COBRA 1.0: A RESPONSE | The Sovereign Cobra

COBRA 1.0: A RESPONSE | The Sovereign Cobra


King Cobras are the longest and most venomous snake that inhabits the earth.  Found across South Asian and Indonesia it is a snake of both ecological and cultural fascination and significance.  In London another type of Cobra resides.  Housed at Whitehall this Cobra is rarely seen.  Having materialised only five times in the last two years, this Cobra emerges momentarily, called on the premise to discuss ‘critical’ situations across the globe that necessitate a response from the United Kingdom Government.



COBRA gatherings have been taking place as far as can be deciphered since 1985.  Described to the public (as motivated by the freedom of information act), COBRA is a committee set up for national and international crisis response.  Having convened for perceived emergency situations such as Foot and Mouth outbreak, 7 July 2005 London bombings, fire-fighters strike, and September 11th a briefing document is produced which logs the actions to be taken.  But what is deemed worthy of a COBRA response and in extension what qualifies as ‘a response’ over headed paper with agreed upon minutes? 



COBRA is built from the acronym (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) and shares some similar qualities with our reptilian King Cobra.   Not least the sovereign title that grants both COBRA’s with a prestige and position to exert a politics of fear across the rest of the food chain.  One of the reasons King Cobras (Ohiophagus hannah) are granted the title of king is that that they are famous for feeding on other snakes. It’s name translates as snake-eater and these carnivorous habits allow the King Cobra to reign over its kingdom through an explicit strategy of fear.

snake eating own tail 


The Whitehall COBRA shrouded in secrecy hosts similar qualities.  Whilst no literal cannibalism takes place…depending on the outcome of the meeting there are responses which will engender severe responses. During the August 2011 London riots David Cameron held two COBRA meetings which granted police legitimacy in arresting countless people regardless of their real involvement in the resistance. It is a response that plays a double hand.  To appear powerful in the name of protecting the UK population, synchronised with a global performance of power displayed on the international stage that all can acknowledge. 




Another quality of the king Cobra is that they are the only snake in the world that can spit their venom.  An easy analogy can be made with the target bombs and drones promoted by members of COBRA to ensure for the UK’s so called self protection.  In reality they make possible an aggressive form of destruction that can always take place at arms length away from the body of the empire.  Yet the visceral and physical attack the King Cobra performs is far from the politics played by the COBRA cabinet.  For to understand this new species of COBRA we must grapple with a new form of political play – that of gesture and performance relayed, mediated and spun by the networks of communication and media. Networks that perpetually reinforce the current structures of dominance in a far more strategic way than simply a single meeting between men.  To look to be taking something seriously is enough to herald it with the weight of an intelligent and ethical ‘response’.  How might we compare the power of a band of grey suits to that of the circulated image via an internet iphone upload?




A cobras hood is created by the extension of the ribs behind the snakes’ head. The Cobra uses its infamous hood to scare its predators.  The murmurings of a COBRA meeting offers a concurrent signal to those at home and elsewhere that the UK will strike if provoked and what’s more the meeting grants these decisions sped through as legal and legitimate.  The momentary nature of the response is key – there is no public archive to these meeting, in Georgio Agamben’s terms it is a ‘state of exception’ a moment in which actions are legitimised by their perceived criticality and as such no one can be held morally, ethically or legally accountable.

Viewing the enclosure

And whilst the King Cobra might be at the top of the food chain there is another response to its growing authority which is tangible, public and visible. COBRA 1.0 offers a material response motivated by each Whitehall meeting and produce individual interventions into what this government address might mean?


By Jenny R.


© COBRA RES 2013


Letter A

h+corp  were invited to write a series of slow responses to COBRA. Below is the first instalment.


Why a response to COBRA? The discrete acronym of the crypto emergency state as if outsourced from a cheap spy novel draws and directs our attention. Are we vulgarizing any attempt to art with the proximity of government, by being dragged into the tractor beam of the news-cycle and agenda setting capacity of power? Yet, perhaps we must embrace vulgarity, this etiquette-shattering boldness and anti-culture. There is a need for anti-reality. We are short-circuiting the dream-machinery of mass-hysteria (Terrorism ! Viral Threat ! Rogue State !) to focus in on a quiet signal. The shrouded secrecy of obscure newspaper articles copy-paste of government press releases. Perhaps we are merely reacting to what the state has emitted into us…

There goes COBRA, the quiet sonar of the hyper-verticalized and centralized power-structure. Control rooms of democracy of all provinces blanket the homeland with iron peace and generate chaos at an imperial periphery always laced with enough military outposts to monitor and secure extractive operations. In a second we forgot all the noise and hype of doom and war around us and saw the emitting signal itself in the eye.

I thought that perhaps COBRA response must be a dialogue with that thing which is the state. Granted certainly, that this thing never answers we must ourselves begin to write answers. Of course, this answering of one’s own questions has always been what the state is. More precisely the state is the inertia and similarity of these answers which constitute the subjects as mass- a process which is due to a violence ancient and mythical-that historical violence cum monopoly of legitimate violence cum supreme cognitive authority.

I thought about such answers and the dialogue in general when I intended to write about COBRA. They seem to me like a common theme I want to explore. I want to give an example.

Should there have been a COBRA meeting to Margaret Thatcher’s Death?

Of course the question is misleading, yet it serves me to make a point. A COBRA meeting to Thatcher’s death would have been like a COBRA meeting to discuss a COBRA meeting: a doubling of cognitive operations of the state, since both COBRA and Thatcher’s death can be perceived as such. There difference is that the former can be described as the production of the state as res publica, the latter as the production of the state as res privata.

Immediately, after the announcement of Thatcher’s death I could see the comments on the social networks proliferate. It was one of those moments were the networks had become politicized or rather filled with content which belongs to what is commonly being considered as the “political” sphere. Obituaries either applauded or destroyed the prime minister for her legacy with a series of interpretations regarding Thatcher’s role in relationship to the economy as well as society. Usually this is also the place where psychologizations create the state as a human interest topic (The vulnerability of the private person and her struggle etc., personal shortcomings and maleability). Interestingly, there seemed to be a discussion yet no possible exchange between both these positions of praise or rejection. Between images of Brixton protestants burning the Evening Standard and officially ordered sorrow no synthesis seemed possible1. Both positions had obviously been nurtured in completely different information-environments made possible by the bipartisan polarization of the news-media. In this type of conversation both sides of the political spectrum (left and right) may use the same words while associating notions with completely contrary meaning. The word social will induce a associations of warmth and family in the leftist while right wingers will receive it as a container for uniformity, repression and destruction of creativity. Both sides will recognize these symbols which will then trigger the standard responses primed through their respective mediatized discourses. Both sides are thus participants in the interpersonal network of ideology, ideology being a systematic hearsay about cause and effect patters. This hearsay could be either the nostalgia about the 60s and 70s welfare state of the left (a state perhaps based on an even greater extent of colonialism, inequality, and repression towards the non European space than today) or the glorification of a supposedly free market of the right (which in reality is a state- and political subsidy funded corporatist oligopoly). In searching for a model of freedom both sides continuously either chose the state or the ‘free market’ as a solution to defeat the other -oblivious to the tandem modus operandi of both inseparable sides. The state thus changes its face (“strong state-intervention” or “freedom to do business”) while at the same time being the origin as well as solution to any political project and struggle in endless tautology. I perceive that both political faces of the mainstream discourse are similarly misinformed basing their assumptions on a historiography which excludes the operations of the secretive executive arms of state power. Consequently, its the information-space itself which organizes them in a way as to neutralize each other. Both sides attack another while opting either for the state or the free market (corporate sector) to weigh more in relation to the other.

Politics is the selective activation of indignation by means of information. I think that the state as res publica is this process of inducing fault lines by means of highly personalized and emotionalized information into the population. Government as always is divide et impera, the illusion of a populations as a assembly of potentially violent minorities. The difference between the empire and the imperial periphery is certainly the intensity of conflict. While inside the empire the fault lines are organized as politics, the periphery is increasingly organized as ethno-religious warfare according to the model of a disintegrating Yugoslavia (today disintegrating Iraq, Libya, Syria, various African states).

The second face of the production of the state is the state as res privata. The state as private affair continuously repeats its only raison d’être: That it cannot disclose its true nature, that it cannot share its information in its noble pursuit to protect us from doom. Of course we cannot expect the two faces to operate independently. We know that Tony Blair will seek our good in the COBRA room. We may disagree with his day-to-day politics but we know that Tony will be on our side in protecting us from villainy. We have always dreamed of this (By default our brains replace what we cannot know with the Hollywood images of the noble authorities we have been exposed to ever since we were children. A common operation of propaganda is to mix the factual with fiction infinitely until both become indistinguishable). Thus we will always see the press releases on Cobra and the photo-ops of Barack Obama and his administration receiving the news of Bin Laden’s death. What is interesting about this is the public face given to secrecy. Here the res publica meets the unaccountable secret state. The latter is this invisible permanently working staff with its long term strategies and 20-year technological development plans. You can never identify its faces because it is the only part of government which has a right (as derived from its power) to remain private. It is this part of the state which assures the continuity of government that adjusts minor lifestyle politics according to public gusto (legalization of pot, gender equality, localized subsidies) yet remains on an unchangeable track (unchangeable by non-organized public opinion, not by fact) for all other issues (mainly related to the development of the techno-industrial core-state). Its also the reason for the disillusionment of politics in those who participate in their own electoral deception every four our five years (modern political marketing is not made to engage the voter to go to the ballots but rather to reaffirm the relevance of the elections and thereby the political system itself.) The enforcers of the state as res privata are the paramilitary structures which combine information gathering and surgically applied violence. They enforce a political mannerism of self-restriction by a trail of the suicided and ruined known only to those who have known political discourse from the inside. We have seen this branch of government increase its sophistication and power by means of current technology which allows the reification of entire populations as data sets, mineable with algorithms and locally centralizeable in the large data-centers currently being built around the globe. These structures are easily fortifiable and can localize the beginning of potentially relevant oppositional political discourses with increasing accuracy before they reach their “tipping point” (a concept increased into mainstream political discourse by Malcolm Gladwell).

What lessons for a response to Cobra? A political project between art and politics should seek to communicate with the state as mass- communications products res private and res publica. Art must be that bunker buster -emitting from individuals that are stealth- penetrating into the control rooms of democracy and defacing, exploding the decade-old dream structure.

The historical task of the artist, designer is to be the controlled-demolition expert coolly implanting the plastic explosives of subversive doubt and strategic dissonance into the coordinates of the everyday -until the reality he has lost touch with itself implodes, collapses, vanishes into oblivion before our very eyes.

1Perhaps also due to an effect of the medium. Everything said on the social networks is definite and recorded, placed to one’s own avatar to deepen the effect of identification (Idem-facere- to make equal) of ‘person’ and position .
2 I haven’t touched on Thatcher’s legacy which is another point to discuss. I think her political project was to make England the militarized accountant of the world economy with all it would take.

Nic  (h+corp)

© COBRA RES 2013

COBRA 1.0 Exhibition Images 4th March 2013

COBRA 1.0 cover image

COBRA  1.0

COBRA 1.0 is the maiden exhibition of COBRA RES, a five year project to internationally counter-map and creatively respond to the British Governments emergency committee COBRA.   The governments COBRA committee met, most recently, at the end of January 2013 to discuss a response to hostage’s having been held at the Tiguentourine Gas plant in Algeria. At the same time COBRA RES also met in a location near Whitehall to discuss a response to the CORBA emergency committee meeting.

COBRA 1.0 is the first exhibition to make public those creative responses.

Over the next five years COBRA RES will creatively respond every time the British government’s COBRA committee meets.

Artists, writers and curators involved in COBRA 1.0 come from a number of countries including Iran, Japan, U.K and Germany.

Exhibitors: Hugh Jordan, Chie Konishi, Theo Price, Samuel Stevens, Jenney Richards, , Nima Esmailpour, and the collective H+Corp.

Monday 4th March 2013

6-9pm Launch event/private view

Gallery Studio 1.1, 57 Red Church Street, London, E2 7DG

(nearest tube Liverpool St or Shorditch Over Station)

For more information,



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