Articles

How Violence Has Become Shielded by Virtual Distance

by Ben Valentine on October 4, 2012

Screen capture from BlueServo’s website of illegal border crossings (Image courtesy BlueServo)

BERKELEY, California — I’m currently reading The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, a book in which the author, Maggie Nelson, who is a professor at CalArts in their MFA writing program, expounds on violent imagery in our culture, from high art to violent TV shows and everywhere in between. The book so far is a fascinating exploration of the ubiquitous violent imagery we encounter every day and its possible effect.

I hope to explore the book further in writing once I finish. However, I found a particularly striking moment early on in the book when Nelson highlights a weird concurrence. It’s an intersection of the connective possibilities of the web and the strange surveillance of popular reality TV shows. BlueServo, to take Nelson’s quote, describes itself as a “Virtual Community Watch, an innovative real-time surveillance program designed to empower the public to proactively participate in fighting border crime.” It’s shocking both because of its own media machinations and because of its connection to art — artist Wafaa Bilal has created a project similar to the BlueServo program. It’s just that BlueServo is real.

On BlueServo, webcams are streaming live webcams stationed at potential border-crossing hotspots on the line between Texas and Mexico. Anyone in the world can go to BlueServo and guard the border virtually, 365 days a year and 24 hours a day. If a viewer was to spot suspicious activity they can report it to the local authorities, all without leaving the comfort of their keyboard.

In my mind, BlueServo connected immediately to the work of NYU professor Wafaa Bilal. Bilal is an Iraqi-born performance artist whose work often deals with issues of surveillance, borders, and political conflict. I recommend looking closely at all of Bilal’s work, but in relation to BlueServo I want to discuss his especially intense 2007 performance, “Domestic Tension.”

Wafaa Bilal’s “Domestic Tension” video still (2007) (Image courtesy Wafaa Bilal)

“Domestic Tension” is somewhere between a physical performance and a live action video game, with an audience firmly present. During the month-long performance, Bilal’s audience could log into the project’s now-defunct website to either watch the artist live, chat with him online, or aim and shoot a real paintball gun stationed near him. The choice of where to shoot was up to the user. Similar to how the US is increasingly using drones to carry out deadly missions, Bilal’s performance is no video game: Through “Domestic Tension,” one could go online and shoot at a real Iraqi.

The question becomes whether or not the distance between viewer and artist provided by the virtual space allowed a much more violent participation from the audience than the interaction would have been otherwise. I imagine that Bilal would have been shot less had he lived a month inside the gallery, but I don’t know. Art audiences can undeniably get violent; in her book Nelson recalls Marina Abramovic’s 1974 performance “Rhythm 0” (pictured below) which was stopped short because of the excessively violent audience, who were allowed to do anything they chose to Abramovic with the help of an array of objects. A gun was eventually pointed at the artist, but a viewer stopped the would-be shooter.

Photograph from Marina Abramovic’s performance, “Rhythm 0″ (1974) (Image courtesy www.youlookawesome.co.uk)

What is certain is that the number of people with access to Bilal’s performance increased. There were those who wanted to shoot Bilal and those too who came online to protect the artist from getting shot. This marks a real difference between “Domestic Tension” and BlueServo — Bilal created the possibility of a two-way interaction, of a community, where BlueServo has only one function: to spy on, identify, and arrest illegal aliens.

As the war on terror raged on long past our ability to really connect with the gruesome imagery coming out of the Middle East, the news around it became like a bad TV series that the majority of the audience wanted canceled. How many times have you seen the headliner “X number of people killed in roadside bomb in Afghanistan/Iraq” and decided to not read the article? I have lost count, and I lost someone very dear to me from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. We are immersed in coverage, yet remain disconnected from the people — a condition that may be a necessity to remain sane amongst so much gore.

Nelson mentions BlueServo in context with other reality tv shows dedicated to showing real crimes or to capturing potential sexual predators, such as Perverted Justice. Many of us are fascinated by watching the worst in life unfold in real time, yet actively participating in it without leaving the screen seems like a scary direction for virtual reality and crowdsourcing to head. Drones, another example of a medium for digitally mediated violent interaction, are frightening because they demand little threat and little relationship between the attacker and attacked. It really is like playing a video game.

Soldier controlling drones (Image courtesy goma.blogspot.com)

Of “Domestic Tension” Bilal states that his objective was to “transform the normally passive experience of viewing art into an active participation.” He was successful at that, but to what end? The conversation turns awkwardly serious when placed next to BlueServo, or someone in the US dropping bombs with drones in Iraq (loosely depicted above). The conversation that possibly began with pioneer performance artists like Abramovic and Bilal has expanded outside of the gallery, and its implications have become drastically more serious.

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