There is a tendency in contemporary life for artists, academics, authors and activists to view Nine Eleven as the beginning of the Western world’s demise into fragmented populist nationalisms, reigniting the Cold War by substituting ‘Islamic terrorism’ for ‘Russian communism’. Although there is some truth to this myth, there is a danger when projecting American events onto other national landscapes that it will disrupt local timelines. Like a perceptual distortion in the space-time continuum, Australian political and cultural events appear to happen after Nine Eleven, rather than during John Howard’s political regime, a temporal symbol that transforms an American event into a world historical event.
Still, there is some value in these everyday practices of periodisation. From this perspective, Nine Eleven as a cultural event is the product of local Australian forces: whether local politicians capitalising on the event to bolster their policies or get re elected, artists or authors trying to make a statement about the wider political context or nationalists drumming up support through fear-mongering. Here, Nine Eleven works as a readily available shorthand.
Yet if I was asked to pinpoint our demise, I would rather shift attention to the television franchise Big Brother. By the time Big Brother hit our screens, we had already lost the culture wars. Beginning in the Netherlands, the franchise was taken up by United Kingdom and United States television in 2000 and Australia in 2001, before the events of Nine Eleven. No one batted an eyelid when the show mockingly lifted its name from Big Brother, the ostensibly fascist, totalitarian leader at the heart of George Orwell’s dystopian futuristic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). In Orwell’s dystopia, Big Brother controls the public through perpetual mass surveillance via ubiquitous telescreens. When the actual year 1984 rolled by, one could scarcely imagine Orwell’s nightmare coming true. It was easy to dismiss. By the 2000s, the mysterious figure of Big Brother was reduced to a humiliating minor role in a reality television show. At least, that’s how it seemed.
But this was the trick. Via Orwell, we assumed Big Brother would emerge from a totalitarian movement that forced people to watch telescreens repeating the party line in simplistic brainwashing techniques. Instead, Big Brother seduced the public with sexually titillating images of near naked ordinary young men and women. Rather than confronting the prospect of being watched by the state, the television show invited the public to identify with Big Brother, with the pleasures of voyeurism, controlling those under our gaze through the power of eviction. There was no need for force. Given a choice, the viewing public gladly accepted the idea of ubiquitous, perpetual surveillance for the simple pleasures of entertainment, sexual arousal and judging others. As the Australian government invaded Iraq, the adult version of the show, Big Brother Uncut, kept the public gossiping about ‘gorilla dick Dean’ and ‘horse hung’ Jamie. And so Big Brother, once a warning sign of fascist totalitarianism, became synonymous with male frontal nudity. The normalisation of pervasive surveillance occurred under the mass sexualisation of security technologies for voyeuristic entertainment.
Cultural critic Mark Andrejevic coined the term ‘securitainment’1 to mark the rise and popularity of security-based reality television shows such as Border Security: Australia’s Front Line. Such shows encourage audiences to identify with state authorities and adopt the logics of security under the guise of entertainment. But taking the longer history of collusion between the military industrial complex and the entertainment industry, referred to by security theorist James Der Derian as the ‘military-industrial-media-entertainment complex’,2 into account, we could expand securitainment to refer to a much larger set of everyday forms of entertainment, amusement and pleasure that normalise war and security.
There are echoes of this gesture in well-meaning Melbourne queer ‘bollart’, an abbreviation of bollard art, that repurposes the surfaces of security bollards for public enjoyment. These bollards were part of a $50 million CBD security upgrade following the 2017 Bourke Street attack. Although widely reported as a Muslim terrorist event, the perpetrator of the Bourke Street massacre was neither Muslim nor a terrorist. He was a mentally disabled man whose nonsensical ramblings seem to be composed of internet conspiracies. The attack could be described as a copycat event, a simulacrum of a terrorist event, which unwittingly reveals terrorism to primarily exist as a thought crime: it’s not what you do but why you do it. Since then, these bollards have been turned into canvases by various artists, including queer works that decorate the bollards with rainbow crochet covers and flags, turning the dull concrete blocks into colourful symbols of resilience and vitality. In 2018, these bollards were also repurposed to support marriage equality during the national postal vote on same-sex marriage. Such practices beautify and aestheticise the very symbols of the police state’s intrusion into public life, normalising the multimillion-dollar counter-terrorism transformation of our urban environments in response to a terrorist simulacrum. Indeed, these expensive bollards proved useless in stopping a lone wolf terrorist attack the following year on the same street. Is there a more fitting metaphor for post-Nine Eleven pinkwashing in the Australian security state?3
Other Australian artists have tried to directly tackle the problems of the surveillance state. Since the 1990s, Sydney artist Denis Beaubois has drawn attention to the normalisation of surveillance by turning the very architecture of everyday spying technologies into unwitting portrait photographers. For example, in ATM Family Portrait (1997), Beaubois takes his mother and father to an automatic teller machine in Sydney’s Kings Cross for a family photo. During a bank transaction, his family was recorded by the ATM and the resulting images became the artwork. In his installation, Everybody Happy (2000), Beaubois created a closed system between a CCTV camera staring at a mirror that projects onto a monitor that is also staring at the mirror. It is a stark commentary on the narcissism and the sightlessness of surveillance, as well as the self- fulling prophecy of security discourses and technologies. Created in the same year, Beaubois’ Group Stare (2000) extends this theme by tying normalised surveillance in with the audience’s complicity. The audience is split into two groups who are positioned opposite each other and invited to look at a specific partner in the opposite group, the results of which are recorded by video cameras in between them. In this closed system of gazes, the anticipation and expectation from the audience as well as the artist produces a performative moment in which the audience is transformed into the artwork and where the viewer becomes both voyeur and subject of the gaze. The discomfort created by the recognition of being watched induces a double consciousness, as participants realise that they are watching themselves as much as each other.
Although Beaubois’ artworks raise questions about public complicity and performance in an everyday that is increasingly saturated with state and corporate surveillance, there’s a tendency to treat surveillance ambiguously; neither malignant nor benign, just pervasive. This fails to address the racialised politics of contemporary surveillance regimes. Surveillance does not affect us equally because the racialised logic of suspicion shapes and governs contemporary surveillance practices in the hyper-security state.
To understand this, we need to grasp what I call the logic of suspicion. The English word ‘suspicion’ comes from the Latin suspicio from the Latin sub- (meaning ‘beneath’, ‘below’ or ‘under’) and specere (meaning ‘to look’ or ‘to observe’). The Latin suspicio originally had multiple meanings, including ‘to look up to, admire or respect’ as well as ‘to look askance, to look secretly’ and ‘to mistrust, to look at distrustfully’, before eventually becoming settled on the latter meaning. While the etymology of ‘suspicion’ originally meant to look from beneath, given its modern definition we might now re-read ‘suspicion’ as meaning to look beneath; that is, to peer below the surface of things. Suspicion, here, is meant to uncover the underlying truth, to peel away the façade, and thus associates security performance with striptease and voyeurism. In reality, it is only that which we deem suspicious that is searched. So rather than uncovering something suspicious, we in fact impute a suspiciousness onto a suspected object or person before we have proof that they are hiding something suspicious. This is the paradoxical logic of suspicion. It claims to discover something hidden but is preceded by the projection of suspicion onto the suspect.
Due to this paradoxical logic, we seek to ground suspicion in other signs as excuses for being suspicious. We imbue other objects, gestures, practices and events as suspicious to serve as grounds for suspicion. One of these practices is racial profiling, which takes race as grounds for suspicion, and thus justifies the targeting of racialised minorities by security and police forces. Although normally associated with official policing and security practices, everyday racial profiling is encouraged by government and media when they relentlessly portray racialised minorities as threats to the nation, transforming race into a sign of security risk. When governments encourage everyday citizens to spy on suspicious people, such as in the series of counter-terrorism public information campaigns across the post-Nine Eleven West — ‘If you see something, say something’ or ‘If it doesn’t add up, speak up’ — it is unsurprising that such suspicion primarily falls upon those racialised groups already demonised by the media and government. This is the racialised logic of suspicion at work.
This logic lies at the heart of Abdul Abdullah’s oeuvre. His 2014 London exhibition, Siege, uses an ape mask to signify monstrous otherness, which in turn provokes the audience to question the racialised logic of suspicion. The series consists of ten Type-C photographs, with various figures wearing either clothes that represent a demonised religion, such as a white keffiyeh or a white hijab, or a racialised class, sportswear as streetwear, the latter of which are sometimes posed in acts of rebellious protest, drawn from images of the 2011 London Riots. By placing the subjects in ape masks, in this case the actual makeup tester on Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes’ set, the photos take the racialised logic of suspicion to its extreme by showing the audience precisely the monster they seek to find. While Abdullah’s photos provoke us to reflect on our capacity to dehumanise others and the limits of the human, their hyperbole underscores our complicity with the wider surveillance state and reveals the inherently problematic reliance on racial profiling to make sense of our world and others.
Abdullah also explores racial profiling and the politics of suspicion in his 2017 series of menacing wedding photos.4 This series extends an idea first explored in his work The wedding (Conspiracy to commit) (2015), in which a couple are staged in an elaborate wedding photo reminiscent of weddings in many parts of Asia, except they wear balaclavas colour-matched to their wedding outfits. The artwork inverts the traditional wedding photo, which is meant to capture a public moment of intimate unification, into a scene of criminal association; a conspiracy, as the title indicates. A conspiracy is a secret, underhanded plan or a hidden plot between two or more people. Thus, the photograph contrasts the public celebration of intimate bonding with the potential hidden danger of a clandestine association. This invokes the twisted mindset that transforms celebration into suspicion, love into potential violence.
The idea initially came when Abdullah read someone justifying collateral damage that killed Muslim children and infants by claiming they would inevitably grow up to be terrorists.5 We could also point to the ongoing Muslim overpopulation myth used by Islamophobic far-right groups for scaremongering. For example, Anders Breivik, the Norwegian White supremacist who massacred sixty-nine youths in the 2011 Norway terrorist attack, was intensely concerned about the declining birth rate of ‘valuable’ White Christians, which he believed made Europe vulnerable to being taken over by Muslims because they had a higher birth rate. In both cases, even Muslim children are treated as national threats — as either potential terrorists or threats to demographic majority — which recasts Muslim marriages as conspiratorial scenes of dangerous reproduction.
This is where the racialised logic of suspicion leads. If danger, threat and security risks are racialised, that is if they are located in specific racialised groups demonised by media and government and targeted by racial profiling, then even their children become potentially dangerous and their deaths (whether physical, social or psychological) are justified by a public hardened to its own callous brutality. Australia’s refugee detention regime remains a stark reminder of how racial profiling transforms the most vulnerable into national security threats, which in turn justifies the punitive treatment of innocent men, women and children. As right-wing censorship increasingly infects the West in public and official institutions, art plays a crucial role in creating spaces that challenge publicly-sanctioned and ubiquitous surveillance under the extended War on Terror. In challenging our perceptual collusion with surveillance and the surveillance state, art opens up ways for the public to disrupt and disidentify with Big Brother’s securitainment.
Dr Gilbert Caluya is a Lecturer in the Screen and Cultural Studies program at the University of Melbourne. His research examines how power shapes everyday culture, such as sexual subcultures, cultural citizenship, everyday cultures of security and more recently in digital cultures. He primarily analyses the intersections of race, gender and sexuality in wider social and political formations to highlight how these inform and sometimes shape contemporary life in ways that are often overlooked.