Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Security, Territory, Population: Hope Peterson's The Night is a Moat


Foucault, in his annual lecture series at the Collège de France in 1978 under the title Security, Territory, Population, elaborated the dispositifs of surveillance and subjectification familiar to readers of Discipline and Punish and The Will to Know with a greater emphasis on something that he considered to be relatively recent: the technologies of security. The disciplinary regulation of normality and abnormality has, Foucault argued in these lectures, altered its focus from the production and control of normalized individuals to the administration of quantifiable populations in delimited territories based on large-scale analysis and prediction.
The title of given to this lecture series is important as it serves to highlight the thematics of Hope Peterson's installation at RAW Gallery, The Night is a Moat. This installation is the latest articulation of an ongoing series of investigations into security, territory, population, surveillance and precarity under the title Threshold Economics begun in 2009. (Other findings from this artistic project have been exhibited as part of the My Winnipeg show in Paris, Sète, Ottawa and Winnipeg). All of the work in this series involves hand-held camera footage of the artist's apartment and its immediate nocturnal winter environs, accompanied by a mélange of amplified sounds all-too-well-known to any apartment dweller: steam-radiators clanging and hissing, cars passing by, muffled voices and footsteps, a constant mechanical pulse/whine. 

In the case of The Night is a Moat, the sense of enclosure (both protective and claustrophobic) that pervades the works comprising the Threshold Economics project is further augmented by the gallery space itself – a basement, with its lights turned particularly low which requires viewers to take a moment to allow their eyes to adjust to the dark. A large video screen is mounted in a curtained-off area, thereby making it not immediately visible from the gallery's entry, as the sound reverberates throughout the bricked room. At first exposure to the environment produced by Peterson's installation, we are posed a question, or, rather, exposed to a mystery. What is happening? This sense of being involved in the investigation of a mystery is underlined by the title of the installation, which evokes noir radio serials of the 1940s – an important source of inspiration to the artist. It is here that the affect of noir mystery combines with the thematics of security, territory and population by means of two main features in this exhibition: the deployment of surveillance and the police.
Peterson's camera work primarily functions in two imbricated ways: as mimesis of CCTV and as hand-held personal recordings (as one would record a car accident or an assault, for example, on one's iPhone). Both of these modes of surveillance – call them the corporate and the subjective – are ubiquitous in the contemporary socio-political configuration; Peterson's usage of both surveillance modes is complex. On the one hand, we have the personal mode: the “occupant-subject,” apparently confined to her apartment, peers through security keyholes to record ominously-lit men standing in corridors or (as we will come to later) being led away by the Winnipeg police. At other times, the occupant-subject looks through windows, often with what seems to be some trepidation; more often than not, the streets are deserted and we are treated to imagery that are almost sensuous in their treatment of light, shadow, colour and form. (Trees silhouetted in the night sky, multi-coloured lights from cars and streetlamps, parking lots whose cover of snow give them the appearance of planes of pale blue). I say almost sensuous; the video image has the graininess that characterizes footage shot on a cellphone or the like. (This is a deliberate effect on Peterson's part, as the footage was, in fact, shot in HD). When the streets are not empty, there are overtones of violence: a woman walks to her car at speed, as though fleeing someone; a man and woman have a heated argument that threatens to become physical; policemen arrest a man, ask questions of a woman, smoke cigarettes as they wait. Two complementary consequences can be drawn: the occupant-subject is in a territory that is (or is perceived to be) threatening to her. However, she is (or perceives herself to be) in a protective zone; she is not exposed to the violence she records. (It is in this context that it should be pointed out that the audio component of the installation is, despite being reminiscent at times of David Lynch's Eraserhead, actually becomes soothing and womb-like after sustained listening.) The night is indeed a moat, that is, a protective apparatus designed to keep a territory secure. 

“...and always cops.” We have already noted the presence of the police on a few occasions now: taking a man in the apartment into custody, standing outside waiting. For Foucault, the development of the idea that the state should have a police force as distinct from the diplomatic/military apparatus is essential in securing a territory internally by constructing a population (a quantifiable entity with predictable tendencies) out of a group of heterogeneous people. As in Foucault, the police serve an ambiguous function in The Night is a Moat. On the one hand, they are, as one might expect, part of a disciplinary apparatus; the police lead away a criminal, defined as “someone who is lead away by police.” They survey the neighbourhood, standing by their cars with lights flashing. (The section of the video when the cops are standing in the snow smoking cigarettes as if waiting for something to happen is one of the more chilling moments in the work.) On the other hand, the sections when the police are on screen are actually few and far between, the majority of the video spent meditating on the landscape. William Burroughs is reported to have quipped that “a fully functioning police state needs no police,” and so it is with The Night is a Moat: the absence of police is affected by their presence, which is to say, the disciplinary function of the police is transformed into an auto-security feature of the landscape itself. The sophistication of Peterson's analysis of the contemporary structures of surveillance, security and population-control is all the more remarkable for the modesty of its means – image, sound, space. Thus we can only hope to ask her again: Watcher, what of the night?

Hope Peterson – The Night is a Moat
RAW Gallery of Architecture and Design
290 McDermot Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba
18 October – 10 November 2012

all images stills from Hope Peterson's Threshold Economics (2011), save the second gallery image which is courtesy of Robert Szkolnicki. 

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