by Amber Officer-Narvasa
In the summer of 2018, artists Fannie Sosa and niv acosta created Black Power Naps, an installation that invited Black people to revel in the pleasure and necessity of being idle. The interactive space featured a “holy procrastination station,” a waterbed and a mirror which could only be seen if the viewer was lying down. Discussing their motivations for this piece, the artists pointed to the unending labor that has been demanded of Black people from slavery to the present day, an inherited lack of sleep that is only compounded by the conditions of transit inequalities, environmental racism, and low-wage work.1 There is so much keeping us from laying our heads down to rest. Or, as an online image posted by acosta asked, “MUST WE BE DEAD TO REST IN PEACE?”
As much as Black Power Naps centers the joy and unexpectedness of reprieve, it is necessarily in deep conversation with a language of tiredness, exhaustion, and loss. It is this weariness, this resigned indignation already too tired for itself (“must we?”), that struck me as I looked through the images for Sosa and acosta’s project. We know that we live in a world that actively promotes Black burnout and death, but must we?
Recently, I decided to find out about some of the more opaque methods of policing that I witnessed in my neighborhood. I wanted to know if there was any ostensible set of rules that decided when the Skywatch tower appeared on that corner of Lincoln Place, and when it just as mysteriously disappeared. Even though I knew that things were likely to remain unexplained, that the combination of a historically Black neighborhood and new white money was enough to justify any method of policing, I wanted to see if I could learn more about what was watching me and the people I love. When I went looking for discussions of the surveillance mechanisms present in every aspect of Black peoples’ lives, I found echoes of the same tiredness I heard in acosta and Sosa’s work. Both insurrectionary and worn in its expression, this tiredness points to the fact that surveillance technology provides one of the most pressing and ubiquitous reasons why we (still) cannot rest. Referring to the 2014 New York Police Department floodlight initiative that was instituted in housing complexes with largely Black and brown populations, Brooklyn resident Adilka Pimentel said, “It’s overwhelming. The lights shine into people’s rooms, making it hard for them to sleep.”2
As numerous studies have shown, people who are exposed to artificial light throughout the night are more likely to experience health concerns such as sleep disorders, cardiovascular issues, and cancer.3 And yet, public discussions about NYPD floodlight technology and the policing strategy known as “omnipresence” often focus on questions of criminality and safety: what actually reduces crime, who is being policed, whether surveillance facilitates or disrupts the safety of vulnerable neighborhoods. Instead of seeing sleep disruptions and other health issues as unfortunate side effects of policing, what would happen if we insisted on centering the embodied experiences of being Black and surveilled in our discussions of floodlight technologies? What would happen if we imagined, for even one moment, that the ability of a Black person to get a full night’s rest could be the most important thing, the key to any analysis of urban surveillance? If we also considered that oppression works not only on the level of incarceration and the policing of public space, but also on our bodies and circadian rhythms themselves?
Light as a form of violence
After stop-and-frisk policing became an increasingly contentious issue in the 2013 New York City mayoral elections, the city’s police department turned to a set of unclear and ill-defined tactics known collectively as “omnipresence.” What set omnipresence apart from the earlier, tactile methods of stop-and-frisk is that this new strategy takes a panoptical approach to policing Black and brown communities. Rather than the continuous presence of cops walking through neighborhoods or racially profiling individuals, omnipresence seems to catalyze the reproduction of terror precisely through its chimeric qualities. Like the floodlights sometimes stationed on Franklin Avenue when I exit my local train station or the Skywatch tower that I pass on the corner of my block, the technologies of omnipresence emphasize distance and remove. They are surveillance apparatuses for an era of drones and CCTV cameras, machines which teach us to live with the continual possibility of being watched from far away. While the use of such technologies in my neighborhood is repeated but unpredictable, mimicking the volatility of a rapidly gentrifying community, the presence of floodlights throughout the city has been explicitly mandated in several municipal policies. In 2014, Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration released a document detailing a plan to invest $1.5 million in “exterior lighting” at selected New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complexes with statistically high levels of crime.4 Two years later, the mayor authorized 400 additional outdoor lights at NYCHA housing locations throughout New York City, as part of a six-month study. Long after the study was supposed to end, outdoor lights remain a mainstay of policing in historically Black and brown neighborhoods.5
The NYPD routinely uses floodlights that exceed the American Medical Association’s outdoor light temperature guidelines, and scientists have warned that the continuous floodlight presence could have a harmful impact on people’s wellbeing.6 Residents of affected neighborhoods have reported experiencing sleep and vision difficulties since the advent of increased outdoor light surveillance. Despite the city’s claims that lighting will help reduce “violent crime” and create stronger communities, large-scale studies have suggested that outdoor lighting has no significant effect on achieving these purported goals.7
These may all seem like common-sense arguments against the use of floodlights. However, if we are to fully understand the role of floodlights and other omnipresence strategies, we must also question the basis of what we believe to be common sense. Existing research on outdoor lighting shows no significant reduction in violent crime, but more importantly, the categories of crime and violence themselves have been created through the historical dispossession of Black people. Slave patrols were among the first police forces in the United States. Modern ideas of property and ownership were forged from the brutality of the Middle Passage and the transatlantic slave trade.8 The use of technology to surveil, target, and incarcerate Black people is generally considered neither criminal nor violent.9 The categories of wrongdoing and harm that are currently deployed by the NYPD and municipal government do not have any absolute value, and in fact would would mean nothing without the continual and confounding existence of Black life.
In order to address the work done by omnipresence technologies such as outdoor floodlights, we must acknowledge that surveillance was never about reducing criminality or violence to begin with. Surveillance has always been about Black life, about controlling and regulating the inherent threat that Black people pose to a genocidal state. We can see a direct link from floodlight technology to lantern laws in colonial New York which mandated that no “Black or Indian slave” could be caught after dark without a lantern or lit candle. As Simone Browne writes in Dark Matters: The Surveillance of Blackness, these laws marked the bodies of Black and indigenous people as public security risks who were in need of monitoring and control. Such practices, whether in colonial New York or the present day, mandate the Black body into a state of perpetual, coerced illumination. Drawing links between the light shone on prisoners during solitary confinement and other light-based practices of surveillance, Browne uses the phrase “black luminosity” to describe “a form of boundary maintenance occurring at the site of the black body, whether by candlelight, flaming torch, or the camera flashbulb that documents the ritualized terror of a lynch mob.”10 In each of these examples, it is light which must delineate the outline of the Black body, rendering obsolete any unknowability, any fugitive possibilities that may be contained within a Black person’s physical being. Any capacity to slip unseen under the cover of darkness must be destroyed. By striving to “know” Blackness through the act of imposed illumination, the state seeks to neutralize the dangerous, world-ending potential of Black people moving freely through space.
As we can see from both historical and present-day examples, the technology of surveillance works upon the internal systems of Black peoples’ bodies, branding our sleep cycles property of the state. The global systems of terror that manifest as police departments and prisons and interrogation sites rest upon our sleepless nights. The constant watching and measuring, the training of the lens and the looking closer, the murder and disappearance of loved ones. Our bodies become too luminous for sleep to bear.
The freedom to rest
From candlelights to floodlights, solitary confinement cells to the streets of our neighborhoods, the question remains: where can we lay our bodies safely down to sleep? Must we be dead, to rest in peace? Viewed within the larger context of Browne’s Black luminosity and the growth of biometric surveillance technology, floodlights are simply one among many ways that visual regimes of watching are intimately connected to the systematic degradation of Black peoples’ bodies and health. If a Black person’s ability to get a full night’s rest were the most important thing, the structures keeping us awake, unwell, and dying could not be allowed to go on.
But the funny thing about forced illumination is that the possibilities of Black being and relation are so expansive as to always exceed the capacity of a floodlight. To illuminate someone’s physical form is simply to render them legible, not to know them in their entirety. Our bodies in relief give away nothing about how we love, how we remember, how we create moments of respite for each other in the embattled spaces of ourselves.
In September 2018, I attended the opening of an exhibit by the New York-based BUFU collective called “Solidarity is Possible but Not Inevitable,” where I was also showing work. The artist Malcolm-x Betts set up an inflatable mattress in the middle of the gallery space, accompanied by printed “Comfort Scores” that considered the necessity and impossibility of Black people in repose. “How do we honor ourselves by getting rest?” one of the scores asked.
“Hearing the sound of another’s heart beat while you lay on their chest, the sweet sounds of moans while we are in moments of lust…
Close Your Eyes…”
We will keep searching for places to lay our bodies down. We will keep holding each other while we sleep, anyway.
Amber Officer-Narvasa is a writer and researcher interested in visual archives, surveillance studies, and new media art. Amber’s work can be found online at the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, Arts.Black, and Entropy Magazine, among others.
- acosta, niv and Sosa, Frannie. niv acosta and Fannie Sosa in conversation with Damien Davis” Interviewed by Damien Davis. Performa, 1 March 2018. ↩
- Surico, John. “Omnipresence Is the Newest NYPD Tactic You’ve Never Heard Of.” Vice, 20 Oct 2014. ↩
Chepesiuk, Ron. “Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution.” Environmental Health Perspectives, Jan 2009;
Ohayon, Maurice M. et al. Artificial Outdoor Nighttime Lights Associate with Altered Sleep Behavior in the American General Population.”Sleep, 1 Jun 2016. ↩
- New York City Hall Press Office. FACT SHEET: Making New York City’s Neighborhoods and Housing Developments Safer.” nyc.gov, 8 July 2014. ↩
- Inserra, Jonah. “Cities 101: Why Are NYPD Floodlights Illuminating NYC Parks and Housing Developments?” Untapped Cities, 7 March 2018. ↩
- Chiel, Ethan. “Police Floodlights are Unlikely to Reduce Crime, But Could Harm Your Health.” Motherboard, 25 Feb 2017. ↩
- Steinbach, Rebecca et al. “The effect of reduced street lighting on road casualties and crime in England and Wales: controlled interrupted time series analysis.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Nov 2015. ↩
- Farley, Anthony. “Perfecting Slavery.” Digital Commons@Boston College Law School, 27 Jan 2005. ↩
See Lartey, Jamiles. Memphis police accused of using fake accounts to surveil black activists.” The Guardian, 1 Aug 2018;
Anderson, William C. “Speech is Never Free in a World of Racist Surveillance and Repression.” Truthout, 30 May 2018. ↩
- Browne, Simone. [Dark matters: On the surveillance of blackness](https://www.dukeupress.edu/dark-matters(https://www.dukeupress.edu/dark-matters) Duke University Press, 2015. ↩