting them. A black coated man in a hat and sunglasses poses with a hammer, stairwells and hallways are scouted as places for “accidents” (with one sidewalk already decorated with a dark watery stain), a neck is examined for best place to make a puncture wound, and shelves of lamps are perused as possible improvised weapons. Some of these images have a hint of film noir drama, making the seriousness of the deadpan assassination instructions all the more odd or even ridiculous.

Selley’s photobook is designed to highlight its messy dossier-like structure. Housed in a binder with metal fixtures, the contents are stacked in order, like chapters in a presentation, with various inserts and supporting materials interleaved. And while there are three distinct sections (“The Assassin”, “Planning”, and “Employment”), the photographs and collages are spread throughout, mixed together with CIA documents and United Fruit materials. Even the artist’s background statement is camouflaged as the front page of a Workers Vanguard newspaper. The whole photobook looks and feels like a hijacked field manual, satisfyingly confusing fact, fiction, and artistic license.

A Study of Assassination succeeds because Selley infuses his “banana republic” research project with a dark undercurrent of caustic visual irony. The result is a photobook that exposes an underknown chapter in the history of American foreign intervention, but also slices and dices that narrative into something memorably new. It’s not just straight re-presentation of an edited or curated archive – it’s re-imagination, which provides Selley space to introduce juxtapositions and artistic hybrids that tell a broader and more complex story.

Collector’s POV: George Selley does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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