Surveill, Aestheticize, Rationalize, Ignore: The Light & The Formula

Under the neoliberal police state, U.S. acts of protest often proceed like a performance: a permit from the city officials required for large groups to march the street, the mapped out and agreed upon distance, the weight of returning home to continue with other daily chores. While a group of established artists and writers have put out a call for a general art strike on inauguration day, it may have not been a coincidence that the website arthaps originally listed the strike as a “performance” event, and then changed it to a “political” one. Since the advent of social practice and relational aesthetics it seems like for better or worse, dissent and protest must be infused within the categories of art and performance.


Today on Martin Luther King day, when beautiful pictures of protest, political struggle and dissent are circulated by various internet outlets and our social media feed, there is something about the representation of dissent that feels empowering yet simultaneously unsettling. The images are circulated as instances without a before or after. The images of resistance and protest are often not accompanied with a caption entailing the punitive forces awaiting the protester(s). How many of the women holding hands in protest, how many black and brown people marching together to make history were beaten up, incarcerated, exiled and persecuted by the state right after the photos were taken?  


In reflecting on these questions, we thought of DISSENT: what they fear is the light– a show we loved. In discovering that curator Shoghig Halajian is co-curating At night the states upcoming at the Hammer Museum, we wanted to follow up on Dissent and to ask more specifically about the interconnectedness between mass surveillance, art practices, representation and everyday life moving forward.


contemptorary: Can you tell us a little bit about the curatorial processes? This is a two part question. First: we wanted to know what were some of the archives you visited as part of the research for this exhibition. And what were some of the things that struck you in those visits to either previous exhibitions or any other precedents you considered?


Shoghig Halajian: The exhibition, DISSENT, takes the 1987 LACE exhibition and catalogue, Surveillance, as its starting point, so this is where the research began. The impetus for the project came very early on, so I had a lot of time to form a relationship to the project. I even carried the catalogue around with me for a while. It is the thing that remains and still circulates today, so I entered and continued the conversation from there.

DISSENT: what they fear is the light, installation view, including works by (left-right) Christine Rebet, Jimena Sarno, Juliana Huxtable, Laura Aguilar, and Sondra Perry, 2016. Photo: Christopher Wormald.

DISSENT: what they fear is the light, installation view, including works by (left-right) Christine Rebet, Jimena Sarno, Juliana Huxtable, Laura Aguilar, and Sondra Perry, 2016. Photo: Christopher Wormald.

To be honest, I was afraid of this project—I didn’t know how to work with the material from an authentic and personal place. The perspective and approach of Surveillance felt very distant at first. We have had almost three decades pass by, during which the technology has advanced unimaginably far, and so has our relationship to these devices. For a few years now, we are all aware of the widespread governmental and corporate use of communication devices to infringe on people’s rights, their ability to collect, monitor, and analyze all personal electronic communication by people around the globe. Knowing this, I had to find a way to form a relationship to the 1987 Surveillance project, and understand the context in which the curators and artists were working.


Of course I had some information from the LACE archives. I was also able to discuss the project with people who visited the original exhibition, who remember the works in the show, and can recount how it felt to walk into that space. My co-curator Thomas Lawson and I discussed this quite a bit—the then and now.

The research for DISSENT worked on two levels. On one level, the issue is important from a user perspective. As consumers of these devices on a daily basis, and consequently implicated in surveillance practices, what do we think? Across generational lines, how do we: define privacy, understand social media (are we practicing any self-restraint in this space), and answer the basic who cares question? Who cares if the government and corporations are watching and collecting our data. There is the common motto,“If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear,” which assumes consensus and compliance, and ultimately erases any space for counter-positionality, any safe space for resistance and critique to grow.


The second level of the research revolved around practice. What does the current discourse on surveillance practices tell us, just where are we today. In 2014, former NSA information analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed a global surveillance program—what he called “an architecture of oppression”—that does not exist for national security, but rather for the economic espionage, internal spying, and suspicionless and constant surveillance aimed at entire populations. The 2008 FISA Act is the current governing law for NSA surveillance. It was enacted by Congress in the wake of the Bush-era warrantless eavesdropping scandal, and a key result was that it effectively legalized the crux of Bush’s illegal program. As the scandal revealed, Bush had secretly authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans, based on a narrative of terrorism. He overrode the requirement to obtain the court-approved warrants ordinarily necessary for domestic spying, and resulted in the secret surveillance of thousands of people in the U.S. Since then, we have the spectacle of Obama reciting the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards, but the reality is that bulk surveillance and the collection of metadata (from phone calls, online activities, chats, etc.) have increased under the Obama administration.


What was important to discover is that the 1987 Surveillance was not about paranoia, but about presenting a reality (the impending erosion of people’s privacy) and exploring artists’ ability to disclose domestic surveillance and subvert sites of social control. With the 2016 project, I wanted to press this even further and focus on the issue of dissent and resistance within the framework of surveillance and control. The subtitle comes from Snowden’s first email to The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald. He ended the email with the statement, “I have been to the darkest corners of the government and what they fear is the light”—a phrase I read as a call for transparency and accountability.


contemptorary: That reflects in the exhibition in the way the works included a range of approaches to the idea of surveillance and dissent—from Barbara Ess’s surveillance videos to Laura Aguilar’s photograph that position the artist’s body in the nature. These works conveyed a sense of presence or an embodiment of being seen, which is more a form of active witnessing or subversive documentation of the ways one is being surveilled, and not quite equal to “visibility”. If this sounds relevant, can you talk about it from your curatorial standpoint?


SH: The works in the exhibition oscillate between being seen and being present (but not necessarily seen). Artworks by Carlos Motta and Barbara Ess blur the subject as they surveil, highlighting the act of watching. Both appropriate surveillance technologies and imagery, and address how narratives of terrorism and otherness are strategically employed to further surveillance practices (respectively, within post-9/11 patriotism and within the increasing militarization of the U.S. border). Works by Juliana Huxtable and Sondra Perry take on the power to produce and circulate the image in order focus on the surveilled subject. In doing so, within the context of the exhibition, they ask: How are systematic forms of discrimination tied to surveillance technologies and practices? How do race, class, and sexuality play a role in surveillance? How are narratives of terrorism and otherness employed to expand policing, and oppress internal dissent and political insurgency.

DISSENT: what they fear is the light, installation view, including works by (left-right) Jimena Sarno, Juliana Huxtable, and Laura Aguilar, 2016. Photo: Christopher Wormald.

DISSENT: what they fear is the light, installation view, including works by (left-right) Jimena Sarno, Juliana Huxtable, and Laura Aguilar, 2016. Photo: Christopher Wormald.

The project stems from a play of friction between political visibility and the coercive making visible. Certain populations are strategically made visible in media and visual culture for the purposes of fear-mongering and social control, while simultaneously rendered invisible in the political sphere. We saw this in the recent presidential campaign and populist discourse on immigration, which needed the figure of the immigrant to be present and visible as a looming threat, while also violently silenced and rendered absent from the space of politics. Similarly, the strategic and widespread circulation of Islamophobia needs the image of the Other to further anti-Muslim bias and expunge political visibility away from the Muslim population, especially within the realm of anti-discriminatory laws and anti-hate crime legislation.

contemptorary: Dissent has historically been criminalized in the U.S.–and entered a new phase in the state of exception, post-9/11. But this criminalization is always racialized. The dissent of Indigenous, Black or immigrant subjects are always criminalized by the virtue of their subject positions in relation to the history of how the U.S. was founded (as opposed to a white militia occupying a national wildlife refuge!). How did this inform your choice of the artists and practices in the exhibition, if it did?


SH: This was a core issue within the project. The curatorial framework was build around the central question: Which communities does surveillance criminalize? As in, how is the criminalization of dissent (the oppression of any counter-position) ultimately a racist project that is tied to State control? In the exhibition, works by Laura Aguilar, Sondra Perry, Coco Fusco, and Juliana Huxtable shed light on the black, brown, and queer subjects who are discriminated through surveillance practices, while works by Jimena Sarno and Metahaven expose the invisible presence of the police state. For artists Christine Rebet and MPA, this is tied to a history of settler colonialism at the origin of the U.S. nation-state.


As a relevant example, we just witnessed the criminalization of dissent at the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota. Indigenous communities were pepper-sprayed, shot with beanbags, and arrested by law enforcement. The police force ultimately militarized what was a peaceful campaign to protest one’s land. Here, the right to protest and claim space was annulled through the criminalization of dissent, which is ultimately tied to a history of robbery and brutalization of indigenous peoples in the U.S.

DISSENT: what they fear is the light, installation view, including works by (left-right) Sondra Perry and Carlos Motta, 2016. Photo: Christopher Wormald.

DISSENT: what they fear is the light, installation view, including works by (left-right) Sondra Perry and Carlos Motta, 2016. Photo: Christopher Wormald.


conemptorary: You just joined the PhD in Visual Arts program at U.C. San Diego. What do you have coming up and what are you going to focus on in the near or far future that we should follow and look forward to?


Yes, I started the Visual Arts program in Art History, Theory, and Criticism this fall. So what’s next includes a lot of reading and writing, which is exciting and quite tiring all at the same time.

Tom and I are still working on the DISSENT book (forthcoming summer 2017). Almost a whole year will have passed by then, so I am considering what needs further attention, what didn’t we cover, and what can the book format offer that the exhibition didn’t or couldn’t. I will be working with some of the DISSENT exhibiting artists, as well as writers and educators like Matthew McGarvey and Safiya Noble who advised my research, as well as inviting in new voices.


This weekend—January 21 & 22—I am co-curating, At night the states, at the Hammer Museum with my sister and longtime collaborator Suzy Halajian. The project will open a day after the presidential inauguration. Suzy and I were trying to wrap our heads around this moment, in order to see how we can respond and offer support through the project. So we decided to take the notion of kinship as its starting point, especially considering the ways in which spaces of friendship, desire, and solidarity are both threatened and villainized today. The project brings together varying practices that experiment with the shape of community in order enact collective sharing and being-together, and expand kinship to include relationships that are irreducible to family bloodlines and state-instituted rights. It will include works by Simone Forti, Malin Arnell, taisha paggett with WXPT, Jennifer Doyle, Raquel Gutierrez, keyon gaskin, and Erika Vogt with Noura Wedell and The Artist Theatre Program—we are working with such inspiring artists and thinkers, so I am incredibly grateful for the group.


At night the states is a series of presentations and performances that explore the different kinship structures one inhabits and passes through on a daily basis, and how these sites shape and shift personal and political allegiances. Organized by guest curators Shoghig Halajian and Suzy Halajian.

Shoghig Halajian is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles and San Diego. She organizes invitation of sorts with Suzy Halajian and Anthony Carfello, serves on the Board of Directors at Human Resources, and was Assistant Director at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) from 2013-2016. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Art History, Theory, and Criticism at University of California, San Diego.