On November 5, 2012, The Humanities Institute and the Hoffman Lectureship presented “Surveillance, Space, and the Public” as part of their Difficult Dialogues series. The panelists included Dr. Simone Browne of the University of Texas Department of Sociology, Micha Cárdenas, an artist and PhD student in Media Arts and Practice at the University of Southern California, and Ernesto Yerena, a prominent artist and activist. The panelists presented issues of racial, sexual, gender, and cultural identities in their academic and artistic work and the relevance of these identities to state control and surveillance.
Dr. Browne spoke first on the concept of “sousveillance,” and the connection of historical surveillance to racial prejudice and profiling. She noted how certain populations, such as African Americans, are tracked, policed, and discriminated against both in public and private spaces, and how their personal data, privacy, and security are compromised. This is true both with the New York Police Department’s Stop-and-Frisk policies, and in the history of Lantern Laws. To resist this surveillance and control, Browne discussed “sousveillance,” and how victims endure by adopting, subverting, resisting, and complying with existing institutions.
“How can the past allow us to ask questions about our present?” Asked Browne. Our social locations and our categories of identities help frame how we think about surveillance. She quoted John Fiske discussing the technology “of whiteness that draws lines that blacks cannot cross and whites cannot see.” To understand our present surveillance system and issues surrounding racial profiling and oppression, Browne suggested we look at slavery and laws that framed Black life, such as the Lantern Laws that appeared after a slave revolt: "No Negro, Malatto [sic] or Indian slave shall be found in any of the Streets of this City… without a lantern and lighted candle in it so as the light thereof may be plainly seen… in such case it shall be lawful for any of his Majesty's Subjects within the said city to apprehend such slave or slaves not having such lantern and candle." Those that were discovered were punished with public whippings if they failed to light themselves at night.
At a time when New York City was second to Charleston, South Carolina for it’s urban slave population, newspapers ran Runaway Ads to describe runaway slaves. Browne used these advertisements to examine how slaves were described and how the public was taught to track them down. Browne also identified the success of Ellen Craft, a runaway slave who dressed in drag to pass as a man, and used her light skin and additional make-up to pass for white. She told people that her husband, who had much darker skin, was her slave, and thus they were both able to subvert these systems of surveillance and hide in plain sight.
Today, activists subvert police surveillance, such as the NYPD’s discriminatory Stop-and-Frisk, by filming the police and noting instances of police abuse and misconduct. Over four million stops have been made by the NYPD to randomly search civilians, and 90 percent of the people stopped were Black and Latino, when Black and Latino New Yorkers are the minority in many of these communities. Browne introduced the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Stop-and-Frisk Watch App, which New Yorkers can download on a smartphone to record and immediately report stops. This technology empowers civilians to perform “sousveillance” of police in their communities.
Micha Cárdenas, a media artist and activist, introduced Michel de Certeau’s theory of “la perruque” to analyze theories of subversion, “We’re given something, but we don’t have to do what we’re supposed to do with it.” To understand surveillance, she argued, we need to think about who is watching whom and how surveillance is continually used to watch and control indigenous populations. She argued that not only are racial categories necessary in understanding surveillance, but gender is also integral in understanding race.
One of her collaborative projects, the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab, released Poetry, Immigration and the FBI: The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT). This five year project distributed recycled cell phones to people trying to cross the border, who needed to find water sources. Recipients had the option of listening to poetry related to surviving in the dessert while they were guided to appropriate water supplies. The project ended up being investigated by the government, and Cárdenas quipped that the government wasted far more money trying to see if they broke the law, than the $8,000 grant they completed TBT with.
As a transgendered woman, Cárdenas spoke of her desire to start working within her own community, revealing that she “didn’t feel safe walking home most nights.” Her latest collaborative project is called Local Autonomy Networks (Autonets), and is developing networks of communication to link women, LGBTQI people, people of color, and other vulnerable groups. Using hoodies, people can transmit signals to others wearing these hoodies whenever they are being harassed. Cárdenas listed prison abolition and avoiding the police and further surveillance as vital to protecting and empowering these communities. Currently she is experimenting with these garments in performance art pieces.
Ernesto Yerena, another artist in this panel, discussed his work in terms of humanizing immigrant populations, and resisting police authority. His posters depict politically charge portraits juxtaposed against images of war and accompanied by illustrative captions. One of his posters was designed in response to Occupy Wall Street, and depicts a Native man with the caption “Decolonize Wall Street,” in response to the oppressive, colonizing concept of an occupation. Another image boldly declares, “No Somos Immigrantes En Nuestra Tierra!!!!”
Yerena discussed his negative perception of the police, recounting how in his community, they would never stop and aid during something even as serious as a drive-by shooting. Another one of his works Alto Arizona, is a response to the Arizona law SB 1070, which would allow police to have access Federal databases of people, which would lead to racial profiling and more surveillance issues. For this image, he used the image of a thumbprint to illustrate the shape of Arizona State.
There were major underlying themes in this panel, such as concern with the prison industrial complex and its link to slavery, racial, and sexual oppression. Each speaker presented how issues of racial, sexual, cultural, and gender identities were integral in their academic and art work. The way in which our contemporary culture considers state repression must take into account how the history of the politics of identity frame surveillance issues. Who is being controlled, and why? The links between surveillance studies, sousveillance activism, and art as intervention are inextricable and all equally vital in catalyzing radical social change.