In the evening of August 9, 2008, Fredy Villanueva was shot and killed by police officer Jean-Loup Lapointe at the Henri-Bourassa Arena in Montreal North. Officers Jean-Loup Lapointe and Stéphanie Pilotte of the Police Service of Montreal (SPVM) intervened when a group of young people were playing dice in the parking lot of the arena. The supposed reason for the police intervention was the fact that gambling is prohibited under the local legislation Article 12e of parks, ponds and public buildings. Dany Villanueva, a member of the targeted group, protested for his innocence but officer Lapointe brutally smashed him on top of the hood of the patrol car. Dany Villanueva and his friends began to resist and to protest against this sudden escalation of violence. The following facts are subject of conflicting versions, but one fact remains, officer Lapointe fired his arm against Fredy Villanueva, younger brother of Dany. Fredy Villanueva was eighteen years old when he was pronounced dead in the surgery room of the hospital at 21:45. Riots broke out next day. The killing of Fredy Villanueva in Montreal North was the last straw stirring up years of social exclusion and discontent, being the multi-ethnic borough that is, mostly composed of Latinos, Arabs and Africans largely associated with street gangs such as The Bloods and The Crips. Montreal North landscape emerged as a site where many battles are fought. A place where the oppressed meets with its oppressor, where immigrants meet with fewer labour opportunities and lesser social inclusion, where increscent need for social housing meets with gentrification and racial profiling.
Many sources argued that officer Lapointe specifically targeted Dany Villanueva, as many witnesses supported that neither Fredy or Dany Villanueva were never a threat to officers Lapointe and Pilotte and to nobody else for that matter. One of these arguments being the fact that officer Lapointe issued a ticket to Dany back in 2007, just few meters away from the parking lot where his brother was tragically killed in 2008. Dany Villanueva is not a stranger to the criminal justice system in Montreal. He received several tickets in the past, ranging from public misconduct to drug-induced impaired driving, spending a year in prison in 2006 because of his involvement with the street gang The Bloods. The fact that he was being surveilled, possibly since he arrived as a refugee to Montreal back in 1998 from Honduras, underlines the role of surveillance tactics operating in the social. Contemporary cities are full of control and surveillance devices. From security cameras to smartphones, to Google maps and street view, they all forge a net of controlled views applying a vertical glance operated by mechanisms of power. These mechanisms act in an ambiguous way, sometimes invisible, property of a new private conglomerate of control of the information. “Part of the opaqueness of new surveillance has to do with its sophisticated technical character and with the complex flows of data within and between organizations” (1). Through my installation MTL Nord I wanted to provide a space of reflection about new tactics for deconstructing video surveillance and for decoding the documentation of the social as well.
How can we go further in documentary from being a medium of denunciation to a practice that explores the social and political dimensions of site specificity?. One possible answer to this question is that the political affect of the documentary is its capacity to make you feel that is possible to see and do things differently. I decided to modify an old black & white video surveillance camera in order to document the sites of resistance of Montreal North, using a device that has been usually used against their will. This modified camera acted as an extension of my gaze. I took the surveillance camera from the wall and carried it with me as an ordinary video camera. A surveillance camera now as a tool for self-expression and representation, instead of scrutiny, control and supervision. I used video surveillance as a tool for exploring relationships of identity to site, history, and memory, in order to challenge institutional power asymmetries in documentary practices at the intersection of everyday life, site-specific issues of social justice and political oppression. This ethnographic video study examines site specificity as a complex reflection of the unstable relationship between location and identity in urban landscapes, critically discussing various strategies of accessing the realms of memory, recollection, and identity, which commonly evades ethnographic representation. As an enigmatic object, these images instantiates a participatory assemblage of critical thinking through which the viewer is ushered into thought. As the commercialisation of experience -documentary industry- in the leisure industry has resulted in an economy based on the utopia of profit without exploitation, through my installation MTL Nord, I wanted rather to reflect about the existence of multiple realities and distributed selves, while reviewing life-recording technologies and our visual micro-narratives.
As my research engages with site specificity I decided that ethnography will be the ideal methodology for exploring relationships of site and history as they intersect with everyday life. Ethnography understands site as the container of a particular set of social relations, and these relations can be untangled by researching the field for long periods of time. It is acknowledged by ethnography that reality is co-constructed by the ethnographer and its subjects and we -the ethnographers- are tasked with the analysis of the structural relationships and the thick description of events unfolding around us. History then becomes a landscape of events as space becomes temporal. A landscape of time in which the past and the present collapse in their simultaneity; a site where nothing follows on from anything else any more and yet where nothing ever ends. The term landscape is ambiguous not only because designates the environment around us but also because is intrinsically related to pictorial tradition and the act of contemplation. The classic pictorial conception of landscape sees reality as an stable, permanent and harmonious site with a distanced gaze assuming impartial contemplation, however, contemporary art practices evoke landscape as a place charged with significant political, economic and social issues. It is time to rethink landscape in view of the heuristic experience of site acting against the hegemony of vision. Landscape is subject to and result of multiple filtrations -multiple traces, readings, versions and constructions of coexisting realities and selves.
In preparing for this research I wanted to carefully think through the material conditions for my intervention. In the classical ethnographic tradition, interviews and participant observation often occurres in a carefully negotiated space in order to create the conditions for an ideal response from the subjects. Whether this is achieved by positioning oneself in a context that is familiar and comfortable or by creating the conditions of comfort in an artificial space, ethnographers have recognized that material conditions affect the response of subjects. In classic ethnography, a successful intervention is one in which the interlocutor is at ease and expressive because the frame of the intervention no longer calls attention to itself and is being experienced as a simple exchange. Since my research is about centralized political apparatuses and the realization of a reimagined relationship between surveillance and the community, I wanted to dramatically draw attention to the act of being documented and to its technological apparatus. Since the mere act of recording creates a drama of heightened importance around the act of documenting, I potentialized this act by documenting with a large and bulky surveillance camera, attempting to challenge both, the classical conception of ethnography and two key surveillance characteristics: invisibility and absence of subject consent. I challenged invisibility and absence of subject consent by recording with this large surveillance camera, always drawing attention to both the camera and to the act of being documented, and of course, subjects were always very aware of the surveillance apparatus at work.
I’ve been involved with activists grassroots movements by participating in their meetings and by promoting their strategies and events. That’s how I met Dany Villanueva who gave me access to key members of the Montreal North community. It is in the low-income suburbs, such as Montreal North, where social exclusion coexists in constant tension with uneven social representation of the marginalized. These are the kind of phenomena my research is concerned with as I’m looking at the processes behind the construction of cultures of resistance and how the political gesture of documenting them helps to make visible the invisible. One of those invisible aspects is the always-present issue of exploitation in social documentary, an issue I’m very concerned with. How can I document social action and its political dimensions not using the conventional documentary form, but rather thinking about documentary as a response to the confusion of the world with its spectacle, as a critique of the conditions of production of the leisure industry and its politics of representation?. It is not uncommon for activists and documentary filmmakers to make a film hoping to build awareness, however, we should look closely at the assumption that if people know, they will act. The trajectory from exposure to action is not seamless. As we all know, media, in our already crowed media landscape, is not a transparent delivery system for testimony. A constellation of factors contributes to the efficacy of a testimony. Representation and iconographic strategies should make us reflect not only about the testimony itself but also about the testimonial encounter.
Practice-based research is normally university-based and bound by norms of scholarship that involves logic, method, awareness of prior research and evidence, prescribing objectivity in the conduct of research. However, in my case, research of surveillance tactics began with reflections about the gaze, cinema apparatus, reality mediated by technology and of course, representation. My research was about giving meaning to the experience of being watched and that of the watcher; an encounter crossing disciplines, institutions, methods and places. As I began documenting the Montreal North grassroots movement, becoming interested in the notion of identity and the recording technologies used for constructing it, I realized that ironically these same technologies also offer space for undermining categories of identification. Who gets to occupy the space demarcated inside the frame is determined by historical momentum, social hierarchies and political ideologies. What specifically is being recorded and counted by any tool/device purporting representation?, Who or what are our representations addressing?, Who is doing what to whom, for whom, with what knowledge of beneficial or detrimental results?. That’s when I decided to document the Montreal Nord grassroots movement and their sites of resistance with a surveillance camera in order to multiplicate their sites of surveillance and to rupture the unidirectional nature of the gaze, transforming surveillance into a dynamic relationship, undermining the distinction between watchers and watched.
Cities are an expression of who we are. To understand the historical and social processes that enables the configuration of a neighborhood is to understand the social construction of identity and community, which ultimately are codifiers for the sense of belonging. What happens when this sense of belonging is disrupted?, when the linear timeline of the social collapses?, as it did with the Villanueva’s family when his son was killed. In trauma-time we have a disruption of linearity. Something happened that doesn’t quite fit for the narrative already in motion, demanding we invent a new account that will produce a place for what has happened. Trauma results from the inability to place an event in a coherent historical context, allowing it to become part of a lived experience. Until a new narrative is produced we do not know what has happened. “As such, it is an event: at its most elementary, event is not something that occurs within the world, but is a change of the very frame through which we perceive the world and engage in it” (2). In this period of state-sponsored austerity and suppression of movements of resistance there is a need to speak out against state violence, corporate state, and surveillance regimes. Critical activism has a significant role to play in advancing a critique against current state regimes of regulation and punishment, as an effort to positively contribute to current struggles against neo-liberalism.
Policing against small-time gangs, mafiosos and social activists have become an important source of income for the state. The corporate state seems to justify our spending on their services by keeping arrest rates higher pursuing crime in low-income neighborhoods. Criminal justice systems are profit-based ecologies. The procedure for their profit-making is the processing of the racialized and often poor. Without the criminalization of the low-income, criminal justice systems in the West would probably collapse, as for example in Vancouver, the police department budget accounts for almost 21% of the total city budget (3). The high cost of policing and surveilling demonstrates the pretence of governments when claiming tight budgets and very limited funding for social services, where in reality policing expenses have remained politically untouchable. The single act of issuing a ticket or arresting somebody sets in motion a money-making assembly line of punishment intertwined with revenue. We must remember that in the criminal inquiry of the killing of Freddy Villanueva almost three million dollars have been spent by the state (4). Prison construction companies, lawyers, prison guards, clerks, corporate food services, judges, stenographers, policeman, court staff, bailiffs and so on, all follow a very profitable foundation in the punishment of the low-income class that the capitalist criminal system could not persevere without.
Dialectic notions of legality and illegality should not be the premise for assessing regimes of resistance. The state and its capitalist partners have set the terms for this debate. We must remember the Bill 78 here in Quebec as a result of the 2012 Quebec student protests known as the Maple Spring protests. This bill requires protest organizers to submit their venues and routes to the police for previous approval if the protest consist of 50 people or more. Public demonstrations since then are illegal in Quebec, unless submitted for police approval, making one of our most universal rights -the right to protest- illegal and illegitimate. Capitalism is founded on the dual apparatus of force and law. We must not submit to the belief that there is an opposition between capitalism and the state. The assertion of capitalism has been facilitated by state practices. Capitalism will be unimaginable without the state and their repressive apparatus. The notion of state and capitalism as opposite regimes is only a historical distortion. Legislative and symbolic violence are twin foundations of criminal justice systems in the West. From the expropriation of land to racial profiling, defense of private property, military violence and working class repression, these are all acts of the state against working class communities -the very foundations of capitalism-.
The state displays violence as a way to extract finances and support for services rendered, as such the case of The Bloods, to which Dany Villanueva has been related since the beginning of his criminal processes. It is a fact that more people have been killed by the state that by all of the street gangs, thugs and mafiosos. According to The October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, at least 306 people has been killed in Quebec by police interventions since 1987 (5). The militarization of the city and its portrayal as a laboratory for surveillance tactics, stimulated by middle-class paranoia and its desire to protect economic interests, resulted in a profusion of surveillance artifacts and technologies immersed in the urban landscape. Landscape then becomes a materialization of a network of trajectories whose occasional collisions suggest a temporal topography. This topography is made of activists events, public demonstrations, police intervention, surveillance tactics and the community. This temporal topography is a fiction because there are no homogeneous territories. Landscape is a collection of diasporas where the connection between identity and the local has collapsed. For those placed at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, the details of their everyday have become increasingly more transparent to the organizations surveilling them. The police as the most visible surveillance agent of the state plays a key institutional role in social control undermining democratic ideals. The ghetto is state policy.
Site-specific art has been challenging institutional modes of comprehension of site, place and identity, by examining site specificity as a complex cipher of the unstable relationship between location and identity. In my artistic practice, the intersection of ethnography with site-specific art is the result of my engagement with physical and political environments. As an artist and ethnographer, I deployed a wide variety of technologies, collaborating with subjects and using various representational strategies, allowing me -the ethnographer- to hear and see what the non-ethnographer does not. A common feature between ethnography and site specific practices is the notion of being there with direct contact/first-hand experience, combined with duration to enhance validity. My installation MTL Nord presupposes the active figure of the site-specific artist at the margins of the work.
MTL Nord investigates the way in which events are transformed into memories and stories, underscoring the discrepancy between lived experience, discourse and representation. By making visible the complex act of turning facts into images, MTL Nord contests the primacy of eyewitness testimony by challenging conventional modes of representation of social activism. It presents diverse and at times contradictory forms of spectatorship in relation to political events. By exploring the role played by us the spectators, it questions our agency and interests concerning circumstances that we do not experienced directly, asking how might we be implicated within this peculiar far-removed relationship with events. If mediation is inherent to contemporary political events, how does this mediation forge perceptions and reactions?. MTL Nord explores narrative complexity blurring the boundaries between reality and representation. By gathering questions concerning the ambivalent way in which the role of technological mediation is perceived, it problematizes the notions of distance in relation to involvement, and spectatorship in relation to engagement. While the narrative is rooted in documentary, their construction is non-naturalistic and resists conclusion or revelation. MTL Nord focuses upon the engagement of the distant onlooker in relation to mediated political events, critically exploring the role played by technological devices in the politics of representation.
(1) Bauman, Zygmunt, David Lyon. Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation. Polity. 2012
(2) Zizek, Slavoj. Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept. Melville House, 2014. P: 19.
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Accessed on march, 28, 2014.
Accessed on sept., 15, 2015.