Friday, May 8, 2009

Intelligence And Art (Link List)

Wired magazine recently highlighted Kryptos, the James Sanborn sculpture sitting in the middle of the CIA (see the image on the right). While most intel professionals are very familiar with the story behind Kryptos, the article got me thinking again about intelligence and art.

I don't mean to suggest anything as highbrow as "intelligence art" and certainly am not talking about the largely meaningless discussions that tend to revolve around the question "Is intelligence an art or a science?"

I mean the resonance I feel with a certain piece of art when I look at it and contemplate the profession I study.

Probably the most direct example of this is the work of Mark Lombardi. Lombardi is famous for his hand-drawn link diagrams of real events and supposed connections (see the image on the left). It is hard to look at his pieces and not sense that, at least for a while, you have been walking the same path together.

He reportedly committed suicide due to the depression and anger he felt after one of his creations was destroyed when the sprinkler system unexpectedly went off in his apartment (a sentiment shared by any Mercyhurst students who have ever lost their link diagram to a bad flash drive or a computer crash...).

Similar in some ways to the work of Lombardi are the intricate and wholly abstract three dimensional artworks of Janice Caswell. I love the way her work flows across walls and corners. It is almost as if she has developed an intricate analysis of all of the connections represented by some real world event and then removed the names of all of the actors and actions.

Her work (see an example on the right) goes directly to a point I try to teach my students, though. We tend to hyperfocus on the facts and assumptions and logic -- the hard data -- inherent in whatever we are attempting to analyze.

Whenever we try to visualize that information and analysis, however, we are also tapping into the nonlinear and largely inarticulate parts of our brains. Why did you put that in the center of your diagram? Why is his picture so large? Most of the connections seem to go around the sides of your nodes. Is that significant? Caswell validates, for me, the potential importance of listening to that subconscious voice, to try to hear what the quiet parts of my brain are trying to tell me.

(By the way, if you like Caswell's art as much as I do, you should check out the 57 other artists featured at

Another artist whose sculptural art echoes some of my own emotions when working on intelligence products are the paper-cut models of Jen Stark. These are really quite amazing constructions using nothing more than colored paper, patience and enormous creativity. I think I find them appealing because of the intricate layering and the odd angles and turns her works take (see an example to the left).

The relationship of the last two artists, Paula Scher and Timothy Hutchings, to intel is easy to see -- its geographic. Scher, who I first saw at The Serious Play Conference last year, does these magnificent renderings of geography that are both very close and very distant to what it is that I study. To get a sense of this tension, I suggest that you take a look at some of the closeups of her work (see the map of South America on the right).

Hutchings, on the other hand, does many different things with all sorts of materials (much of it abstract). The parts of his work that draw me closest, however, are the very familiar terrain tables (see an example below) he builds. It is hard to imagine, for most old Army guys like me, that the humble terrain table can be a work of art but Hutchings, in my mind, has done just that.

How about you? Is there anything or anyone's art you look at and think, "That feels like my job?" If so, post it to the comments...

<span class=


Unknown said...

I have been trying to link that Wired article to intelligence for a few days, but this works beautifully. It reminds me of a class presentation I gave on the visual display of quantitative information; I focused on the type of graphics to use in order to best convey the point and your post seems to sum it up quite nicely.

Todd said...

I actually begin my Critical Thinking and Structured Analysis class out here at RAF Molesworth (for the U.S. African and European Commands)with Rafael's "School of Athens," linking it to our analytic profession.

In a nutshell:
1. The story of Hypatia of Alexandria tells us that Reason can get you into trouble, especially when dealing with myopic non-Rationalists.
2. Our community, like the fresco, is heterogenous and pluralistic.
3. Our community, like the painting, is playful, and plants tongue firmly in cheek, at times.
4. The dialogue occuring between Socrates and Xenophon, Alcibiades and Alexander demonstrates a military component.
5. Diogenes of Sinope, lounging on the stairs allows a discussion of cynicism.
6. Aristotle, located in the center of the fresco, with Plato, spoke truth when he said in the 1st line of his Metaphyics Book I, "All men by nature desire to know." And because A. is right, we have a job.

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


Very interesting approach (I may have to steal it...)!

Thanks for the link as well!


Anonymous said...

The following RFE/RL article makes a smart analogy between chiaroscuro in painting and political analysis of the Caucasus region:

I myself dabbled a little bit with the idea of using art history, and in particular 17th century Dutch still life painting - still life, being one of the genres, especially applicable to semiotics - to complement a situation assessment on Russia's foreign policy toward the Balkans: (pp.18-23 methodology; pp.53-55 my attempt at drawing a still life of the Balkans).

It's not the best piece content-wise, but I had some fun with it. Joke aside, I do believe that research into pictoral semiotics could be a valuable addition to intelligence analysis.

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


Both articles are very interesting. I was particularly impressed with the depth of research into the one on the New Risks site.