[-empyre-] the netopticon

marc garrett marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Tue Jan 11 06:01:02 EST 2011

Hi Empyre,

I want to delve into a mix of art, legality, privatization of public 
space and surveillance. As well as explore artwork that critiques the 
hegemonies influencing our behaviours through the networked construct, 
the neoliberal appropriation, and its ever expansive surveillance 

In the UK, in 2006 a research document called 'A Report on the 
Surveillance Society For the Information Commissioner' was published. 
Produced by a group of academics called the Surveillance Studies 
Network. This report was presented to the 28th International Data 
Protection and Privacy Commissioners' Conference in London, hosted by 
the Information Commissioner's Office. The publication begins by saying 
"Conventionally, to speak of surveillance society is to invoke something 
sinister, smacking of dictators and totalitarianism. We will come to Big 
Brother in a moment but the surveillance society is better thought of as 
the outcome of modern organizational practices, businesses, government 
and the military than as a covert conspiracy. Surveillance may be viewed 
as progress towards efficient administration, in Max Weber's view, a 
benefit for the development of Western capitalism and the modern 

Of course, it was probably wishful thinking to of expected anything 
other than what was proposed in the document. After all, they are part 
of the same institution and do not understand the everyday effects of 
civil-liberty erosion in the eyes of those who are not able to defend 
their own rights, on their own terms. The statement "surveillance 
society is better thought of as the outcome of modern organizational 
practices, businesses, government and the military than as a covert 
conspiracy." Spells out the true nature of where they are coming from. 
And when they say that it is not a 'covert conspiracy', denying any 
authentic, critical perspective on the matter we know there and then 
they are supporting the systemic complacency of letting market forces 
decide the outcome. This perspective is not grounded but a presumption 
of letting things accumulate at the cost of other people's situations, 
not their own. For 'a particular perspective is a particular 
perspective' and this creates its own hermetically sealed, endless loop 
of specifics that in turn allows the (complicit) choice via the luxury 
of protocol, not seeing beyond their own status and power relations. To 
put it bluntly, the tools they use to judge with are already tainted, 
for they are part of a larger (societal) theme and machine that exists 
grinding away in the background. That grinding thing is, neoliberalism.

Many have their fave sci-fi, fantasy and social-political movies, 
exploring and relating to themes of humanity's civil liberties 
threatened by technological means. One movie which springs to mind is 
Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith as Robert Clayton Dean, released 
in 1998. The film was about a group of rogue NSA agents who kill a 
Congressman in a political-related murder, and then try to cover up the 
murder by destroying evidence and intimidating witnesses. It explored 
and exploited our worries, fantasies and paranoias around technology 
being used against us by those who have power within the realms of 
government agencies. In contrast to such adventurous and playful films 
with their stylish visions and high-octane, scenarios; we are presently 
faced with something less imaginative and sadly, more predictable. In 
the real world, as in 'real' digital networks and everyday human 
environments, the creep of surveillance has entered everyday life.

In parallel, strongly connected with this we are experiencing the 
results of a neoliberal utopia, a market system expanding into all 
aspects of our lives - through the politics of financial deregulation. 
As some one who is engaged with projects with the arts, I would like to 
offer some interesting examples of work that will hopefully allow a 
dialogue around the subject 'Contesting the Netopticon'. As we progress 
I will also discuss a Situationist view, historically and contemporary, 
according to what transpires.

My first example of art that deals head on with the issue of 
surveillance and the civil-related contexts of the panoptican, and 
"turning the Panoptic gaze back upon the observer." Is,  a group called 
'The Office of Community Sousveillance', featuring their playful project 
'PCSO Watch' (Police Community Support Officer).


This work rests between legality and illegality. By posing as security 
officers, PCSO Watch imaginatively plays at the borders of what is 
typically deemed right and wrong, real and unreal, pushing their 
expression in the form of political enactments and direct action. Their 
approach deliberately bypasses art dialogue and is more interested in 
connecting with every day people's lives. The audience they wish to make 
contact with is all of us. By relocating their particular creative 
practice and placing it in the streets, it opens up a more cultural 
dynamic. Tapping immediately into the murky depths of what our society 
is dealing with locally, nationally and in fundamental ways - it is 
about reality. At the same time this work helps us to realize that 
outside, out there, we need more than just shops as social environments; 
that we need more creative and wholesome experiences in our cities 
coming from the ground up. Through their work, one is also aware of how 
vulnerable we all are to forces imposed by those who say that they care 
for us. Solutions to social problems need not always have to be based 
around monetarily orientated processes and a presumption that all 
civilians are potential villains, tarred with the same brush.

The Situationists viewed the outside environment as (real) material to 
access new ways  in claiming the (immediate) creative act. The space 
outside becomes not only 'physical space' but it also becomes an 
assemblage of different possibilities. A living-breathing, three 
dimensional art space, this is where we meet the realizaton of urban 
praxis - Psychogeography.

This sense of (re)grounding, forces us to acknowledge and observe other 
stories, an opening up of a less designed experience. Just like when one 
walks in the countryside to experience the qualities of what nature 
offers, the urban environment also has its own generous rhythms, if we 
see further than designated, structured interfaces, these official 
architectural standardizations and motions. Through this an intuitive 
state of spontaneity comes to the fore "Spontaneity is the mode of 
existence of creativity; not an isolated state, but the unmediated 
experience of subjectivity. Spontaneity concretizes the passion for 
creation and is the first moment of its practical realization: the 
precondition of poetry, of the impulse to change the world in accordance 
with the demands of radical subjectivity. The Revolution of Everyday 
Life: The Reversal of Perspective. "Creativity, Spontaneity, and 
Poetry". Raoul Vaneigem

By claiming technological media and our physical spaces, we are also 
engaged in the fight of challenging the networked systems in place that 
are defining our behaviours in terms reflecting a top-down agenda and 
not our own. Sousveillance allows us the watch the watchers at their own 
game. But, what does watching the watchers allow us to do. In respect of 
Wikileaks the game is already being played out, but for ourselves who 
wish to remain independently in tune with our own communities, friends 
and peers, on-line and off-line; how far will we have to go before we 
see beyond the watchers? Can we hack our way round this cul-de-sac, and 
if so, in what manner or form?

Wishing you well.


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