Artist Interview: Stefy McKnight, Creator of “Hunting for Prey.”
We’re happy to present the next conversation in our series featuring the creative work of artists engaging with surveillance issues. Today’s post comes from an interview with Stéfy McKnight, whose piece “Hunting for Prey” received an honorable mention for the inaugural Surveillance Studies Network (SSN) Arts Fund Prize in 2018. (This interview was conducted by Will Partin, an editorial assistant at Surveillance & Society.)
Could you talk a little bit about your inspirations for the piece and where it fits within your larger artistic trajectory?
In general, my practice looks at the methodology of research creation. I don’t consider myself specifically just an artist. I’m more of a scholar-artist or an artist-scholar. And, normally, I look at surveillance in a broader context in Canada. I started by looking at the post-9/11 period, but my work has expanded a little bit to look at surveillance as a tool for colonization. For this project, specifically — my master’s project for cultural studies at Queen’s University — my supervisor and I worked towards expanding notions of surveillance in unconventional landscapes, especially in rural areas.
I grew up in a really rural town that had a population of maybe 500. What I saw happening in the last couple of years was landowners using surveillance technologies — hunting cameras — to protect their property from trespassers and animals. That’s something they’ve been doing for a very long time with more traditional mechanisms such as some signs and such, but those are more of a deterrent-based mechanism. But now, there’s a shift in technology, mainly because it’s something that has become more mainstream and more accessible in terms of cost. So this work is part of a larger body of work called “Organic Surveillance,” which looks at a little bit of the history, in this town specifically, of the use of surveillance in different forms for different purposes.
What kind of effects has the implementation of these more modern modes of surveillance had on the community there?
One of the things that I’ve acknowledged through the research is that, if you looked at the interviews that I’ve done, the most common response was that they wanted a face to the interlopers. One of the biggest problems is that interlopers will come into a private area not knowing when they’ve crossed that boundary. Either they’ll go four-wheeling or they’ll have a fire or they’ll do some hunting, and then they’ll just leave. This ensures that there’s a method of capturing the fact that somebody actually has been there, and also of being able to have their information or their face so that the landowners have an option to do something about it afterwards. There’s a shift right now with people publicly … I don’t want to say shaming … but actually posting images captured from these surveillance technologies and putting them on Facebook and saying “Hey, do you know this person?”
There’s actually this Facebook post that was circulating around the same time as I was doing my research of a person who captured someone stealing their hunting camera with another hunting camera. Then they posted that shot online for people to try to find out who the thief was. These communities are very small, and there’s obviously the notion of neighborhood watch. People tend to know who’s in and out, and if someone’s in that they don’t recognize, that tends to be something that they will investigate further.
Beyond that, it’s accessibility in terms of cost, as well. You can get a hunting camera nowadays on Amazon for about $80. And it can be attached right to your cell phone, it can be attached to your television, so you can go through your phone or television to see what’s happening in real time. And they are solar-operated, so they don’t need to be on 24/7. They can be sensored, they can see in the dark. They’re good for pretty much — depending on the model — for any type of weather conditions. People use them in the winter, during the spring. So it becomes very useful, more so than the traditional kind of CCTV camera or security system. And because you can place them anywhere, if you have a bunch of acres, just put them anywhere on a tree and you’re good to go.
Once viewers have seen your work, how do you want them to react? Is the goal to give them a position “for” or “against” this practice of surveillance, or is it largely informational?
That’s a good question. It’s all political, but, for this project, I wasn’t really geared towards “for” or “against.” It was more about promoting an awareness of the culture of surveillance shifting to a point where it exceeds the governmental, or the data mining, or even the urban type of surveillance. Because one of the things I also was looking at was, when you speak to people in urban areas, they’re used to surveillance. It’s come to the point where they’re complacent because they see cameras all the time. But then you have people who purposely go and live in rural, “wild” areas.
This is all coming from a Canadian context, where people think they’re going back to nature, that it’s actually “a thing.” That when you go back into these spaces, you think you’re removing yourself from these urban practices. But they’re still there. Surveillance has become a culture of our bodies, of our citizenship, no matter where we get placed, or where we place ourselves. It’s part of our everyday mechanisms. It’s becoming evident even in some of our more hidden, remote areas.
And it’s happening in rural areas more than you would think. Some of my work looks at drone and drone legislation in Canada, and how there are a lot of rules, at least in Ontario, about where you can fly your drones. It seems as though they’re almost pushing people into these more nature-like places because you can’t fly drones recreationally by airports, or anywhere public. It seems the only place we can really recreationally fly something without necessarily being worried is in the middle of nowhere. You can see that through the artwork, and through the legislation, that the more we push people out of areas, or we think they can escape, their practices will inevitably follow them into rural areas as well.
What is the relationship between your art and your scholarly work you’re doing on surveillance? Are they parallel projects, or is more like making your arguments material?
As I mentioned earlier, I work through the methodology of research creation. This is several terms — some people think of it as creative research, or practice lab research, or the creation of a cultural object or artwork that produces knowledge. As I’m producing art, I’m also doing the work of creating new knowledge that hasn’t necessarily been explored in the same … I would say “traditional” framework by scholars.
An example of that is, while I was doing this project I did interviews, as there was a big lack of scholarly work in this field when I was doing it. But before I did these interviews, I spent a very long time documenting the surveillance processes and creating projects based off of it. So I did the drone footage, I made the installation, I thought of the concept of ‘Hunting for Prey’ before really even writing or theorizing or even doing the interviews. So it’s really a process of creation that tackles both at the same time. They’re not separate.
It’s a little ambiguous, as this is still a fairly new field in North America. But there are several scholars who are writing about the potential of research creation as being a method of making knowledge that isn’t just possible in writing. So there are some things that are just so visual, so important to see, to understand through affect, that some things are better left unwritten. So this is something that’s still being negotiated. That’s why I’m happy that I’m able to explore that as it’s becoming a new field. There’s a conversation in surveillance studies right now about some of the best ways or practices that are encouraging methods like ethnography. I’m using images and actual visual text as a method of finding the facts, so I think that’s a fascinating parallel in surveillance studies.
Can you say a little bit about the theorists of surveillance upon whom you’re drawing? Or using to conceptualize and act upon surveillance?
The first one was really that one article [“Surveillance and/of Nature”] by Kevin Haggerty and Daniel Trottier was the biggest one — that spoke to the concept in a broad way. I come from cultural studies, so I looked at Foucault a bit, and some of the ideas around deterrence. Because I think deterrence was really one of the biggest shifts in what I would theorize as “organic surveillance.” I was also interested in Brian Massumi, because he published a book around the same time I was doing my research called Ontopower that really outlined some of the differences between deterrence and preemption. For myself, I found that there was this shift between deterrence mechanisms — so, as I said, the signs, the red dots, the ways of marking property — and preemption, what would happen after those markers don’t work. How do you stop the trespassers after they’ve done from the deterrence markers? That’s really where the cameras came in. And that’s where the theory came in.
There were some environmental people that I looked at as well. There was this lovely diagram of what it really meant to be “in the wild.” Like, so you have your urban area, and what it meant to be outside of the urban areas. It was really interesting to be able to theorize at what point do people, as they move to camping areas or seasonal living, start to see themselves as outside the urban area. And, finally, I looked some more recent Canadian theorists who talk about myths, as well as Daniel Francis, who talks about what it means to be in nature an to the mythology of what it means to be Canadian.
Is there anything else you think is very important for viewers to understand about the work?
I want to talk about the work in the context of the installation. So, the work itself, if you look at it through a photograph, it doesn’t necessarily get the full picture because it was an installation. There were some points to the work that needed to be addressed in terms of being an artist in that space. The work itself was the camera on some sticks, or piece of brush, that would replicate what it would like if it were actually installed. As viewers came into the gallery space, the camera would turn on, pick up their movement, and then be replicated on a screen. Then they’d see themselves on the screen.
What I was hoping would happen there is a couple of things. At first, because the camera was a bit camouflaged, people weren’t exactly sure where the video was coming from. They weren’t sure what was watching them, partly because there was this bear head parallel to the screen and they thought there was some type of hidden camera in the bear head. Which was funny, because if you looked at the screen, the camera was right beside it. The people were questioning where that was coming from. And, also, there were some viewers who weren’t sure if this was being recorded — it wasn’t recorded, it was all live. And so, as soon as they would leave, it would be gone, but there was that — just being able to understand the technology from the perspective of both the surveilled and the surveillee. Because in every context of surveillance people don’t actually get to see the back end. They don’t get to see how it works. With this surveillance in rural areas, you hear so much about these cameras, and you might see these cameras, but you never actually get the chance to see yourself, unless the owner shows it to you. So this was an opportunity for viewers to see both of them at the same time, so that they would not only understand the context of the technology, how it’s used, how it can be used, etc., but also their relationship — or the trespassers’ relationship — to that technology.