In recent years, Americans have been tasked with evaluating our status as safe, autonomous citizens. Post-Snowden surveillance, a steadfast armed citizenry, ongoing terror paranoia, and now-quotidian violence between The Police and The People have all but distilled into a boiling-hot collective consciousness. In a society where local police register helicopters through mysterious shell companies in order to keep surveillance operations secret; where there is an identifiable urban school-to-prison pipeline; and where mundane administrative tasks like citing traffic violations are executed by the police, we have to ask: if we’re indeed living in a police state, is it possible to mobilize? To evacuate? And where does visual culture production fit in?
Urban planners have spent decades considering what evacuation routes for New York City might look like, but almost unanimously agree that the city's composition renders such an effort impossible. In terms of urban design and the invisible parameters that construct cities, evacuation is an apt framework for understanding the conditions of living in the age of mass surveillance and violent policing.
In Dallas, Texas, we recently witnessed an unfortunate event that was deeply troubling. It presents a microcosm of what could become a future of municipal warfare: An American-trained soldier uses assault weapons to take on a local police task force who reacts by using an unprecedented jerry-rigged robotic bomb to eliminate the threat within a community college. Videos show chaos as civilians sporadically flee the ground zero. Downtown Dallas is not densely populated and planned like Manhattan. It’s a more feasible evacuation.
New York City, however, is rich in possibilities for mass-exodus gridlock: physically, digitally and metaphorically. The city's high-octane local surveillance operations (the aforementioned shell company helicopters, secret vans with x-ray spy cameras, illegal surveillance on muslims, and pervasive patrolling), bolster it as a martial-ready municipality. Gawker's J.K. Trotter recently posted an ominously non-descript article ("Where Will It Happen in New York City?") about some sort of looming event which he never specifies, presumably terrorism, postulating where “it” might happen.
“When I ask my friends, they say it’s probably going to happen in Times Square, because there are a lot of people there, or Grand Central Terminal, because it’s so open and beautiful and also symbolic. Others say it’ll probably happen not in one place but several, scattered across the city; or that it’ll happen underground, in the subway system, where it’ll be hard to see what’s going on.”
The article demonstrates a unanimous, latent paranoia about safety and security in America today. The writer doesn’t even have to identify a subject in order to complete the thought process. The subject is itself a blank spot: the contemporary hysterics we keep to ourselves. But if we entertain the possibility of “it” or worse, a series of “it”s, we can speculate on the types of scenarios this paranoia anticipates – municipal lockdown, telecom blackouts, free speech gagging. In the heightened police state, what do impossible evacuation routes look like?
If public communications (such as evacuation route maps, transit signage, and public service announcements) comprise a visual network, then the network stands to be re-routed, manipulated, and made open-source. Much of public visual communications serve to simply illustrate territory, and efficiently move its citizens throughout. However, sometimes processes of public communication can become methods of politically motivated territorialization.
Tactical, political use of public service communications can be found in varying forms across the U.S. Even the police themselves have used them to amplify a panic of losing ground. In 2012, the Detroit police distributed Microsoft Office produced posters warning "ENTER DETROIT AT YOUR OWN RISK;" demarcating the absence of a sufficient police force. A flimsy solution for a critical announcement. Both an analysis of Detroit’s crime rate and a proper critique of what it fundamentally means to “police” the public are unfit for this brief essay, but what’s important to note here is the insinuation embedded in this announcement: that without a force of militarized police, The People are inherently in danger.
Not far from Detroit in Dearborn, Michigan, a bogus rumor has repeatedly regrown legs to circulate on right-wing conspiracy theory blogs that the city has posters defining borders of “No Go Zones” for non-Muslims. These zones are allegedly exclusively ruled under Sharia law, and presumably acknowledged and respected by local police. The same circle of blogs were also sharing stories regarding an esoteric (and probably widely illegitimate) practice of painting a wooden post purple to indicate “No Trespassing.” The codification of tactical re-zoning is steeped in aesthetic solutions. A hyper-local geopolitics constructed visually. To be fair, it would seem that any state is legitimized in this same way, if only on a larger scale with better graphic designers.
Similar in its dodgy craftsmanship, notices on public transit construction sites herd users through alternative routes via laminated signs halfheartedly adhering to their style guide, or sometimes simply handwritten; Sharpie marker scribbles on sheets of corrugated plastic. These temporary tactics for rerouting and deterring people are useful for speculating on how a large scale episode of extended martial law might manifest itself visually. Quickly produced announcements for curfews, billboard mandates for remaining inside, WiFi seizures with police redirect pages – these constitute an anti-evacuation plan; measures for eliminating mobility.
Can visual cultural producers activate local, public space to facilitate proper evacuation? Some artists and designers have begun this task of addressing government surveillance. Designer Sang Mun created ZXX, a typeface designed to be legible to the human eye but not prying computers; artist Hito Steyerl has made an instructive (if comically fruitless) video for how not to be seen by drones; and the design studio Metahaven has developed propaganda against propaganda.
But on a more physical, local level visual media like public service communications can still play an active role in mobilization.
Can we détourn the detour? The now-defunct Efficient Passenger Project in New York designed a network of seamless signage to supplement existing subway signs for telling passengers where to board in order to exit at the most efficient point (the MTA publicly condemned the project). Occupy Wall Street designers chained lower manhattan subway exits open and posted “Free Entry” notices using MTA templates that stayed up for weeks. Hacktivists routinely hijack digital traffic signs for signal boosting political messages. Digitally, a growing independent mesh network in New York City is already in place for fortifying cyber public space. The network could provide internet access in times of disaster, whether a government-corporate blackout as recently seen in Egypt, or physical damage from natural disasters. For these WiFi access points to to be effective requires a visual infrastructure as well, posting markers to indicate where the network is active.
Perhaps an honed practice of rogue signal jamming of public space is crucial for survival, however temporary. An aesthetics of blending in for speaking out.
Tsunami evacuation routes are designed for directing people to higher ground. But if your municipality is a flattened observation deck of civic activity, higher ground is hard to find. Higher ground is only to be found in encrypted chats sent via resilient mesh networks or in whispers within clandestine activist dens. A language of visual art (digital and otherwise) that simultaneously disrupts and coordinates with existing, officially-coded design can become the visual pirate radio of the future.