In Philip Agre’s text “Surveillance and Capture,” Agre argues that a shift from surveillance technologies to a mode of capture based on tracking human activity has altered the ontological basis and representation of the subject. In Liz Canner’s project, Symphony of a City, the medium of representation used, video, would seem fall on the side of surveillance, as a mechanism that relies on visual metaphors rather than linguistic ones. However, perhaps this is precisely where pressure should be applied to Agre’s argument as one thinks through both projects and the questioning of representation and ontology, two areas that Agre sees as marking a fundamental shift in these mechanisms of control.
If human activity as a kind of language is fundamental to Agre’s argument concerning mechanisms of capture, then how can we (re)figure capture if the visual or rather, the image, is a unit of language? In what ways does Agre begin to privilege language, and furthermore not take into account something like filmic language? Can capture be both grammars of actions and modes of seeing and how can we see this functioning in Canner’s project? Although Agre is clearly making the move away from the privileging of the visual in mechanisms of power and control, how can both modes inform and complicate one another? What space is created in the interstices of surveillance and capture? Finally, in what ways can we think of Canner’s work as doing both and more broadly speaking as the medium of film and video as always performing a kind of capture?
In Liz Canner’s Symphony of a City, Canner’s project relies on a self-surveillance, where participants, whose lives are connected through public issues such as community building and the housing crisis, disclose their private lives and actions. The camera, which is attached to their heads, functions as a “see-what-they-see” experience, the eye of the camera and the eye of the subject collapse into a unified perception. What are interesting here are the correlations between Canner’s project and Agre’s model of capture. If, in the capture model, “a system can only track what it can capture, and it can only capture information that can be expressed within a grammar of action that has been imposed upon the activity,” then can we see the subjects in Canner’s cyberart documentary as also tracking their days through visual capture (750)? And through this system of capture, Agre further describes, these technologies track objects as stand-ins for people, such as GPS technology or barcodes, devices that are linked to and inscribed upon the individual. Symphony seems to make use of this element as well, the camera becoming a way of tracking activities outside of the individual, but which are nevertheless inscribed onto the subject.
Returning to Agre’s central claim that human activity functions as a kind of language in technologies of capture, this practice, he claims, formalizes the object of inquiry based on ontological categories, imposed through machinery and a grammar of action that guarantees their compliance. Agre writes,
“The resulting ‘technology’ of tracking is not a simple matter of machinery: it also includes the empirical project of analysis, the ontological project of articulation, and the social project of imposition” (749).
Although Agre notes that the information technology is not synonymous with the capture model, he also seems to be gesturing toward an argument that the capture model can specifically be seen as synonymous or emerging from information technology. However, if we look at the ontological articulation that Symphony makes through its existing practices, then we can see the mediation of computer-mediated tools versus a mediation of image-based tools as bearing some similarities. For example, if we reframe Canner’s project from one that attempts to explore the viewpoints and build bridges of understanding between diverse people affected by a single issue in different ways to a project that already assumes a position for each subject a priori, each subject position already inscribed with certain assumptions.
If this is the case, then maybe we can begin to see this text functioning like a sample, bringing together segments of space and rituals of exclusion, in order to individualize those who are excluded such as the experiences of the homeless man and landlord.
Systems of subjectivity in Canner’s project, if we keep our framing, can then be seen as a set of individuals who are structured around data accounted to them. Each of these subjects occupies a different position mediated by separations like class, gender, and race and privacy. Here, Agre sees another difference between the two modes of control:
“The surveillance model is concerned to mark off a ‘private’ region by means of territorial metaphors of ‘invasion’ and the like; the capture model portrays captured activities as being constructed in real-time from a set of institutionally standardized parts specified by the capture ontology” (756).
However, as mentioned previously, the ways in which the documentary articulate its subjects cannot be easily defined in a surveillance model or capture model and can moreover be seen as being constructed by both. Instead of merely (re)presenting, a reading of Canner’s project can be one that is not simply qualitative or quantifiable. While there remains a willing invasion of the camera into the lives of the documentary’s subject, the grammars of action that have been placed on the project through the subject positions that the project places them in, produces a type of reading where representation becomes one of data. If this tension leads to a rethinking of the capture model, then it would also provoke a possible rethinking of the mechanisms of video and visual capture, both in an artistic space and when used by the state and its actors. Agre ends by looking outward toward “various counter-traditions of design and their associated counter-visions of human activity,” calling for a more critical look at design and its implications, perhaps pointing to the very tension between the two modes of control – the visual and the nonvisible (757).