Everything you do — the people you spend time with, the things you buy, the places you go, the things you watch, the things you scroll past — it's valuable data, according to Dinah Poellnitz, community engagement director at AjA Project.
"Someone is making money off it, and it's not you," said Poellnitz. "Let's teach you how you can make money off you. Let's teach you to have knowledge of yourself and take that ownership away from the surveillance. Like, you get to own it."
The AjA Project's new Counter Surveillance initiative began to take shape in fall 2020, when the City Heights-based arts nonprofit received an "Innovations and Intersections" grant from the California Arts Council.
The project recently kicked off with artist Kenya (Robinson) and a cohort of teaching artists from AjA and youth from United Women of East Africa, and is currently in a prototyping phase.
In the fall, the program will ultimately be taught by peer educators in the San Diego Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) program, empowering young people to teach each other how to successfully reclaim technology, as well as become leaders and educators themselves.
Counter surveillance when surveillance is in our pockets
The Counter Surveillance curriculum is designed to get youth aware of how technology is used to surveil them, and how normalized it is with the complete integration of social media and smartphones into young peoples' entire lives.
Poellnitz, who is also the co-founder of The Hill Street Country Club, said that the program first teaches students the makeup and value of their own data.
"That's a whole game changer. Can you imagine being in the JCCS system and learning that your data is currency and that you can control it once you know knowledge of yourself?" Poellnitz said.
Art historian, curator and lecturer Sara Solaimani manages the program for AjA. Both women have personal connections to the justice system, and are driven to find ways to step in where traditional pedagogy has failed, particularly with this Counter Surveillance program.
"It also acts as an experiment to prove something, that, 'look, these kids are actually too smart for our dumbed down, played out pedagogies,'" said Solaimani. "So it also balances that power hierarchy and that structure of just trying things out on poor kids of color. It actually comes from a place of truly empowering them from the very process of the design of the pedagogy itself."
Students who go through the program can then become teaching artists, and they're paid as hourly employees with AjA.
"Once again, it's about currency," Poellnitz said. "And identity and empowering them the opportunity to earn a wage and be a leader, and owning that narrative about themselves. Like taking back their identity in that moment and teaching their peers the same skills."
Kenya (Robinson)'s infiltrating art
Poellnitz brought on Gainesville, Florida-based artist Kenya (Robinson) to develop the curriculum.
(Robinson), who styles her last name with parentheses, identifies as a community-taught artist, though after dropping out of college she did eventually receive an MFA from Yale.
Her conceptual art works often involve an element of performance and infiltration, whether in toting a mattress around as a serial overnight guest, or keeping a small plastic figure of a white man in her pocket as a way of being conscious of privilege ("#WHITEMANINMYPOCKET"). She's also created a line of "book objects" called "#HOODTALES," inspired by urban fiction books she used to buy from street vendors in New York in the early 2000s. Another project, "Blixel: The (Re)Stock Image Project" aims to expand stock photography inclusivity.
"Art historically is a tool for propaganda, for the state or for white males. So why art? Because we have to invert it. We have to infiltrate, and we have to reverse that gaze back and allow people to — empower people to look through the lens that's surveilling them."
On Blackness and surveillance
Coupled with her fully immersive approach to art and a background in arts education with the Brooklyn Children's Museum, she also has a deep understanding of the social and tech roots of surveillance.
"One of the things that I think that it's really important to recognize in terms of surveillance, particularly as a Black embodied person, is that the train has already left the station on that. The cultural affect of Blackness is in many ways in response to surveillance," (Robinson) said. "There is this affect of Blackness that you got to keep it real, that authenticity is like a currency for your participation in the group. And for a long time I thought that that was like a choice that I was making, that the culture was making — when I also have to contend with the fact that authenticity, that kind of expectation of disclosure is really a method of surveillance: that you don't have to ask me the question if I'm revealing to you all of this stuff."
(Robinson) said that the Internet is condensing this disclosure-surveillance loop.
"Maybe we can use this counter surveillance project as a way to strengthen some muscles," she said.
In the program, the teaching artists will focus on three categories: identity, currency and strategy.
One of the tools used in the program is what (Robinson) calls the "Scroll Call." In part of the session, rather than resisting the urge to idly browse social feeds on their phones, the students lean into it and record their scrolling session. Then, they watch the playback.
"Scroll Call" is an example of digging into surveillance in a physically present way — (Robinson) said that being more aware of their bodies and who they are is a big part of fighting surveillance. The students also try to discern whether their interests are their actual interests. Another approach in the curriculum is observing and becoming aware of interruptions and distractions.
"So much of this stuff is like a fractal. It's like two mirrors looking at each other into infinity. So you might as well practice it, because that's what's being imposed upon you. And maybe because you are being thoughtful about it, you can discover something important about yourself," (Robinson) said.
Counter surveillance is a broad sociological and technological topic, and this program tackles it in an art-based curriculum. For Solaimani, it's a natural merger.
"Art historically is a tool for propaganda, for the state or for white males. So why art? Because we have to invert it. We have to infiltrate, and we have to reverse that gaze back and allow people to — empower people to look through the lens that's surveilling them," Solaimani said.
Poellnitz added that for the younger generation, they're already using art in making memes, and posts.
"Their whole world is covered in art," she said. "It's just an opportunity to have those conversations in any room, including the Internet. It's not that deep for me. Our students are interested in art. If they understand how they can use art to make a statement, I'm for it."
The public is invited to observe the current student-led cohort's presentation of their class project, "DearSanDiegoCityCouncil.com," using (Robinson)'s curriculum and inspired by TRUST Coalition and Pillars. The class will be livestreamed on the AjA Project Instagram Live at 5-7 p.m. on July 11, 2022.