as part of the Torque #2 project, Sam Skinner and I inhabited the Claude Parent structure in Tate Liverpool’s Wolfson Gallery, and produced a booksprinted newspaper on the themes of security, privacy and surveillance.
The final publication is designed by Mark Simmonds, it includes poetry by J.R. Carpenter, Mez Breeze, S.J. Fowler, Patricia Farrell, Rhys Trimble, Curt Cloninger and more, alongside work written in the gallery by Erica Scourti and Christian Fuchs, and 10,000 words of raw data gathered from members of the public.
It will be distributed as an edition of 5000 to venues around Liverpool.
introduction to the newspaper
The newspaper you have in your hands was produced in two days at Tate Liverpool 7-8/02/15. It examines new modes of reading, specifically ‘being read’ and mass surveillance, and how this act of reading conducted upon us by state and corporate apparatus, might affect the ways we behave, think and write. It is part of a larger project entitled The Act of Reading, which included a symposium held at FACT, Liverpool 21/01/15, where speakers from diverse fields explored the impact of technology on how we read today, and a publication and exhibition held at Furtherfield Gallery, London 9-19/04/15.
The Opticon comprises contributions from the public using questionnaires, poems from international contributors and texts from guest speakers – Prof Christian Fuchs and artist Erica Scourti – exploring the central themes of online surveillance and data harvesting as a new form of readership. The public forum proved an ideal format to explore these issues, as it meant opening ourselves up to surveillance and scrutiny, and created an opportunity for an act of ‘mass writing about mass reading’, making the newspaper itself a harvested archive of feeling, during this specific moment in the history of readership and its relationship to data.
Since the ‘being read’ aspect of the project came to mind, events have overtaken us. Each day we opened our browser, the stream was dominated by reference to stories which were causing the public to rethink the specific relations of freedom, data, security and surveillance. Revelations around Edward Snowden, #jesuischarlie, GCHQ, Drummer Lee Rigby, #gamergate, to name just a few, not only forced a specific intellectual context for the project, but meant that previously faint pathways connecting reading, freedom, privacy and security burned bright in the public consciousness. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a world now where these words wouldn’t immediately suggest one another.
The result is that the time we spent in Tate was distinguished by a high level of public investment in what might previously have been considered niche ideas – from age 8 to 80, people were able to engage in a conversation about information and what happens to it once it is produced by our bodies in space. Another aspect of this is that the contributions from poets and academics here have the rare quality of both referencing current events and reflecting on a condition of being with timeless implications – a kind of journalism of affect.
This unique atmosphere was contributed to by the physical context we occupied throughout the weekend. Claude Parent’s architectural intervention catalysed and reimagined the Wolfson Gallery as a site for multiple observational and spatial trajectories, and the Bulletins of the Serving Library exhibition traversed the galley, surrounding us with a dynamic collection of bibliophilia, typography and related ephemera.
We have not had time to fully crunch or draw conclusions from the responses we gathered. Instead, we present our ‘raw data’ along with a very basic textual analysis, as a problematising ‘broken mirror’ in which you are invited to view the degree to which your own opinions reflect or slide between the cracks of others. Though there were some recurring themes of course. Firstly, the level of contradiction and irony which underlies almost every aspect of this debate – from the oft-raised hypocrisy of the state’s dogma that everything must become visible to it, while itself remaining cloaked in secrecy, to the paradox that people want their digital selves to remain private, leaving them ‘free’ to share all via social media. Certainly, it is a commonly held concern that contradictions or ironies themselves, along with the subtleties by which utterances make up a character, may escape algorithmic analysis, resulting in ‘wrong’ conclusions being drawn by powerful apparatus – something which this document itself, in its presentation of data, could be said to be guilty of.
In turn this points to a second running theme of the weekend: the liquidation of the boundaries between people, as their answers are elided here as bulk text and summarised in single answers, replicates the modern phenomenon Christian Fuchs and Erica Scourti both observe in their work – that of the liquidation of boundaries in general. Erica’s work often engages with the dissolution of borders between art, the social media she uses to promote and create, and the ‘private’ life these activities sustain. As Christian’s essay notes also, our relaxation activities have increasingly become cognitive labour for corporate apparatus such as Facebook and Twitter, and this in turn leads to a boundaryless anxiety as to how we spend time. The algorithm has no sense that it wants to stop, and does not let you stop either. Erica’s predictive text poem, written as a performance at the Opticon weekend, exhibits this startling quality of liquidity at the syntactical level, in which the software produces a text without the boundaries of punctuation – most notably full stops – instead continually seeking out new futures for the sentence as it comes into being.
Throughout the newspaper we have retained many of the stylistic quirks of submissions sent to us, including the poems which were solicited with the brief that writers reflect on the experience, or ‘phenomenology’ of online surveillance. Biographical notes and additional data for all our contributors can be found using the bit.ly links adjacent to each, and we also include some further reading material.
Sincere thanks to our partners and funders as listed in the colophon, Sufea, Ruth and Robyn from Tate Collective who so diligently helped us collate questionnaire responses, Erica Scourti and Christian Fuchs for their inspirational talks, Jessica Fairclough and Lindsey Fryer and all at Tate Liverpool, Stuart Bailey from Serving Library, Mike Rispoli and all at Privacy International, and last but not least everyone who contributed to newspaper and added their voice to the debate.