Surveying Surveillance

Surveying Surveillance

From security cameras to computer data and beyond, surveillance has become a part of our daily lives. Last week, scholars across a variety of disciplines convened on campus for the 2019 Mellon Symposium to trace genealogies and technologies of surveillance across national borders and time periods, and explore how surveillance has been subverted. The symposium, which was organized by Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Aniko Szucs, is in its 15th year thanks to the support of the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for Arts and Humanities (HCAH).

For over a decade, the HCAH has hosted two Mellon Fellows each year, each with a staggered two-year fellowship. When fellows approach the end of their tenure, they are tasked with organizing the annual Mellon Symposium.

“My purpose with the symposium was to initiate a trans-national and transdisciplinary conversation,” said Szucs, a U.S.-based dramaturg and performance studies scholar originally from Budapest, Hungary, “not only the discussion of different technologies of surveillance, but also different theories that we are applying in our fields to better understand it.”

This year’s symposium began with a keynote address from Simone Brown, whose work connects surveillance during the Atlantic slave trade to the contemporary African American experience. The following day, three panels approached the topic of surveillance through three distinct lenses: post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the modern U.S., and the application of surveillance technologies in performance art. With the symposium’s interdisciplinary approach, Szucs hoped to address the question, “How can our extensive studies, say, of the former Eastern European communist state security networks and their oppressive techniques, inform how we understand surveillance in this country?”

When planning the symposium, she said that she was influenced by the classes she has taught at Haverford. In both “Artists Under the Policing Gaze of the State: Politics, History, and Performance,” which she taught in fall 2017 and “Technologies of Surveillance Through the Lens of the Artist: A Historical Overview,” which she is currently teaching as part of a Philadelphia Area Creative Collectives project, students expressed a desire to discuss surveillance in the contemporary American context too.

“I learned a lot from my students how I could make these courses, and the discussion of surveillance in general, more relevant,” said Szucs. “At the same time, I am also a firm believer that history always informs our present experiences. Therefore, in the discussion of the surveillance in the United States, it was important to first study the historical legacies of surveillance and ask, ‘How can we make connections between our experiences in the here and the now and the past?’ I think that our students are extremely articulate, and they don’t shy away from articulating what they are most curious about and the urgency of certain discussions.”

Hayley Tubbs ’21, a student in Szucs’ current class, enjoyed hearing the Eastern European-focused panelists make the connection between communist government surveillance in Poland and mid-20th century surveillance of homosexuality in the U.S. She was particularly struck by their discussion about the subversive power of silence in response to surveillance.

This was a great way to introduce people to the idea of surveillance studies and just how prevalent surveillance is in our daily lives,” said Tubbs, a political science major and peace, justice, and human rights concentrator. “It really permeates us as civilians, causing us to adhere to structures out of—sometimes unknown—fears that have been created for us through surveillance. I really enjoyed the symposium and the challenges and questions that were presented to us.”

As a crossroads for a variety of scholars and students with different interests, the Mellon Symposium is a yearly opportunity to enrich academic pursuits with outside-the-classroom conversation. Just as Szucs has been able to critically examine her own work with surveillance during her fellowship, she hopes that the Mellon Symposium showed all in attendance the exciting intersections between their interests and fields of study.

 

Photo of Simone Brown giving the keynote address at the Mellon Symposium by Alexandra Iglesia ’21.

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