Surveillant Subjectivities

Surveillant Subjectivities: Youth Cultures, Art and Affect is a research-creation initiative led by Dr. Dina Georgis (University of Toronto) and Dr. Sara Matthews (Wilfrid Laurier University). The project explores the ways in which youth in the Toronto region experience surveillance as an embodied aspect of their everyday lives, expressed affectively, through emotion and social practice. Our research collaborators on the project are Gallery TPW, Toronto and the Canadian contemporary artistic duo Bambitchell. As part of the project, the artists were commissioned to produce original work responding to the theme of surveillance. Their multi-part installation, Special Works School, was exhibited at Gallery TPW January 13 – February 24, 2018. You can read a review of the exhibit published in Canadian Art and authored by Aaditya Aggarwal. Youth participants encountered the exhibit in a series of workshops at Gallery TPW in February 2018.

Past presentations:
The Canadian Network for Psychoanalysis and Culture and Gallery TPW hosted an event on February 14, 2018. Three respondents –  Nicole Charles, Nael Bhanji, and Dr. Silvia Tenenbaumwere invited to engage with the exhibit.

Dina Georgis, Lex Burgoyne and Sara Matthews presented a workshop on the project at the 2018 Biennial Conference of the Canadian Association for Cultural Studies, Simon Fraser University, BC. March 3, 2018

Upcoming presentations:
Dina Georgis and Sara Matthews will present a paper that explores results from the project at Youngsters 2: On the Cultures of Children & Youth Conference, Association for Research in Cultures of Young People, Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada May 9-12, 2019. 


Project outputs include exhibition texts, gallery talks and further writing that is currently in development.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
Photo credits Toni Hafkenscheid


Exhibition Text 1: Bambitchell (Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell) and Richy Carey in conversation with Dina Georgis 

Exhibition Text 2: Special Works School Transcript 

Exhibition Text 3: Sara Matthews in conversation with Education Not Incarceration (Alison Fisher and Melanie Carrington) 

Nael Bhanji

What is the effect of surveillance on the body? How can surveillance be felt in the body? How does surveillance feel to the surveilled and the surveyor?

These are some of the questions that Bambitchell explores through their provocative collaboration on the sensory experience of surveillance, and its counterpoint, camouflage.

Surveillance, as Bambitchell’s installation illustrates, is an aesthetically-mediated experience but also a technology of intimacy. Indeed, as Mitchell and Bamboat explain, paradoxically invisible yet hypervisible, “Surveillance lives inside of all of us, to varying degrees, and is attached to varying levels of power or violence. But it’s there, embedded in everyone, and felt at the level of the body, constantly.”

Surveillance, as they illustrate, is affective. It animates by acting upon our senses, and playing with/through our desires.

So what is it that “sand” or surveillance animates? Why are these mechanisms so deeply resonant at the level of the body? How does surveillance so skillfully manipulate or play with the senses?

When attending the installation, I was drawn by the theme of “play,” not just in the historical aesthetic remapping of the body (in the ways through which the body’s interiority has itself become militarized landscape) but also in the productive effects of this play. And some of these thoughts about play fed into my own interests in the circulation of hypervigilance, and by extension docility, in the afterlife of surveillance.

Turning briefly to my own observations of the curated lessons offered by Bambitchell’s “Special works school,” I argue that defensive technologies “play” with our senses through accessing discarded memories and eliciting new responses. What I’m pointing to, in other words, is a tenuous foray into making links between surveillance and childhood.


  • Through Bambitchell’s video installation, we’re invited to listen to Sand tell us about how it shifts, disappears, or dissipates, only to turn up unexpectedly and elsewhere (much like sand that one tracks back from forays to the beach).
  • Sand, we’re told, can generate many forms: when watching the video, you see sand taking on the qualities of the figure of the trickster: sand dug up from vast pits in the earth, shifting, disappearing from the prison of truckbeds, only to resurface again—visible/invisible in the sand-coloured camouflage prints in desert combat, shifting again to the molten glass encasing our smartphone/computer screens that structure our understanding of the representational world; turning up again in the reflective windows from which we are surveilled as we walk down ordinary streets.
  • Then again, think of our own responses to these mechanisms of Sand’s surveillance: Surveillance breeds hypervigilance. We dutifully, if fruitlessly, clear our browser histories and avoid picking our teeth in the judgemental glare of those reflective windows.
  • Surveillance, Bambitchell tells us, amplifies its power through visible invisibility.
  • In order to see, sand must become invisible.
  • I walked away from the screening and into the adjacent room to find a large box filled with sand; enclosed in its protective glass case—the case itself a progeny of its liquid ancestor, molten sand— the sand here takes on the innocence of a child’s sand pit.
  • A technology of surveillance, ubiquitous, and transparent, naturalized, and internalized in childhood’s memories.



  • In that same room, a cardboard stencil, which looked a lot like a child’s stencil of a rubber ducky, framed an opaque background.
  • The apparatus of amusement and instruction: easily reproducible, stencils create the effect of form where there is emptiness.
  • As Bambitchell illustrates through the stencil of the duck in the video element and installation, the outline of the duck invites the observer to partake in the conspiracy of governmentality’s design: “Sand cuts out a stencil of the soldier, ship, cannon, or whatever figure sand wishes to conceal, and looks through this stencil from the viewpoint under consideration”.
  • We’ll mark this observation and call it Schroedinger’s duck for now: Stencils frame perception such that is/and is no duck there.
  • What’s important is how disciplinary power manipulates this lack of sense perception as an advantage to keep up a steady stream of energy.
    • A careful modulation and deliberate calibration of doses of stimulation that has been theorized by Susan Buck-Morss as conditioning survival in modernity as “the response to stimuli without thinking.”
  • Hypervigilance


  • For those who may not have had the opportunity to see the exhibition, there was a fair bit about colour.
  • Colour structures our world from infancy.
    • Colour differentiation is one of the first things many children learn through play.
    • The link between the phenomenology of colour perception and emotionality and childhood development and colour has already been explored.
  • That we begin to feel our way through the world through tactile mediation of colour sensorium, points to the primacy of primary colours, “so easily discarded or forgotten” but that structured and continues to structure the world around us.
    • Think of the mediation of our colour-coded present: Surgeons and nurses often wear gowns colored cyan, and operating rooms are often painted that color, because it is the complement of red and is thought to reduce the emotional response to the shock of red that occurs when doing surgery on internal organs.  
    • Colour can modulate anxiety and control fear.
    • Or colour can provoke fear, encouraging hypervigilance and the docile acquiescence to increasingly invasive forms of surveillance.

But I bring up these three “observations” in order to explore how perhaps childhood play or playing on childhood is what is necessary, not just for building the elements of surveillance, but also for structuring hypervigilance in modernity.

Of particular interest to me is collective modulation of sense perception, and the cultivation of national vigilance, in response to technologies of surveillance. I’m interested in the political cultivation of reactions through bypassing the rationality of explicit thoughts or ideas. But this does not mean that the reactions are irrational. Rather, there is a structured rationality to eliciting irrational responses that bypass consciousness. So this brief response traces a link between the disciplinary power structuring childhood, the surveillant gaze of governmentality, and safety promised by hypervigilance’s turn to nationalism?

In Ordinary Affects, Kathleen Stewart writes that the turn of the century, with its technological advancements and modern warfare, means that the “hard, resilient, need to react has become a charged habit” and a habitual function of state power (Stewart 16). This plugged-in, jacked-up buzz of hypervigilance is a hallmark of modernity, a “battlefield experience” of shock that shapes our present as one in which “things are [always](potentially) happening” (Stewart 36).  Certainly, several scholars have already drawn upon Foucauldian analyses of fear as an instrument of governmentality and the legitimation of state surveillance.

But an overarching theme in all of these works is the role of insecurity in mobilizing collective hypervigilance against a threatening object, regardless of whether that particular object is removed from the actual source of fear.  The hypervigilance is a state of (extra?) ordinary crisis that cannot be maintained indefinitely. Rather, in order to be effective, a politics of “everyday fear” must be continuously exposed to the traumatic event to which is it attached. Or, to follow Sara Ahmed’s formulation of the utility of ‘fear’ in Affective Economies, the fantasy of the “imagined community” of the nation is dependent upon the “perpetual re-staging” of another kind of fantasy altogether— the fantasy of violation (Anderson 48; Ahmed, Affective Economies 118). Hypervigilance— takes shape through surveillance, fear and traumatic repetition— and in doing so, “surfaces,” or creates the effect, of the nation’s boundaries and its subjects. These necessary fantasies of imminent violation depend upon the constant re-enactment of trauma and, here, I’d like to turn to 9/11 briefly.

Rogue affects. Calibrated emotionality: Brian Massumi calls these affects the weapons of a contemporary form of governance, a “mode of power,” whose meaning solidifies— however temporarily— after the fact. A belated education: In the wake of 9/11, Massumi explains, we saw how fear was harnessed to justify government intervention.

COLOUR CODED TERROR ALERTS: A fair bit has already been written about how 9/11 provided a “perceptual focal point for the spontaneous mass coordination of affect” in the service of socio-political intervention.

  • The imminence of ‘threat’ addressed the individual body at an embodied affective level, effectively reterritorializing the singular under the sign of collective docility.
  • This chromatic calibration of ordinary affects manipulated the “central nervous system” of the masses by simultaneously inciting fear and hyper-vigilance whilst encouraging “capital-time.”

As with what I’ve affectionately dubbed “Schroedinger’s Duck” in Bambitchell’s installation, the after-the-fact-ness of meaning during 9/11 was a political operator that allowed fear to circulate and stick to the stencilled outline of “whatever-enemy” and “whatever-object” Sand wishes. But, I argue that the simplistic model provided by the Department of Homeland Security also did something else: it addressed the body from the dispositional angle of the helpless figure of the child.

  • Reduced to childhood’s palette of bright reds, oranges, yellows, blues, and greens, the colour chart strategically eschewed the obligatory niceties of providing the public with any information beyond what was necessary to trigger the public response.
  • Under this rubric, the colour red simply indicated the severity of threat’s immanency. Thus, the colour-coded system evoked a primal paternalism that directly activated disparate bodies, commanding the American public to “stop” with the insistent appeal of a red traffic light.

Triggered in this way, the imminence of the unspecified threat shaped the contours of indeterminate fear (Massumi).

Nicole Charles

Before visiting the exhibit for the first time I Googled “Special Works School” to try to find some more information on what the Facebook invite for the event described as a codename used by the British War Office in WW1.  Besides info on Bambitchell’s work, most of the results I found were Special Works programs run by St. Vincent de Paul in Toronto schools, working at the Toronto District School Board and Special Education at the Peel District School board, with pictures of playgrounds, classrooms, and colorful hallways populating the image search. It was only after a fair amount of concerted effort that I was able to find any more information about the elusive Special Works School and the experimentation with camouflage which its artists and engineers engaged in. Entering the exhibit in the wake of this frustrated search history, it was ironic that I was met once again with colourful walls, rainbow wheels, a sandbox, oversized images and a very playful, exhibit that functions indeed, like a school – with places to sit and listen and watch, objects to observe and discern, and places to play with stencils at heights for kids. I’d like to offer up a couple things for us to think alongside this evening, each based off my experiences with the exhibit on two separate occasions.

The first is this playful, pedagogical aspect of the exhibit which upon first thought to me, seemed at odds with the feel, the sound, the look, and perhaps most of all with, the intensity of surveillance. On my first encounter with and visit to the exhibit during its launch, I attended with a friend who had recently suffered a concussion. We read the notice on the outside of room 1 which states “this work contains sequences of bright flashing light and high-intensity sound.”  We attempted to watch some of it, but she noted almost immediately that it was “too stimulating” for her and so, by default, we were made to engage differently with the space – not relying predominantly on the senses of sound. Interestingly, sound is what Bambitchell hoped would be the most apparent element within the exhibition, and sound, or rather ears, being that which sand in the video loses first. In any regard, in the conversation between Bambitchell, Dina and Richy Carey, Bambitchell notes that surveillance moves through each of the five senses. Unable to watch the video, the first way that I interacted with the space of learning was as a kinesthetic and tactile learner. My friend and I touched the stencils, took pictures of the stencils, touched the sandbox and stooped down to understand it as sand (at first I thought it was a linen sheet), moved around the grass carpet, and played with our shadows in the changing light.  It is interesting both to engage with and to think about engaging with the space in this way.

Touch is the first sense we form inside the womb. Engaging with the space primarily through touch and movement, then, quite literally made me feel as if I had a hold on surveillance, as if I was the surveiller of the space and of is technologies. Catering to different learners and to senses, Bambitchell offers us different pedagogical styles, and I think, necessarily different ways of feeling and executing surveillance. The first provocation then, is: What does Special Works School’s multiple pedagogical style teach us about the senses and about surveillance? More specifically, how might the sense of touch reconfigure our experience of surveillance, or empower us to believe that we are the surveiller or in charge of surveillance? Babmbitchell says that the optimal position of surveillance is one of invisibility – how might thinking with touch complicate this?

The second provocation I’d like to offer is regarding Sand. The hard to articulateness of surveillance and of power, for me, are so well captured by the figure of sand – the ontology of sand, and the power of the sand as an object. And this power wasn’t made explicit, in fact, I believe Bambitchell said they didn’t want to necessarily focus our attention on how materials and colours could wield power, because this is in fact rather subjective. 

I came to think more about this on my second visit to the exhibit, this time, without my friend with the concussion. I began this visit by viewing the video which begins with the colour wheel. Sand, we quickly learn, originates as a colour in 1920 to resemble the desert, and what follows is a story about its devolution – the devolution of a microorganism that continues to unravel and lessen itself. To devolve is simultaneously to degenerate and to transfer power. One impression of the video is that sand’s power is degenerating. We as the watchers, the surveillers, might feel a sense of power in this. But we might also consider devolution in the sense of the transfer of power, specifically the power that is transferred within and through the unravelling or disbursement of the micro-organism into smaller parts.  Here I’m thinking of many of my experiences growing up in the Caribbean and sand’s omnipresence.

At one point in the video the chorus announces, “anywhere there is development there is sand.” But the opposite might also be also true. My first thought when I think of sand is not development, but lack thereof; long stretches of beach, no buildings, no technology, just sand and water.  I also envision a mound of sand, something like a sandcastle or being broken up and I’m struck by the way unpacked or uncontained sand spreads and distributes itself with ease. In its very unravelling, the individual particles of sand might be understood to take on different forms of power. In my family whenever we would leave the beach, we would fill up empty glass bottles with water from the sea to try to wash off the sand off our feet that could not be dusted off. And sand lingers. Sand gets in the car, sand stays the seats, sand hides in the car mats, sand sticks to your toes, even when you don’t want it there, sometimes, even when you can’t see it, you can feel it, kind of like surveillance. 

Purple talks of sand’s softness, scalability, malleability and its easy transportation. For me, this is sand’s power, its ability to last, its stickiness, grittiness, the ease with which its individual particles latch and attach to surfaces. When sand loses taste, Cyan says “sand used this lack as an advantage to keep up a steady stream of energy.” How cunning and inventive sand is spoken of by both purple and cyan. How powerful, I think sand is, even and especially as it dissolves.

So I wanted to bring this subjective understanding of sand to the table. Despite its robotic sound, its loss of hearing, taste, touch and ultimately sight, might sand, in its devolution nonetheless hold the greatest position of power and surveillance through its perceived invisibility and inexistence?