Ana Viseu on Fri, 27 Sep 2002 19:16:35 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> DECONtamination CONtagium

[This article was first published on Mindjack 
<> Best. ana]

DECONtamination CONtagium
By Ana Viseu

The invitation for DECONference: DECONstructing DECONtamination [1] 
(Toronto 29.08.2002) read: "Decontamination prior to entry. Complimentary 
attire will be provided. Bring no valuables." At 7PM around 60 conference 
attendees congregated outside a building in downtown Toronto and began 
submitting themselves to what would become a long line of bureaucratic 
procedures. The first one was familiar and benign: a line up. It took more 
than an hour for all of us to be registered, and sign a two page document 
waiving all our rights while attending the event.

Each of us was then asked to take off the shoes, put them in a clear 
plastic bag and wear a "Evidence" tag which indicated the degree to which 
we were contaminated in four possible states: Minor, Delayed (can follow 
simple commands), Immediate (life threatening injury) and Morgue.

With the plastic bag in our hand, the tag dangling around the neck and no 
shoes we were asked to wait in a rather hot and stuffy room (the heat 
probably wasn't programmed by the organizers but the lack of ventilation 
certainly added flavour to the unfolding drama). Inside this completely 
white room Arthur Kroker and Derrick de Kerckhove introduced the event with 
two short speeches. Kroker emphasized the increasing power of institutional 
and global surveillance and control practices. We live in a world in which 
some individuals are increasingly willing to accept being subject to all 
sorts of invasive practices in the hope that this protects them from 
unfocused security fears, while others are forced to accept these same 
rules if they have any hopes of making it to the world of the first. 
Security paranoia and the practices of economic exclusion go hand in hand 
and leave little space for personal choices.

De Kerckhove focused on the another aspect of contamination/decontamination 
procedures. He spoke of decontamination as a cathartic process in which 
individuals are not mere spectators but actors. Like in a Greek tragedy, 
adversity held the promise of uniting us as we strived to achieve a common 
goal. The event had already started and we were all actively participating 
in it. (In fact, the speed in which the first group of people volunteered 
to go first indicated that people were very keen to collaborate).

After everyone was registered and the introductory speeches were over, 
decontamination officers in yellow protective overalls led the first group 
of twelve contaminated individuals into a room containing a table with 
towels, surveillance cameras, a glass ceiling, and a talking computer that 
endlessly repeated the following message in the most soothing voice: "You 
will feel better when stripping." This is exactly what the officers told us 
to do and after a moment of awkwardness it is what we did: take off all our 
clothes and accessories, put them into the plastic and hand everything over 
to yet another officer for storage.

Naked, we waited, lining up against the wall, until everyone had completed 
this step. We were then led to the shower room, where the real 
decontamination was about to start. The shower facility was remote 
controlled through motion detectors, no human presence needed. The actual 
shower was short and painless - the water was pleasantly warm. Afterwards 
each attendee was handed a (paper) towel and was asked to stand in front a 
scanner that took a digital impression of his/her body and displayed it on 
the computer with an indication of the size of the attire he/she should be 
given: a white protective plastic coverall with the brand name TYVEX 
printed in the chest.

Like in any other institutional procedure there were some of us who managed 
to smuggle in the most diverse objects: cigarettes, watches, underwear, 
etc. This was done through a process of begging and delicate reasoning with 
the guards, and gave a sense of reality to the drama we were now involved 
in. Women, on average, were much more inventive when it came to tweaking 
the procedure to their own needs, the men went through more docilely.

Dressed in nothing but white plastic overalls, we were led upstairs into a 
balcony to meet our fellow decontaminees: a group of white, barefooted 
aliens who, contrary to what would be expected seemed comfortable and 
happy. Perhaps we were all just happy that we had made it through.

 From the roof, looking down on us, came two more speeches, by Steve Mann 
and Steve Kurtz, dressed in the yellow suits marking them as "officials." 
Mann, the main organizer of the event, discussed our experience in 
(de)cyborgization terms. Our technologies - clothes, cell phones, watches - 
are extensions of the body that complement us, we are all cyborgs now. The 
State fears us, our cyborg bodies, forcing us to undergo cleansing. With 
this cleansing we are returned to a natural, pristine state, that leaves us 
powerless. Quoting Foucault - the Government loves the plague - Mann argued 
security scares exacerbate (and make visible) the authoritarian tendencies 
of all governments.

Steve Kurtz, who seemed rather bewildered by the whole spectacle, spoke 
down on us about forced decontamination and holding facilities- which are 
currently being set up in some US air force bases for up to 500'000 people 
- as being the hard end of authoritarianism and 'cleansing'. He warned us 
against a more dangerous side, the soft end of the same logic, that comes 
disguised in the vocabulary of consumerism and convenience.

Afterwards, by now it was about 10PM, we were led into yet another room 
where, finally, something to eat and drink was provided. The evening was 
scheduled to end with one-on-one philosophical discussions on the docility 
with which our society is falling prey to "for our own good" surveillance 
measures. But everyone was simply too elated and, relieved to have reached 
the end the cathartic process, immediately proceeded to drink copious 
amounts of wine. Standing around in our white bunny-suits, the atmosphere 
shifted definitely from that of a penal colony to one of a pajama party.

As a site for social and political experimentation with individual 
boundaries DECONference was extremely successful. It pushed us to the limit 
and proved just how flexible and acceptant the decontamination contagium we 
can be. In true Steve Mann style it was technologically advanced and fully 
functional, giving the dramatic performance a sense of reality. However, 
there were also some conceptual ambiguities giving it room for improvement.

While for most of us the experience of full decontamination is a once in a 
lifetime experience, soft-surveillance, the practice of exclusion and 
categorization under a logic of consumption, is a pervasive and effective 
instrument in the surveillance/security landscape. For instance, in North 
America having a credit card is one of the best sources of institutional 
and commercial recognition. A credit card is the de facto material essence 
of a human existence. As a pre-requisite to this recognition, rights must 
be signed off, the right of disclosure given to someone else. This strategy 
is systematically used in all sorts of interactions, both with commercial 
and institutional entities. The ensuing power inequalities become an 
intrinsic part of the relationship and of the larger system.

DECONference organizer's missed a good opportunity to flesh out this 
combined use of hard-surveillance procedures and soft-surveillance 
strategies in the struggle for 'security' and control. This all the more 
unfortunate because both mechanisms were readily available and in place at 
DECONference. To enter the premises all attendees were asked to release 
personal information and sign a rights-waiver. Those who refused to do it 
were denied entry, excluded from participation. But these were the 
minority, most of us did signed both without thinking twice, and probably 
still have no idea what we signed in to or how our personal information 
will be treated. The rights-waiver was written in legalese and included 
clauses ranging from intellectual property to reverse engineering, 
limitations of liability and accountability. (In fact, as I read through it 
now, I realize that the writing of this essay maybe against the general 
terms of the 'agreement'. I'll find out soon if this is the case.)

I would have liked to see these issues better explored throughout the 
event: How are different surveillance strategies being used to create 
docile, indexed citizens and consumers? How are we dependent on them to 
become fully recognized individuals? And finally, What strategies, if any, 
are at our disposal to fight back?

Fighting back, finding counter surveillance measures was not part of the 
event's design. Some of us did make it part of our personal agenda and 
tried to subvert the system by smuggling illegal objects in. But we were 
moved by individualistic and egocentric reasons, in my case smoking a 
cigarette. In fact, this was my greatest disappointment with the event: 
DECONference exposed problems but offered no solutions. Is there any space 
left to resist the systematic implementation of surveillance systems? A 
DECONtamination CONtainment event should be the next step in the agenda.

The author thanks the comments by Felix Stalder

[1] <>

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