Pedro Oliveira: Related to the question above, how do you position your work for the Web Residency as exploring »opportunities that specific doomsday scenarios give us for new means of association and perception«?
Peter Polack: Doomsday is a dystopia where surveillance isn’t in excess, but inadequate. The threat is the zombies and the collapse of civilization, not the overseers and their perfection of it. But really, these two caricatures are always coexistent. To live in doomsday, to actually take up space in it, requires an inversion of what we perceive as healthy for ourselves and our communities. Suddenly the rapid and unpredictable transmission of zombie influence isn’t what puts us in danger, but actually points to a tactic we employ to keep ourselves safe. I recognize that saying this brings to mind the harms of contagious diseases, as well as every other dystopian imaginary available to us, but this is built into the mythology of the zombie in the first place: that mass association means contagious sickness, destruction, and braindead violence. It is through discovering the difference between disease and social movements, between pandemics and what »plagues« the social body, that doomsday gives us an opportunity to perceive and associate differently.
That’s the broad answer. But there are more specific ways that military doomsday scenarios can be inverted to salvage the capacities for association and perception that they try to stamp out. In different ways, the doomsday scenarios I’m looking at problematize how people are able to associate with one another, and the failure of perceptual technologies to adequately account for and anticipate these associations. This includes the ways that people are able to move freely in and out of cities, their indistinguishability, the failure of technologies for aerial imaging and geolocating, and so on. In my work for the residency, I am addressing each of these doomsday issues, and looking for what they tell us about the military’s fears, as well as about our own preconceptions of health and justice.
There is another answer to this question, which concerns how military tactics operate on perception directly, and how we can develop a sensibility toward this. There is a continuing movement toward cybernetic responsiveness in law enforcement and military strategy, in seeing that the world is becoming too complex to deploy one tactic everywhere, and in recognizing that public sentiment increasingly determines the amount of violence they can get away with. The future of asymmetric warfare, from more accessible drones to underground architecture, also means that the military is forced to invest in more decentralized, clandestine, and „less-than-lethal techniques for eliminating adversaries while maintaining public favor. Understanding public opinion, modeling it, and literally visualizing it as the terrain of conflict is the order of the day. The Human Terrain System is one counter-insurgency platform that implements this, as are performance metrics for the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) that attempt to quantify how humanitarian aid translates to pacification. The LAPD’s upcoming »Information-Driven Policing« program for organizing the city into Neighborhood Engagement Areas is a more local example. Instead of valorizing what might appear as an egalitarian aspect of asymmetric warfare, I am attentive to how it makes things worse in a different way, and interested in the strategies that we can develop to understand its impacts on our selves and communities. For me, this involves being able to perceive how our built environment, information systems, and discourses inform our capacity to associate with one another. In my work for the residency, I imagined a kind of language, or cultural technology, that might facilitate this.
Pedro Oliveira: I also wanted to ask you about positionality, and perhaps think of that with you in two interrelated forms: the first being that your work is highly focused on the US and its practices of policing; you mention in your proposal institutions such as the Pentagon; you work closely with a grassroots organization focused on the LAPD; and previous work you did also addressed practices of observation and predictive policing in the US. In this being a Web Residency it might be easy to rely on a universalization of these practices instead of conceiving this (web) space as re-territorialized, too. How do you address the transferability of the positionality of your work within US-American politics (and »antipolitics,« as you describe) to other parts of the world, particularly for people who might encounter your work in the Global South?
Peter Polack: This addresses an aspect of this project that concerned me most at the outset, which is that fictions and imaginaries tend to depend on pretty universalizing assumptions about how life should be lived. After all this is where the project begins: taking a close look at a specific kind of narrative that the US uses to represent life in cities across the globe. In developing the project, I used the phrase »narrative washing« to refer to the ability of an imaginary to obscure an agenda and its positionality. This becomes very clear in the case of zombie narratives, which for the author of World War Z who works at the Modern Warfare Institute, are useful precisely because they can make real military tactics and nightmare scenarios more palatable and relatable.
So, in this cartography, my aim is to respond to this capacity of narratives to obscure and export positionality, and to imagine some ways that this can be resisted. To this end, characters in my narrative have developed systems to resist capture by the narrative itself, and there’s a sense that a universalizing view of the map would fail to understand it. I am still implicitly relying on my experiences within a US context to develop this world, and I begin by telling the story in English. However, I also tried to avoid making claims about how life ought to be organized. Instead the map is made out of customs which I think appear more idiosyncratic than declarative.
At the same time, the subject matter of this work, threats to US interests in infrastructure, capital, and security, entail projects that are global in scope. I do believe that it’s worth imagining responses to these projects that may arise, since I believe that these responses have transferability across contexts, even if not universal applicability. As we know, counter-insurgency is a global project that exports tactics and technologies across geopolitical contexts – this is why US Marines shadow LAPD officers to learn how to operate in Afghanistan, US police officers shadow IDF operations, and why Palantir provides software solutions for the US carceral system as much as counter-insurgency abroad. For me, this »deadly exchange« means that we all can learn from local imaginaries that respond to systems that aim to have a global scope. I would never pretend to be an expert on the effects that these global systems can have in different contexts – after all it’s their job to assume that one logic could apply everywhere – but I am interested in conveying my experiences through the form of a world, to see where it resonates with others.
There are also certain literary devices, or maybe they are political tactics, for carving out a space in a political imaginary that isn’t totalizing, where its characters have the opportunity to enter and leave a political idea as they choose. You see this in Samuel R Delaney’s Dhalgren and Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, for example: there are multiple spaces in their geographies that are utopian for some, dystopian for others, and people pass in and out of them. I think this literary tactic teaches us something about politics and fiction, although admittedly, at the end of the day, we always know where the authors place their bets. In my cartography, I want to think through what happens when a space is deemed uninhabitable by a certain way of life, by virtue of its resistance to policing, surveillance, and mapping, and the opportunities this provides for different ways of life. Although you’ll be able to tell where my cards lie, I would rather this express a possibility than a solution.
Pedro Oliveira: The second aspect concerns a specific point of this residency’s call which is accessibility: how does that play out in your proposal beyond the annotated map in text and audio? Or in other words, how do you make these practices of mapping legible across different abilities and positionalities?
Peter Polack: It was significant to me that the types of cities counter-insurgency theorists feared also tended to be the least accessible, and also that this was never one of their talking points, beyond oblique references to compromised access to resources. As well, their doomsday scenarios are forward-looking imaginaries that are loaded with ideas of progress and regression, stability and instability, normality and ferality, that perpetuate a normative logic of ability. I intend for this project to participate in the practice of using fiction to intervene into how we think progress and futurity, on the way to unsettling hierarchies of ability and perfection.
From a more technical perspective, I really cared to give each of the possible experiences of the game the same amount of attention. I wanted the text, audio, and visual dimensions of the map to each provide something special, but without making them so unique that something would be missing from the project if one of these channels were absent. I also shifted away from focusing exclusively on the visual language of geography, toward a conceptual language of space that was more accessible and open to interpretation. This is a significant theme of the project, that communication and perception is channeled through particular codes, languages, and narratives, and that the labor of undoing these semiotics can be extremely valuable, and can help us to relate to each other and our fears in new ways.
In terms of the language that I use in the project, I spent time making sure that I didn’t inject an unnecessary amount of jargon into it. The language is a bit vague and elusive, but I hope that this gives its audience some space to think open-endedly, rather than frustrating them. There are really no answers in this cartography, but there are moments of clarity. Lastly, I would love to spend time translating the project into some of the languages that I have spent so much time learning, but I need to spend additional time figuring out how to do this meaningfully.
Pedro Oliveira: A last question: can you provide us references (books, movies, other artistic works, etc) that in your view inspire, inform, and/or expand questions that your work addresses?
– The Absent City (Ricardo Piglia)
– Dhalgren (Samuel R. Delany)
– Hinterland (Phil A. Neel)
– Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)
– The Castle (Franz Kafka)
– A Pattern Language (Christopher Alexander, Murray Silverstein, and Sara Ishikawa)
– Carceral Capitalism (Jackie Wang)
– Dixie Be Damned (Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford)
– Bolo’Bolo (P.M.)
– Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden)
– The Last Angel of History (John Akomfrah)
– Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera)
– La Commune (Paris, 1871)
– The Falls (Peter Greenaway)
– Threads (Mick Jackson)
– All That Passes Through a Window that Doesn’t Open (Martin DiCicco)
– Auto de Resistência (Lula Carvalho and Natasha Neri)
– American Artist – A Wild Ass Beyond: ApocalypseRN
– Jacky Chan Wai Hin’s „Weaving City”
– Hillary Mushkin – Far From War
– Many of Bassem Saad’s works
– Simon Denny – Secret Power
– Agnieszka Kurant – Future Anterior
– Carolyn Pletsch – Untitled (from Imagining Disability Futurities project)
– RYBN – EEE008
This interview took place between Berlin, Helsinki, and Los Angeles in early February 2021.