Our exposition has been curated in relation to the following themes and concepts: Gorilla Park: What’s at stake (context), invisible/visible, the overheard, siting/citing surveillance, and performative and affirmative ethics as artistic research praxis. By overlaying maps of Gorilla Park, we created a digital landscape that hosts each theme. Our texts foreground the plurality of our collective writing, as well as the performative and artistic works (the audio and the videos) that also correspond to the concepts we are reflecting on. Our themes are numbered, although each can be seen as a fragment, and we suggest moving through them chronologically. The route you choose to take, however, is entirely up to you. Additionally, scattered throughout the digital landscape you will find an assortment of soundscapes that were recorded with the DIY instrument BICHO (created by Eduardo Perez) at Gorilla Park, as well as poems (written by artist-collaborator christian scott martone donde). Our exposition has been designed to trace and map the fragments of a larger collective and critical reflection on modes of undertaking artistic research in a contested urban landscape.
Our attunement to the inaudible frequencies circulating around Gorilla Park and our embodied experience of the invisible/visible forces of urban change taking place in Mile-Ex, and specifically on the borders of Gorilla Park by technology-focused stakeholders, opened a door to broader questions about the ways that smart technologies and surveillance are mediating and codifying the cultural production of urban spaces.
The distinction between the site of Gorilla Park and the big tech corporations that now occupy its border is important: edges are always sites of meaning. We knew when we started to engage with Gorilla Park that the site’s indeterminacy mobilised community activists and local stakeholders to make public their concerns for the site’s future. Although various corporate stakeholders moving into the area are documented in the dialogues concerning Gorilla Park’s future, the central focus of community activities has been on the preservation of the 500m stretch of land as a space for ecological diversity, local gathering, community activities, and public accessibility. As such, we were interested in focusing our research on the invisibility of algorithmic governance on the site, and with questions of surveillance capitalism. And while our focus in this exposition is not expressly focused on defining these terms, our reflection on this theme has been informed by Shoshanna Zuboff’s concept of surveillance capitalism (2019), which focuses on operations that are engineered to be undetectable and undecipherable to obfuscate their profit-driven objectives (ibid.: 177). We also want to address how we were complicit with surveillance activities while gathering data from Gorilla Park: using Google Earth imagery, our own smartphone technology, and with BICHO as a tool of artistic research for making audible the overheard sonic frequencies resonating throughout the site. While we were unable to determine what specific inaudible and technological frequencies were present in the site, as a performative tool BICHO revealed to us a sonic agency that slips under our human sensory threshold. BICHO also opened a space for us to critically engage with questions of surveillance capitalism and the inherent characteristic of undetectability, making us keenly aware of the complex web of imperceptible information circulating through our built environments, and how this information is often co-opted for capitalistic gain.
Our embodied engagement with the site was also mediated through our own smartphone use. We recorded our in-situ conversations, used Google Maps to locate ourselves, and took pictures and videos of one another. We literally ‘dragged’ our data footprints into Gorilla Park. In view of CCTV cameras, carefully and visibly placed on multiple surfaces of the site’s surroundings, we knowingly (and playfully) participated in the surveillance of the site (see Merx 2017; Morrison 2013), and of ourselves. Our knowing participation was an uncomfortable reality. But as Zuboff (2019: 159) explains, the information that we knowingly ‘give’ companies like Google is in fact the least important information they collect from us. The most profitable information for Google, the pioneer of surveillance capitalism, comes in the form of behavioural surplus, or the collateral data that is collected in our everyday technological interactions that goes beyond what is needed for service and product improvement. As Zuboff argues, ‘it’s what they can lift from these behavioural flows that gives them tremendous predictive power, and it’s different from what we kn[o]w we [are] giving them’ (quoted in Kulwin 2019).
When the pandemic arrived, and we could no longer move freely in the city or safely visit the site together, we turned to Google Earth to explore the site from a bird’s eye view. In contrast to the obfuscated – yet no less nefarious – data mining of big tech, the hyper-visual medium of Google Earth played the role of a compelling counterpoint to BICHO’s soundscapes and our own performative and embodied experience of the site. Using Google Earth’s history tool, we traced the site’s urban morphology back to the 1980s and discovered (despite the significant changes that have occurred on this site) that Google’s rendering of the swath of land depicts a site relatively unchanged. In 2004 Google acquired Keyhole, a CIA-backed satellite mapping company, and began working on the development of its now well-known and controversial street view project (Zuboff 2019: 190). As Zuboff explains, ‘everything in the world was to be known and rendered by Google, accessed through Google and indexed by Google in its infinite appetite for behavioral surplus. The presumption is that nothing is beyond Google’s borders’ (ibid.: 229).
Google Earth also became a performative tool of engagement for us to mediate our experience of Gorilla Park remotely. As shown in this exposition, artist-collaborator Katrina Jurjans remediated Google Earth imagery, and paired these visuals as fragments with BICHO’s sonic mapping, performed by Eduardo Perez, combining our conversations recorded on site with our zoom meetings and site-specific video and photo documentation. Co-opting Google Earth in this way became a way for us ‘to point out the critical and subversive nature of [our] project and how digital surveillance technologies can be used to create alternative regimes of visibility and participation’ (Merx 2017: 158–59). These alternative regimes of participation firmly aligned with our wider methodological approach and Rosi Braidotti’s concept of affirmative ethics.
video features authors christian scott martone donde, Katrina Jurjans, Shauna Janssen and Eduardo Perez; workshop collaborators Niels Jørgen Gommesen and Kristine Samson and philosopher and scholar Shoshanna Zuboff (public domain interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QL4bz3QXWEo&t=6s)
Artist-collaborator Eduardo Perez sonically mapped the inaudible frequencies circulating around the site of Gorilla Park using a DIY instrument he built called BICHO – a prosthetic hearing device that produces an enhanced exploration of space by making audible unheard frequencies and signals; moreover, it allows their manipulation. Audible and inaudible frequencies are subtle forms of energy and information that are constantly shaping (or disputing) the environments we move through.
In Sonic Agency, Brandon LaBelle puts forth the affective and political possibilities of sound and listening. Sound, he writes, has the capacity to ‘unsettle and exceed arenas of visibility by relating us to the unseen, the non-represented, or the not-yet-apparent’ (2018: 2). Labelle describes four sonic figures – the invisible, the weak, the overheard, and the itinerant, each of which is characterised by a particular attitude and disposition towards sound and hearing, and may foster emancipatory engagements with urban sites. As it relates to our work with Gorilla Park, the figure of the overheard can be understood as ‘a condition of listening and of being heard that integrates the complexity of [a] new social intensity and its relational surveying’ (ibid.: 65).
As subjects of being overheard (or under surveillance) at Gorilla Park we considered the impact of the invisible presence of data surveillance in the shaping and reshaping of this site. Always already overheard, we used BICHO to overhear the flow of subtle forms of information circulating throughout the site. BICHO is a mixer, a sampling machine, and a speaker, which allows for the simultaneous operation of the following sources:
- a telephone pick-up repurposed as an electromagnetic sensor
- a contact clip microphone that captures the vibrations of objects and surfaces
- a stereo sound recorder that captures subtle mechanical waves
As a wearable artefact, BICHO also has a performative potential beyond its capacities to ‘hear’ spaces. BICHO is both an analytical and a musical instrument, revealing and amplifying the invisible, and actively affording the wearer/performer to intervene in augmenting soundscapes by detecting, capturing, and transforming frequencies through operations like modulation or distortion, and by generating feedback.
In this way BICHO, as a wearable and performative research tool, has more to do with affirmative ethics and speculation than with the gathering of objective data; BICHO enabled us to playfully attune ourselves with otherwise unknown (or perhaps overheard) frequencies on site. BICHO also made evident that we are already (or in LaBelle’s words, always already) being captured and (over)heard by CCTV cameras and our personal smart devices.
In the fall of 2019, researchers at PULSE (Performative Urbanism Lab for Spatial, Social and Scenographic Experimentation), Concordia University, Montreal, hosted a workshop with guest researchers Kristine Samson and Niels Jørgen Gommesen. Guided by Brandon LaBelle’s concept of the overheard, as put forth in his book Sonic Agency (2018), the workshop was initially centred (and, as to be discussed, later reshaped) around acoustic urban ecologies and the ways that sound(s) locate us in urban space and time. We chose to work with a contested urban site, Gorilla Park, situated within one of Montreal’s rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods. We were primarily interested in how new occupants encroaching upon the site, whose business is focused on AI, were affecting the neighbourhood’s cultural landscape. We consciously and deliberately embraced a performative research trajectory, and visited the site with a variety of documentation devices including smart phones, 360 cameras, sound recorders, and a DIY instrument called BICHO – a mixer and sampling machine that allowed us to pick up the inaudible frequencies circulating around the site, making them perceptible. The frequencies captured by BICHO, and that we share in this exposition, form a complex soundscape drawn from our embodied and immediate interaction with Gorilla Park.
Gorilla Park is situated on a disused railway track: an irregular shaped parcel of post-industrial land located in Montreal’s Marconi-Alexandria neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is commonly referred to as Mile-Ex.1
As Mary Sprague and Norma Rantisi (2019) explain, the Mile-Ex neighbourhood is a small inner-city industrial and residential enclave. In contrast to other formerly industrial hubs in Montreal, Mile-Ex was once home to a mix of small and medium-sized industries located near residential streets. Following a period of disinvestment (the closure of factories) and depopulation between the 1980s and the early 2000s, factories and blue-collar jobs gave way to architecture studios, office buildings, and an influx of creative techs in this area of the city (ibid.). The city of Montreal began to envision Mile-Ex as a creative hub, adopting a more active role in guiding a ‘state-led’ gentrification process and urban beautification schemes that physically modified this neighbourhood’s built environment (ibid., 315).
In 2013, Les Amies du Parc des Gorilles, a collective of concerned neighbours and stakeholders living and working in this part of the city, emerged in response to the illegal removal of fifty trees on the site by Olymbec, a real-estate developer that had previously bought the terrain from Canadian Pacific Railway. Olymbec was issued a $500 fine, and the city borough implemented a land reserve that legally protected the sale of the land for future development (Corriveau 2017). In 2015, the Les Amies du Parc des Gorilles established itself as a registered non-profit organisation, with the mission to operate as an intermediary between the Rosemont Petite-Patrie borough of Montreal and the Marconi-Alexandra community in the process of transforming the site into a park. The organisation’s mission and objectives are to contribute to, coordinate, and maintain the greening of the Marconi-Alexandra sector, paying attention to community needs while keeping the wild character of the site. Its values draw from notions of social ecology, interdependence, power decentralisation, collective autonomy, and local participation. Before the land reserve expired in May 2017, and after failed negotiations with Olymbec, the borough expropriated the terrain on 13 March 2017. The decision to expropriate the land was in line with the city’s plans for the site, as outlined in the 2013 PDDUES (Plan de Développement Urbain, Economique, et Social) for the Marconi-Alexandra Sector, and responded – at least partially – to the political pressure by community mobilisation spearheaded by Les Amies du Parc des Gorilles.2
In addition to community collectives such as Les Amies, Montreal-based academics and university researchers 3 also became involved with imagining Gorilla Park’s future as an urban park through organising community consultations and co-design initiatives with local stakeholders.
We knew when we started to engage with Gorilla Park that the site’s indeterminacy mobilised community activists and local stakeholders to make public their concerns for the site’s future. But, for us, building a contextual map of the site also meant looking at its peripheries. Relatively new to the neighbourhood, surrounding tenants like Element AI, MILA, and Microsoft have drastically changed the urban landscape in a way that is relatively undetectable. The arrival of these corporate tenants has instigated a different type of ‘invisible’ gentrification, both in terms of their deep-pocket capabilities and their far-reaching technological aims.
1 Branded by real estate developers to combine the adjacent neighbourhoods of Mile-End and Parc-Extension.
2 For example, the collective released a video on Facebook in early 2017 calling on City officials to ‘act now or never’. The video can be seen at https://www.facebook.com/LesAmisDuParcDesGorilles/videos/636950959835569/
3 See, for example, ‘Mobility Pilot Project; Gorilla Park: A Sustainability Project for All’ (De la Llata and others 2020).
the constant reverse-beeps
I know of their existence,
and their past:
loading docks, factories,
working class struggle,
cheap rent, extended immigrant families
— my own blood carrying
those histories of encounter.
At times these sounds mingle
with the clackety clack of coffee cups
over at the third wave coffee-shop,
or the laughter from the once-underground bar.
I know your real name: Marconi-Alexandra.
I softly pronounce it,
slowly—to tamper with the flow of
surveillance-driven curiosity of others,
of the newly-arrived.
And of sensors, sensing—the Big Other.
If sound is a vibrant means to connect matter
(bodies, systems, spacetime) and histories,
how do we use it then? And i dream of ways to resist,
disrupt, obfuscate and saturate these currents.
To unlock the political force of sound.
When the global pandemic upended our in-person collaboration on site, we shifted our correspondence online, into the virtual sphere of lengthy Zoom meetings, all of which were recorded. From our remote positions, we turned to Google Earth to learn more about the site from a bird’s eye perspective and discovered that the site had a long history of documentation reaching back to the 1980s. Examining this history through Google surveillance brought forth a false perception that the site had physically remained unchanged, despite having undergone a transformation in terms of its AI-focused occupants.
A year passed, and as research collaborators we acknowledged that we had collected an abundance of data from and about Gorilla Park: BICHO sound recordings, conversations on zoom and in situ, Google Earth imagery, photos, videos, and 3D documentation. All this data signalled to us that we were entering a unique and unfolding artistic research process. We began to relate our data and questions with themes and concepts that we elaborate upon throughout this exposition. Transposing our data into artistic research fragments that reveal a different story about Gorilla Park, we created a video, which became the primary materialisation of our research. As with any mediated work, its final form was but one iteration of an entangled series of questions, conversations, and theoretical explorations.
video features authors christian scott martone donde, Shauna Janssen, Katrina Jurjans and workshop collaborator Kristine Samson
The concepts of visible/invisible have permeated various facets of our understanding and critical engagement with Gorilla Park, from themes of gentrification to concepts of corporatification (a term we expand on below). Often when one experiences the process of gentrification, it is the transformation of an urban landscape that is visually noticeable and embodied, something that develops temporally and is felt by moving through and across built environments; we witness churches becoming condo complexes and laundromats turning into hip bars. Gentrification in this sense moves in a way that is different from corporatification in that it is both visible and situated, resulting in a material, incremental, and one-to-one transformation of the built environment that we can see. For example, the establishment of Bernadette Houde’s much beloved Mile-Ex bar, Alexandraplatz, could be seen as a visible form of gentrification in this part of the city: a trendy bar that moved into the low income, post-industrial neighbourhood, encouraging other coffee shops and expensive restaurants to follow suit, ‘leading the charge for the funky revitalization of the mostly industrial no man’s land between Mile End, Park Extension and Little Italy’ (Dunlevy 2019).
Early in our process of engaging with Gorilla Park we discovered the term ‘corporatification’ while reading a local news article about the rapidly changing neighbourhood of Mile-Ex. ‘Corporatification’ is used here to describe the impact of corporate high-tech developments moving into Gorilla Park, which prompted us to reflect further on the site's transformation through broader notions of the visible/invisible. In this way, the concept of corporatification provided us with a specific context from which to unpack the power relations fuelling a very different kind of gentrification in this part of Montreal.
Unlike the tech and AI companies that have ‘scooped up all the available real estate in sight’ (ibid.), Alexandraplatz’s presence in the neighbourhood did not extend beyond its physical location. Although it profited from once cheap real-estate prices in the district, it could not financially compete with the new deep-pocketed corporate AI businesses that have become the neighbourhood’s most prominent tenants. In 2019, the building’s owners decided to sell to incoming corporate developers, and Alexander Platz permanently shut its doors (Dunlevy 2019). In this way, corporatification becomes a tactic of delineation between different forms of gentrification. As Houde explains, in the wake of Alexandraplatz’s closure, ‘when we talk about gentrification in industrial, commercial areas, it’s different from residential areas like Mile End. (In Mile Ex, we’re dealing with) corporatification… these companies come in with much deeper pockets and a different style than the mom-and-pop places. You’re fighting against a really different thing’ (quoted in ibid.). In the same year that Alexandraplatz closed, Element AI and MILA, the companies that are driving the larger and invisible tech wave taking over Mile-Ex, became tenants of a former textile factory, located at 6650–6666 St Urbain Street, adjacent to Gorilla Park. This building was sold to Spear Capital, a San Francisco–based boutique investment firm, for $153 million. The firm’s vice president stated: ‘we focus on markets that cater to technology tenants. We follow them wherever they go, and it is quite clear they are going to Montreal – and they are going there in bigger and more rapid ways now’ (Adam Ballew quoted in Tomesco 2019).
When the global pandemic upended further visits to Gorilla Park, we had to change our tactics of engagement with each other and with the site. We began to meet on Zoom and turning to Google Maps we began to observe and survey the site from a bird’s eye perspective. We discovered that Google had photographed the site at least thirty times in the span of sixteen years. This history of surveillance gave the false perception that Gorilla Park had physically remained unchanged during this time. This perception quickly became a central point of intrigue for us: the difference between gentrification – as a visible form of change – and corporatification – as an invisible force of urban change.
When big tech corporations like Element AI and MILA move into Mile-Ex, their agenda expands much further, and financially deeper, than their physical location. Their scale extends infinitely beyond the physical gentrification of a space, into the more ‘invisible’ realms of massive capitalistic and profit-driven international expansion, in the form of AI surveillance, data collection, and deep machine learning. When AI corporations become the new form of gentrification, not only do they occupy physical space within a neighbourhood, their presence extends into an invisible and infinite occupation of virtual space that transcends the one-to-one scale of typical gentrification processes, thereby adding a layer of complexity to our understanding and experience of the spatial politics of urban change.
video features authors Katrina Jurjans, Shauna Janssen and Eduardo Perez; workshop collaborators Niels Jørgen Gommesen and Kristine Samson and philosopher and scholar Shoshanna Zuboff (public domain interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QL4bz3QXWEo&t=6s)
We relied heavily on Rosi Braidotti’s affirmative ethics to shape our methodological approach. In a broad sense, affirmative ethics is grounded in forces of potential, potentia, and the power to affirmatively expand, reimagine, and intensify our being (Braidotti 2019: 371). To practice affirmative ethics means to engage with oppressive forces and regimes of capitalism critically and creatively, and through this performative engagement, propose other ways of doing and being in the world.
For us, affirmative ethics became a useful concept for undertaking artistic research with Gorilla Park; co-opting Google Earth and using our own smartphones and Zoom became performative tools of critical inquiry by which we were able to reflect upon extractive technologies and the larger systems of profit-driven capitalism they belong to. Working with Google Earth provided a view of Gorilla Park from a bird’s eye perspective, allowing us to examine the site through its satellite documentation from the 1980s until the present day. With our smartphones, we captured our conversations in situ, on the ground, and took videos and photographs of the site. On Zoom, we recorded lengthy conversations we had about the site while being physically situated in different countries and time zones. With BICHO, Eduardo ‘picked up’ the inaudible frequencies circulating around the site, making them perceptible. All these forms of engagement affirm the potential (or potentia) of technologies to shape an altogether different narrative of contested urban spaces and, in our case, one emerging from Gorilla Park. Subsequently, these frequencies produced a complex soundscape that maps our embodied and immediate interaction with Gorilla Park, allowing us to ‘know otherwise and produce knowledge differently’ (Braidotti 2019: 342). ‘New fields of knowledge’, writes Braidotti, ‘allow for grounded analyses of how discursive power operates today and how it provides new parameters of knowledge, while also perpetuating traditional patterns of exclusion. The posthuman convergence shows a proliferation of knowledges that differ qualitatively from the epistemic accelerations of cognitive capitalism, in that they carry a generative, affirmative dimension’ (ibid.).
Following Braidotti, rather than engaging with simplified notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ urban development processes, our aims with this project and exposition are to open up a performative space of critical inquiry of the larger systems of profit-driven capitalism directly connected to the spatial politics of urban change and situate performative and affirmative ethics as an artistic research method. Google Earth, Zoom meetings, photos and videos in situ, and our sonic explorations of the site, amplified our artistic research process, which has resulted in an alternative mapping of Gorilla Park for this exposition.
video features authors christian scott martone donde, Katrina Jurjans, Shauna Janssen and Eduardo Perez; workshop collaborators Niels Jørgen Gommesen and Kristine Samson and philosopher and scholar Rosi Braidotti (public domain interview: https://rosibraidotti.com/2019/11/21/on-affirmative-ethics/)
We wish to acknowledge that The Gorilla Park is located in unceded Indigenous land, particularly those of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Nation. Tiohtià:ke (Montreal) is historically known as a gathering place for many First Nations, who are the original owners and custodians of the land and waters.*
We invite our readers to inform themselves and be critical of the relationships and positionalities our bodies and identities have in relation to the territories (material and digital) we inhabit, research, and/or occupy.
*Concordia University's territorial acknowledgement can be read here.
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