Site Project

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Site Project

U R Mine

Muzna Akbar

Site project

According to Gayatri Spivak at the Conference on Post-Colonial Higher Education held at Habib University, we, the inhabitants of the subcontinent, are living in the post-colonial era. I disagree as I believe that the characteristics we display are those of a colonial time. Accepting this for the sake of this paper puts things into perspective. We still seem to be wedged in what we call culture but is in reality, political hierarchical power dynamics.

In Karachi, one can see physical spaces embody the idea of political power figures trying to continuously reinforce their sovereignty. One such example is Bilawal Wall as it illegally occupied public space that is, the road. What began as a wall gradually expanded, horizontally and vertically along with increasing police surveillance.

It is here that one understands the link between power and surveillance. Foucault elaborates on this as he explains ‘…the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects. Rather than the massive, binary division between one set of people and another, it called for multiple separations, individualizing distributions, an organization in depth of surveillance and control, an intensification and a ramification of power’. 1

Foucault explains in Discipline and Punish, Panopticism, how people in position of power, tend to function according to binary divisions, for example, mad/sane; normal/abnormal and in Karachi’s case, the excuse given for the heightened security at Bilawal House is dangerous/harmless, based on political unrest. (Foucault, 1977)

In order to unravel the workings of the society’s general way of thinking we must turn to Torin Monahan. In his editorial on surveillance as cultural practice, he discusses that ‘surveillance is inherently embedded in specific cultural contexts and calls for greater understanding of people’s engagement with surveillance’.2 In Karachi, surveillance is practiced by political power figures as they exploit not only the law but also the law enforcers.

My project involved a 7’ x 3’ mirror that I placed opposite the roundabout before Bilawal Wall, Clifton, on my way to Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. The work encapsulates the above mentioned ideas of occupancy and surveillance as a comparatively small mirror reflected the enormous wall. It was positioned in a way that whatever the position of the viewer, the wall is reflected in the background, whatever the size or the distance. This being the case as it acted as the nagging idea in the back of one’s mind, an irritating, continuously reinforced idea of known yet unauthorized surveillance.

A man was displayed holding the mirror. This reiterated the surveillance upon the people of the city who approach the wall, as he stood there, watching the people hover, watching him and only responded when acknowledged. The fact that the subject was a man, particularly a Pakhtun, fed upon preconceived notions about the people belonging from the region, in terms of their psyche and their power, therefore illustrated the same idea as that of the police. His presence almost challenged the viewer to come close as he claimed ownership of the mirror by holding it.

Furthermore, the fact that he was ‘displayed’ symbolized the way the number of law-enforcers is displayed. Alike the man, the police are also objectified to reinforce the level of power even though PPP is not currently in office.

The text was meant to invite the viewer to come closer and then wonder who is watching or who the mirror belongs to. The mirror reversed what the wall did ie, made what is private (ones reflection) someone else’s property (through the taped text) merely by saying so. This acted like a symbolic enactment as it discussed the ease of claiming authorship by political parties the way the wall claimed public space without any legal authority. In 2013, Dr. Arif Alvi did try to protest against it as the Sigh High Court declared it illegal but was unsuccessful due to his own illegally constructed dental hospital. Note that this can be linked to what Foucault tried to explain that every authority figure tries to personify the mythological Napoleonic character in terms of the monarchical, ritual exercise of sovereignty and the hierarchical, permanent exercise of indefinite discipline. (Foucault, 1977)

The mirror couldn’t stay up long because of the police and their intervention. This area was a better option than Bilawali Chowk because of the heavy traffic and the 3 police vans posted round the clock. Moreover, unlike Bilawal Chowk, it had no political posters and was barren and the fact that the police intervened, facilitated my project as it reinforced the fact that the general vicinity is unapproachable unless politically affiliated with the Pakistan People’s Party.

Certain examples are Tate Modern’s Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera (2010) (exhibition) and Ctrl [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother (2001-2) (exhibition). In the former, the majority work featured the human form. The works of a wide range of artists, whose panoptical preoccupations are featured, have explored the dynamics of watching and being watched.

One particular example from Ctrl [Space] is Denis Beaubois' In the event of Amnesia the city will recall..., performances in Sydney and Cleveland in 1996-1997. ‘Three days in a row the artist positioned himself in front of a surveillance camera in a public space. He stayed there in total immobility while puzzled passersby watched him. Sometimes his presence was tolerated, sometimes he was "escorted" off the public premise under some “bureaucratic” excuse’. Like his work, I was escorted off due to “political” and “safety” reasons as well as fear of the “saab”.
On the second day, Beaubois came back and held white sheets with printed text, starting with one that indicated his name. On the third day, he'd come back with more sheets that ask questions such as "May I have a copy of the video footage?" or "Warning - You may be photographed reading this sign". Over time, interaction took place between Beaubois, the camera, the hidden security staff, as well as the pedestrians.3
This is where the work becomes dissimilar as continuously approaching the area was forbidden with threats, for me. While Beaubois was only asked to leave, I was told that my phones and mirror would be confiscated if I didn’t leave immediately.

An example that explores the idea of surveillance is All Along the Watchtower (2010), which ‘presents the shadow of a watchtower but the material object, is no (longer) present in the room. As only a shadow can be seen, the “authentic” instance of surveillance withdraws from his (the viewer) view. The observer experiences his politicization as an animalization and vice versa, for he is reduced to his naked life, delivered unprotected to an armed eye – which, to be sure, is nowhere to be seen’.4 Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s and my interpretation of surveillance are similar at the core as ideas of surveillance and paranoia resonate through. While hers is displayed in a gallery space, mine is meant for the general public, precisely, the lower bound class as it was passed quickly by cars but approached by pedestrians and those on bikes.

To conclude, surveillance is a cadaverous notion that is currently being explored in the form of dataveillance as the link between surveillance and power runs so deep. In order to break free, it would require changes to be made in the schooling realm at a grass-root level. The conditioning from that stage is what will allow the future generations to be aware of unsanctioned surveillance to combat exploitation by power authorities. This writer is not suggesting that current generations are too far gone. On the contrary, I argue that surveillance isn’t acceptable in the ‘realm of consumer ‘freedom’ as “in this realm, detailed monitoring depends on the consent of the subject…’5

It is our generation that can change internet policies as well as raise our voice against political figures for the independence of the generations to follow.

Works Cited

Barnard-Wills, K., & Barnard-Wills, D. (2012). Invisible Surveillance in Visual Art . Surveillance & Society , 10 (3/4).

Beaubois, D. In the Event of Amnesia the city will recall... Sydney and Cleveland.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish, Panopticism. In A. Sheridan (Ed.), Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (pp. 195-228). New York: Vintage Books.

1 Michel Foucault, "Discipline and Punish, Panopticism." In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, edited by Alan Sheridan, 195-228. (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).

2 Katherine Barnard-Wills and David Barnard-Wills, ‘Invisible Surveillance in Visual Art’, Surveillance & Society, (posted 2014),

3 Regine, ‘Book review: ctrl[space] : Rhetorics of Surveillance’, We Make Money Not Art, (posted August 7, 2006)

4 Falko Schmieder,’ State of Emergency-Excerpt’ Unpublished essay ‘ON THE TRACK OF HISTORY’,

5 David Lyon, Theorizing Surveillance: the panopticon and beyond, (New York; Routledge, 2011), p7.

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