Photography as Instrument
Old Walls and the New Era of Surveillance

Photo (detail): Tong Lam

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote German philosopher Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, of course, was not thinking about this in abstract. His untimely death in 1940, merely months after this line had been written, was just one too many tragic stories that unfolded in one of Europe’s darkest moments. And one does not to have travel back in time to witness the sinister aspect of the human past.

One can also contemplate the dark side of civilization in front of a giant concrete wall that sits silently on top of a mountain just a few hours’ drive outside of Beijing. Situated within a former secret military base, this concrete wall was the most prominent structure of Asia’s once largest Large Phased-Array Radar during the Cold War. With radar panels pointed directly toward Moscow, the radar was built in the 1970s to detect possible incoming ballistic missile attacks from the former Soviet Union, and was manned by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

Although this giant wall is not far away from the nearby tourist-infested Great Wall remnants—itself a monument of civilizational violence from another era—it has remained a mystery even long after its decommission in the early 1990s. Still, the ruins of this advanced warning radar station make us think of another Cold War ruins seven thousand kilometers away. On top of a hill named Teufelsberg in the western edge of Berlin is the former listening station built by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the 1960s and operated by the United States Army Security Agency. The primary function of this US military outpost was to monitor the radio signals of any military activities of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.

These two ruins sites, worlds apart, tell us that a global history of anxiety, fear, and paranoia cut across cultural and national boundaries. As such, they remind us that the Cold War was not just about a simplistic rivalry between the East and the West. Moreover, these ruins remind us how the Cold War was instrumental to the development of modern information technology that has drastic consequences in the contemporary world.

Today, even if old hostilities of the Cold War may have subsided, new tensions continue to rise. In other words, far from marking the end of history, the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has given rise to new violence, threats, and exploitation. In this even more fractured political and social world, the ever intensifying suspicions and anxieties are often triggered by the fear of the weak, religious minorities, and refugees, rather than large belligerent states. The threats of terrorism—real or imagined—have particularly authorized a surveillance and security regime that is unprecedented in scope and depth. As well, in a globalizing economy that does not know its limits, the neoliberal state and corporations have insatiable appetites for detailed information of our lives. Indeed, even though the modern form of government often seeks to remove itself from social programs and economic intervention, the state and transnational corporations have become more aggressive than ever in putting populations under surveillance. And the data mining technologies that collect our information are no longer just radars and satellites, but also include social media and everyday consumer products.

Ironically, it was because of the recent revelation about the NSA’s invasive surveillance program made by Edward Snowden, the derelict and long forgotten spying station in Teufelsberg has again generated public attention, becoming a popular site for dark tourism in Berlin. But to what degree we can unravel the secret history of the Cold War states by just looking at places such as the listening and radar stations in Berlin and Beijing respectively? What can the ruins of old surveillance infrastructures tell us about the new era of big data and total information?

This perhaps brings us back to Benjamin, who also wrote about the flâneur as a kind of explorer and connoisseur of the street. The modern photographer, too, is one such passionate spectator. In this respect, photography—itself a technology of surveillance—can be a useful tool for investigating the historical debris of our civilization. Photographs of these debris of history may not be able to provide sufficient context to unravel the secrecy of the surveillance state, but they still offer visual cues and raises political awareness. In short, in spite of the vastly asymmetrical power relationship and information gap between the state and its citizens, photography can be a tool for counter-surveillance. And it is perhaps through the cracks of these ruins, we can begin to hear the haunting sounds of human trauma and sufferings both from the past and the present.

The Goethe-Institut Toronto is presenting Tong Lam’s show, "Unseen, To Be Seen" as part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in the spring 2016, including an artist talk on 6 May.