Conference Grants: BCNM at the Shenzhen Biennale

27 Feb, 2020

Conference Grants: BCNM at the Shenzhen Biennale

Eleni Oikonomaki, Lian Song, Rashad Timmons, and Bryan Truitt were Fall 2019 Conference Grant recipients and attended the Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). They were selected for the "Eyes of the City" section, jointly curated by Carlo Ratti and South China-Torino Lab. Read more about their experience in their own words below.

With assistance from the Berkeley Center for New Media, we attended the Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). We were selected for the "Eyes of the City" section, jointly curated by Carlo Ratti and South China-Torino Lab. Located in the Futian Railway Station, the exhibit aims to explore how digital technologies and artificial intelligence are going to impact architecture and people's daily life in the city.

Attuned to the ways surveillance and various forms of biometric data capture are used to target, criminalize, and dox people, especially those within vulnerable communities, our project aims to challenge the rising prominence of centralized surveillance. We developed wearable technologies—sewn garments that mobilize the material properties of various fabrics to achieve tactics of camouflage, obscurity and opacity. Through our garments and modes of fabrication, we emphasize the use of textile craft as a subversive tactic of embodied resistance against centralized, mechanistic surveillance. We assert that the fabrics themselves inhere a suite of technological affordances that can be activated through the strategic inflection of their material properties and are quite effective when directed against facial detection software. Our wearables were to be inserted into an installation which would have included a series of mini-workshops where participants will learn accessible and easily reproducible methods of fabrication that can undermine facial detection systems.

While the curators were enthusiastic about our work and they included our work in their published videos for the exhibition, just one week before the opening of the Biennale it became increasingly clear that our project was under high scrutiny by the Chinese government’s Cultural Bureau, which ultimately had the authority to unilaterally remove our project from the Biennale. It is under these circumstances that we found ourselves under the strange position of visiting the Biennale with our project in absentia. We believe that our removal from the physical site of the Biennale ultimately highlights its critical importance. Though our project is about direct action and the development and dissemination of tactics which undermine the surveillance state, it also aims to raise critical consciousness its dangers, as well as empower people to develop their own inventive tactics, and we believe these are needed more than ever.

While the issue of centralized surveillance and data collection was a common theme featured in many projects across the exhibits, especially Resisting Technologies, works which were not censored discussed these topics in a less direct way, often ceding the discourse to a series of questions , speculative futures, or coded references. For example, “Seven Stories of Mellonopolis” by Studio Forage and ALINE Studio envisions a speculative future in which camera systems at every street corner can detect the identity of pedestrians, but highlights a scenario where this is used as a system for giving children near immediate right-of-way to cross the street, setting up this technology to be imagined in only a positive light. It then presents the profile of a middle-aged man named Merrick, who is described as impatient and resentful of “a system with an ageist and systemic bias”, because he wears a shirt covered in false faces of children to cross the street rapidly. In an effort to explore “the banal, everyday reality of how normal people with human nature find ways to get what they want”, this imagined scenario only sees a setting where technology is subverted for individuals self-interest. Such an account does not open a discourse on other much more problematic biases of surveillance systems, which already enact real violence on bodies, especially salient as Merrick is a black man whose racially marked identity would already render him vulnerable under current systems of visuality and data capture.

Many other projects dealt with the idea of distributed “Eyes of the City”, where people might reveal their own specific circumstances and lived environment as participatory researchers, designers, or urbanists as networked digital citizens. Referencing the ubiquitous smartphone camera, eye-tracking glasses, or the analogue urban explorations of Modernology, these projects presented a hopeful counterpoint to the narrative of totalizing centralized surveillance. In contrast to our project which develops tactics of resistance towards data capture, these project theorized strategies of use in order to return agency to the common citizen. However, in light of our censure from the exhibit, we wondered whether these might exist only as a utopian dream, when the centralized surveillance threatens to be the dominant vision with which we visualize the city and imagine its potential.

In sum, the Biennale presented an excellent opportunity to consider questions of digital surveillance critically and from a variety of vantage points. These questions profoundly challenged and strengthened our work. We are grateful to the Berkeley Center for New Media for facilitating our participation in this engaging opportunity.