HarassMap, Affect, and Surveillance

The reading for this week, and its theme of intersectional feminist technology, provides a great framework for thinking about the emergent #MeToo movement that we discussed during our previous meeting. The effectiveness of the phrase is its ability to act as a stand-in for longer narratives that may be difficult for victims to share in a public forum such as social media. The ability of the #MeToo to perform solidarity among those with similar experiences of discrimination, harassment, or abuse is positive in the sense that it publicly displays a problem that is under-reported due to social stigma surrounding its discussion. Though the movement has generated what appears to be an effective collective highlighting of issues typically talked about ‘behind-closed-doors,’ it again brings up several issues: the accountability of the harassers, abusers, and rapists, as well as the danger of visibility for certain victims. Though there are no immediate answers to how to shift the heavy-lifting from the victims to the assailers, the solidarity the movement has generated thus far has been inspiring.

HarassMap (2010), founded by Rebecca Chiao, Engy Ghozlan, Amel Fahmy, and Sawsan Gad, aims to “change the social acceptability of sexual harassment of girls and women in Cairo” (4). The colorful design and use of clip-art in the pdf encourages readers of any age or reading level to think about communication regarding the issue of sexual harassment within their communities. The mission statement of the project outlines the changes its creators wanted to see in their community; in order to engage the general public, its founders relied on the ubiquity of cellphones. In providing a reporting system for victims and witnesses of harassment, the creators of HarassMap established a network dedicated to documenting the location, frequency, and personal accounts of harassment in their community.

Where HarassMap and #MeToo find common ground is in the treatment of harassment through networked mediation. Though we initially don’t conceive of the network as having an affective dimension, or the tendency to foreground informatics, the effectiveness of HarassMap and #MeToo also rely on ethical and affective responses. HarassMap and #MeToo use data to display the scale of the problem (HarassMap provides statistics on which forms of harassment are most common: touching 20%, comments 18%, stalking 12%, etc). The network’s ability to disseminate the affective weight of victims of harassment is also crucial to changing public perception. This is to say that these accounts rely on the medium’s ability to somehow convey their personal trauma—and because the medium is a network that connects communities around the globe, it possesses new abilities that film or television could not achieve.

Perhaps in engaging with HarassMap, #MeToo, as well as the #Syllabus, one can see the ways in which these feminist technologies all utilize the network’s ability to transfer affect in addition to their engagement with informatics. Each of them mediate real world injustice as a means to make the public aware, but also to awaken in the community a sense of agency.

But what happens when an oppressive force also utilizes the network’s ability to transfer affect? Though one can hope that humanity’s best qualities will spread on the network, we know better. We know that fear, anxiety, and paranoia are far easier to tap into than care. We know that Donald Trump is in office. We know that the war on terror has already celebrated its ‘sweet’ sixteen. But, we also know that the network can spread care instead of cynicism (sorry). The ability of such cynicism and paranoia to easily transfer between networked bodies has contributed to our collective passivity towards the surveillance state.

In attempting to understand the shift from pre-9/11 surveillance to post-9/11 surveillance, Simone Browne points to Sean Her and Joshua Greenberg’s The Surveillance Studies Reader, though they claim that there is an “absence in the literature” detailing how pre-9/11 surveillance made post-9/11 surveillance possible. Browne states that Dark Matters “seeks to make an intervention in the literature by naming the ‘absented presence’ of blackness as part of that absence in the literature that Hier and Greenberg point to” (13).

Browne also provides examples of what Gary T. Marx describes as “the new surveillance” (14). She chronicles ten bullet points that demonstrate how evolving technologies have provided new means for state surveillance: surveillance technology is no longer impeded by distance or physical barriers, data can be permanently stored, compressed, and shared, surveillance devices can be undetectable (one-way mirrors, hidden in everyday objects), collection can occur without the consent of a target, surveillance becomes anticipatory in nature, thermal cameras can be used to target marijuana growers using heat lamps, self-surveillance via fitness trackers, grouping individuals into specified categories, voice analysis, and uncertainty whether or not surveillance is present (15). This list is useful in charting out the ways in which bodies are currently monitored; ‘currently’ is an important word here because evolving technologies will continue to innovate surveillance methods (and since the state and major corporate entities have the means, they will produce surveillance that goes beyond our capacity to combat it).

Shifting from previous models of the surveillance state, such as the one presented in Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, Browne moves her focus to how these technologies could target racial groups. Browne states: “rather than seeing surveillance as something inaugurated by technologies, such as automated facial recognition or unmanned autonomous vehicles (or drones), to see it as ongoing is to insist that we factor in how racism and anti blackness undergird and sustain the intersecting surveillances of our present order” (8). She further defines this by stating: “my use of the term ‘racializing surveillance’ signals those moments when enactments of surveillance reify boundaries, borders, and bodies along racial lines, and where the outcome is often discriminatory treatment of those who are negatively racialized by such surveillance” (18). If we are to conceptualize the evolution of surveillance technologies as being directly correlated to the discriminatory policies that lead to the brutal policing of those labeled by the technology as racial bodies, we must also put forth some idea of what counteraction might look like. In her book Tactical Media, Rita Raley states that: “It is not simply about reappropriating the instrument but also about reengineering semiotic systems and reflecting critically on institutions of power and control” (Raley 16). In “reengineering” rather than “reappropriating” these structures of social control, what could a counteraction to racialized surveillance look like?

Visual artist Zach Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite (2011-14) is an interesting framework to think through some of these issues. The main objective of the project was to create “collective masks” (generated from the biometric facial data of multiple faces) that cannot be detected as human faces by biometric facial recognition technologies (Blas 2012). He describes one mask that “explores a tripartite conception of blackness: the inability of biometric technologies to detect dark skin as racist, the favoring of black militant aesthetics, and black as that which informatically obfuscates” (Blas 2012). Perhaps efforts such as this, collectivized reengineering of racialized surveillance, is a form of counteraction that could be worked into our continued efforts to understand feminist technologies and their potential effects.

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8 thoughts on “HarassMap, Affect, and Surveillance

  1. Zach Blas’ work, which I found truly appealing as a product (I want one in every color), got me thinking about Norwegian artist Damselfrau (http://damselfrau.blogspot.com/), who conflates the concealment of identity and traditional textile art techniques. The first masks she made were complementary to her clubbing outfits and she believes “people need anonymity and privacy” and that masks “are powerful as they have no gender in principle and offer privacy in a world where we are so over-engineered in our everyday lives and presentation, and branding is everything.” She works with recycled materials and is self-taught, which adds a touch of DIY which inspires me. I wonder what response her masks would get in an every day public setting, divorced from the art/fashion context.

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  2. I think you make a really good point by highlighting how these different feminist technologies can all work together to convey a more complete message. This is perhaps where the importance of remediation and intersectional approaches can manifest. It might be too much to ask one organization to completely take an intersectional approach, but together platforms/organizations can build off each other.
    I’m happy that you shared Zach Blas’s video “Facial Weaponizing Suite.” Weaponizing the face by wearing masks that avoid facial recognition allows the suppressed to confuse identification tech and become faceless. This is touched on in popular culture all the time, like in the movies Get Smart and V for Vendetta.

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  3. Regarding your discussion of the transfer of affect via these feminist technologies, in addition to another post’s discussion of the challenge of language in capturing some of these things, I am wondering how the power of affect that is lost during the mediation of language may be gained back. What feminist technologies may minimize affective loss in the process of reporting?

    I also loved the Zach Blas work you linked to – that was so incredibly cool.

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  4. Your synthesis of Browne and inclusion of Zach Blas’s work, “Facial Weaponizing Suite” is very fitting. Looking further into Blas’s work inspired thoughts about the final project. Is there access to a 3D printing lab on campus? It’ll be great to materialize creative works like this that provoke the viewer to think critically about its application. How might we visualize, for example, #MeToo?

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  5. Thank you for sharing Zach Blas’s work, I like the idea of
    “reengineering racialized surveillance” through technology and constructions of new aesthestics and affect. I appreciated you connecting the feminist technologies we’ve discussed so far, and pointing out it’s similarities in terms of creating networks of affect.

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  6. Your idea of bringing back care as affect could be part of a great project. I’m thinking now about art projects that were bakeries installed in galleries that fed museum-goers, or projects that provide meditative spaces. For example, the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija at MoMA who cooked Thai curry.

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  7. Thanks for giving examples on some “counter sous-veillance” projects such as Zach Blas. I’d love to consider some of these conceptual tools for our group project.
    I think you are onto something with :”perhaps efforts such as this, collectivized reengineering of racialized surveillance, is a form of counteraction that could be worked into our continued efforts to understand feminist technologies and their potential effects.” What could this look like if we were to make our own creative intervention? One point that Browne makes (I have not read the full text besides the assigned introduction but now am fascinated!) is the concept of “security theatre”. As we have some performance studies experts in our class maybe there is somewhere to go from there?

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  8. Your points about reimagining media through a reconstructive, rather than a repurposing prism, are very well made. Combined with your introduction of the Facial Weaponization Suite, it seems that this observation takes on the character of a moral imperative. I think that this also raises questions about the isomorphism of phenotype and “identity,” and the (generally) modern attempt to compress the two into a singularity. Yet, now that we understand that identity is played out within society as a performance—that is, outwards-in—this insistence seems strange. That various forms of biometric technology are even based upon this singularity is, frankly, worrying. I think we should consider this basic theme in class, and maybe as a component of the final project.

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