Sketches Towards an Occupied Visuality (2011)

      Introduction:  Bricolage as Object and Methodology

             Levi-Strauss introduces the bricoleur-as-metaphor for description of a certain mode of science[1].  In contrast to an analytic western methodology of the West he labels a “science of the concrete”, the bricoleur erects theory by an arrangement of available knowledge.  It’s a negotiation of something fashioned rather than built, made out of known, not closely related, and possibly rudimentary parts.  Further use of the bricoleur have Turkle and Papert describe a model of cognition as related to users of computation, feminism, and ethnographies of science[2], finding the aesthetic prevalent in emergent technological discourse.  The piece places users and programmers of computational devices enacting bricolage, with progress on both sides coming from small, creative, and incremental moments of hodgepodge.  There is resonance to me within this mode off creation and thinking, ringing especially true in the realm networked, easily accessible knowledge.  It is hopefully something I can illuminate coherently through theory, method, and subject in this paper. 

My subject is constructed from of my understanding of available technological tools, not explicitly my ability to deploy them.  My method follows suit, making use of ethnographic practice, photojournalism, personal history, and an engagement with the discourse surrounding the subject matter.  Taken together, these sometimes-disparate pieces are fragments of a something hopefully more holistic, an attempt to weave past, present, and potential futures. 

Practice :  Field Experiments and Photographing Vacuums

          As means of exploring both the ideas behind the project, and the politics I wish to deploy in its application, these are a series of snapshots, windows into my experiences guiding my particular situated motivations and background:

1.     I manage a sandwich shop at 12th street below Union Square in Manhattan. The street is, by most accounts, fairly unremarkable. It is a transient place for most, consisting at street-level of food establishments with office space perched above.    

    On the afternoon of Sept 24th, 2011, the street was filled with Occupy Wall Street Protestors, who’d been kettled[3] onto the block as a means of New York Police Department’s ongoing engagement with dissention-control technique. A group of three teenage students, contained against the ordering window of my employer with large swaths of neon plastic netting, seem startled by their soloing-out from the safety of the crowd’s numbers. They are callously and nonchalantly pepper-sprayed without provocation[4]. The documentation of the event immediately becomes viral via Youtube, resulting in the suspension of the offending officer.  The instance, alongside nearly a thousand arrests during an attempt to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, is widely credited with both the boom to coverage, virility, and attendance of ensuing OWS movement. 

2.     October 15th, 2011:  The relative size of the group has increased by several fold, and now necessitates a footnote[5] regarding the preponderance of satellite protests round the globe.  It was 2 months following the birth of the occupation, and the largest if not most public protest was planned in temporal tandem with other modular, international occupations.   As participants, we were legion, but as in the instance above, bottlenecked behind barricades for containment on the sidewalk.  My companion and I received information via twitter that a group had broken away from the Time Square base of the protest, and was amassing to break down several blocked entrance routes to take the streets of time square.  We found and merged with this group, who were met by police before the barricades.  Several protestors, upon arriving at this perimeter, were thrown on the ground, beaten with nightsticks, arrested, and/or thrown in vans.   As this is happening, the shouts of “LIVE CAM!”  LIVE FEED!” erupted behind us. 

     The crowd, which had been just seconds before completely impenetrable, parted for the camera connected to an international satellite internet video feed.  Photo journalists moved out the way.  Protestors created a space for the camera-person, putting the gaze of the thousands online immediately upon the violence before us.  The live feed hovered for a minute until the violence dispersed, then parted just as it came, with shouts of “LIVE FEED, LIVE CAM!”, effortlessly vivisecting the scene. 

3.     Zuccotti Park, the original site of occupation, is now empty, or at least, unoccupied. Barricades remain up still, mostly blocking access in and out of the park, a disturbing reversal of the kettling techniques used on the crowds prior.  The tents are gone, as are the makeshift kitchens and libraries.  It is still used sparingly as a gathering spot for the movement, but the Occupy day-to-day activities have been pushed mostly into operating out of other locales, none of them in public space.  Having never been through the park before the occupation, the emptiness feels a queer abnormality, not the inverse.

     When taken together, these instances lay bare several things: The massive importance of photography and video to contemporary social movements. The occurrence of “solidarity” linked to a person’s day-to-day environment, and the residue of both feeling/artifactual documentation to be explored at event sites. Lastly, the necessity of contemporary social movements to move past the physical, geographical, and temporal restraints currently imposed by responding authorities.

        My subject, and semi-response to these issues, is a piece of software which technically does not exist. All of the necessary pieces required for it do, so I will necessarily take for granted the possibilities of its substantiality for the purposes of discussion.  The bricolaged, potential future-software consists of:

An augmented reality[1] mobile application capable of displaying visual artifacts which document the events surrounding the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in their actual location.  Utilizing GPS and an “overlapping graphics” system, the application would allow the user to access video and photography shot by witnesses of corresponding events through their mobile device, allowing potentially for new experience with the media artifacts, memory, and construction of “the event”.  The application should hinge as closely as possible to the politics of the movement in every aspect. 

           In order to simulate the experience of the proposed application, I brought my camera back to several notable sites of experience with regards to the protests.  Zuccotti Park and the 12th street location of the pepper-spraying hold both personal and cultural symbology.  Referencing widely circulated video and photography of the events, I took my own photographs in approximately the same frames.  These photographs were then combined, with the photographs of “the event” left transparent on a base of their current photographic reality.  The experience translates to what I hope would be similar analog, that of at the very least, witnessing an event in a place mediated through a recording device.  This experience proved to be exceedingly fascinating, and not entirely without issue.

  Zucotti Park, At Broadway and Liberty.  Financial District, New York City. (Looking South)

Zucotti Park, At Broadway and Liberty.  Financial District, New York City. (Looking South)

Zuccotti Park is now surrounded by 4 layers of metal barricades, and the number of officers is equal to, if not greater than, the number of straggling protestors. Tourists flock to the area, which is adjacent to the 9/11 memorial site. In both visits I paid to the site in the last week, it felt deflated and emptier than it seemed the space should have allowed. Two small working groups of a half dozen huddled closely and quietly discussed addressing income inequality.  Calls of “MIC CHECK”[1], fell on def or lazy ears. The park was something more than empty.  It felt like a vacuum. 

Zuccotti, or “Liberty” Park, as it had been re-christened by the protestors, was a space which had been buzzing with several hundred protestors everyday for more almost 3 months.  People were living here, learning from the homeless how to adapt to outdoor permanence.  The inhabitants and sometimes-participants alike congregated; they created art, sparked conversation, and generally were a wonderfully politically performative. 

  Zucatti Park/Liberty Square, at Broadway and Liberty. Financial District, NYC.  (Facing West) 

Zucatti Park/Liberty Square, at Broadway and Liberty. Financial District, NYC.  (Facing West) 

While taking the photographs, I talked with and participated in several working groups.  People were fascinated by what I was proposing, but worried about the fact that I seemed to explicitly propose a before and after tense. The contention was that the struggle was ongoing, and showing a diptych of now and then could belie the notion that Occupy was over. In order to be politically saleable, the app must be algorithm-driven, (topically/geographically stamped like the #hashtags of twitter) and have available all temporal stages of the event without top-down editorial hierarchy. Editorial control of such a thing by any single person seems to betray the politics of the event and the group it is meant to illuminate.  Temporal assignments on any type of timeline also feel problematic, and stand to bolster notions of fading potentiality. 

12th Street, between 5th and University.  Union Square, New York City. (Looking East) 

 As I take the photographs at 12th street, several people see my activities.  I’m holding my iPad up to street view, attempting to find the exact perspective in which to enact my viewing of ghost-protestors being pepper-sprayed by phantom-cops.  The activity itself, even before subject matter is raised, is performative enough to provoke conversation.         I walk through and by this space constantly, whether I’m going to work or just walking in the several blocks surrounding the NSSR campus. The residual feelings in this space of the event were slight, nothing like the vacuum felt in Zuccotti.  It is worth pointing out here, that the documentation of the events may be in direct tandem to the sort of emotional or psychic residue I’ve been describing. There is simply more “evidence” of on ongoing presence at the park, with tens of thousands of photographs, videos, and news articles setting parameters for discourse.  The archive to draw from is considerably less vast for the 12th street event.  It is palpable.

 The location’s personal banality constructs the violence as much more of an abnormality than any sort of systemic oppression, but the violence of the site is still entirely something felt.  It is a haunting feeling, shooting these spaces of emptiness after something traumatic has happened, a sort of temporal-visual charting violence and the lack thereof.   Many people, including those who live or work nearby, were aware of the incident, but unaware of the exact geographical location. One witness didn’t believe it was the correct location until shown the video.  Upon recognizing the geographical landmarks present before him, he remarked that he “kind of wished he didn’t know this happened right here”.  There is something tangibly phenomenologically different about the media artifacts when geographically situated, especially within the “everyday” space.  In linking media artifacts directly to place, something was disturbed in the banality of my daily life.  There is a more tangible feeling of violence in that space for me now, as there likely is for these would-be informants.  What are the ramifications?  What does this applied disruption of habitus imply for notions such as solidarity or political apathy?  How might new constructions of memory begin to occur, and how might an ongoing occupation of visual space provoke some sort of useful anxiety?

“Contrary to a moment of restoration that leaves the past behind, the aftermath is a fragmentary experience where different residues are constantly reconfigured, where the past interrupts the present creating images as experiences of history that contain different trajectories and biographies…”  (Orrantia, 4)

Orrantia’s dissertation[1], in many dimensions, speaks most directly to the topics at hand here.  A conversation is necessary between the two works, as the aim of my app in some ways seemingly inverts his own focus.  Orrantia chooses to make the Aftermath his target for study, finding, as I did, residue of varying sorts in the spaces following traumatic events.  There is a visual past, an archive to be reconciled alongside the residues the violence itself has left in space.  While recognizing the role of the banal in the aftermath, I wish to show that a integral part of the proposed application not be a “return to normalcy”, but a disruption of said normative state: an ongoing, disquieting confrontation with manifestations of violence the state perpetrates.  How do I reconcile the enacting of this idea with my role as an anthropologist?  With that of an activist?    

Sketch 1 :  Occupied Visual App as social documentary / salvage ethnography

“Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we're shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates. Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations. In another version of its utility, the camera record justifies. A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened.”    -Sontag[2]

““Normalcy is interrupted by moments that feel like a slap in the face, a stab in the back or a soft whoosh that buzzes in our ears as the debris of terror passes by”  (Orrantia, 7)

The application represents an opportunity to tell a narrative largely suppressed by dominant corporate media forms.  As Susan Sontag suggests in On Photography and subsequent articles[3], I believe there is a problem in the over-saturation of image-forms within the culture at large. There is a certain dulling that takes place in the impact any documentation of violence can have after many multiple viewings.  The common cosmopolitan viewer, upon seeing protesters be beaten, is problematically often only viewing one of a long lineage of personal windows into police brutality.  To what degree does the trope of police brutality in America hold some culpability for it’s continuation, for the salient feeling that nothing will ever change?  

To what degree can a user break through the trope, to more deeply contextualize, or for lack of a better word, add novelty to the process of the viewing experience?  In seeing the event, whether the object is a march, an instance of political street theatre, or some iteration of police brutality, there is arguably a more personalized and localized actualization of the perspective of the participant/observers.

This is fundamentally different than viewing photographs or video at a remote, distant locale. Indexes formerly resigned only to materially mediated experience (simple things: walls, landmarks, trees, corporate logos) breathe a certain kind of actuality through the documentation, a breakage with the flattening, demoralizing, mass-categorization effect Sontag warns of.  With poles of reality present, the trope begins to fade, and you’re forced to imagine the moment in proxemic terms, dealing with the immediate space and reverberating these phantom histories into your understanding of space.  I’m proposing an engagement with these visual materials explicitly, guided slightly by the descriptions left by Elizabeth Edward, that they: “Should be understood as belonging in a continuing process of production, exchange, usage and meaning.  As such, objects are enmeshed in, and active in, social relations, not merely passive entities in these processes[4].”  There’s a potential for a sort of ongoing, active social engagement of historicities here, a chorus of oppressed voices to reach those like my one informant who “Kind of wished he didn’t know”. 

Which raises a fundamental question as well, that of dissemination of the app.  The ideal stage for an experience like this, from the activist perspective, is some way to distribute it not just within ranks but to spread outward, to encourage those less familiar to be confronted with occupied imagery, to provoke at least to the point of acknowledgment. Instead of choosing to download, one can imagine this functionality distributed via some kind of semi-legal digital force. Hacking into people’s devices through local networks in places like Zuccotti Park or 12th street could be one such method, carrying the civil disobedience of occupation one step further into people’s personal devices. 

Sketch 2 :  Occupied Visual App as immersive, new-media “art” happening

The state of the aftermath is something that is defined by state practices and transnational discourses, and also by banal and unexpected moments of excess, laughter, imagination, sadness and fantasy” (Orrantia 6)

After wrestling with some of the clear problematics in this project, I intended to offer a critique or rebuttal of the app’s usage as a rejoinder to close the paper.  As the work took shape, the open-ended future potentialities of the thing, nestled with the always-present possibilities and ambiguities present in visual representation, have made it too unwieldy of a target to do so.  Taking a cue from Orrantia’s sound piece, it seems more apt to take a step back and explore the potential of the app less as a forceful, more poetic creation. 

Treating the app as more of an interactive, immersive experience, framed closer to the realms of new media artistic experience that that of a activist-journalistic product, avoids many of the trappings of exploitation, power dynamics, and perpetuity of violence that the activist view could entail.  I envision it being used something like an interactive museum guide, with the real spaces of the occupation being the only constraints.  Phantoms and ghosts of historicity weave in and out of your views, either carefully curated or democratically randomized.  When it comes down to it, the reactionary impulse to confront others, possibly unwillingly, with violent and generally unsought images.  My worry is that by focusing on the height of an event, showcasing THE most essential intensities, it begins to glamorize, to exploit, and generally distort something closer to the truth of the situation. 

“Violence is something somewhat unusual, that seems to affect only others until one day by chance, by recognition or simply because one can have been at the wrong place at the wrong time, it affects you.. A man might look up from the plowing of the land, or simply have a mirage effect of a day of terror while passing in front of a field where we all know something terrible happened. “ (Orrantia 9)

            While acknowledging the state technologies which certainly shape our discourse to questionable ends, it feel problematic to me as social scientist to mix intervention with observation.  Historically, I’m certain, this has not had positive results.  Problematic memorial sites and truth commissions come to mind.    How does one not risk being guilty of violence themselves in forcing media upon others?  How can we reconcile a possible illuminating and ambiguity-injecting experience out of these same technological possibilities?

            My alternate proposal has the app as a voluntary participation tool, to be used be tourists, those within the movement, or those supporters who are unwilling/unable to participate (bodily handicapped, international, questionable immigration status).  Certainly, the performative qualities of a program such operate a lower rate, but able to operate in a far more ambiguous, inherently less violent mode.

Conclusion:

“Images thus interrupt the linearity of reading them as truth and presentations of fact, and become modes of documentation that are not based on the idea of “truth” but rather understand reality as a convolute of dreams and fantasies, established conventions, material contingencies, flows and disruptions”.    (28 Orrantia)  

“The making of the self was located not in the shadow of some ghostly past but in the context of making the everyday everyday inhabitable” (Veena Das, via Orrantia)

I don’t see this project as much of an intervention, in any real technological sense.  The spread of networked objects, combined with the cosmopolitan ubiquity of smartphone technology (linked photoscopics, GPS, high-definition screens and sensory immersion) means this sort of user experience is not so much an independent creation, but a certain type of eventuality.  A likely possibility slightly adjacent to what is currently available.

 A geographical location is as valid a point of entry to relevant information as any other, and has as I’ve argued and felt, a unique experience attached to it. An exchange with Jason Reisman, of the NYU Media Research Lab, informed me that while he was happy to help out with a project like this, “The technology is, at best, a couple years away from really being functional”.  What exactly have I done here?  My intentions, I realized mid-way through, were something like what the best in the canon of science-fiction does.  Assume technological trajectory and chart the social potentialities; positive, negative, or otherwise different.

I initiated the project with the intention of utilizing emerging technologies to shock, jolt, and otherwise unnerve those who were unknowing about the subject matter into some sort of awareness.  The longer I sat with this notion, the further problematic I found it as social scientist.  Where’s the line where I become some sort of propagandist myself?  To what degree am I comfortable participating, and initiating experience my role as “part of the residue myself”? (Orrantia 9)

            And of course, this paper has sidestepped the issue of what these new technologies do for events on a much larger scale than I have mentioned.  Histories, not just this narrative I’ve selected, will have brand new modes of access, distribution, of both visual and textual information linked to place. 

Taussig[5], in a reading of Beckett, states that he “conceives of memory as something which ‘presents the past in monochrome’”, suggesting that memory necessarily condenses, culls and generally modifies fragments of our sensory experience for later reference.  This abbreviation, a seeming universal experience, facilitates the sort of trope-production Sontag is wary of, a linking of wholly singular experiences into immutable understanding and hindering social change.  Surely, there is something particular to understanding each and every event alongside it’s ability to be summarily condensed.  This project then, in Taussig and Beckett’s terms, an attempt to add some color to the experiential process otherwise relegated to black and white. 

I’ve no definitive conclusions with the work, as it began and ends as thought experiment, though one seemingly with real phenomenogical consequences.  My intentions to have the project materialized by those more qualified have since been rebuked by those capable and questioned by myself (who might know better).  Nonetheless, I remain fairly confident this is a visual language we, as social scientists, will quickly have to become accustomed to.  In anticipation, I’m content to build/observe/experience what I can of it piece by piece, and contribute to the discourse from the somewhat privileged position of having felt it. 


Notes:

1) Levi-Strauss. The Savage Mind. Chapter 1, 1962

2) Sherry Turkle Seymour Papert. Epistemological Pluralism and the Reevaluation of the Concrete, 1992

3) “Kettling” is a term used by police (and now protestors alike) to describe the method of corralling a protest inside certain limits, always with a very small entrance/exit, often without any at all. The term appears to be first linked with the UK authorities dealing with protestors: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11963274 , but as seen on it’s own Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kettling , the tactic has been embraced by police forces worldwide. It is almost certainly an evolution of the painfully named “Free Speech Zones”, appearing in the U.S. now for some several decades, but made notorious under George W. Bush’s Secret Service: http://www.wired.com/politics/law/news/2004/07/64349 .

4) http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=moD2JnGTToA , “PEACEFUL PROTESTORS PENNED IN THE STREET AND MACED ! - #OccupyWallStreet”, Uploaded by TheOther99Percent

5) Interactive global occupy movement map: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/oct/17/occupy-protests-world-list-map

6) Augmented Reality as a term, has become a shorthand for any sort of graphical overlay of visual forms over existing “real space” terrain in real time. Computer generated graphics, textual information, or existing photographs can be placed upon or within designed spaces. There are several forms of software currently available, ranging from the ability to see real estate prices “upon” the façade of a building to interactive video games. If none of this makes visual sense, I plead you, the reader, to consult a video demonstration through a service such as Youtube, which has many iterations and experiments with the nascent technology. It is a brand new type of visualized experience, and as such, is very difficult to adequately describe indexically through textual description.

7) The “Human Microphone”, or “People’s Mic” is a common mode (though not specific to Occupy Wall Street) of communication for the movement, where the surrounding crown repeats a designated speaker’s words. It is a manifestation of the non-hierarchical leadership program the movement employs. Anybody can use the “mic” at any point to communicate with(through) the crowd, assuming the crowd is present and willing to facilitate.

8) Unpublished dissertation

9) Sontag, Susan. On Photography. 1973.

10) Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Torture of Others. 2004

11) Edwards and Hart, 2004 Materiality of Images

12) Taussig, What Color is the Sacred, 2007, pg 188