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Bordertown, Surveillance, and the Evil Eye

Last summer, I participated in the Bordertown design studio, a ten-week seminar on the subject of cities divided by borders. Everyone involved developed a deliverable, which we exhibited at the Detroit Design Festival. At the time, I was too blown away by the city of Detroit and its inhabitants to talk about my own work. (Also, I was editing my debut novel and finishing work on my thesis, writing some pieces for BoingBoing and trying to find another job.) I didn’t have a lot of perspective on my installation. I had never exhibited anything, before, and I didn’t really think of myself as an artist. An artistic person, yes, but not an “artist”; a design thinker, but not a “designer.” But I’ve always been secure in my identity as a writer, so it’s not surprising that I wrote fiction for my installation.

From Detroit

My installation involved a kitbashed laptop, a coffee mug, some index cards, cookies, sticky notes, Greek holy cards, and glass jewelry to protect against the Evil Eye. In the world of the installation, a police detective is investigating the death of a wealthy girl from the Turkey at the hands of a Greek border guard…or was it Greece’s shiny new threat analysis system that made the decision for him? It was up to the visitor to decide, by piecing together clues left at the site of the installation. The detective was almost past caring, having already focused almost obsessively on the nature of surveillance and its relationship to the Evil Eye.

At the time, I was spending a lot of time in Toronto’s Greektown, where the sale of narzas — the eye-shaped glass amulets — is common. (You can see one in the photo above, hanging over the notecards.) Researching the story behind the amulets, I learned that for the people who believe in it, The Evil Eye is quite literally a staring problem. If you stare at someone for too long, or with too much envy, you unwittingly cast a curse on her. The only way for the afflicted to break that curse is to stare back — but since staring would just create another curse, she has to rig up a prosthetic device to do the staring for her. A narza. And since the majority of able-bodied humans have the capacity to stare, the narza becomes an ubiquitous spiritual security measure. Believers hang them in their windows to reflect potential stares, or wear bracelets with beads like little glass eyes, or tiny surveillance domes.

I think the surveillance camera — so often referred to as a “security camera,” as though it were a child’s favourite stuffed toy — has become equally totemic. It is a fetish piece in the oldest sense of the word: a human-made object imbued with spiritual power. How do I know this? Because we hang empty black surveillance domes in retail stores. Because even the illusion of observation alters human behaviour. The camera doesn’t need to be there. You just have to believe it is, like God or Santa Claus. It sees you when you’re sleeping; it knows when you’re awake; it knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good, for goodness’ sake. The dominant metaphor for twenty-first century security has been “theatre,” but the performative aspect of contemporary security is only part of it. The rest is superstition. Cargo cult. Fetish. Magical thinking. We haven’t been doing this 9/11, we’ve been doing it since the pyramids.

This is not to say that surveillance cameras have no power. They do. The Sony SNCCH280 has an algorithm that can discern human from animal movement and remember the difference. Their XI wide-area monitoring series can watch you in HD quality through snow and fog. These are the cameras the United States Customs and Border Patrol Agency uses. These are not mere symbols. But they are symbolic, and what they symbolize is rooted more deeply than most of us admit. For proof of this concept, look to sacred security, an Evangelical Christian niche within the security industry’s traditional customer segment. As Randy Lewis says in his critique:

Queasy as I am about the blurring of cameras and crosses, of old theology and new technology, I wonder if they have a certain affinity. Both emblems of judgment from afar, of an inscrutable downward gaze. Along with other forms of tracking human behavior, increasingly ubiquitous surveillance cameras represent yet another encroachment on our privacy and liberty—yet few Americans seem concerned about CCTV in churches or anywhere else. Perhaps we would find this encroachment more disturbing if the new eye of providence didn’t feel so much like the old one—that is to say, if ancient patterns of belief hadn’t prepped the ground for this new outgrowth of the security state?

In this context, designing my Bordertown installation with the logic of the narza now seems entirely appropriate. Surveillance is inherently superstitious, because observation and knowledge are entirely different things. Images without context can mean only so much. To mix a metaphor (or more accurately, an aphorism), the “thousand words” a picture is worth are only valuable to the eye of the beholder. Since 9/11, we’ve been asking, “Who watches the watchmen?” But the question we should really be asking is, “Whose eye does the beholding?”