The 1999 WTO protests in Seattle marked a turning point both for political protest and for the ways in which the state attempts to control it. Protesters developed new models of organizing (e.g. affinity groups and spokescouncils) and new tactics of direct action. Governments, in turn, heightened security measures by denying protest permits, surveilling and infiltrating activist groups, preemptively detaining activists, creating militarized security zones, and deploying “less-lethal” weapons such as tasers, tear gas, and Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs). The policing of protest intensified again after 2001, as laws preventing domestic spying were repealed, anti-terrorism funding flowed to law-enforcement agencies, and larger patterns of militarization and control emerged. Activist groups responded to this new environment by adopting “security culture” practices intended to prevent infiltration and avoid surveillance.
Political protest has become a public ritual in which activists and police play socially-defined roles and perform unscripted yet predictable actions for an imagined audience represented by video cameras. The video captured by these cameras reflects the aesthetics and power dynamics of these performances (the storm trooper gear, weaponry, and choreographed movements of the police, as well as the costumes, signage, props, chants, and sometimes creative actions of the protesters) and their mediated representations (camera angles, framing, movement, compression artifacts, etc).
In 2009, I began work on The Dystopia Files, an archive of video clips depicting public interactions between police and protesters in North America since 1999. Typically shot on city streets during protest actions of various kinds, this footage portrays scenes of ritualized conflict that are by turns familiar and shocking. I shoot some of the material myself, and gather the rest from activists, observers, civil rights lawyers (who obtain video shot by police in the course of legal proceedings), and other artists and media makers. I exhibit excerpts from the archive in the form of gallery installations that explore the visual logic and performative aesthetics of contemporary security culture.
The Dystopia Files was exhibited as an interactive installation at the 2010 DeCordova Biennial in Lincoln, MA. Clips from the Dystopia Files archive were rear-projected on a frosted glass door that opened onto a small gallery. The gallery was rigged with a system of sensors and switches that controlled the projection and the lights. When a visitor opened the gallery door (on which the video was projected), the projection stopped and the gallery lights turned on. The gallery was empty except for a set of locked flat files, the drawers of which were labeled with the names of protest groups and political art collectives currently active in North America, ranging from the relatively familiar (Code Pink, The Yes Men) to the obscure (Shadowy Revolutionary Cell, Zombie Flash Mob). The projection remained off, and the lights remained on, as long as the room was occupied.
The installation functioned as an inverted camera obscura, selectively revealing and concealing the contents of the archive. The archival video could only be seen from outside the gallery, where, because of the vertical proportions of the door, large parts of the video frame were obscured. When a viewer attempted to enter the archive, the system of surveillance and control responded by clamping down on the spectacle of conflict. The installation’s operations mirrored the interplay of exposure and occlusion that has characterized the visual representation of protest in recent years: each group plays its part, rendering itself visible before the eyes of ubiquitous video cameras. But, because the video captured by each party serves an evidentiary function in legal skirmishes and public relations campaigns, it is carefully guarded, and released only under specific conditions of display. The few clips that find their way into public view, such as the widely circulated video of protesters burning police cars at the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, tend to be presented with little context, as transparent signifiers that speak for themselves.
The installation rehearses this decontextualization by displaying what activists sometimes call “protest porn” without any background information, yet its interactivity suggests not only that there is more than meets the eye, but also that state power functions as much through classification (e.g. the naming of suspects) as it does through denial of access (to what it knows).
Mark Tribe is an artist and occasional curator whose interests include art, technology, media theory, and politics. Tribe is the author of two books, The Port Huron Project: Reenactments of New Left Protest Speeches (Charta, 2010) and New Media Art (Taschen, 2006), and numerous articles.
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