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  • Forced Entertainment? Gamified Surveillance in Theatre Conspiracy's Foreign Radical
  • Matt Jones (bio)

Start: Deny everything

On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I went to see Les Enfants Terribles's production of Inside Pussy Riot, a show irresistibly billed as "an immersive theatrical punk production." I arrived early and set about filling out the show's waiver, which reminded participants that the show was "not for the faint hearted." I checked the box acknowledging that I would be prepared to move around, be placed in confined spaces, and experience scenes of intense content. I then chose one of several political slogans that I said I would be prepared to stand up for in public and listed my Instagram and Twitter handles.

In the first of the many rooms we were guided through during the show, we donned bright balaclavas and were given placards with the slogans we had selected on the waiver. Our punky guide then led us into a mock version of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (but with images of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jongun, and Harvey Weinstein in the stained glass), where we started chanting our slogans. Soon, however, our protest was interrupted as the authorities arrived and put an abrupt end to our display of what they considered hooliganism. We were hauled into another room representing a police station and lambasted for our actions.

"Sir, do you know these people?," an officer asked me, standing too close to my face and pointing sneeringly at the other participants. I sheepishly shook my head. After all, I had just met them. "So, you're not part of this gang, then? You don't normally participate in riots?" As I mulled over the consequences of selling my new companions out, I realized I was still holding my incriminating green balaclava.

Another officer chimed in: "Do you deny that this is a photograph of you, sir?" I looked over at a TV monitor above the officer's desk. It showed a photo of me at the Women's March in Toronto in 2016, standing in front of a neon pink sign saying, "Our Power." There was no escaping it: They'd caught me red-handed.

I laughed meekly; the troupe had laid a simple trap, and I fell right into it. The photo they had found seemed to offer irrefutable proof of my hooliganism. It helped them piece together a story they wanted to tell about my character. In the play, this would result in a sentence of several minutes of pointless labour (counting pennies and trying to thread impossibly small needles) and a brief experience of solitary confinement.1 In this simulation of an arrest, I was suddenly made aware of the vulnerabilities created by our online identities. Moreover, it felt uncanny to realize I was being watched, even if I knew that I'd wilfully created a public profile and even if I'd always known that the images that I supplied to the world could be seen by anyone. What other stories could they be telling about me?

The eagerness with which we share information about ourselves and our activities lies at the centre of a shift in thinking about surveillance culture today. As we have come to share more information about our lives on social media, those data have become increasingly subject to surveillance by both governments and private companies. The new phase of surveillance, in other words, is participatory. And according to scholars such as Julie Cohen, in its latest phase, surveillance is becoming gamified (248). Consumers are coaxed into supplying information to marketers by playing apparently innocuous (and often mediocre) games.

Gamification requires new ways of thinking about surveillance and the kinds of truths it purports to tell. Compared to previous phases of surveillance culture, it is lighter, freer, more commercial, more automated, and possibly even fun. Yet we have [End Page 52] not entirely left prior modes of surveillance behind. If gamification is largely the preserve of private companies, state surveillance agencies have notoriously come to acquire privileged access to information about their citizens that was intended to be private, a form of collusion that Inside Pussy Riots social media...


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pp. 52-56
Launched on MUSE
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