For the first few seconds of September 11th 2001, it seemed as if the end of the world was being televised. Buildings were burning, people were dying, and the American social psyche moved immediately into a state of widespread terror-paranoia. This fear extended to nearly every facet of life causing many subsequent invasions of privacy and infractions upon civil liberties that would previously have been condemned without the jingoistic tolerance created and sustained by the tragic events. The normalization of this paranoia continues to affect the way in which security measures are conducted, which was precisely the case when my own apartment was searched due to my artwork having been taken out of its intended context and translated through systems of power. The ensuing dilemma created by this unwarranted intervention highlights the immediacy in the tense struggle between personal security and personal privacy reintroduced and amplified in America’s new climate.
Something didn’t feel right in my apartment when I returned from a short trip, things looked out of order as if someone had been inside. This feeling of violation was confirmed when Tami, my neighbor from across the hall, informed me that policemen had been looking for me and had searched my apartment. She and other neighbors were individually interrogated about me by the officers and asked to try and decipher a stack of “strange” photographs. After multiple agitated phone calls to the Daly City, California police department (who initially lied to me) it was revealed that a Walgreen’s photo clerk had made a duplicate set of photographs they had just developed for me, which were turned in to the police.
Within an art context, these projects commented on a variety of issues anywhere from social displacement through technology to the spectacle and power relations inherent in musical performances and the spaces in which they occur, but the pairing of these disparate images without their intended contexts elicited an abject reaction from the clerk who read them as a potential “bomb threat.”
This situation was resonant of a recent news story, in which a photo clerk notified the police of a roll of photographs containing pictures of a young man posing with guns and bombs. He had planned to murder his classmates and teachers by blowing up De Anza College in Cupertino, CA. When he came to get his photos, the police took him into custody and the clerk received instant notoriety—the media’s new vigilante hero! At the time of the De Anza bomb scare, I had no idea that it would soon parallel my own life.
The first on the roll of my photographs was a still from a Takuji Murata film entitled Ash that I was commissioned to compose music for. Consisting of a young child’s face covered in blood from a terrorist attack, this image, along with the De Anza case, must have contextualized my other photographs in the mind of the photo clerk, such as The Quiet Between Silences. The flash of light in the photographs documenting this performance, in which sound and light are synchronized in a changing pattern, was assumed by the clerk to be a detonating bomb and was followed by similar bomb-paranoid analyses for each of the other projects.
Photographs in hand, the police were dispatched to question me, but I was not at home so they returned an hour later with the same outcome. On the third trip, with the forced aid of my landlord, they entered and searched my apartment without a warrant, my presence or my consent, dressed in bomb gear and armed with a clause called “welfare” as a key for entry. Depending on the situation, “welfare” (which essentially allows authorities to override one’s right to privacy if another’s welfare is suspected to be in danger) is indeed something for which to be thankful or fearful. It shows law enforcement as being far less fragmented or hierarchically tiered than is commonly believed; individual police officers can operate as judges. Their verdict was wrong.
The police officers of course found nothing and retreated, admittedly embarrassed by the mistake, but left me with a concerned landlord and frightened neighbors. On top of that, when questioned, an upper-division manager of Walgreen’s said that it is simply their “unspoken policy” to report anything unusual to the authorities. How is a sense of security retained in an environment embedded with hidden policies and clauses that come to the foreground only after the fact? The same security measures put in place to protect our privacy have the capacity to strip them from us.
So, what’s the big deal? Sometimes actions that seem to violate our privacy are actually beneficial, as in the aforementioned De Anza bomb scare where lives were actually saved by the ethically complicated intervention of the photo clerk and police. Similarly, in the case of Polly Klaas, police worked with California phone company Pacific Bell to trace phone calls made by her killer, Richard Allen Davis to enable his capture. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Brian Dance, who allegedly beat, raped, and carved swastikas into the face of a 15-year-old girl, was caught by officials who traced the conversations they had together in the Internet chat room from which he lured her. The underground pedestrian tunnel that leads to the Daly City BART station is equipped with numerous security cameras and acoustically referenced motion sensors. Those who use it at night could face far worse violations without the watchful set of eyes and ears that surveillance technologies provide. They all become, like any technological innovation, tools or weapons depending on their application and control.
That is certainly not to say that there is no cause for paranoia, surveillance is not a new technology—just ask J. Edgar Hoover. Yet since September 11th, such paranoia over privacy and civil liberties has reached new heights in America. These tragic events forged a new climate of patriotism in which nearly anything can be justified in the name of national security—from Stateside strip-searches to the overseas bombing of civilians in Afghanistan simply because one of them was unusually tall. The ghosts of foreign policy may have come home to haunt America, but the impact has caused the government to review, rethink, and redesign the reach of its legal powers, not its morality.
Behind the red, white, and blue media spectacle came the “Patriot Act,” which is not quite so colorful. Its most debated tactic—that the Justice Department now allows eavesdropping on inmates’ communications with their lawyers—seems to nullify the sixth amendment to the constitution and is only one example of the changing dynamics. Even terminology is changing to accommodate these “necessary precautions” against terror. Inmate once meant in custody, but has been stretched to now include witnesses, detainees, or otherwise. On top of that, and on a more covert level, the implications that new technologies such as Carnivore and Magic Lantern (viruses being used by the FBI that record computer keystrokes and therefore bypass encryption) present are dangerous. Yet uncritically accepting these and other tactics as anti-terrorist measures is even more dangerous, and is not ironically facilitated by network-news.
U.S. mainstream media has been beyond complicit in the creation of such a hyper-paranoid star-spangled context; their representational role following the attacks had more to do with feeding hysteria and fueling nationalism than it did reporting. The ethical dilemma behind the repeated broadcasting of those victims jumping from the burning World Trade Center buildings to their certain death was quickly silenced by the lust for ratings, yet thousands of civilian deaths in Afghanistan still go unreported. A handful of Palestinians celebrating the terrorist bombings (in return for candy and cake) were portrayed as representative of the country as a whole, and was of course provided without explanatory political context. American racist crusades of vigilantism—from pig’s blood poured onto mosques to the murdering of Sikhs and Middle Eastern Americans—soon followed, reacting to the sensationalism and conflicting messages broadcasted on hypnotic repeat in the news under titles such as “Attack on Democracy” and “Why They Hate Us.”
It seems that “They” has been stretched to include the thousands of Arab Americans who were detained and interrogated (and continue to be) by authorities of that “democracy,” who intrude the privacy of these citizens’ houses, mosques, offices, and lives due to race-based paranoia and profiling. These actions draw a clear parallel between the policing of my photographs and the “War on Terrorism.” The connotation of the word “terror,” like “inmate,” has changed since September. It is now questionable whether protesters will now be considered terrorists; activists considered to be committing treason; artists considered propagandists; will any voice of dissent be tolerated? If the reaction to my photographs is any indication, there is little tolerance. While these images were simply documentations of art projects, they were interpreted as weapons of terror too “real” to be represented without precautionary action taken.
If 9/11 is truly being utilized as a pretext for the American government to install laws and acts and take action never before afforded an opportunity, what role does artwork play in such a dangerous new era? That depends on the function of the work (or in my case, the new function given to the work). It is unrealistic to expect or even want all art to fulfill a function beyond aesthetics, but in such a visual culture as ours, where the hegemonic empire of advertising has bought the rights to visual culture, dissenting and subversive art plays an ever-important role. Just how important is evident in the actions taken to censor such art, from the vandalism attempts on Andre Serano’s “Piss Christ” to the government’s threat of withdrawing funding to the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States. Art and tolerance have never had a simple relationship, and when my photographs were approached outside of their intended context, the reaction they elicited was problematic in that it foregrounded injustices within the systems of power through which they were translated.
Perhaps to avoid my threat of a lawsuit and the publicizing of these injustices, the officers responsible agreed to apologize to my neighbors and landlord for the unnecessary harassment they inflicted. Walgreen’s, on the other hand, was not quite so apologetic; they dismissed threats of legal action against them. They are, like others in positions of power very aware that an individual citizen does not have access to the resources needed to take on a company of their magnitude. Still, despite the obvious violation, if they had not duplicated the photographs or the police had waited until they could question me in person and I was indeed a mad bomber, lives could have been lost.
It is just as easy to get lost in the paranoia over privacy and civil liberties as it is to become swept into over-enthused nationalism. After all, these photos were not being responded to in the context of an art gallery, but rather in the context of a police station. In that sense, it is more understandable that in their minds the “threat” posed by the photographs had to be neutralized. Yet rewarding the type of social surveillance the photo clerk practiced will simply create more of these mistaken cases. The clerk’s analysis grounds privacy paranoia in reality. Which clerk was responsible was never revealed nor was Walgreen’s held accountable for the embarrassment and victimization its actions caused. The clerk’s mediation left no one person accountable, but two organizations too large to respond to with action.
The case raises a simple question with a complicated answer: how can citizens be protected while still retaining some semblance of our privacy and civil liberties being irrevocable? While many of us remain paranoid of losing our privacy to social surveillance, to police and military intervention, to legislative manipulation, to media representation, and to radicalized, violent terrorism, others violate or exploit that paranoia to their own end. However harmless or insidious, the photo clerk’s reading of my artwork, which caused the policing of my photographs, the searching of my apartment, and the harassment of my neighbors and landlord, represents an example of necessary intervention and paranoid insurrection at the same time. To view that confliction as one or the other should be just as impossible as being “with us or against us.”