7 August, 2020
This piece is the fourth in a five-part series of responses for BLEED—an online biennial festival from Arts House and Campbelltown Arts Centre. This article was written in response to Angela Goh and Su Yu Hsin’s ‘Paeonia Drive‘ (2020), which you can view here.
Walking my dog in the city council-maintained garden, I notice the collection of surveillance cameras dotted atop poles.1
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Affective computing is the development and study of technological systems that can recognise, interpret, and simulate human affects. This field operates at the juncture of computer science, psychology, and cognitive science, with the motivation of the research being a computer’s ability to simulate empathy.
Emotion surveillance was first deployed in post-9/11 America, as the means for tracking and stopping potential terrorists based on their facial expressions, and presumed expressions of anger. The surveillance program was deeply problematic in its application: passengers were referred to police at random for testing, while the technology was used to justify not only racial profiling but also the deeply troubling idea that any physical expression of ‘anger’ (or any emotion) could be universal. The program’s failure came down to the highly flawed hypothesis that emotions could be deduced objectively, purely through facial expressions.2
Unsurprisingly, this highly gendered, racialised means of categorising people and their emotions is being monetised. Tech companies claim that emotion detection systems will become attuned to our innermost feelings, which will vastly improve our interactions with our devices. This type of AI learns to recognise emotions based on the information fed into it—millions of ‘happy’ faces, millions of ‘angry’ faces.
It doesn’t make sense to talk of mapping facial expressions directly onto emotions across all cultures and contexts—one person may scowl when mildly inconvenienced, another may smile while plotting someone’s downfall. In order to label emotions so that AIs can practice emotion recognition, ‘emotional stereotypes’ come into play, reducing the complexity of how one feels to the symbolism of an emoji. Several studies show that affective computing reproduces biases that harm minority communities, with one study demonstrating that emotion recognition technology assigns more negative emotion to black men’s faces than white men.3
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The monitoring of emotions for crowd control implicates one’s own emotional struggles in the legislative control of their body.
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In The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004), Sara Ahmed points out that ‘the everyday language of emotion is based on the presumption of interiority.’4 Of the many named and unnamed emotions possible, fear is embodied and affects the surfaces of bodies, and fear works powerfully to contain bodies—fear shapes bodies, and how bodies inhabit a place. Fear is a technology of governance—fear makes people consent to power, or to the promise of protection and elimination of fear.
As with the introduction of affective computing post-9/11, it is often through a ‘security crisis’ that new forms of policing and security become justified—under the pretence of defending the community against the imagined other, the ‘not-yet-ness’ of the threat means that the work of surveillance is ongoing. In relation to the ongoing ‘threat’ of imported terrorism to the Western world, Ahmed explains, ‘Fear works to expand the mobility of some bodies and contain others precisely insofar as it does not reside positively in any one body.’5 The violent slide between the figure of the international terrorist and the asylum seeker works to construct new forms of border policing based on exteriority and mobility, whereby the exterior expression of fear is utilised as a direct means of prosecution.
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People regularly comment on how relaxed I am; it surprises anew each time.
The disconnect between my interior and exterior feels heightened, given these expressions of calm swerve away from my reality. Yet this divergence is common in the daily practice of public acceptability. A performance of a stoic-ness is so valued in many contexts it is legislated.
Sitting on a train, I imagine that everyone around me is suffering through a similar personal conflict between inside and outside, between their respective personal crisis and their performance of normality on the train. A personal crisis is very normal, I suppose, occurring alongside us constantly, but it only upsets the equilibrium of those in its grip.
What if the woman next to me starts screaming, or the teenager down the carriage begins ugly-crying and sobbing? Depending on the person’s appearance, will they be comforted? Will the police be called? Perhaps people will shift their body weight in a slightly different direction, turn up the volume on their headphones, disembark at the next station. Perhaps (especially if the person appears white, cis, middle-class, and sober) the train will be stopped, and the person afforded the care and support they require. As witnessed in the treatment of Tanya Day, a person’s appearance or cultural background could mean the difference between being supported or having the police called: the difference between life or death.6
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Over millennia humans have developed intricate means of understanding one another through facial expressions and body language, from the macro expressions of smiling and frowning, to the micro tics of an eyelid or tensing of fingers. In January, I’d been socially conditioned to not express the despair, fury, sadness and general turmoil I had been feeling. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had started loudly crying on the train. Depending on those around me, I could have been either supported, kicked off the train, or arrested for being a public nuisance.
Our public expressions of our interiorities are legislated and controlled through police presence, corporate bureaucracies, and surveillance. What would it mean to express the depths of emotion publicly, and to disregard, or rather, to eradicate, the public enforcement of ‘keeping it together’? Can this begin from my own practice of rage and sadness?
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Throughout Westfield shopping centres across Australia, our faces and emotions are regularly scanned by cameras camouflaged in the SmartScreen network, which cues up tailored advertising in response to its interpretation of a person’s age, gender, and mood.7 The cameras record and share reactions to ads with the advertisers. The technology’s developer, the French software firm Quividi, says that their billboards can distinguish a shopper’s gender 90% of the time, recognise five categories of mood, and determine their age (within a five-year bracket).
Not only are our facial expressions monetised, they are then used to feed information systems such as law enforcement and border control—systems that regulate how we move through public space, and how we behave.
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Surveillance, since the pandemic began, is being deployed in new ways to ensure those who have overseas travel histories are contained indoors. Large fines and jail time can apply, but, early on, I wondered how this could be enforced—would conditions and the need to ‘check-in’, as if on parole, now be the common experience? Editing this text later, I am now aware there will simply be a higher police presence in certain areas, especially those areas with marginalised, diverse and low-socioeconomic communities.8 Later, again, I witness thousands of people living in government housing being detained in their own home, the police presence enforcing this lockdown at a ratio suggesting there is a cop on site for every family.9
No longer is it our exterior emotions that are regulated, but our movements and the potential for us to relate to one another. An enforced distance of 1.5 metres from all other people removes the possibility of a supportive hug or pat on the back. A person’s movements are invisibly recorded through data-tracking via their social media apps, implicating not only their physical connections but also their online communications in the policing of their movement.
A higher police presence impacts communities not just as the means of controlling (read: persecuting) those not complying with government restrictions, but as a violent and intimidating reminder of the impact policing has on these communities on a daily basis.
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Affective computing assumes the control of our bodies, en masse, via data-tracking and analysis, supposedly driven by our internal and most private tides. No wonder it feels important to hold oneself together.
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Crying offers the potential for a different focus. When I cry, I am not scattered, thinking in every direction. When I cry, I become the crying subject, and, for a brief pause, the other roles I play recede. Crying focuses the self, both the interior thoughts and the exterior expressions, on a point of concentration—be that an experience, a fear, or even a more overarching sense of too-much. Sometimes this focus is all encompassing and pounds behind my face like a hot drone; sometimes the focus is on the surface, watery and weepy.
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If a body’s emotional or physical appearance can be read as an indication of a future threat, then white people should be under surveillance, as the ‘not-yet-ness’ fear of potential racial violence is high.
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Appearance means two things. One, the surface of a thing—the form it takes to be looked upon, the way it is viewed, its ‘visible state or form’. Appearance describes the way a thing is witnessed. Appearance also describes the ‘action of coming into view’—to arrive to be witnessed.
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I am alone at home each day, and the world appears constricted. The appearance of my world is small, but the interior expansion is felt as the opposite.
In The Poetics of Space (1964), Bachelard writes of ‘intimate immensity’, in that ‘certain kinds of space, intimate space and exterior space, keep encouraging each other, as it were, in their growth.’10 Here, he refers to the space expressed through one’s interior daydreaming and thought, and how this in some instances is encouraged by the exterior space in which the daydreaming is located. In other instances, this space is completely intimate—separate from any location or vista, located internally—and that the immensity of this interior space is far greater than the potential of the exterior. The potential of interior emotions, and the space they occupy, is far greater than any exterior signifier of said emotions.
To give an object ‘poetic space’, to give it non-visual, interior space, is to give it more space than it has objectively; or, better still, to follow the expansion of its intimate space.
To resist filling space with a labelling of emotion, to resist a bracketing of experience, allows for greater expansion of what may be felt, outside of a logic of understanding and production.
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I must remind myself to leave the house. I read an article at the early stages of the pandemic that considers the potential for travel on a micro-scale, via reflection on past experiences and on quiet walks around the neighbourhood. I am lucky to live in a neighbourhood well-cultivated for walking.
I notice the plants and flowers that are tended to in neighbouring gardens. I don’t have a garden myself; I have a rented balcony with pot plants. Just as when travelling we can imagine ourselves living a different existence, I imagine myself being someone who owns a garden, and what I would plant. What would it mean for me to cultivate a garden, on stolen land? To stake a claim of ownership over this plot? To encourage growth or to let weeds grow through the holes in discarded rubbish?
In the context of staking a claim to this land, are these actions of tending or neglecting any different?
I keep walking until I reach the public park, with its manicured lawns, rose gardens, statues.
• • •
Looking at gardens.
Crying in the garden.
When I see surveillance cameras in a public garden, I think it would be cool if the feeds could be used to create a sort of nature documentary on the local suburban scale—insects feeding on flowers and dog poo, animals feeding on food scraps and fruit, dogs feeding on animal poo, humans clumsily existing.
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Sometimes, I imagine I am a plant. To sit and bath in the sun, to take drinks of water here and there, would be so peaceful. Of course, this is determined on being a sheltered, well-cared-for plant, not left to go thirsty or dry out in the heat, not exposed to the elements.
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In December of last year, The Age reported that 85 police stations across Victoria were using facial recognition software to identify criminal suspects. The program, called iFace, used biometric software to identify suspects against the Victoria Police mugshot database of known offenders.
In July last year, 50 new ‘eye in the sky’ drones were unveiled. Police did not rule out using these for facial recognition and acknowledged that there was ‘certainly the opportunity’ to do so.
US Company Axon, which manufactures the bodycams worn by Victoria Police, recently considered fitting its products with biometric AI capabilities, before its own ethics board warned against it.11
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While seeking access to a mental healthcare plan, I explain to my GP that a friend has recently been charged with a serious crime. In line with the overwhelming emotions of this year, my GP is so hasty in his empathy that he barely keeps himself together—his voice rises, cracks.
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I ask him to ‘Please circle the number that most closely describes your situation.’
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To not feel directly and implicitly in danger from surveillance and to feel safe to express my emotions in public is a white position.
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An analogy I was once told about grief is that emotional pain comes in waves. After a large seismic event, the tide is high and strong, with waves pounding to shore, but in time these waves become smaller and smaller until they are gently lapping at the shore. Each small wave still shifts and affects the sand’s constitution. There is always the potential for another large tide as the moon shifts in relation.
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‘At certain hours poetry gives out waves of calm.’12
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If I am to become undone in another’s presence, this implies I am no longer done, not finished or whole.
Bachelard said: ‘it is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.’13 Becoming undone is a state of impermanence that implicates those that witness your emotion in your own development—this witnessing of emotion feeds the continued development and intimacy of the relationship. If ‘done’, if composed and unemotional, one holds forth their stoicism as a point of finality and closure to a relationship.
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Surveillance provides access to a line of vision, or data, that is not freely or openly available. Surveillance is a way to cover one’s ‘blind spot’.
‘Surveillance’ etymologically emerges from the French word for ‘oversee’, literally to watch over, to watch from above.
This hierarchy of vision is enacted at a governmental level. If governments can see and access everything they ‘watch over’—everyone ‘below’ them (read: civilians)—is it the blind spots above them they are wary of?
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For Paul de Man, blindness and insight were deeply knotted—he felt that insight, specifically in relation to literary criticism, could obscure some things, and that this insight could be a blindness. He also felt that a critic’s best insight was born because of her blindness. The qualities of blindness and insight are not polar-opposite but qualities that work together in exemplifying the mysteries of a complicated text. This blindness enables critical insight in the first place.14
Here, the metaphor of blindness as insight demonstrates that an avoidance of blindness can be lacking in insight. Attempting to unveil a truth could obscure lateral attention elsewhere. What may initially appear to be a project running-blind can be open to many unseen possibilities.
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On Juneteenth, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests to defund the police across America and the rest of the world, The Guardian reported that the Victoria Police had used the facial recognition firm Clearview AI.15 In February, Buzzfeed reported that accounts were registered with Clearview AI over four Australian police forces: the Australian Federal Police, Queensland, South Australian, and Victorian forces. Other clients include the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) and a sovereign wealth fund in the UAE.16
Clearview AI has built its AI database through a practice of scraping Facebook and other social media sites for images used in the identification (and subsequent policing) of an unaware public. Clearview makes the claim that via its database of billions of photos, a stranger could find out your name and other personal details simply by scanning another photo of you.
Officers in the Victorian anti-child exploitation team had registered to use the service and had used it as recently as March this year, however a Victoria Police spokeswoman said it was not used in any investigations and that the police have discontinued its use.
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I lay in bed late last night thinking about a point of contention in some recent writing of mine that many failed to understand—well, that I obviously failed to communicate clearly enough. The point was that violence is not always physical and can be felt in the reverberations of relationships not otherwise violent.
Violence can be closeness, and access to closeness.
An example of this is the multitudes of violence women in domestic violence relationships experience—emotional abuse, financial abuse, psychological abuse.
A violence of closeness, born of proximity.
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Only in hindsight can some violence be witnessed.
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The protagonist of Teju Cole’s novel Open City (2011), Julius, explains to his friends over a picnic in Central Park that bees are dying at unprecedented levels, and his friend suggests that perhaps bees are unusually sensitive to the negativity of the human world, that their death is a warning of sorts, not unlike canaries in a coal mine.17 Julius, a psychiatrist, goes on to discuss how contemporary humans have a lack of familiarity with mass death, plague, and famine—the current time is an anomaly in human history, where wars are localised and seasonal variations in weather do not bring starvation to the extent previously seen. It is dangerous to live in a secure world, he explains. What could it mean to live with such a possibility, with people of all ages dropping dead around you all the time?
Later, having left the park, Julius reflects that there really is an epidemic of sorrow sweeping the world.
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The park is the only place I see people gathering—families, people exercising or playing sport, gardeners, dog-walkers chatting.
. . . it is through their “immensity” that these two kinds of space—the space of intimacy and the world space—blend. When human solitude deepens, then the two immensities touch and become identical. In one of [poet] Rilke’s letters, we see him straining toward “the unlimited solitude that makes a lifetime of each day, toward communion with the universe, in a word, space, the invisible space that man can live in nevertheless, and which surrounds him with countless presences.”18
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Nothing-ness constructs space; negative space produces the possibility of the image through spatial composition. Empty space makes the reverberations of things (emotions, bodies) possible.19
Doing nothing is an act of radical potential, in this way.20
The negative space of the image reverberates in the way that doing nothing reverberates, as an action of showing no emotional expression reverberates, as a means to access a radical logic of emotionality.
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What draws me out of my art practice, and towards writing, is a contemplation of essays as:
an art among others of the sidelong glance, obliquities and digressions; an addiction to arduous learning; a study of punctuation marks, their meaning and morality. . . I want obliquity, essays that approach their targets, for there must be targets, slantwise, or with a hail of conflicted attitudes.21
I feel that in art-making, as in writing, the task is to direct a reader’s attention elsewhere, towards or in the direction of a certain other thing, beyond or beside or in opposition to where their attention was prior.
It is, in fact, perhaps more powerful if this thing is not a defined subject, but rather an open poetic space which many subjects may inhabit, depending on the reader.
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Consider the difference between tourism and exile. Who moves, and who stays, under what conditions?22
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T texts me:
the “everyday”: the category of experience that Rita Felski defines as “the blurred speck at the edge of one’s vision that disappears when looked at directly.”23
• • •
We decide that it is ok to meet for walks in the gardens—contained freedoms rejoice.
- This is fictionalised yet based on the potential for surveillance in any public space. The City of Melbourne has 65 CCTV cameras installed throughout the city, operating in ‘areas where antisocial behaviour or criminal activity is more likely to occur.’ ‘Safe City cameras’, City of Melbourne Council website, accessed 01/07/20
- Oscar Schwartz, ‘Don’t look now: why you should be worried about machines reading your emotions’, The Guardian, (06/03/19)
- Lauren Rhue, ‘Racial Influence on Automated Perceptions of Emotions’, (09/11/18)
- Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), p. 8
- ibid., p. 79
- ‘Tanya Day inquest—summary of findings’, Human Rights Law Centre, accessed 28/06/20
- Eden Gillespie, ‘Are you being scanned? How facial recognition technology follows you, even as you shop’, The Guardian, (24/02/19)
- Michael McGowan, Andy Ball and Josh Taylor, ‘Covid-19 Lockdown: Victorian police data sparks fears disadvantaged unfairly targeted’, The Guardian, (06/06/20)
- Luke Henriques-Gomes, ‘What we know about Victoria’s coronavirus public housing tower “hard lockdowns”’, The Guardian, (05/07/20)
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 201
- Farrah Tomazin, ‘Police using facial recognition cameras at Victoria’s busiest stations’, The Age, 20/12/19)
- Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 210
- ibid., p. 61
- Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1983)
- Josh Taylor, ‘Victoria Police Distances itself from controversial facial recognition firm Clearview AI’, The Guardian, (19/06/20)
- Hannah Ryan, ‘Australian Police Have Run Hundreds Of Searches On Clearview AI’s Facial Recognition Tool’, Buzzfeed News, (28/02/20)
- Teju Cole, Open City, (New York: Random House Inc., 2011), p. 200
- Bachelard, Poetics of Space, p. 203
- This thought is enriched by Elizabeth Grosz’s writing on the Stoic’s four incorporeal effects—void, space, and time, being the immaterial conditions for any material something, and lekta, the ‘capacity of bodies or material somethings to become more and other than what they are’. Thank you, T, for this reference. Elizabeth Grosz, The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), p. 31
- Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, (New York: Melville House, 2019)
- Brian Dillon, Essayism, (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018), p. 12
- Sara Ahmed et al., ed., Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration, (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2003), p. 1
- Rita Felski, ‘The Invention of Everyday Life’, New Formations, 39, (2000), pp. 15–31