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Under New Moons, We Stand Strong

Silvia Casini

Artists to my mind are the real architects of change,
and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact
(William S. Burroughs)

A large-scale model of a CCTV camera made from recycled cardboard peers through the window of the Seventeen Gallery out onto Belmont Street in Aberdeen, alive with passers by. This is the main piece of Under New Moons, We Stand Strong (2016), the project conceived and designed by Teresa Dillon to prompt reflections on solidarity, literacy and symbolism within digital civic governance.

If one gets close enough, it is evident that the eye of this camera is blind for there is no actual watching and recording apparatus inside. Still, the sensation of being watched remains. Bird spikes are mounted on top of the camera. The first thing one notices is the scale of the model: for the first time, what is an almost impalpable and invisible presence (surveillance technologies tend to be increasingly difficult to spot in the urban space) gets amplified, taking a physical presence that invites us to explore our personal relationship with surveillance and the multiple technologies that embody it.

The enlarged cardboard CCTV camera not only reminds passers-by of surveillance, its visual presence, eye to eye and the size of an other, functions to interpellate the viewer as an active gazer. Instead of us being the object of its gaze, the large-scale model allows us to look at the CCTV camera up-front. The exchange of gazes between the two subjects, the surveillance apparatus and ourselves, occurs on an equal level: we occupy a position that is not anymore subservient to the mechanical all-seeing-eye. In the act of looking at the CCTV cardboard model, we can also recognise our own complicit capacity to become overseers.

Teresa Dillon’s installation invites us to become aware of the change occurred in contemporary social and technological developments in the relationship between surveillance and society. This change is subtler than it might appear at first. The Panopticon, Bentham’s prison architecture, was discussed by Foucault in his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) as an exemplar, among others examined in the book, of the mechanisms of social control that become permanent and interiorised. The prisoners, in fact, have no need to be actually watched, they know that they might be being watched. The condition of being potentially under surveillance transforms the dynamics of the gaze, causing an interiorisation of the watchtower’s gaze, in such a way that the prisoner becomes her own overseer.

Surveillance studies have pointed out how the Foucauldian metaphor of the Panopticon fails to describe the multi-faceted contemporary figurations of surveillance. It is not anymore a matter of keeping the prisoners in a certain space, but much more of keeping them away. The movement from the Panopticon to the Banopticon, for example, exemplifies the attempt to use profiling techniques to determine who should be placed under surveillance for security purposes. The Banopticon can be described as the attempt to keep away certain social groups (asylum seekers, migrants, suspected terrorists) in the context of global security and border control. This ban, interestingly, is not exercised exclusively upon certain groups or in extraordinary circumstances, but also upon those individuals who do not have the resources (for example credit cards and smartphones) to promptly respond to the enticement of consumer spaces such as shopping malls.

We need to take responsibility for the way in which we exercise the power to look. This was the sense of the two talks arranged as part of Urban Knights, a program of events conceived to provoke and promote practical approaches to urban governance and city living by bringing together people who are actively producing alternatives to our given city infrastructures, norms and perceptions. Programmed during the opening of Under New Moons, We Stand Strong, the first talk saw Keith Spiller, a lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University, discussing state surveillance and individual rights in the context of his practical experiences of accessing CCTV data in London. Heather Morgan, a Research Fellow at the Health Services Research Unit, University of Aberdeen, presented her on-going research on sousveillance (in the context of health self-monitoring wearable technologies). In the middle of our smart cities, caught up in the illusion of being in control of smart technologies we are actually constructing our own prison.

Dillon’s interventions successfully unfold what the two talks left implicit at theoretical level, that is the passage from Foucauldian surveillance to “surveillant assemblage”. Deleuze’s and Guattari’s concept of surveillant assemblage makes visible processes in which information is first abstracted from human bodies in data flows and then reassembled as “data doubles” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). Thus, a new type of body is formed, whose flesh is pure information transcending corporeality. The body is an assemblage, comprised of component parts and processes that need to be observed. Moving away from a hierarchical top-down gaze, in a rhizomatic-fashion, surveillance expands in multiple fractured forms.

Under New Moons, We Stand Strong, Teresa Dillon (2016) Image credit: Yvi Philip
Under New Moons, We Stand Strong, Teresa Dillon (2016) Image credit: Yvi Philip

Going back to Dillon’s installation, on the gallery wall there is a digital print portraying a snowy owl in mid-air flight. This is a special edition print related to an episode on January 3rd, 2016 in Quebec, where a CCTV camera captured a stunning image of a snowy owl in mid-air flight. Four days later the images were tweeted by Quebec’s Transport Minister and went viral, turning the snowy owl into an “Internet star”. In Greek mythology the owl represents or accompanies Athena, the goddess of wisdom – and military strategy. Curiously, the next generation of surveillance technologies developed by the United States military bears the names of Greek mythological creatures. Argus Panoptes, which recalls the all-seeing giant monster with a hundred eyes, is a monitoring system that allows the constant surveillance of a city. Gorgon Stare, an array of nine cameras attached to an aerial drone, takes the name of the monstrous feminine creature whose appearance would turn anyone who laid eyes upon it to stone.

The owl is a highly metaphorical and yet ambiguous presence in the exhibition. On the one hand, the owl symbolises knowledge, wisdom and perspicacity. With its appearance, “flying only with the falling of the dusk” to paraphrase and transpose the famous passage from Hegel where the owl incarnates the appearance of philosophical critique and appraisal, the owl of Minerva (the Roman goddess identified with Athena) makes explicit the ideas and beliefs that drove an era but could not be fully articulated until it was over. Therefore, the owl is revealing something to us about our own epoch – it is our task to decipher the content of the message.

On the other hand, the owl is also the physical medium through which collaborative interspecies strategies of resistant actions to surveillance can be organised. Dillon’s techno-civic intervention, as the artist herself calls her work, is ideally connected to another artistic project, Pigeonblog, made by Beatriz da Costa, artist, academic and activist, member of the Critical Art Ensemble and graduate student of philosopher and science and technology scholar Donna Haraway. Pigeonblog was a grassroots initiative designed to collect and spread information about air quality to the public. Pigeons were equipped with small air pollution sensing devices capable of gathering data on pollution levels. The data could be then visualised and accessed by means of Internet (da Costa and Kavita 2008). Da Costa’s Pigeonblog was inspired by a photograph depicting a technology developed in Germany during wartime but then never implemented: a small camera, carried by a pigeon and set on a timer, was designed to take pictures at regular intervals of time as pigeons flew over specific regions of interest – possibly military targets. Pigeons were participating agents in this early surveillance technology system. Da Costa resuscitated that idea to create a surveillant assemblage formed by a living animal and technology but with civilian and activist goals.

By means of this mythological creature, the owl, Teresa Dillon asks us to learn to look at those technologies of surveillance, to re-adjust our gaze in order to be ready to face them upfront. The role played by mythology is evident not only in the installation but in the procession that accompanied the exhibition on Saturday May 7th. The public were invited to gather together and take part in a “forensic anthropological walk”, as the artist labelled it, throughout the city of Aberdeen, with participants holding hand-held models of two-dimensional CCTV cameras. Stopping in front of the CCTV cameras encountered in Castle Square during the walk, the artist revisited the world history of CCTVs, starting from the first documented use of surveillance cameras in Germany in 1942 for the documentation of Test Stand VII, the V-2 rocket testing facility, through the introduction of CCTVs in the urban landscape in the US in 1968, and more recent examples of surveillance technologies in the UK.

Dillon blends story-telling techniques with an emotional urban cartography created by means of walking together. Namely, the walk cannot be described in the guise of a city tour: the performative element transformed the walk into a procession, a collective rite, consumed on the Aberdeen beach where the paper cameras were set alight by participants. The history of surveillance technologies is in fact interwoven with mythological, symbolic and ritual elements, from the owl to the closing ceremony on the beach. Like in Cities of the Red Night, written by Beat Generation novelist William S. Burroughs, Dillon’s multiple interventions combines history with rituals and performance to evoke magical elements, doomsday scenarios and our phobias about the powers that control and enslave us.

The different interventions conceived and designed by the artist (the artwork itself, the performance, the walking tour through the city, the talks that accompanied the opening of the exhibition) can be read as artistic enactments of the cut-up and fold-in literary technique used to re-arrange and combine the pieces of a text to form new narratives. The technique can be traced back to the Dadaists of the 1920s. It was then popularised by Burroughs in the 1960s as a radical and creative method of socio-political subversion. It is evident that the cut-up and fold-in technique can be applied to contexts other than literature as Dillon demonstrates. It helps overcoming conventional associations (in this case, surveillance as a merely technological apparatus) to create new ones (the literacy infrastructure of surveillance), transforming the reader/player/visitor from a passive consumer of other people’s ideas into the architect of her own knowledge and action.

Under New Moons, We Stand Strong allows citizens to become not only more aware of the technological power infrastructure at work in our cities but also to learn how to read it, confront it, possibly resist it. The beach, at the outskirt of the urban space, a liminal site, nowadays often associated with the refugees crisis, becomes a space of freedom and catharsis. To set the cardboard cameras alight is, simultaneously, an act imbued with mythology – Prometheus’ gift of fire, the first techne, to humankind for their survival – and a collective gesture of transformation and renewal. Having freed ourselves from the idols, from all-seeing eyes, we can stay up-front, together, as a community, to face the darkness of our time.

Under New Moons, We Stand Strong

Seventeen, Art Centre, 17 Belmont St, AB10 1JR, Aberdeen
Supported by Scotland’s Festival of Architecture, Peacock Arts Centre & Aberdeen City Council

Date: Thurs 5 – Sat 28 May 2016
Location: Seventeen, 17 Belmont St, AB10 1JR, Aberdeen
Opening: Thurs, 5 May, 6pm with special edition of Urban Knights
Procession: Sat 7 May, 8pm from Seventeen, 17 Belmont St, AB10 1JR, Aberdeen
Model & assistance: Jana Barthel
Commissioned by: Festival of Architecture, Scotland, 2016; Peacock
Visual Arts, Aberdeen & Seventeen Gallery, Aberdeen