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Surveillance Technology Is Wielded by the People in ‘Eyewitness’

Art that turns the ‘official narrative’ on its head. On now at New Media Gallery.

Dorothy Woodend 21 Feb 2022TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Who watches the watchers? The answer, most often, is you and me.

From grainy CCTV footage to cellphone cameras, the role reversal offered via accessible forms of technology has empowered ordinary people to push back against surveillance culture, reinvestigate official narratives, and move the battle between control and activism to a new landscape.

This evolution is the subject of the New Media Gallery’s extraordinary new exhibition, Eyewitness. The New Westminster gallery show includes three works: Seattle Crime Cams by Belgian artist Dries Depoorter; Forensic Architecture’s The Killing of Mark Duggan; and Al Jaar Qabla Al Daar (The Neighbour Before the House) by the CAMP Collective.

The installations include film, text and technology, and go beyond surveillance culture into something broader, deeper and altogether more radical. Each individual piece turns the all-seeing eye back upon itself, and in doing so disrupts established power structures.

On their own, each work is a standalone experience, but it’s in the curious interstitial relationships between the three where something truly fascinating develops. Empathy, apathy, activism and anger are funnelled through the lens of technology, creating another layer of struggle in the border country between the real and mediated. From intractable and impossible situations, new stories can emerge.

This intermingling is most evident in Al Jaar Qabla Al Daar (The Neighbour Before the House). The neighbourhood in question is close to the Moroccan Quarter in the old city of Jerusalem. Established in the 12th century, the site was demolished in 1967 following the Six-Day War. Where private homes once stood, a plaza was established in front of the Western Wall. The place has become a major tourist draw, attracting the faithful and the curious in hordes.

On the surface, the film is documentation in the raw — lo-fi CCTV security camera footage taken by the remaining Palestinian residents of the East Jerusalem neighbourhood, showing the Israeli settlers who took over houses previously owned and occupied by Palestinian people.

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CAMP, Al Jaar Qabla Al Daar (The Neighbour Before the House), 2009-2011; New Media Gallery.

As the cameras pan and zoom, capturing the details of ordinary life — people hanging out the washing, soldiers practising drills, sweaty tourists — those behind the cameras keep up a stream-of-consciousness commentary on the action. With observations, reminiscences and the occasional rant, the tone alternates between frustration, surprise and resignation. It’s mundane and riveting, funny and tragic, all at once.

CAMP, a collaborative studio founded by Shaina Anand, Sanjay Bhangar and Ashok Sukumaran, combines “the history and politics of technology and experimental video and audio, working with film, video, electronic media and public art forms, exploring various media technologies through research, infrastructural interventions, presentation, and documentation.”

So, what does that mean? In the case of Al Jaar Qabla Al Daar (The Neighbour Before the House), the footage itself locates a complex and seemingly unending saga on the ground, pinned in place by ordinary things. Gates, doorbells, sidewalks, a bunch of green towelling draped across a window so that no one can look into an apartment. Behind it all is the more nebulous territory of dispossession and control.

These small-scale dramas, in the midst of a long and complex story, infuse the work with a lived, hard-won humanity. It’s impossible not to be drawn in the experience of the people living there. Even though the Palestinian people operating the cameras are never seen — though their kids prance in out of the frame, hamming it up like kids everywhere — they become indelible, their sadness and anger inscribed on the mind’s eye.

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Dries Depoorter, Seattle Crime Cams, 2015; New Media Gallery. Photo by Rachel Topham Photography.

Artist Dries Depoorter’s work Seattle Crime Cams functions quite differently, although it also makes use of CCTV footage. Based in Belgium, Depoorter’s work involves “surveillance, privacy, social media and machine learning.” Seattle Crime Cams includes all of these things, as well as a frisson of COPS-style reality TV that is both creepy and mesmerizing.

The work is made up of real-time video feeds from Seattle’s city-owned traffic cameras, reflected on 12 monitors. Depoorter pairs the streaming surveillance footage with police and emergency dispatches, syncing the screens to show what’s happening on the ground via the closest available camera.

As calls go out, you can keep track of what’s happening in a given area and wait for the action to go down. When the piece was first constructed, it was dubbed “tourism surveillance.” As the artist says of the footage: “I found it pretty strange, that the police were sharing all this data.... I had to show what you can do with this… you see just how much surveillance there is.”

Even if you feel uneasy about observing people who are unaware, the temptation often makes it impossible to look away. In this aspect, the viewers themselves become implicated. It’s here, in this slightly sticky space between things happening in real time, and the slight remove offered via technology, where the piece makes its mark.

The watchers become the watched, the entire thing looping back around in a queasy-making closed circuit. I’m not exactly sure what to make of the end result, but like any work of art that is meaningful and complex, it burrows under the skin and embeds there.

Technology takes its direction from the people using it. In the case of the U.K.’s Forensic Architecture, a research agency based out of Goldsmith’s at the University of London, this has manifested in some remarkable investigative work.

Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2018, Forensic Architecture employs technology to dissect state violence and power. Led by Eyal Weizman, the agency’s team of artists, architects, scholars, filmmakers, journalists and lawyers use sophisticated media and architectural techniques to fight human rights violations on behalf of communities, social organizations and individuals.

One of their most recent projects involves filmmaker Laura Poitras and her documentary Terror Contagion. The film is currently the centrepiece of an installation at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. If you’re up for a trip to Montreal, I say go for it, but the New Media Gallery’s presentation of The Killing of Mark Duggan is equally powerful and only a quick trip away to New Westminster.

On Aug. 2, 2011, a young man named Mark Duggan was shot and killed by London’s Metropolitan Police. At the time of the killing, Duggan was under surveillance by Operation Trident, a special unit charged with investigating gun violence. One afternoon in Tottenham, North London, officers from the Specialist Firearms Command followed Duggan in a minicab, believing he had a gun. When police forced the cab to stop, Duggan exited the vehicle and was shot twice by police.

Two days after the shooting, Duggan’s parents had not been contacted by the authorities. When the family led a march to the Tottenham Police Station to demand answers, things turned violent. What followed was the largest riot in contemporary English history, resulting in thousands of years of jail sentences and mass arrests. The incident proved a watershed moment, akin to the murder of George Floyd in the U.S.

Forensic Architecture took on the case at the behest of Duggan’s family, recreating in exacting detail the events on the ground, demonstrating that the shooting did not take place the way the police maintained it had. The gun Duggan supposedly had on his person was found some seven metres away on a grassy verge. How it got there and when proved a focal point for Forensic Architecture’s meticulous recreation of the incident.

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Forensic Architecture, The Killing of Mark Duggan, 2020; New Media Gallery.

A 23-minute documentary anchors the installation in the Eyewitness show, but it’s the deluge of information contained in the attendant timelines, charts and graphic elements that provides a bigger sense of what is involved. Without a project this precise and exhaustive, it’s unclear whether there would have been any subsequent action taken in response to Duggan’s death.

The detail of this one project alone is staggering. Extrapolate this by the number of police killings in the U.S. and Canada, and the mind starts to bend underneath the work required to refute authorized versions of these events.

But as Stafford Scott, a community leader from Tottenham, said at the public presentation of Forensic Architecture’s findings: “What you saw here today people was us unravelling and unpacking the lies that were told in that inquiry. Some people say to us, ‘Why do you fight for justice?’ and I say, ‘Well, what choice do you have?’”

Duggan’s family reached an out-of-court settlement with the police for an undisclosed amount, although the police still refused to acknowledge responsibility for his death.

Technology has increasingly become the site of contested narratives — police killings, community displacement, active surveillance. (Arguably, one of the reasons George Floyd’s killer was sentenced was that the murder was captured on a teenage girl’s phone.)

Inside this mutable landscape, things are fluid, flowing back and forth between the powerful and the powerless. In this volatile and evolving place, artists, activists and ordinary people can contest oppression and fight back, fashioning radical new narratives.


'Eyewitness' runs from Feb. 5 to March 30 at the New Media Gallery in New Westminster.  [Tyee]

Read more: Art, Film

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