Cat and Mouse with NATOarts

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That's why word of a NATO-sponsored art show in Soho sounded so intriguing. Well, intriguing, and just plain odd. But apparently?according to the press release?as part of the 50th anniversary celebration last year, NATO created its own arts collective, NATOarts. A quick visit to their website revealed the details, as laid out in the official charter:

"NATOarts is an international arts organization which seeks to promote global security and stability through the exhibition of works of conceptual art," it reads. "It is governed by a nineteen-member board of directors, with representation from each of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states. NATOarts was founded on April 4th, 1999, by unanimous motion of the North Atlantic Committee (NAC 79:5C, Article three). As an organization operating under article twenty-three of the United Nations 1971 Oslo accord, NATOarts is not affiliated with any sovereign state, but instead is governed by a board of directors subject to international law."

I wondered what art promoting global security might look like, so I sent off a quick e-mail. Two minutes later, I received a response: "A member of the NATOarts communications team will respond to your request for information within seventy-two hours."

It was very official-sounding, and very spooky. Then, 45 minutes later, I received a package from them, containing an exhibition catalog and a compact disc?all of which I found stranger still, given that I had never provided an address.

What had I gotten myself into this time?

A few days later, I was able to speak with Peter Rom, the NATOarts communications director, and asked him what was behind all this. Not just the package, but NATOarts in general.

"There was a feeling in the international security community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the mid-1980s that the threats facing the Euro-Atlantic region had become not only military threats, like we saw in Kosovo, but cultural threats," said Rom?a surprisingly young man, whose speech was punctuated by nervous throat-clearings. "The aim of NATOarts is to advance the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's goals in the cultural realm," he continued. "There was also a feeling that an organization such as NATO should take a more proactive role in the formation of international culture."

I didn't ask Mr. Rom what, exactly, would comprise an "international culture," given that we already seem to be well on our way there. Which I guess implies that NATO's been doing its job.

The NATOarts offices in Soho are staffed by a group of about 10 people, not counting the 19 members of the advisory board.

"There are members from each of the 19 member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization," Rom told me. "Most of them have backgrounds in the arts, as well as in international policy. They have the sort of background you'd expect in an organization like NATO. They have a concern for international security and stability, as well as an esthetic sense." Rom himself comes from an arts administration background, and has worked in a number of private galleries.

The upcoming show at the NATOarts exhibition space will feature the work of eight artists and involve installations, video and photographic presentations, costume designs and music. The most prominent among the involved artists at this point would probably be Icebreaker International, whose first album, Distant Early Warning (inspired by a NATO nuclear-strike warning system in the Arctic) came out last September, and whose latest, Trein Maersk: A Report to the NATOarts Board of Directors, is part of the show. In a way, you could say that they're the NATO house band.

New York's Alexander Perls and London's Simon Break "met in London in 1997," Rom told me. "And they had done electronic music together during that year. They became the first NATOarts artists in 1998, just as the organization was beginning to be formed." Distant Early Warning (Aesthetics Records) "was the first NATOarts project."

The new album is the result of a several months-long ocean voyage Perls and Break began in January of this year. NATOarts commissioned them to present a report that would promote free trade. The final report is a catchy bit of electronica, with various political soundbites mixed in.

I asked Rom what else NATOarts has been up to, as far as other projects or exhibitions are concerned.

"The organization hasn't been around that long," he explained. "Our main concern over the past year has been accepting submissions for this exhibition. We've received several hundred, and from those, we have chosen the five projects."

One of the projects is a mixed media/musical piece entitled "The Threnody for the Argentine Claim," by Miska Draskoczy, Alexander Perls and Thomas Joyce. It was commissioned by NATOarts as a memorial to the disaster that struck a combined Russian-Argentinean team as they tried to establish a military base on the Argentine Claim, Antarctica, in 1982.

One of the most interesting of the five projects?at least as explained in the catalog?involved the infiltration of a radical Japanese art group.

"The World Trade Organization asked NATOarts to investigate reports of an arts organization in the Japanese underground," Rom began, by way of background. "The arts organization is supposedly called the 'Sakhalin Five' and it consists of artists based on Sakhalin Island. Now, Sakhalin Island, as you know, has been disputed territory between Russia and Japan. And a lot of the esthetic concerns of NATOarts, as you have gathered, deal with these sort of territories that are gray political zones. Alexander Perls, also part of Icebreaker International, was sent to Japan in the late summer of 1999 to investigate reports of this arts organization. The WTO had contacted NATOarts to inform us that the organization was seeking to restrict trade between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan, in the sense that there had been a rising level of accidents in the straits."

Rom explained that, in a way, the Sakhalin Five represented NATOarts' evil twin brother. "Instead of attempting to support international security and stability, this was a leftist arts organization, making art and affecting international security in a negative way. So Alexander Perls was sent to investigate these occurrences."

His findings during the expedition were documented on a video, which will be premiered at the exhibit.

Even more interesting was what I uncovered once I started doing a little research. A few things just didn't add up.

It struck me as a little strange, for instance, that NATOarts was based in Soho, instead of at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

As did the fact that NATO has 16, not 19, member states.

Or the fact that a detailed, day-by-day calendar of all the events surrounding NATO's 50th anniversary doesn't mention NATOarts. Not on April 4, not ever.

Or that the NAC motion cited in the charter doesn't exist.

Or the fact that the NATO representatives I contacted deny having ever heard of NATOarts.

I raised some of these issues with Mr. Rom, and asked him how the organization responded to them.

"That's sort of an internal matter," he said, "and we don't really comment on our relationship with our parent organization?for various reasons. It could jeopardize our funding, and so on. We really like to keep things focused on the works of art. We don't talk about our budget."

After a brief pause, he continued. "Obviously, journalists are going to contact the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and we certainly encourage that, but we don't really have much further information to offer, besides what we already have."

When you visit their website, it's hard to miss the big NATO North Star logo at the top. Just out of curiosity, I asked Mr. Rom if the logo was copyrighted.

"I'm not sure," he replied.

The thing is, even if what the NATOarts people are undertaking is a bit of meta-conceptual artistic hucksterism, like the Museum of Jurassic Technology or the Center for Land Use Management, they're doing a damn fine job of it. Their production values are slick, and they never break character. They've been good enough at setting up the NATOarts business, in fact, that they fooled the British edition of Esquire, who bought the story hook, line and sinker. Seeing that sort of thing just makes me happy, and I salute NATOarts for it.

"NATOarts: A Retrospective," Sept. 14-Nov. 14, at 6 Hubert St. (betw. Hudson & Greenwich Sts.). Contact []( Or you may contact NATO at [ ](

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