Security and its Publics

I am wrapping up here at Security and Its Publics, a fascinating workshop that I was invited to participate in. The workshop aimed to bring, “sociological, political and cultural theories of publics into a dialogue with critical security studies. To date these important literatures have evolved largely in isolation from one another. At an empirical level it will collect and compare cases, experiences and experiments in the making of publics in relation to questions, issues and controversies of security.”

I’m not in the critical security bunch, but snuck in on my surveillance cred, and the work I’ve done around securitization of mega-protests. I’m also the only communication person here – it’s an assortment of sociologists, criminologists, lawyers and artists. Happily, though, there were several activists, so I found a small niche there. I was quite humbled to be put on a panel with Cynthia Weber and Ricardo Dominguez.

Recently I have been intrigued by the small world phenomenon as it has been unfolding in my life. Years ago when I was doing alternative journalism, I encountered the work of the Critical Art Ensemble and the Electronic Disturbance Theatre. This was before I even knew how to use the internet. And long before I would write my dissertation on tech activism and open source development as a method for social transformation. Last year I was asked to be part of an art project called Subversive Technologies, where Ricardo was a starring participant. I was not able to be in town for the various events associated with the project, so did not meet him (but I did write this).  This time, Ricardo had to bow out at the last minute, so I have yet to meet him, but that meant Cindy and I had more time on our panel ;). See my slides here.

Cynthia Weber is an activist-academic-filmmaker whose work reveals and critiques American patriotism and jingoism in her short films, including the “I am an American” series and more recently, her #Occupy set.

Later, talking to Cindy, I discovered that she has interviewed Steve Kurtz, another founding member of the Critical Arts Ensemble, and a guy I want to interview for my book. But she also knows one of my favourite academics, Lucy Suchman, partner to my collaborator and mentor Andrew Clement. She told me she is responsible for the war resisters in their basement. Small world, hey?

Artist Paul Shambroom‘s presentation, Artist-as-Canary, was equally as impressive. He showed some of his own photos documenting military and nuclear sites, and the people and technology that congregate there. Shambroom summarizes his work as an attempt to “probe the boundaries of citizen/government power, test citizen access to information, learn which activities draw government surveillance and test citizen freedom to see and record/photograph.” He plays with classic artistic interpretation and presentation, creating jarring contrasts with the subject matter. One site he visited he described as “Disneyland for first responders.”

Audrey Macklin presented alongside Paul in an interesting juxtaposition of context and content. Audrey is a lawyer who has represented Human Rights Watch in its interventions in the Omar Khadr case. She described the utter opaqueness of the legal process as it unfolded at “Camp Justice”, Guantanamo Bay. The commonality between the two presenters was drawn out by Cindy, who noted that both were bearing witness and giving warning. Shambroom as artist, Macklin as advocate as they draw back the veil on our hyper militarized, securitized, untransparent and grossly immoral society. The panel ended with a frank discussion by the panelists about the inefficacy of their work in terms of producing certain outcomes, like nuclear disarmament or the repatriation of Omar Khadr. Paul noted a certain humility to their work, and the importance, indeed need, for bearing witness against injustice.

The workshop closes with The Art of Security, a public art exhibit featuring the work of Cynthia Weber, Ricardo Dominguez and  Paul Shambroom, part of Ottawa’s first Nuit Blance.

Overall the workshop has been fantastic – superwell organized, good food, and fun nights out – not to mention a stellar lineup of most interesting, challenging and dare I say entertaining presentations. Even though it seems as if I’ve invoked the Vancouver rain, Ottawa has been great, and I’m glad I came.



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