March 6, 2014
University of Toronto
From the colloquia series “Feminist & Queer Approaches to Technoscience”
Stephanie Perrin: Hi, my name is Stephanie Perrin and I am honored and privileged to be one David’s students. In that capacity, I must say I asked him how he would like to be introduced and he—no, not close enough, better? There we go, OK. I asked him how he wanted to be introduced and he said, “You’re so far behind, don’t bother reading my recent work.” Patrick had said for us to give a thorough review of the recent work, so for once I did as told. I can assure you, though, I’ve read his older work, and in fact when I was in government dealing with cryptography policy, I used to shamelessly copy a chapter that he has in the Rotenberg/Agre book called Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape because it’s the clearest exposition of cryptography that one can find in a piece of work. So, he’s a man of many talents. His work has focused on surveillance and computing in recent years, but today he’s going to talk about queering surveillance research. Without more ado, I’ll give it to you, David.
David Phillips: Thank you, Stephanie. Thank you, Stephanie, and thanks to the organizers of this colloquium series for inviting me to be a part of it. I have to say, it’s sort of terrifying in a way that most presentations of mine are not because I have to see you all tomorrow and the next day and the next day, and I can’t just wave as I get on the airplane and say, we really must keep in touch. But anyway, here I am, again, grateful to be here.
So I deal with surveillance theory, and I want to talk a little bit about just the field of surveillance theory and what I see as some of the issues that are enlivening surveillance theory and surveillance research today. First, surveillance research is sort of constrained, I think, or dealing with, or fighting against, certain sedimented ways of framing the subject of its study. The field is organized around a few metaphors of privacy, of panopticon, of Big Brother, of data protection. It’s not that these metaphors are embraced by the scholars in the surveillance community; in fact, they’re quite actively opposed or grappled with in many, many ways. And yet they demand a certain legitimacy, and they organize and constrain the discourse in a way that I’m trying to find my way around or out of—to not engage, if I can, in that particular way of thinking.
Surveillance studies tends to suffer from a theoretical conflation of many practices. How is Facebook oversharing similar to NSA data mining? I don’t know. I mean, there are ways you can make the links, but they are very, very different practices, and yet within the field of surveillance studies, there are people studying them, engaging them. It tends, in surveillance, to cleave to this—well, it tends to neglect the productive possibilities of surveillance, the possibilities of surveillance practice as a mode of knowledge-making, of sense-making, of world-making that might in fact be quite engaging, liberating, exciting. And within surveillance practice, the practice entities are emergent, they’re chaotic, so much is going on in the boisterous hurly-burly of watching, displaying, exposing, recording, evaluating, it’s very difficult to get any kind of grasp on it. And related to that are embodied engagements with surveillance practice, informed by inarticulate pleasures and fears. We don’t quite know what the problem is, we don’t quite know why it’s exciting, why it’s fun, why it’s terrifying. My own engagement with this mess in surveillance studies is to explore the intersections among surveillance, speciality, and identity, especially queer identity. And by identity, one way I’m following Goffman—because who could not?—is approaching identity as the sharing, creating, and performing of socially meaningful relationships. Identity mediates between the individual and the social; it’s the product both of these exterior relations and also the interior subjectivity. It is performed; it is performative; it is not given; it is continually brought into being; and it strains and reinforces the structures that are both medium and outcome of its performance. By queer identity performance, I refer to self-conscious performances that acknowledge and point to the stakes of the performance, to its constructed nature and to the techniques of its production. And I’m very interested in how surveillance infrastructures mediate this queer identity performance.
The other thing I’m interested in, one of the things I mentioned, is spatiality. I’m interested in the space of surveillance and what that means. We might imagine three modes of surveillance, or three modes of interaction in this play of identity negotiation. I’m not committed to these, but they work for a little bit. These kinds of modes of interaction: the face-to-face sort of interaction that Goffman talks about—basically, how we manage our impression, how we glean impressions from others, how we in everyday life in a face-to-face way demand to be treated as a certain type of person. The other type of surveillance, or the other mode of surveillance, the space of surveillance that I consider is—and this is a lousy word for it; I can’t find a better one for it yet—I’ll call it visually mediated surveillance. I’m talking here about some kind of differential unbounding of space through enhanced or extended visuality or cognitive awareness. I’m just talking about space, but I’m talking about a webcam, so I’m talking about this mediated sense of “Where am I now? Who’s here with me?”—sending this part of my image out, circulating around the globe, and then it’s coming back to me in this strange way. But the point I’m trying to make here is it is visual or it’s sensory, OK, it’s things that you see. It’s our Facebook profile, the Facebook profile that we see when we’re logging into someone’s Facebook page: that kind of presentation, that kind of reception. This type of surveillance, this type of identity construction, it reconfigures presence and place. It troubles and reinforces norms and tropes of identity performance as it troubles the distinctions of public and private. That “Where are you? And when?”—it’s that sort of temporal and spatial unbounding of presence. But the mode of surveillance, the space of surveillance, that I’m most interested in is what I refer to as actuarial surveillance, and I am happy with that phrase. I think that sort of sums it up. This is a systematic, analytic, methodical creation of normativity. In its idealized form, this actuarial surveillance individualizes members of the population. It identifies each individual member of the population; it observes and records each individual’s activities and collates all of those observations across the population, and across that population it finds norms, patterns, types, categories. Once those statistical norms are produced, they are applied back to individuals in a population; they are applied back to populations as a whole, or applied back to the surveillance process itself.
So actuarial surveillance is a structure of legibility more than visibility. It’s a structure of meaning-making. It renders us visible; it identifies us in relation to the norms that it produces. It’s a technique of knowledge production and it’s a technique of population management that’s becoming really a central organizing principle of modern institutions everywhere. It is sort of as important as capitalism. I mean, my, our gender relations—surveillance makes the world go ’round—this is how people are known. This is how organizations work, through this kind of actuarial surveillance. Some scholars refer to this as “dataveillance,” and I would want to just push back on that a little bit, or find a way around it, because by actuarial surveillance I want to resonate with the process of analysis and risk management rather than just this data collection. It’s not the fact of the data, it’s the fact of that analysis and risk management that I want to point to. All three of these modes—the face to face, the visually unbounded, the actuarial knowledge-making or surveillance—they’re all going on all the time. They refer to each other and depend on each other in quite complex ways, and I find that complexity really very interesting.
The third thing I want to talk about—having just spoken about identity, having spoken about actuarial surveillance—is infrastructures of actuarial surveillance. That is, an attention to the institutions that in very complex relationships actually do this work, the work that goes into coercing everyday life into systems of actuarial surveillance, into systems of monitoring and sense-making, and the work that goes into making that work invisible, and the resources that are called on in that work—the economic, cultural, legal, political resources that go into the creation of infrastructures that mediate actuarial surveillance practice. I’m particularly interested in rhetorical resources, rhetorical tropes—and this is actually just me being a little, just ’cause I can’t stand it, this is me being a little ticked off—and the cloud. The deployment of the cloud, this is—oh, wait a minute, I’m missing my slides here! OK—this is, I’m sorry, I should have backed up a little bit. These are the types of categories that are created, these are the types of identities that are created, in actuarial surveillance. These are just demographic categories, Canadian demographic categories. You know, people at like a rural mid-scale who have high rates of going fishing, hunting, boating, and camping, disposable income to buy RVs, snowmobiles, and ATVs. The big date is going to a bingo hall, community theater, or auto race. But these Canadians are better known for their old-fashioned domestic crafts, and group residents rank high for gardening, sewing, and making their own beer. That is an actuarial identity, OK? Yes, that is an actuarial identity. Likewise, actuarial surveillance has been used for marketing for ages, for a really long time. It’s also used for fraud control, and you can’t see it really well, but this is a middle-aged woman, a young grandmother perhaps, having her arm tattooed, and then Citibank says, “It didn’t seem right to us either.” And I see this and I think, what about middle-aged women who actually would like to have their arms tattooed, and what do you mean it doesn’t seem right? The kind of normativity that goes into this analytic—this is actuarial fraud control, they look for the abnormal, the deviant, and say “oh oh,” and red flags are raised. Since September 11, 2001, of course, the international security apparatus has taken up actuarial surveillance with a vengeance. And I just love this, “Deviations from normal behavior point to terrorists.” OK? [laughter]
This is from 2003—this actually was a torch system, this was actually part of a scandal in 2003, when the US was doing this total information awareness stuff, and despite the scandal this is just all over the place now, they’re just being a little too—they’re a little better at masking it, making it invisible. So the other—right, see where I am, yeah, this is just me barking against this metaphor of the cloud. Again, this metaphorical deployment of the cloud is one way that actuarial surveillance, the actual institutions of actuarial surveillance, become invisible. This is, as you can tell, the cloud. This is the cloud. This is the cloud. Such cloud-like images, are they not? You know? One of these days I’m just going to do a global “find and replace” for wherever it says “the cloud” and put “NSA,” “NSA,” “NSA.” Right. I want to show another sort of rhetorical moment that I just want to point to. This is Ann Cavoukian recently talking about NSA’s gathering of metadata from phone calls, and she says, “armed with this [meta]data, the state has the power to instantaneously create a detailed digital profile… Detailed pictures of individuals begin to emerge. The data can reveal your political or religious affiliations, as well as your personal and intimate relationships.” I just want to point out there the rhetoric of revealing some pre-existing individual and these sensitive things about this individual. Contrast that with something I just read last week: “I did not want my information”—this is from an article called “How I Tricked Google”—“I did not want my information fed into some algorithm that would reveal that people that have considered buying pink leather shoes and recently visited Berlin are poor credit risks or some such thing.” So I like this alliteration of the production of what that analytic process produces. All right. Pink leather shoes and visiting Berlin was not a category until it was subjected to this sort of analytic surveillance.
So, focusing in a little bit more, I’m really interested in the clash of these spaces, these spaces between the face to face, the visual, and the actuarial. What’s at stake, what’s going on when the individuals who use Facebook (like you and me) are using Facebook for that, again, visually mediated surveillance—extending our images in place and time, but it’s very visual or sensory—versus the operators of Facebook, who are working flat-out actuarial surveillance. They’re finding patterns across the population of Facebook users. What’s going on there? An example of this clash of space between face to face and this visually mediated stuff is Chatroulette and Chatroulette Maps. You all know Chatroulette? Or how Omegle looks at these sort of random chats with a stranger. I first became familiar with this through Omegle, which is a text-based chat, or was anyway, maybe it’s gone now. And then Chatroulette came and did video chats and hence, of course, become quite pornographic. Then you had spin-offs like Manroulette, which was just men jerking off, basically. And I—I’ll just read this, OK? I’m just going to read a piece that I wrote:
I’m taken with the erotics of random stranger websites like Omegle, which was first and ever in my heart a text chat. What is it about these sites that opens such a profound and mysterious gate to eros? John McGrath in Loving Big Brother writes about the erotic possibilities of these new topographies, of the delight in the absent-present other, the denaturalization of Euclidian space and how this weaving of suspense and indeterminacy suddenly lays bare our own moral code, leaving us to peek and question and play with it. I’d add to that the evocative context of the deep pervasive silence, the purity of this one signal, this one connection, textual or visible, between the two of us through the void.
I find Omegle deeply and intimately erotic. I am told, “you are now chatting with a random stranger, say ‘hi.’” So I type “hi” and I smile and I wonder, why are we here? What are we doing together? It’s like cruising: the glance, the smile, the blind faith that the glance and smile are sufficient unto themselves, but also the stirring hope that there might be something else, something more. The mystery of the give and take of making each other and making each other fit from such an undetermined palette. And surprise, the opening of this new space invites repression and regulation. Normative identity categories are re-imposed along with Euclidian territorial space. Almost always the first question on Omegle is ASL—age, sex, location. Rarely, I assure you, is the sought-for answer 58-year-old gay man in Toronto.
On Chatroulette Maps—oh, please go, will this go if I just ask it to? I should have checked this. Oh, OK, I’m going to leave it alone. On Chatroulette Maps, screenshots of Chatroulette sessions are posted and linked to geographic locations. This attachment of the generative erotic space to the socialized and territorialized space of the home excites a whole new kind of terror. One learns quickly to extract a statement of age from one’s new friend and, shame, yes, I checked Toronto on the map before I presented here. Sorry? Yeah, OK, well, it goes all over. Oh, yes. This flyover video of Chatroulette Maps evokes much of this tension, much of this violence, the silence, the space, the cruising vibe, the faces bored and intent, the cocks, the tits, the abs, and the jarring drop into someone’s hometown.
So, again, that’s just an illustration of the kind of tension between these spaces, these modes of surveillance that I find really interesting. I’m also interested in queer identity play within infrastructures of surveillance, of actuarial surveillance. Remembering these infrastructures of actuarial surveillance are about individuation, identification, tracking analysis response, I’m very interested in knowing how to engage in this in a project of counter-normative world-making. There’s very good scholarly work suggesting that people are actually quite adept at counter-normative uses of this sort of visual surveillance, of street cameras, of Facebook, of webcams, to actually create quite interesting new types of engagement, but it’s not clear to me whether or how those tactics can be used for actuarial surveillance. Again, the object of my inquiry is not to halt or oppose surveillance practice—it’s how the world goes ’round, you might as well try to stop the tides, stop the sun from rising in the morning. Rather, it’s to suggest how we might engage productively, creatively, libidinally with systems of actuarial surveillance, and further, how we structure information environments to facilitate that kind of engagement.
I want to know how to do drag in actuarial surveillance. How do we show the wires behind the smoke and mirrors? What kind—and remembering what I was talking about in terms of queer identity performance—of self-conscious performances might acknowledge and point to the stakes of the performance, its constructed nature and the techniques of its production? How do we—as we use it, as we engage it—point to actuarial surveillance, point to what it is doing? So much of statistics is about obfuscation of the inherent cultural biases in the use of statistics. How do we point to how data is made to mean? How do we maintain queer positions in dataveillance? How do we play with legibility? How do we play with legibility in systems of actuarial surveillance? I’ve been looking at fun ways to do it. I’ve been writing about this stuff for many years now, and not to get too autobiographical, but I can’t stand writing anymore. I can’t stand it. I think Fran Lebowitz had, you know, thirty-two-year writer’s block or something, and I’m in my fifteenth year or so. I hate it. And I’ve been on many a sofa, many a therapist’s sofa [mock crying sounds], “my paper isn’t marked,” and it’s sick. And I’m sick of it. Anyway. So I’ve been looking for some other way to explore this because it is so important. It is so terribly, terribly important. I am more and more certain that this investigation, this critical investigation of actuarial surveillance practice, is, you know, it has to be done. So I look for fun ways to do this. So I was looking at surveillance art and surveillance theater, and there is some surveillance art out there, you know, art that calls itself surveillance art or that is definitely dealing with issues of surveillance, but it tends to be very much, almost exclusively, I would say—I’m pointing to a gap in the literature here—about the visual. There’s lots of stuff about camera players, people who in effect would do their music video by compiling shots from CCTV cameras on the street and do Freedom of Information requests to get the footage and then construct their music video out of it. Things like that. So it tends to be about that kind of visuality, or if it is about data gathering, if it is about dataveillance or actuarial surveillance, it’s very much about the data-gathering moment. Or the access to data. All right. So I want to show you one because I like it a lot.
Video audio: I’m Eric Gradman of Music and Robots and we’re standing in front of my project The Cloud Mirror at New Frontier and Main, Sundance Film Festival. If you’ve ever used Facebook, or you’ve ever used Twitter, or really if you’ve ever used the internet for any reason whatsoever, then there’s all sorts of information about you on the internet. There’s like this caricature of you. Now I, I love living like a comic-book character and The Cloud Mirror is my opportunity to let everybody else live like a comic-book character, too. So here’s what it does. You go up to the registration kiosk and you pick up one of these badges. You log in with either Facebook or just type in your name, your Twitter, answer a few questions, whatever you want to do, and my software will go out online and it will compile a profile about you. It will go on Facebook, it’ll download your status messages, it’ll grab your Twitters, it’ll even go on the internet sex offender registry and see if you’re registered. It’ll look at your IMBD credits, it’ll see if you’re in the Sundance filmmaker database for this particular install, it’ll do Yahoo image searches on you. What it’s doing is it’s compiling as much information as it possibly can in hopes of building as complete a profile of you as possible. Now when you stand in front of The Cloud Mirror what you’ll see is your face, as though in a mirror, but up next to your head in a thought bubble will be something very embarrassing that I’ve fetched off the internet for you. And then down here on your badge, you don’t see this pattern. What you see is like a virtual photo album hanging around your neck, flashing through on your badge photo after photo, things that you probably didn’t expect to see ever again.
So I like that. I think that’s a really nice piece of work. The only reason that I’m pointing it out to you, really, is so that you notice it’s about data gathering. It’s about access to data, an individual’s data, so to speak. So that’s focused on the individual. Again, I am looking for ways to do something about risk: production of risk, about meaning through data, about classification, about identity. And, as you may have noticed from the posters for this session by the back door, I wanted to do it through theater. So the first way I tried to engage these questions was to do an adaptation of a short story, a lovely short story written in 1999, Steve Tomasula’s “C-U See-Me.” It’s all these vignettes of people who are watching each other and displaying themselves for various reasons through various media and they interlink beautifully, and it has this real spatial quality to it. And so I wanted to adapt that for the stage, but oddly enough it was writing and it was lonely and it wasn’t working for me. But I encourage anybody who is actually a playwright and wants to adapt something, that’s a lovely short story. So the second time, the second try in this, was a way to try to knock myself off-kilter. One of the things that I didn’t write about the adaptation was that the characters kept sounding an awful lot like me, saying what I already knew, and I thought, you know, well, write another draft, the next draft will be better, the next draft will be better, and it will get less stupid as you go along. But I just didn’t have the patience for it. So I was looking for a quicker way to sort of knock myself off-kilter and not hear myself say the same old thing. So I tried actually to invoke random processes to construct characters that are sort of theoretically informed attributes of these characters: why they would want to be watched, why they would want to display themselves or show themselves, and in what sort of mode of surveillance they were most comfortable. And I would just randomly say, you know, here’s somebody who wants to see people for that reason and is happier in face-to-face situations. And then I would actually consult the oracle to say, give me a situation. What is the tension, what’s the beginning, what’s the end?
That didn’t work either, but we’re getting there, actually. I have hopes for that one, and I think, if I get out of the writing part, because I couldn’t write my way out of those situations, but I would like to perform my way out of those situations, or I would like to have actors perform their ways through that situation—I actually think that could be quite evocative. What I ended up doing was, luckily, happening into a collaborator, Michael Reinhart, who is an actor, performer, director, and dramaturge who’s interested in structured interdisciplinary collaboration and who is also interested in surveillance. He looked me up. I was on sabbatical, he was finishing his doctorate, we’re having a very mutually beneficial relationship and decided that we would create a collaboratively devised theater piece together. So the first thing we did was to think of the research question, and we thought, OK, one very broad research question that we would allow our collaborators to narrow or redirect: what are the traps, the contradictions, the conflicts, the inevitabilities, the possibilities when life is organized around actuarial surveillance? So we assembled a team of collaborators, including a surveillance scholar and actor—that would be me—the polyglot dramaturge director—that’s Michael—an actor, a performance artist, a dancer, a visual and projection artist, and a data wrangler, and a small audience. And except for the audience, we worked together in four days of table work—very seminar-like, I gave them articles to read, gave a little lecture, suggested particular interesting understudied areas that we might want to explore. How are data made to mean? How are norms internalized? And this is an important one, near to my heart: what are the avenues and pleasures of illegibility, of the unclassifiable, of the outsider, of the vagrant, of the queer? What are the pleasures there?
So Monty—I should explain this a little bit—Monty was working with the software suite Isadora. Is anybody familiar with Isadora? It’s cool. It allows the programmer to use many different streams of input data to control permutations of many different input streams of visual imagery and then it will project those permuted images. For example, an audiometer might measure the level of ambient sound, and that sound level would determine the delay in the projection of a live image on the screen, and that live image would be of a dancer. So the dancer could then dance with an image of her prior self, but as the audience got more and more excited by this, the volume would go up—ambient volume would go up—and the image would recede and the dancer’s partner would become further and further apart in time. I don’t know why you would want to do that, but you could do that. That’s the kind of thing that Isadora does.
We worked with network sensors and Arduino programming because we wanted to monitor some sort of audience response and integrate that into the performance environment. So for four days we just table-workshopped this, thinking of questions, thinking of what we were going to do. And then there were ten days of rehearsal in a small theater, and it’s this studio theater right around the corner here, lovely little space. The theater administrators didn’t like this very much, but we took chalk and just wrote all these questions all over the space at first. What is the background against which we measure abhorrence? So, again, I want to point out that these directions are really focused on actuarial surveillance about normativity, about abhorrence, about the production of meaning. And these questions went from the abstruse to the mundane, as you’ll see here. How do we hijack actuarial surveillance? And then more into theater, how do we have a show to pull off in a couple of days, what is the fiction? What are we going to do here? We got this test; we have this spectacle. This is the structure of the show. And then, finally, can I have a pointer, please? We open tomorrow, I need a pointer. So we decided on two themes: contortion into legibility and the pleasures of the outsider. We fixed a title, “Work and Play at the Threshold of Legibility,” and we fixed a structure of the piece. This is the structure of the piece; there were going to be tests and spectacles. So there were five acts. The audience was admitted and enrolled; they were welcomed; they were oriented; they were submitted to legibility tests and, depending on the results of those tests, they were invited into spectacles designed especially for them. And finally, the cast offered them all a big-finish blowout.
So this is the enrollment process: Elise and I enrolled audience members as they entered; we would offer each a tag emblazoned with a random hexadecimal guest ID. We assured them that the guest ID was not associated with any identifying information, so it was not covered by data-protection laws, and so, too bad, we’re going to go on now. And we would track them through that guest ID through the course of the evening. That’s us just getting ready to go. The next part was Netta inviting people in and invoking and welcoming people into the spectacle and into the performance. She talked about the history of categorizing and normalizing populations through information technologies, of measuring individuals against a grid—either a literal, visual grid or a more abstract set of standardized measures—and analyzing and categorizing the population objectively and scientifically according to the data thus made visible. She invited the audience to be read in each of three legibility tests. So that was the welcome. Then we had three legibility tests, and the point of these tests was that they had to be difficult. The attendees had to somehow contort themselves into legibility. There was some pleasure they would get out of it, if only they could manage to be read, to allow data to come from them somehow. Netta administered a psychographic test, a set of binary choices: giraffe or zebra? title or author? This is the jitter monitor, this is Isadora at work, so that’s [laughing]—Gary, what’s her name? This is a friend of mine whose name I’m blanking on. Diane! OK, this is Diane standing in front of a camera. And you see her that’s her face blown up behind her, and what Isadora is doing is, if the sensors notice any movement, the images fracture. All right. So she has to stay very, very still in order to get a good image of her projected. If she moves at all, that image behind her just fractures all over the place. So again, a contortion into legibility. This is Diane again at the sarcasm monitor. I never quite understood this one, but that’s OK. The participants were asked to recite three phrases like “that looks so good on you,” and you were supposed to say it once honestly and once sarcastically. It was actually an interesting little exercise. So after people were subjected to these tests, the data that was gleaned from the tests was sent to Justin, who sat in the middle of this space, in this wash of white light, constantly scribbling, constantly collating, constantly analyzing this data. And he was to decide, based on—this is the fiction—the data that he had gleaned from all these tests who was to be permitted into what spectacles. The spectacles are the next part.
The spectacles were entertainments. They were gifts. They were designed to be fun; they were designed to be themed, however remotely, on some sort of reference to issues of surveillance. The other thing about the spectacles is they were to make a distinction between insider and outsider. Depending on how you did in these tests, you were allowed into some set of the three spectacles. If you were not allowed into the spectacle, the spectacle was supposed to be designed so that you could somehow get something out of it. We were trying to deal with the idea of the pleasures of the outsider—what are the pleasures of outsider status? We wanted to deal with this insider/outsider status. That’s Monty policing the insider/outsider distinction for one of the spectacles, looking at his clipboard to see who would be allowed in and who would not be. This is one of the spectacles, Netta disciplining Elise. Elise is a competitive dancer—I had no idea there was such a thing, but there is, and she is a competitive dancer—and that is Netta screaming at her, “Higher, higher, tuck, tuck!” It was awful. It was a really viscerally difficult thing to watch. This is Michael with his spectacle, “The Blind Painter.” He was blindfolded; he would explore the room he was in tactically—that’s Diane again—and then go back—you can’t really see it here, but there’s a painting there—so he would explore the room tactically and go back and paint whatever he had seen. This is what I designed, the “Satisfaction of Shameful Desires.” So we would, based on the data gleaned from your various tests, offer you these slide shows designed specifically for you, and there were supposed to be images that were bordering on the fetishistic and grotesque, like show tunes. One of them was the entire clip of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from the movie Funny Girl, which is a fabulous clip. Or there were images of extreme luxury or scary plane landings, those are a couple of things we had. So if you were an insider, you got to watch it; you actually got to engage in these pleasures designed specially for you. If you were an outsider, you could actually watch the person who was being so entertained. So the fiction is that the outsider kind of gets to see the whole picture but can’t really engage in it, and the insider gets the visceral “oh, this is so fabulous,” but they can’t really see what’s going on. That’s the fiction. And then we finally—again, data gleaning—analyzed all the data that we had collected about the audience and we clustered the audience into three types. We told the audience what types they were. We identified the attendee who epitomized each type and we offered that person a special gift that was carefully chosen to appeal to people of that type. We also identified one audience member whom we were unable to classify, whom we could only describe as vagrant or queer or other, but we gave them a gift anyway—that was a slow dance with Michael. And then we finally offered a big finish—that is, something for everybody. And what would everyone enjoy but girls dancing the Macarena? And that’s Michael slow dancing with an invisible partner, while all the women in the cast performed the Macarena with a fancy light show.
There actually was a point there—it was supposed to be geared to the least common denominator and supposed to be a joke about the least common denominator, that denominator not being all that common. Who likes it anyway? Anyway. So how did it work? Two things became really clear to me both in the development and afterwards. One was that we weren’t doing a lot of theory building. We were doing a lot of pedagogy. It was the best seminar I’ve ever had. It was fabulous that way. Ideas were going hot and heavy and we were really working with each other. The other thing is that it was more fun than you can shake a stick at. It was fun! In terms of the pedagogy, or rather why it failed as research—I do think it failed as research, if I may be so bold—the practice didn’t really [inaudible] the theory. There was no theory building here, and mostly this was because we had ten days to put up a show, and so after the fifth day of thinking thoughts, it was like, we need a show. We need a show. Do a show. Do a show. This is the pleasure of the outsider! OK! And so my understanding of surveillance theory sort of was imposed upon this creative process towards the end. It was fine, it was fun and all. But, like I said, I didn’t learn much about surveillance theory doing it. So part of that was we had no time; the other thing is, we never got the data gathering to work. We never worked with live data. All the data was smoke and mirrors. Even though we spent a lot of money and a lot of time trying to get any kind of real-time data to play back to the audience, it was just beyond our skill. And it just ended up being smoke and mirrors theatrics—which I thought was interesting, that I, the scholar, didn’t mind that at all, smoke and mirrors theatrics. The dramaturge was like, “No, we need data”—it was odd, but there you go. But with that all those caveats, I left this project more convinced, completely convinced—I am convinced—that this kind of theatrical construction is an extremely powerful research method. In two weeks—in less than two weeks—in our first effort we were knocking at the back doors of surveillance theory and ready to walk in and rearrange the furniture. It was great. So that’s why the funding agencies have to give me more money so I can actually do it right next time.
And to do it right next time, that means improvisers; we need new expertise to effect this sort of change of the quality of the collaboration. We need improvisers and clowns, rather than performance artists—I mean, a lot of these were actually performance artists, and I didn’t quite get what that meant until I said, you deal with the audience while you’re doing your thing. And Stephanie was like, well, I can’t deal with the audience and do my thing. And I’m like, huh? So anyway, there was that kind of stuff. Improvisers and clowns, people who are really experienced, really skilled in games—they’re really skilled at collaboration, communication, collective ways of knowing, a focus on shifting relationships rather than static entities. They’re skilled at, in the spur of the moment, finding the conflict, find the tension, embody and embrace the tactic, get out of your head, hold in abeyance logic and abstraction, play it as it lays, do not pretend that anything that’s happening is not happening. And those are the kinds of skills that I would like to play with, and that I think can be really evocative of unsolved questions. They can creatively explore unexamined tensions. I’d also love to have a critical statistician. I’m not even sure what a critical statistician is but I’d love one. A data visualization expert—I want to play with data. I want to play with data in real time, I really do, and I want to give that data back to the audience and say, what do you think? I do this a little bit in one of the six-week workshops that I teach here: just keep probing a particular data set, always being aware of the assumptions that we’re making as we decide to perform each new analysis. They’re the stereotypical assumptions, cultural assumptions that underlie every bit of analysis that we do with the data, and I would like to do that kind of thing in real time with the audience. I would like to do that, anyway.
And I also think that including improvisation, or rather that random setting up of interesting conflicts—setting improvisers loose—could be quite interesting. Again, that’s why funders: I need more time and money to do this because these are skilled researchers and they should be paid. So that’s mostly the end, with a bit of a coda. This whole thing is about legibility, my interest is in legibility, and I’m interested in how this is legible as research. It doesn’t make all that much difference to me. I mean, I actually think I can get funding for it. But I’m not sure how it becomes legible as research, how it becomes credible and persuasive. How can we persuade others that anything new has been added to the canon of surveillance scholarship? Can we just say, you had to be there, it was ephemeral, it was ineffable, or must we write monographs like this one, describing the method and the findings? And how do we do this without subjecting the ineffable, the lively, and the fun to the kind of, sorry, desiccating academic discourse? Which is to say, can I please not write this up? Please. But I don’t know.