A Community Art Project Turns the Lens Back on Government Surveillance

The Chicago-area art installation transforms thousands of government surveillance records of local Arabs and Muslims into an immersive community archive.

(Image courtesy of the Inverse Surveillance Project)

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For filmmaker Assia Boundaoui’s mostly-Arab American neighborhood in Bridgeview, Illinois, her feature-length 2017 documentary “The Feeling of Being Watched” was proof, after years of FBI surveillance of their community, that they were not simply paranoid.

“For as long as I can remember, everyone in my neighborhood has always felt that we were under government surveillance,” Boundaoui recalls. “As a journalist, I wanted to investigate and find out what happened.” Her reporting uncovered a secret FBI investigation code-named Operation Vulgar Betrayal, targeting the largely immigrant Arab and Muslim American communities just outside Chicago throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

It was the FBI’s largest domestic terrorism investigation in the U.S. before the Sept. 11 attacks. “And it was focused on my neighborhood,” Boundaoui says.

The film had its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It was broadcast by PBS, and won her several prestigious journalism awards and fellowships. But for Boundaoui, who is also MIT Open Documentary Lab and Knight Wallace Journalism Fellow, the film only underscored how much work was still needed to understand how invasive and racialized state surveillance had impacted her hometown.

This summer, from June 15 through July 9, she has been presenting an immersive community archive and art studio at the Zakat Foundation of America, a central institution of the Chicagoland Arab and Muslim community. The art installation is part of a larger initiative led by Boundaoui called the Inverse Surveillance Project.

The co-created new media art installation takes the form of a life-sized labyrinth, repurposing the thousands of government surveillance records Boundaoui uncovered in her investigation to serve “as a canvas” for an immersive community archive.

“Curating this immersive community archive is our communities’ unapologetic refusal to allow the racist, insidious and warped framing of the FBI’s Operation Vulgar Betrayal define our stories or impact how we see ourselves,” says Boundaoui’s sister Nouha, producer of the Inverse Surveillance Project. Through the community art project, they instead become a site of collective healing and a reclamation of their own narrative.

Through this living archiving project, Nouha Boundaoui says, their community is “reimagining what safety and healing can look like for us.” The project is also offering embroidery, arts and power building, and community healing workshops.

“We are deeply invested in portraying the richness, fullness, nuance, complexity, and beauty of our community on our own terms and rejecting the notion that we have to apologize, shrink, or assimilate our way into being accepted.”

While Assia Boundaoui was making her film, she filed Freedom of Information Act requests to receive the records the government had made of her community. She was denied the files. But after filing a successful lawsuit against the FBI, Boundaoui was granted access to 33,120 pages of records, decades worth of FBI documents — only to find that much of the information had been redacted.

“I had won. But I was still looking at thousands of pages of FBI documents full of black holes,” Boundaoui told media. “I was extraordinarily frustrated as a journalist, and felt I had hit a wall.” So she turned her frustration into power with the Inverse Surveillance Project.

Assia Boundaoui (Photo courtesy “The Feeling of Being Watched”)

Boundaoui and her team say they are using machine learning to create counter-archives, using historical knowledge of the FBI’s surveillance of other communities of color plus local community members’ recollections and lived experiences to fill in the redactions.

“I call it a hybrid documentary project because the question is: Where does the journalistic need for information for facts end and the emotional desire for meaning come in?” she asks. “When we’re looking at the redactions, it’s not to just predict what information might have been disappeared. It’s more than that. Meaning is important too.”

Participation for these workshops has been limited to Muslim- and or Arab-identifying people who have experienced state surveillance. The team invites other BIPOC individuals to visit the installation through July 9. Those who do not identify with these marginalized identities are asked to instead lend their support through a monetary donation.

Through the embroidery workshops, organizers say they aim to bring the community together to learn, relearn and practice embroidery and reflect how the somatic experience of embroidering can be nourishing and healing. Community members are contributing their own embroidered designs to a collaborative embroidery piece that will be a part of the Inverse Surveillance Project installation as later exhibited in museums throughout the country.

“Our workshop was inspired by the need for members of our community to have intentional time to reflect on their stories and share their stories in order to see the commonality in our experiences and the things that move or shape us,” said Sadia Nawab.

A Bridgeview community member and senior director of arts and culture for Chicago’s Inner-City Muslim Action Network, Nawab is helping lead one of the workshops along with her co-facilitator Maryam Salem, who educates people on how to engage with nature in the forests of the Chicagoland area.

“We collaborated to include a visualization in nature to practice being grounded in Earth with each other, and we also included a music making element for the sake of facilitating a creative and generative process together,” Nawab says.

Organizers say this community-oriented art and healing project is critical to help their neighborhood reclaim their own narrative in the way that they themselves experience it, as opposed to how outsiders perceived them through Operation Vulgar Betrayal.

“It is integral to this healing process to speak our stories out loud to honor each other,” Nawab says. “In witnessing, hearing, and receiving each other’s stories, memories, dreams, and desires, we are strengthening our community by deepening bonds and visioning a future together.”

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Tasmiha Khan is an independent writer in the Chicago area.

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Tags: chicagoart

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