Known as an institution with a divers approach to research culture in it’s manifold manifestations the GCSC (International Graduate Center for the Study of Culture) recently held the Surveillance Cultures Conference to focus on surveillance by putting it into perspective as a cultural phenomenon. Designed as an international event, the conference took place at the Justus-Liebig-University in Gießen (Germany) from July 6th to July 7th, 2017.
Surveillance is nothing new (in fact it’s an ancient social process ); scientific investigation of this cultural technique goes back to the 18th century when Jeremy Bentham developed his idea of four panoptic institutions. With Foucault and Deleuze conceptualizing theoretical frameworks it eventually became an academic discipline. It is however a lived practice that is rapidly changing its historically grown characteristics and becoming more fluid then ever because of the entanglement of the social and the technical. Definitely, it might be fertile to put that into a perspective of culture.
In the scope of this intention the conference started with a keynote from Jörn Ahrens who talked about the ubiquitous view and the power of being (not) seen in the context of surveillance and imagination. It is that interplay of watching, hiding and (in-)visibility, Ahrens summarized, that steers not only imaginations of surveillance but of ourselves. In the following session, case studies were presented by students. These projects addressed the subject from a broad perspective and on different levels: from cell phone surveillance (state-driven surveillance or surveillance in its classical meaning) to recognition of and awareness about surveillance (centering the individual and its possibility to detect modes of watching) and social network surveillance (participatory surveillance as well as algorithm driven surveillance).
The second session was presenting international researchers work. Annie Ring gave a presentation about new codes of conduct for the subject of surveillance, claiming that there is a shift in surveillance practices that is adapting to an emerging mindset. Thus surveillance practices are not boycotted per se but become a selective action. Daniela Agostinho spoke about the aesthetics of dataveillance, especially how visuals become a vital part of nowadays surveillance and how this leads to translation problems. She especially focused on problems deriving from limited optical devices and vague filtering when visualizing surveillance results. Raul Gschrey closed the session with a talk about artistic (re)presentations of modern surveillance and the struggle artists face at present when they try to turn something ubiquitous, fluid and invisible at the same time into something that is tangible.
On the second day the conference started with a keynote by Richard Grusin who was focusing on datamediation. Grusin claimed that surveillance is a new form of mediation, having influence on peoples affectivity, regardless of whether surveillance is really practiced in a specific moment. The talk was followed by two workshops and three more case studies about self-surveillance, surveillance as a literary topic and surveillance as a movie theme.
The idea of this conference was to give a synopsis about the manifold processes and practices that lead to some forms of surveillance and also to highlight the fields that merge when surveillance is exerted. In that context a rough outline of social practices and connected technologies was given. Unfortunately a contribution to put terms used by the participants – e.g. data, dataveillance, big data and most importantly surveillance – into perspective was missing. In this regard a theoretical framework created from within this inter- and trans-disciplinary perspective the GCSC embodies could be a good starting point to articulate recent surveillance phenomena as cultural practices.
: Ball, Kirstie/Haggerty, Kevin D./Lyon, David (2012): Introduction: Understanding Surveillance. In: Dies. (Hrsg.): Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies. Routledge, New York, S. 1.