How to See the World: From Surveillance to Visual Activism
By Louise Wolthers
What happens when the whole world becomes visible? When we are constantly monitored, photographed and photographing ourselves to a hitherto unprecedented degree? Every new ‘smart’ invention that enhances networks of data-sharing and visual connectivity emphasises the fact that we live in a full-blown surveillance society. Scholars describe this assemblage of overlapping surveillance practices as ‘multiveillance’, a phenomenon that works not only from a top-down perspective (as for instance as a means for the state to monitor an individual) but also by and between citizens – such as the constant snapping, tagging and tracking on social media. The contemporary technologies and practices of surveillance are greatly facilitated by the digitisation of photography and other lens-based media, allowing for mobile, instantaneous and constant online visibility. And the desire for visibility – as access, insight and identification – is the core issue when trying to grapple with our multiveillant society, even though means of monitoring and data collection are increasingly numeric, biometric and non-visual. That is why photographic and artistic practices, which have a long history of critiquing dominant viewing positions and manifesting alternatives to them, offer valuable contributions to the general debate and research being conducted in the field of surveillance – and I will return to this potential of art later. First, it is important to note that ‘visibility’ or ‘visuality’ not necessarily refers to the perceptual act of seeing and being seen, but entails authoritarian overviews, scientific insight and imaginary practice – as is also argued by visual culture scholars, such as Nicholas Mirzoeff.
Nicholas Mirzoeff is a pioneer in the relatively young, interdisciplinary field of visual culture studies. His work on image analysis and issues from imperialism and war to art and TV has, since the late 1990s, made a great impact on and beyond academia. His latest book about images and visual media today, How to See the World (2015), is particularly relevant when thinking about multiveillance, either as control or surveillance, and as a potential tool in civil rights and visual activism, or what Mirzoeff calls ‘the right to look’, which is not a claim for voyeurism but for political acknowledgement and agency.
The book opens with an iconic photograph, the so-called ‘Blue Marble’ image of planet Earth taken from outer space during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, which had a huge symbolic and socio-political effect from the moment it was released. The entire planet as a perfectly round globe, in all its geographical diversity and unity, could now be captured in a single image, and it was displayed on the cover of the legendary The Whole Earth Catalogue, which promoted a new awareness of the earth as an interconnected system of environment and human beings. In 2012 NASA created a new version of the Blue Marble – a composite made up of digitally corrected satellite images, and as Mirzoeff notes, it is ‘accurate in each detail, but it is false in that it gives the illusion of having being taken from a specific place at one moment in time. Such “tiled rendering” is a standard means of constructing digital imagery.’ He sees this image assemblage as a fitting metaphor for how the world is visualised today. Google Earth, Google Maps and Street View are obvious examples. We constantly strive to improve our overview of the world via enhanced automated technology, not primarily to get a God’s-eye view from above, but as accumulated knowledge or big data that promises total transparency. Every new technology comes with a new promise of increased visibility and insight, but that overview is often militarised, monopolised, Euro- or Americentric or ‘phallogocentric’. In other words, it usually reinforces surveillance by those in power, since discrimination is inherent in the technology and practice.
Mirzoeff differentiates between ‘seeing’ as a bodily sensory system and ‘visualising’ as an airborne technology that aims to depict the world as an imperial and colonial space for war, as for instance through photomaps and drones. (The fact that Google choses to remove the name of Palestine from its maps feature is a recent example.) When he exemplifies the complexity of visuality through the use of drones in contemporary counter-insurgency, he also describes the drone’s gaze as being embedded in network society itself. Thus the network has acquired a threatening agency – we are watched by it, and could all be subject to policing by drone in the near future. It is, Mirzoeff writes, ‘as if our phones have come to life, taken to the air and started watching us’. The drone not only increases surveillance in space but also in time, since it enables pre-emptive anticipation. As he shows, the world we see on screens and monitors, from Google to drone vision, is highly selective, policed and filtered. It seems, he notes, as if the wealthiest one percent of the world can see something different from the rest of us. Surveillance scholars would back this up with proven facts about how state surveillance technologies that demand increasing transparency from citizens (and not least minorities and people without citizenship), are increasingly hidden from those citizens.
With its historical origins in warfare, the drone has a potential for force that is already being fulfilled to a disturbing extent, but like many other surveillance technologies, drones can be used for conservationist, inclusive, activist and creative purposes, such as environmental surveillance, documenting power abuse and detecting people in distress, including refugees crossing the Mediterranean, as well as in works by artists and filmmakers. The contemporary fights against racism and segregation, segregation that we see today in movements like Black Lives Matter, can be traced to earlier civil rights’ battles over representation. Mirzoeff refers to the history of colonialism and apartheid and shows how these were counteracted through documentation by South African photographers such as Ernest Cole and David Goldblatt. Global segregation and imperialism continue today with the enforcement of borders and barriers, such as the wall erected by Israel to separate it from the occupied territories on the West Bank. Mirzoeff also mentions initiatives like the Beirut-based Visualising Palestine as an example of making visible territories that are otherwise invisible. Throughout the book he offers other examples of activist and artistic engagement via various visual media, including strategies of citizen journalism and mobile documentation of police harassment during, for instance, the Arab spring and Occupy Wall Street movement. Surveillance scholars and activists use the term ‘sous-veillance’ for similar strategies, where people use mobile technologies to look back at and document the monitoring authorities from below.
In the afterword to his book, Mirzoeff calls for a contemporary visual culture that is not only a study of images but also an active engagement with them. He mentions South African lesbian photographer Zanele Muholi, who calls herself a visual activist, reclaiming portrait and documentary photography as enabling visibility for the lgbtqi community, which is otherwise repressed, made invisible or harassed. We can see this as an example of philosopher and photography theorist Ariella Azoulay’s concept of the civil contract of photography, as opposed to the mediation and control of the ruling power. The civil contract of photography has arguably become even more difficult to enter into and comply with in multiveillant society, where the production and consumption of digitalised images has diluted the political potential of photographic representation. The current challenge, therefore, is to work for sustainable uses of images that enable us to focus on the social potential of photography in the face of digital over-consumption.
Muholi’s work, as well as that of photographers and artists such as Kent Klich or Eyal Weizman (with Forensic Architecture), who are working in places like Gaza, Palestine, Afghanistan, is an example of the potential of photography for Human Rights. These practices of social documentary photography seek to be empowering and non-exploitative, and are asserting a civil space of photography, or a ‘right to look’ in Mirzoeff’s sense, as counter-visuality. Other contemporary artists who could be termed visual activists, such as James Bridle and Hito Steyerl, use hacking in the broadest sense of the term: to intervene in the codes of the surveillant gaze, thus countering state or imperial visuality and finding the gaps of critical potential in the ever more dense network of multiveillance.
Over the past 15 years, surveillance practices, technologies and debates have multiplied, the academic field of surveillance studies has emerged, and the number of artists, exhibitions and publications dealing with surveillance has continued to increase. One of these exhibitions and publications is the interdisciplinary research project Watched! Surveillance, Art and Photography, where both Bridle and Steyerl as well as Forensic Architecture are included, along with nearly 40 other artists. The basic thesis of Watched! is that the history of photography and visual theory can contribute essential perspectives, and the use of optical apparatuses and experiments to explore the possibilities and limitations of the visible by artists can formulate questions in languages other than the conventionally academic, as well as pointing to answers that lie beyond the horizons of more instrumental research. The project presents a selection of artworks, mostly from the last ten years, that all contribute to the denaturalisation and rematerialisation of the social power of the gaze by drawing attention to the performative element of surveillant seeing both horizontally and hierarchically – and by both human beings and machines.
The whole world has become visible in the sense that the multiveillant image complex encompasses us all, but it doesn’t automatically give us all the equal right to look. Similarly, existing in a ‘surveillance society’ is something that everyone in the globalised, northwest region of the world has in common, but not everyone’s experience of being subject to surveillance is the same. Minority and low-income groups are statistically subject to a higher degree of scrutiny and critical surveillance than more privileged citizens of the welfare state. The most frequent victims of stigmatising social screening are the lowest social classes, ethnic minorities and those considered unwelcome in homogenous societies like those of Scandinavia or Northern Europe.
As we expand the visual network in time and space with mini-drones, satellites and data clouds, it becomes more important than ever to try to envisage the potential consequences as well as forms of resistance. Whereas Mirzoeff’s focus is not exclusively surveillance, his rich selection of examples illustrate how the image assemblage works in complex ways to see, view and visualise the world. Furthermore, art and photographic theory have a long history of addressing and negotiating the right to (in)visibility, not least in the context of feminist, queer and postcolonial debates, where issues of representation are paramount. Bearing these media history debates in mind, art projects that deal with surveillance often manage to transcend rigid dichotomies like Big Brother versus freedom, or private versus public, as well as being formally or conceptually embedded in specific bodies, contexts or geographical areas. In order to obtain agency in our multiveillant society, we all need to educate ourselves about the power of the visual and nuances of visibility, by learning from artists, activists and visual-culture theorists.