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  • Surveillance Sites: Digital Media and the Dual Society in Keith Piper’s Relocating the Remains
  • Ashley Dawson

This past July, the Tampa, Florida Police Department introduced a computerized surveillance system to augment its efforts to monitor the streets of a downtown business and entertainment district for potential miscreants.1 The system, built by Visionics Corporation of New Jersey and offered free to municipalities for a year, consists of a network of security cameras placed in prominent public areas and equipped with a face-recognition software package known as FaceIT. Each facial image scanned by the closed circuit cameras in the system is broken down by FaceIT into a grid of 80 “nodes” or reference points, providing such data as the distance between the eyes, the nostrils, or the cheekbones. If the system comes up with an 85% match against an image in its database—which includes some 30,000 faces—it signals this match to system operators. The operators, members of the police department who are housed in a monitor-lined bunker somewhere in the downtown area, then make their own judgment about the indicated match, and, if they concur with the computer, they radio a uniformed officer to investigate and potentially make an arrest. The system has been in operation since 1998 in the Borough of Newham in London’s East End, which claims that crime has been significantly reduced as a result of its deployment. The economic savings promised by the Visionics Corporation add further to the appeal of the system. But FaceIT has also met with significant objections. Most immediately, the reduction in beat policing and the redeployment of the remaining officers to security bunkers militates against the forms of engaged and responsive community policing that have proven effective deterrents to crime in cities such as New York since the early 1990s. Still more troubling about the spread of FaceIT technology is its potential curtailment of civil liberties. With the introduction of this technology, the state has dramatically extended its transformation of public space into a scanned and controlled grid. This immeasurably heightened technology of state control threatens to intensify contemporary trends toward the privatization and segregation of social spaces. The similarities between this new “biometric” technology and previous technologies of colonial classification and control are hard to ignore given the increasing prominence today of forms of spatial apartheid.

Relocating the Remains, Black British artist Keith Piper’s virtual installation, begins—like the FaceIT system—with computerized images of a human body. Navigating through the fleshlessly numinous space of the internet to Piper’s website, one is confronted with a sequence of starkly corporeal images generated by an animated gif:


If one clicks through these images, a display appears of ghostly ethnographic renderings of bodies drawn from the nineteenth-century phenomenological disciplines through which racial difference was discerned and calibrated. Like the blank spaces in the map of Africa by which Joseph Conrad’s Marlow was mesmerized as a child, the bodies of non-European peoples exerted a powerful fascination on the public during Britain’s imperial era. As Anne McClintock has demonstrated, the museum where ethnographic artifacts apparently similar to Piper’s were housed became the exemplary institution of Victorian imperial culture. It was here that collections of objects such as skulls, skeletons and fossils were displayed as tokens of the archaic stages of life (40). For Victorian Britain, these fetishistic displays seemed to legitimate the narrative of cultural progress and superiority that underpinned empire. Employing cutting-edge digital technology, Keith Piper recreates this anachronistic space in order to probe the extent to which tropes of progress and difference operate in the present. As I will show, his work provides a stinging critique of the wide-eyed utopianism evident in prevalent reactions to digital technologies and to the “New Economy” these technologies have helped to fuel.

Keith Piper’s multi-media productions over the last two decades have interrogated dominant representations of race, culture, and nation in British history, focusing in particular on the complex affiliations of black diasporic identity. As a member of the iconoclastic BLK Arts Group in the early to middle 1980s, Piper challenged the British Left’s attachment to a notion...

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