Surveillance and Art

Interrogating and debating surveillance and its impact on society is not the prerogative of scholars and activists. A number of artists have over the years engaged with issues related to surveillance and produced remarkable works that investigate, expose and illustrate the extent and depth of surveillance in society today. Many artists are themselves using surveillance technologies, for example footage from CCTV cameras or drones, or engage in self-surveillance, to better address themes of visibility asymmetries, threats to privacy, and surveillance.  Artists also engage in sousveillance, turning the gaze towards those in power, in attempts to resist surveillance and create counter-images. The art works, and the analyses and discussions of them by artists themselves, art curators, and scholars, help contribute to a better understanding of  the intervention of surveillance in everyday life, and also draws attention to the performative aspects of surveillance itself. Art, in short, can help make surveillance, often by its nature quite invisible, visible to us. Many artists are through their works raising serious social and political questions about power asymmetries in surveillance regimes (between governments and individuals, corporations and individuals, and between the global north and global south), revealing the vulnerability of weak groups (for example migrants and refugees). Their work is thus not just a form of aesthetic appropriation of surveillance technologies but constitute resistance and a challenge to governmental and corporate surveillance, and thus contributes to multiveillance i.e. horizontal and participatory monitoring.

Last week I went to the Hasselblad Center to see the exhibition Watched! Surveillance, Art and Photography that included works by a range of artists with a special focus on photography and the European context. In the exhibition there were some interesting works by Trevor Paglen and James Bridle who long have been involved in documenting and visualizing surveillance. Trevor Paglen, who in 2014 was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, has for example taken photos of NSA bases and American satellites. A very disturbing art work was Mishka Henner’s work No Man’s Land based on internet forums where men share images and locations of alleged sex workers using Google Street View. His work show corporate surveillance and how male sex buyers are using these technological affordances, and it also illustrates the vulnerability and asymmetries built into surveillance regimes. Other vulnerable groups are migrants and refugees, and several artists, including Tina Enghoff, Julian Röder, James Bridle, and Marco Polini, dealt with how surveillance and diverging visibilities affect these groups.

The very rich and beautiful catalogue, apart from the art works, also includes several insightful articles by some of the artists, as well as art curators, and media and surveillance scholars. There is also a very informative short video about the exhibition where the curator introduces the exhibition and some of the works, and several of the artists discuss their own works.

 

There have been other major exhibitions addressing surveillance and art at different art institutions and museums. In 2010, for example, Tate organized Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, and in 2015 the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art organized Panopticon: Visibility, Data, and the Monitoring Gaze. Earlier this year the Pratt Institute organized the exhibition Little Sister (is watching you, too), whereas Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum organized To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare. And I am sure there have been other exhibitions on this topic.

This year, Laura Poitras, also held her first solo exhibition, Astro Noise, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, with art and video installations addressing topics such as a mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, and Guantánamo Bay Prison. Topics that are also the focus of her films within the 9/11 trilogy, My Country, My Country (2006), The Oath (2010), and of course Citizenfour (2014) that documents her meetings with Edward Snowden and the revelations of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programme. The exhibition also resulted in a book, Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance, with articles and works by artists, authors, data journalists and activists, including Trevor Paglen, Ai Weiwei, Edward Snowden and Kate Crawdord, that illustrate different aspects and responses to mass surveillance and the ‘war on terror’.

In 2015 Rhizome and the New Museum in New York in an art-meets-tech event  paired activist Jacob Applebaum and artist Ai Weiwei. Their art project was documented by Laura Poitras in the film, Art of Dissent, showing them working on their project Panda to Panda, stuffing toy panda bears with shredded N.S.A. documents and memory cards as a backup, and talking about their experiences of surveillance.

Ai Weiwei is the Chinese artists who most explicitly and actively have engaged with different types of surveillance. When surveillance cameras were installed outside his studio, he hung lanterns from them, and in an act of defiance while under house arrest in 2012 he installed web cameras in his home and broadcast 24-hour live on a website called weiweicam. This form of self-surveillance was too much for the Chinese authorities, however, so he was soon forced to close down the cameras.  Ai Weiwei has also made other artwork addressing surveillance, including a sculpture entitled Surveillance Camera and Plinth made in marble. Another work that reveals a very close up and haunting experience of surveillance is S.A.C.R.E.D, a series of lifelike dioramas depicting his 81-day imprisonment. The work, which was first shown in Venice, is exhibited in small metal boxes and the viewer needs to peer through tiny windows in the ‘roof’ and ‘walls’ and thus in a sense becomes an accomplice in the act of surveillance. He has over the years also documented the constant police surveillance and a selection of these photographs that exemplify sousveillance are included in Laura Poitras book Astro Noise. Surveillance and sousveillance are also dealt with in many of Ai Weiwei’s documentary films beginning with his first film Disturbing the Peace.

 

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Child welfare 2.0 in China – a thought experiment

End of June I had the opportunity to give a presentation at the ICC at Sophia University, Tokyo. This presentation came as a result of the work of the Pufendorf project ‘Sustainable Welfare’ mentioned in the previous blog. In one chapter of the edited volume Sustainability and the Political Economy of Welfare Eric Brandstedt and Maria Emmelin suggest that it might be possible to cultivate social capital in order to create sustainable welfare, i.e. human welfare that does not build on the exploitation of environmental resources (western welfare states such as Sweden for example are unsustainable and do not serve as good examples for other states that would like to develop their human welfare systems, such as China).

In my presentation at Sophia, which was thought of as a starting point of a new research about children within our Digital China project, I deliberated about the possibility of creating a sustainable child welfare based on social media as the facilitator of social capital. So far, based on the rather scant research I have could gather on this topic, I found more negative points that speak against using digital methods in welfare systems (especially from the point of view of human dignity). However, the reason why I initially believed that digital child welfare would be mostly positive is due to the research about the capacity of social media to enhance social capital. Building on social capital is seen by Brandstedt and Emmelin as a possibility to create sustainable welfare without creating great (environmental) costs. Furthermore, social capital has been pointed out as one of the great benefits of social media for young people (and others, but especially young people). The idea of bridging and bonding social capital has already been tested on Chinese internet communities, also including youth, and also regarding questions of personal well-being. The possibility of social media communication to send and receive quality information has been highlighted, as well as the bonding potentials that have positive effects on people.

Another positive effect of using digital methods in child welfare lies in their beneficial outcomes for children with disabilities. Computers and also the internet are not only learning tools for visually, speech or hearing impaired or for children whose movements are compromised but they have also been found to be beneficial tools in getting connected with children who live through similar problems, which can lead to a decrease in the mental burden. Furthermore, young people who belong to sexual, physical, ethnic minorities, who are queer, LGBTQ, whose sexuality is not according to normative standards can experience relieve in communicating via social media, especially when they live in remote areas and feel left alone or so different from others.

Yet, without further dealing with them in detail, the negative points are more serious and include 1) surveillance and infringement of privacy of the child and the possible increase of inequality; 2) problems with trust and abuse of power in digital communication; 3) the importance of physical contact with people, which is diminished with digital methods; 4) the unsustainability of digital technology.

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What is possible, what is imaginable? Stories about low carbon life in China

From 2014-2015 I was member of a research project of Lund University’s Pufendorf Institute ‘Sustainable Welfare’. We concluded the project with the volume Sustainability and the Political Economy of Welfare edited by Max Koch and Oksana Mont and recently published by Routledge. In one of the chapters that I was co-authoring (“What is possible, what is imaginable? Stories about low carbon life in China” by Erin Kennedy and Annika Pissin) I used Chinese children’s blogs to find out what children learned at school and at home about carbon emission and what they could contribute to lessen it. We juxtaposed those blog entries with statements from World Café discussions with university students organized by Erin Kennedy in Shanghai. Through these sources, we explored the current discourse among youth on environmental issues such as climate change and carbon emissions and point out that understanding how today’s youth envision their future can be helpful when developing more innovative and adaptive methods for achieving China’s reduced carbon emissions goals by 2030. In terms of research concerning ICT, this chapter was interesting because of the combination of interviews/ World Café discussions with written sources by children in the internet. We thus found correlations between what the young students believed can be done with regard to CO2 emissions and smog in cities and what elementary school children wrote about it; the children’s blogs were also good material to juxtapose with statements about similar topics from children in other parts of the world.

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Conference paper at CIRC: Heritage and social media in China

I just attended the 14th Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC), which also was a post-conference to the 2016 International Communication Association (ICA). This year the conference was held at Fudan University, Shanghai. The conference offered an opportunity to get an overview of current research, new hot topics, and both theoretical and methodological discussions. I presented a paper that combined my interest in cultural heritage and new media.

Abstract:

Mediatization and cultural heritage: Plural voices and new platform

Recent work on heritage and social media has highlighted how social media offer new possibilities for citizens to share memories, identities, local culture and heritage, and thus constitute a more participatory and democratic platform (Giaccardi 2012). Social media encourage and enable new forms of engagement and interpretations of the heritage through user-generated content, personal reflections, interactions with others, and sharing of visual materials. As a result the experience of heritage has become more personal, performative and visual in character. New digital technologies are also used by heritage institutions such as museums to involve local communities in the co-production of heritage (for example through the use of Facebook, Instagram). The visual nature of social media engagement needs to be emphasised as the act of taking and sharing photos is quite central (Freeman 2010). Another important feature is the mobile nature of social media that enables real-time heritage engagements through smartphones, QR tagging, and apps, which reinforces the lived and performative aspects of heritage. Social media can support both the formation of new publics or communities by enabling strangers to share memories and experiences with places, historical events, and cultural practices, as well as enable existing communities to strengthen their ties and help them remember and experience their own heritage in new ways.

This paper discusses how different actors in China today use a wide range of digital technologies to mediate, visualise and celebrate local traditions and heritage. The mediatization of the cultural heritage increasingly takes place through film on digital video sharing sites and on social media platforms such as WeChat. These digital technologies enable Chinese citizens and local communities to bypass traditional heritage institutions as they now themselves are able to celebrate and document local history and cultural practices. This may also include heritage that official institutions have overlooked or do not acknowledge as heritage. New online communities have emerged around new topics of interests, specific cultural practices and architecture, or centre around place-based identities. This paper focuses on different groups such as local communities, heritage enthusiasts, informal networks and formal organizations, but also addresses the use of social media by official heritage institutions. Many informal networks, organizations, and official bodies have recently set up special WeChat groups that provide information and document local history. For individuals and local groups social media practices are however embedded in offline heritage practices, including travel and participation in different cultural events, and the paper also addresses these online/offline connection and embeddness. The paper is based on long-term ethnographic work, both online and offline, participation in different heritage activities as well as interviews with members of different heritage WeChat groups and other actors.

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Paper presentation: The Networked China Researcher

I have just attended the conference Digital Disruption in Asia: Methods and Issues at KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden. The workshop brought together a number of scholars to discuss both digital methods and the impact of digital technologies on Asian societies.   I presented a paper that discussed my own experiences and thoughts on social media use for research, The Networked China Researcher: Challenges and Possibilities in the Social Media Age

Abstract

The Internet, apart from being a fascinating field of study in its own right, has opened up new possibilities for scholars to get news, gather data, connect with informants, and in general stay updated on rapidly changing developments in Chinese society. Social media have added yet another dimension as it enables researchers to catch up with events and public debates as they unfold and get valuable insights into the daily life and views among scholars, opinion leaders, and informants. The technological affordances of social media, such as time-space compression, real time updates, and interconnectivity, facilitate engagement with the field and informants regardless of one’s physical presence. In fact, social media has become an ethnographic place/field in its own right where the researcher spends considerable time gathering information, observing, engaging and interacting with both scholars and informants. Our understanding of the “field” and what “being in the field” actually means have thus changed with the advent of the Internet and social media, as have our ethnographic methods. For me this “digital leap” has been an equally, if not more, transformative experience as that I experienced when I went from more classical Sinology and text-based research to ethnography, participatory observation, and interview-based research in the early 2000s.

In this paper I will discuss how digital technologies, in particular social media platforms, have changed the ways many of us conduct research, gather information, and interact with informants, and the possibilities and challenges, including the new ethical issues that arise as a result of our digital connectivity. It is also worth remembering that the researcher herself/himself leave many digital footprints on the Internet and social media. Our informants are not only able to read about us online, finding information about both our professional and private lives, and befriend us on social media, but they can also publish information about us and our research. These new developments opens up for more visible and easily accessible research(-ers), which can make research more participatory and democratic in nature. Researchers however need to be aware of and learn how to navigate this new visibility as it not only has consequences for researcher-researched relationships but also pose challenges and possible dangers in an authoritarian research context. This paper aims to address the lack of a systematic discussion in the literature on how digital technologies change research practices in and on China.

 

 

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Workshop 2-3 May: Scholars, activists and filmmakers

This workshop brings together scholars, activists and filmmakers from Asia and beyond. The participants will discuss their different views of and experiences with film, including using films as a research tool, documenting and engaging with social issues, developments and injustices in and through film, and appropriating film as a form of witnessing and activism. At the workshop we will screen a number of recent documentary films focusing on developments in Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia, China and Japan.

fa_2016_05

 

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China’s growing E-commerce hitting the countryside: Nongcun Taobao

China is not only the world’s biggest Internet nation in terms of absolute numbers of Internet users, it is also a huge market for e-commerce. According to Nielsen there are 380 million online shoppers and online sales contribute to 11% of total retail sales. The spread of smartphones is helping this trend, and in 2015 71% of urban online shopper used their phones to shop online. But it is not only the urban middle-class who shop online, online shopping is also taking off on the countryside as more people use Internet there too. However, the rural-urban gap is still huge as only 30% of the rural population, compared to 64% of the urban population, was using the Internet in 2015.

Since 2014, Alibaba, the owner of Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce site, has developed Nongcun Taobao, i.e. Village Taobao. They have developed a special app but also built service stations in villages where farmers who wish to use e-commerce platforms can get help with both buying and selling. Alibaba is planning to invest 100 billion RMB over the next three to five years to build over 100,000 village service station.

The government is also helping promote both rural e-commerce and internet infrastructure on the countryside. Last year Premier Li Keqiang proposed to invest 140 billion RMB in internet infrastructure for the countryside to provide at least 50,000 villages with Internet access by 2020 with the goal that 98 percent of the rural areas would have internet access. In the No. 1 Central Document adopted in January this year, rural e-commerce is a prioritized area. Many local governments have also included e-commerce for agriculture in their local five-year plans. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) recently signed a cooperation agreement with Alibaba to develop 300 trial regions and some 10 000 village service stations every year. While the rationale for Alibaba is to tap into the growing rural e-commerce market, the government sees this cooperation as a way to encourage people to go back to their hometown to start businesses and also develop and modernize agriculture. In March, Alibaba signed another agreement, this time with the Communist Youth League, to train and support 1 million college graduates to return to their villages to start e-commerce businesses.

IMG_2583When I recently was in China I ran into one of these Nongcun Taobao service stations in a village I visited. The station had been set up last year and was run by a young man, paid by Alibaba, who thus had returned to his home village. The village, like many other villages in China today, have seen out migration of young people so that it is mostly older people and children living there today. While some people themselves were able to go online to buy things, others needed help and came to the young man for help. The service stations thus help villagers without any computer skills or internet access to shop or sell products online. An additional advantage of Nongcun Taobao is that it provides coordinate delivery to villages where delivery companies otherwise wouldn’t deliver. As the advertisement on the village wall above says, the service provides convenience and brings bountiful products at good prices to the village.  While I was sitting chatting with the young man, another man came into the center to pick up a fishing rod that he had ordered. Among the other deliveries that day was a child’s bicycle and an ice-cream machine.

The rapid development of e-commerce and Nongcun Taobao, and the close cooperation between a private company and the Chinese state, shows the great importance put on developing and using the internet for business and economic growth.  While the space for talking politics on the Internet is strictly controlled and shrinking, shopping is a safe haven and actively promoted by the Chinese state leading China to become the world’s top one e-commerce country.

 

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Hans Christian Andersen Award 2016

At the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna beginning of April, Cao Wenxuan 曹文轩, a Professor of Children’s Literature at Beijing University (see the Wikipedia entry and the longer baike entry), received the biennal Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international award for children’s literature: “His fluid, poetic prose depicts honest, sometimes raw and often melancholy moments of life.” (see also the BBC announcement). Among the jury members was one Chinese woman, Wu Qing, daughter of the, at least in China, famous children’s book author Bing Xin.

These news were quite surprising to me as Chinese children’s literature does not seem well-visible and well-regarded in China. Translated picture and young adult books are increasingly published, though, and there are a number of magazines dedicated to children’s literature. The writings in those display, however, mostly an educative character, and the illustrations are not quite inspiring – although readers are nevertheless excited about the magazine (see e.g. these pictures from the magazine A World of Children’s Fairy Tales). The reason for this neglect of picture and other children’s book genres is not yet entirely clear to me, as some of the children whose blogs I read show keen interest in writing their own stories, and mothers discuss the newest picture and children’s books on the market.

Hopefully with Cao Wenxuan receiving this prestigious award, interest in children’s literature will increase and also it’s visibility and recognition as a form of literature that can be taken as serious as The Journey to the West and other classics which, along many meters of bookshelves filled with study books, can still be found in the Children’s Books departments of bookstores (he is, however, not unanimously accepted in China and criticised for misogyny in his stories).

Although this blog does not deal with digital media, I found these news noteworthy in this space nevertheless, as the intermingling of printed stories and discussions about them on the internet has an impact on the latter. Interest in printed stories thus might not diminish due to digital media (see also this Guardian article about the question: Can the web save the press from oblivion?).

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ICT in a rural boarding school

A selective review of Mette Halskov Hansen’s Educating the Chinese individual: life in a rural boarding school (2015), University of Washington Press

During fieldwork in a rural boarding school between 2008 and 2012 Mette Halskov Hansen observed that “it was mobile phone use among [students that symbolized intensified modernization of the rural boarding school, the students’ growing demand for individual space, and the weakened trust in authorities. […] Students used it to establish and maintain long-term social networks, to keep contact with friends inside and outside of their school and to play games and access information, especially about popular sporting events, music or movies” (62). Due to her continuous insights into schools in China, Hansen explains that nearly all students (at least those between 15 and 17 whom she studied) have a mobile phone from 2006/7 onward which are either tolerated, ignored or banned by teachers.

The mobile phone is in use during all kinds of time: small breaks, free time, and during classes. Hansen writes that “[E]very day and every hour, students knew exactly what they were supposed to do, and they learned to very efficiently exploit short breaks and unexpected moments without surveillance to socialize, play around, check sports or other news on their mobile phones, talk with friends in the class or send text or Internet messages on the widespread instant messaging software service known as QQ” (50). In fact, Hansen quotes a teacher saying that students “are controlled by their mobile phones” (158).

Another school of the town in which she did research managed to successfully ban mobile phones of which teachers believed that its use “weakened self-discipline and prevented them from concentrating on their studies” (52). This school had instead set up telephone booths on campus so that students can call their parents. Needless to say, calling their parents would only be a minor part of what students need their mobile phone for (and it wasn’t part of the above-quoted list). Interestingly, at one point, Hansen observed a presentation by a professional who was hired to motivate the students to study harder for their final exams (to get an impression see this bundle of youku videos, and the website “Chinese Net for inspirational Lectures” where the lecturer was found). One part of this presentation was spent to have some students call their parents in front of all the other students and staff and tell the (surprised) parents that they will do their best and that they love them. This must have been rather awkward for both sides – and I believe that this action shows different points of ideas of staff and students about the diverse purposes of ‘a telephone’. Of course, teachers themselves use QQ and the Internet (151).

Discussing the process of individualization and the role of choice in contemporary Chinese society, Hansen points out that the internet and mobile phones are used according to the norms of individualization processes: “students were faced with new options for expanding their knowledge of society and global changes through cheap and easy access to the Internet and for increasing their possibilities of communication through the mobile phones that nearly everyone had” (168). Moreover, the integration of different electronic media in students’ lives is used as a marker for different generational experiences (169).

Hidden transcripts – shatter zones

Most of the mentioning about using the mobile phone for accessing QQ, games, and the internet can be found under the subtitle: ‘Students’ quests for individual space’ (60 ff). Here Hansen shows that students use the internet as (one of) their individual escape space. From 2012 onward, Hansen writes, students put “substantial, though unorganized and uncoordinated, pressure” (67) on school authorities and teachers by using their mobile phones despite regulations against it. In these actions she found “elements of ‘hidden transcripts’”, referring to James Scott’s study about everyday resistance in peasants’ lives in Malaysia. Using hidden transcripts by subaltern subjects denotes using resistance in subtle, i.e. not public, ways against the state or authorities (ibid).

While reading this part I actually was more reminded Scott’s “shatter zones”.
Scott uses this term in The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland southeast Asia (2009), which describes the different ways in which people from highland cultures tried to escape state-making procedures and captivity until the 1950s by different means, but especially by living in more inaccessible areas. “Shatter zones” is space created for themselves: “the diagnostic characteristics of shatter zones are their relative geographical inaccessibility and the enormous diversity of tongues and cultures” (8). One important part of living in a shatter zone is to leave no paper trail, no written record in the usual sense, to be multilingual and flexible in their culture. Because Hansen describes the mobile phone and the internet as spaces that students create for themselves, I thought of their use of the mobile phone as shatter zones – also based on the speed with which ‘the hot’ expressions change among the youth and different groups of young people, and the desire to find ways and channels to not only circumvent the firewall and censorship but also to keep a certain privacy and at times anonymity. Certainly, QQ will not provide any of these, but chatting on QQ at least provides a ‘hiding’ space from teachers (who chat with their own friends).

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