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  Participant: Hito Steyerl (DE)

The Hierarchy of Surveillance - Is Big Brother Really Watching?

In my presentation I would like to focus on the renewed wave of racist and antisemitic violence which occurred in Germany this summer. As probably everybody knows, from the early summer on, the number of right wing attacks against all kinds of minorities, including social ones rose dramatically. Several people died, dozens of others were severly wounded by weapons such as bombs, grenades, arson bombs, or simply baseball bats.

For me it has been very interesting to explore the different levels of how these events have been mediatized. In this presentation, I will especially focus on how these events intersect with visual surveillance technology as represented by video surveillance, but also with TV shows such as Big Brother.

My aim is to point at a shift in the functions of the so-called private and public sphere and to connect this transformation with more general notions of a global sphere of information.

This is a picture from a surveillance camera. It shows an attack on the synagogue in Duesseldorf on the tenth anniversary of the German reunification. A petrol bomb was hurled on the building, most probably by Nazis. I will give more details about the attack later, but first let me concentrate on the shift in the use of surveillance through new media.

When the classical video surveillance technique was transferred to the web, two major forms of application emerged. First picutres of very well know public sites, one could call it postcard surveillance. And another one where people fed broadcasts from their private life online, therfore implementing a kind of self-surveillance. Surveillance therefore became a widespread private practice and was retransferrred back into the world of old media. It was primarily the use of webcams which inspired the TV-show Big Brother. But while one could say that surveillance was democratized in some way and the amount of overall surveillance increasing, therefore creating zones of hypervisibility, on the other hand, there are astonishing cases of undersurveillance and invisibilisation as well.

Let me give you an example.
Just a few days ago, the inhabitants of a refugee hostel in Fallersleben demanded camera surveillance, after having been arson bombed by skinheads. The site where they live is completely isolated and situated close to a waste dump. Many of the refugees stated that they couldnt sleep anymore, because of constant fear. This demand is not implemented. It is very clear that economic interests play an important role and that it is simply regarded as being too expensive to extend permanent state protection to this place.

This clearly means, that when it comes to surveillance, a profound inequality arises. I would like to call it: a hierarchy of surveillance This hierarchy is being highlighted by the tremendous popularity of f.e. Big Brother, where the absolute opposite of the former liberal reluctance to be surveilled, emerged. It was very interesting to see, how people craved to be put under this kind of surveillance. Surveillance is now indeed a privilege. Only the best are worth to be put under permanent control. This results in what I would call a sphere of hypervisibility, a sphere of competition and the prevalence of the fittest and the unrestrained spread of privacy into the public sphere which one could call: the terror of intimacy.

The old liberal fear of a Big Brother who might be watching you has to be replaced by a new one: what happens, if Big Brother doesnt watch you anymore? So there is on one hand the sphere of hypervisibility and on the other hand a sphere, which is invisibilised and can become quite dangerous.

This denial of surveillance is nothing new - it was repeated over and over again during the period of nationalist violence against migrants and refugees in the nineties. Whenever people died after having been burnt alive by firebombs thrown by neonazis, the police stated stereotypically, that they couldnt be expected to protect every individual Turkish household. The same applies to the lame excuses, that KFOR, a whole international army, gives to explain why it is unable to protect, Serbs, Gypsies and Jews from ethnic violence in Kosovo.

On the other hand, the whole border to Poland is being surveilled by special Federal border protection troops who are using sophisticated infrared cameras to detect even the slightest trace of undocumented immigration - but protect migrants is of course out of the question, if most ressources are used in order to protect Germany from migration.

But this does not mean that the problem is solved, by simply putting up cameras everywhere. And in the next example one can see, that even if surveillance is practiced, it doesnt mean, that it has any consequences.

One of the most interesting cases of failing surveillance is the Guendoul memorial stone in Guben, also on the Polish border. In January 1998, an Algerian refugee called Farid Guendoul was hunted to death by Nazis in Guben. He jumped through a glass door in panic and bled to death. A memorial stone was erected about 6 months later, in July 1999. In the last 15months, this stone has been attacked 8 times by nazis. It was stolen, demolished, hit, cut with a knife, smeared with swastikas, urinated on, spat on and so forth. On three different occasions some of the people who hunted Guednoul to death have been participating in the collective effort of destruction. In one case, two of the hunters were even observed by a team of plain clothes policemen who were supposed to protect this memorial. The police chose not to intervene. When asked about their reasons, they answered, that they did not want to intervene for "tactical reasons" . This is a case of surveillance which is typical for the hierarchy of surveillance: when unimportant issues are concerned, i.e. the security or dignity of refugees and migrants, then the apparatus of state surveillance turns out to be a mechanism of state voyeurism, i. e of sheer passivity.

Similar cases of state voyeurism happen in Austria repeatedly, not in national liberated zones, but in police custody. Four very dubious cases of death in police custody or during police controls happened earlier this year. All persons were suspected as drug dealers, one was shot, the others died more or less under police surveillance for unclear reasons. Again, an instance of state voyeurism. Big Brother may be watching but doesnt act. This suggests, that Austrian jails indeed belong to the type of very criminal and dangerous places which really need permanent video surveillance - not of the inmates, but of the policemen, to check whether they are sleeping or maybe watching Taxi Orange on TV or simply quietly relaxing, while watching a person dying in a cell.

The phenomena of surveillance voyeurism also applies to the slide we are watching. The little shadow in the corner is a young woman who climbed over the fence to extinguish the flames. This shows the absurdity of the situation. Even though a surveillance camera is installed, a passersby has to intervene in order to extinguish the fire. This intervention is also a very literal instance of participation in the civic sphere - taking over the duty of the state or in this case the police- of protecting the law. Security is therefore considered as a private problem. This is also a possible way to interpret the large demonstration we have witnessed in Berlin two weeks ago, where 200.000 people protested for "humanity and tolerance". In this case, the state had mobilised itīs own non-fascist citizens to oppose the violence of the fascist citizens. In other words, the state asked the protestors to demonstrate aginst itself - since it tries to privatise even itīs most important functions, and therefore attempts, as in the wildest communist fantasies, to wither away. State duties and even police functions are delegated onto civil society.

But, while private citizens are now required to act like policemen, police services on the contrary are getting more and more privatized. In Austria, it is legal to rent an agent from the state police for personal inquiries about job applicants. But you can get the data even cheaper, if you have good contacts for example to the police trade union , such as it is apparent in the so-called police informer affair, where policemen simply gave away personal data of people on whom the Freedom Party wanted to spy. In this case, one can remodel the old slogan "Dont ask what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country- into itīs digital version: Dont ask what data you can collect for Big Brother, but check, how many data Big Brother provides for you to sell" So, to sum up the transformed function of surveillance: the overall result of the increased surveillance of the private by webcams or Big Brother TV-shows points on the contrary to the privatisation of surveillance in so- called reality.

All of these examples point to a massive collapse of the boundaries of the private and the public, and a massive increase of areas regulated by economic interests. TV-shows like Big Brother as well as ist counterpart - the dramatic increase of state voyeurism and zones of invisible violence are just a symptom of the massive privatisation of the public sphere. Formerly public spheres which now are being privatised include for example parts of the media., but they also apply to the commercialisation of internet. But they exist also on a very material base: in half-privatized areas like free trade zones, half-colonies and protectorates. This area extends itself also to the so-called "national liberated zones" in Germany, or the invisible zones of deportation jails f.e in Austria. And this is why I would like to argue, that civil participation in any kind of media sphere is not determined by for example taking over the duties of the state, and thereby even accelerating the speed of privatisation. But it has to consist in insisting upon conserving a public sphere which is politically mediated, abides to the law and is not subject to private interests.

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