Sunday, November 12, 2017

Witnessing Machines Built in Secret

#amtsb @proto_type's current performance work, which I caught at the South Bank Centre in London this weekend, is called A Machine They're Secretly Building. The title comes from a warning by Edward Snowden, as reported by Glen Greenwald.

"I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."

As I filed out of the performance, I bought a copy of the script, paying with cash rather than credit card (as if that's going to stop THEM knowing I was there). In her introduction, Alwyn Walsh mentions Henry Giroux and the idea of disimagination. Henry Giroux credits this idea to Georges Didi-Huberman who, starting from four photographs taken by Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau, had offered an extended and profound meditation on the status of the image as a means of historical analysis. Giroux's version of the politics of disimagination refers to images (and also institutions, discourses, and other modes of representation) "that undermine the capacity of individuals to bear witness to a different and critical sense of remembering, agency, ethics and collective resistance".

According to Giroux, therefore, the disimagination machine "functions primarily to undermine the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue: put simply, to become critically informed citizens of the world". Thankfully, Walsh tells us, "this ... is what theatre and performance is so perfectly equipped to challenge".

So the Proto-type show aims to bear witness about what is going on. As the audience files into the performance space, we see two women dressed in black, with pink balaclavas. And a large screen facing the audience. One of the women is facing a camera: her face (or what we can see of it) is shown on the screen. As the show progresses, the screen (which has equal billing with the human characters in the script) also displays text and documentary fragments, apparently offering "facts" to illustrate or substantiate the shifting subjective voices of the human characters - sometimes resigned acceptance, sometimes angry protest - exploring the conflict between the security narrative (normal, law-abiding citizens versus terrorists, "keeping you safe") and the privacy narrative (state surveillance versus private individuals with rich inner lives). At the climax of the show, the screen shows the audience, with random members marked with green and red rectangles as if indicating targets of suspicion, perhaps based on behaviour or backstory. (From a technology point of view this looked pretty unsophisticated, but from a dramatic point of view it was sufficient to provoke audience discomfort.)

But if THEY are secretly building a machine, who exactly is THEY?

For Edward Snowden and Proto-type, THEY means governments - mostly the British and American governments, although Pussy Riot is referenced both in the script and in the pink balaclavas. But of course the power behind the machine could also be Google or Facebook, which might possibly (but how would I know?) be much more powerful than those of mere governments.

And if the machine was so secret, how could such a machine affect "the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue"? Surely a much more dangerous machine would be one that seduced people into suspending their critical imagination, a machine that presented us with apparently objective facts, a machine that persuaded us to think with the majority - or at least what it told us was the majority view. (Surely that couldn't happen here?)

In his 2011 documentary, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (#AWOBMOLG), Adam Curtis presented a powerful dialectic about technological capitalism. Although there were some logical flaws in his argument, as I pointed out at the time, I think Curtis was correct in identifying some of the key trends, as well as pointing at the multiple centres of power - for example, Madison Avenue, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington. The multiple centres of power (media, technology, corporate, state) were also explored (with rather more academic rigour) at the Power Switch conference in Cambridge in March 2017.

A Machine They're Secretly Building is darker than Curtis (if that were possible) and more narrowly focused. But although one may be justifiably alarmed by state surveillance, the disimagination effect is arguably wreaked more by corporate surveillance, hashtag #YouAreTheProduct. So I'm looking forward to their next show, which I understand will be on economics.






Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Trans. Shane B. Lillis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) review by Paul B Jaskot in Journal of Jewish Identities Issue 3, Number 2, July 2010 pp. 93-95

Henry A. Giroux, The Politics of Disimagination and the Pathologies of Power (Truth Out, 27 February 2013)

Glen Greenwald et al, Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations (Guardian, 11 June 2013)

Laura James, Power Switch - Conference Report (31 March 2017) - liveblog of CRASSH PowerSwitch Conference

Richard Veryard, All Chewed Over By Machines (26 May 2011) - review of Adam Curtis

Aylwyn Walsh, Staging the Radical Potential of the Imagination: A Critical Introduction to A Machine they’re Secretly Building (via Academia.edu, undated)

Andrew Westerside and Proto-type Theatre, A Machine they’re Secretly Building (Oberon Modern Plays, 2017)

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