The Peoples Control Room: Disrupting the Digital Panopticon takes on surveillance in the city of Johannesburg from an architectural lens to curate a multiplicity of installations that speculate and catalyze a disruption in the existing power imbalance in order to ensure democratization amongst all players of its volatile ecosystem.
(A Masters’ Thesis Project developed at the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg, South Africa by Olasumbo Olaniyi)
Surveillance is a phenomenon so powerful and definitive in the all-round formation of a city and country in its current phase, as well as in the future. In a city like Johannesburg (South Africa’s chief industrial and financial metropolis) – characterized by surveillance capitalism; with the flooding and installation of an estimate of 15,000 CCTV Cameras by the year 2019 (Swart, 2019), an everyday journey becomes a tool for great control. The presence of the surveillance camera threatens human nature, breaches the constitutional right documented in the South African Constitution and remains biased in the way it receives, analyses, transmits and stores information.
It functions in such a way that even after it has been deconstructed or probably removed; it leaves a permanent effect (post-traumatic) on the surroundings, agents and institutions that are produced. This has caused imbalance in the state of security as suburbs, streets and systems have become enclaves with controlled access and exit as ‘’there is really no decision-making involved, you have no freedom to vary the route and no real control other than to stop or to go’’.
Looking is an everyday activity common to most of us, but seeing becomes a function of the generic biological piece (the eye) which is transformed into a mobile object in the sense that it essentially takes the visible world on a journey as wherever it works. The introduction of surveillance CCTV to combat rampant crime becomes a powerful proxy for the human being. Notwithstanding, the gaze of these advance tools of universal architecture of behavior restriction (CCTV) have been identified to be partly blind to variations – race, space, bodily movements and language.
The Control Room has defined architectural conventions but its power is largely dependent on the controller. The Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) Intelligence Operations center; obscure to many, sits within the Carlton Centre building (a brutalist building in the Heart of Johannesburg CBD, which in itself exudes an aggressive confrontational toughness and un-displaceable presence), operates as the center of Gauteng surveillance and is a form of institutional power.
It becomes a site rigorously explored in order to demystify this murky and robust field of surveillance, control and power, working across scales or geographical landscapes. This enabled revisiting the concepts of space, place and scale in order to question and map out broader possibilities of relearning, re-making and reshaping the future of surveillance. This site of investigation acts as the vessel to encapsulate a set of speculative architectural strategies and archetypes for the siting, programming and operations of a Peoples Control Room.
This project takes on surveillance in the city of Johannesburg, from an architectural lens, with a focus on passive and active means of surveillance, consequences of the existing forms of control and social contract manifestations in space. This is documented in a series of line arts, collages, ethnographic drawings and forensic investigations with the aim to disrupt, re-organize and recalibrate the power imbalance in volatile spaces to the extent that new social contracts are developed in the form of a lexicon using non-conventional architectural configurations.
The proposed archetypes adopt the technique of surprise to infiltrate, reproduce and acclimatize to identified political ecosystems (the host) based on curated principles. Thus, these metamorphic architectures are viewed as mobile political machinations designed to be catalysts for the revelation of obscure political happening when operating in and around the city.
Surveillance is everywhere and anywhere. Whether you like it or not, surveillance is a phenomenon that has come to stay and it is evolving as the world we live in is in a constant state of flux. The testing of these archetypes in site with an indigenous narrative provided evidence to imagining and re-imagining the future of surveillance. These unusual speculations also create the opportunity to debate and discuss about the future of universal architecture.
The unending combination of the archetypes in and around the city (from the macro scale of the city to the scale of the individual) becomes the new form of control center; Peoples Control Room. It takes into consideration a consolidation of accountability, human rights, access, power and social contracts in managing risk while disrupting the uni-directional operations mechanism of the digital panopticon as a form of counter-surveillance.
This ensures that the normal ‘custodians of sight’ are transformed into democratized spaces allowing the common man access to the inner workings of political spaces and agents, and the ability to question practices of politicism in such volatile spaces.
Courtesy of Olasumbo Olaniyi