Choose Your Words

Robert Avila April 27, 2006

You may want to memorize this list of words that supposedly can bring you under government scrutiny when said over the phone, or written in a text message or email. These are the words that prick up the mechanized ears of the NSA, the FBI, or other professional eavesdroppers in the formidable acronym-laden national security apparatus known colloquially, if not quite affectionately, as Big Brother.

The scrolling list forms the central, and essentially the only, component of a short film by Bay Area-based experimental filmmaker Katherin McInnis — four minutes that roll along like one long, gathering fit of Tourette Syndrome; coprolalia to draw the cops.

“I was thinking about what it means to make media for wireless devices, for portable devices,” McInnis explained over the phone. “And at the same time this whole domestic surveillance [scandal] was going on. My understanding of it is that there are basically massive computers that are filtering email and phone calls and text messages and what have you — filtering it for keywords.”

McInnis’s film, titled “spookspeak,” premieres tonight as part of the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival’s Pocket Cinema program. In line with the festival’s broader emphasis on new media technologies, Pocket Cinema showcases short works made with and for wireless gadgets such as cell phones. One of three works produced specifically for the series, McInnis’s “spookspeak” ideally lives for the mini, mobile screen.

“It’s pretty low-tech, actually,” says McInnis, who hails from Texas and studied photography before exploring video as a CCA grad student (she graduated in 2002). “The list of words is in text edit, and the sound is just the Apple voice reading the words. It goes through all the words, and mispronounces them.”

But the modest construction — small black typeface against a dull white screen — actually heightens the impression of a seemingly innocuous yet sterile and impersonal bureaucratic procedure, while the artificial “female” voice lends a ghostly sense of automation at once eerie and comical. As the film progresses, multiple versions of the list begin to scroll over one another in an increasingly dense, illegible mesh of black forms that threaten to turn the screen entirely dark.

While asking questions about the social behavioral effects such surveillance causes, or fails to cause, “spookspeak” both highlights and intentionally subverts an often underappreciated aspect of new media and communication technologies: namely, the ways in which they can further tether individuals to a centralized, increasingly invasive system of monitoring and control.

“One of the suggested responses to [widespread government surveillance] is for everyone to use those keywords to the point where it just overloads the system. So that’s kind of the idea. The piece is made with all of the keywords, and [they start] overlapping until the screen is almost entirely black. It’s also my understanding — I may be wrong about this — that even though all these communications are being filtered, once a word becomes a graphic and once it starts over-looping, I think that it’s no longer recognizable. So I could email this little movie to someone and even though it is all of the bad words that the government fears, and nothing else, it probably wouldn’t set [anything] off.”

The list itself consists of words, numbers, and acronyms. Many of them you’d probably come up with yourself, but where did the filmmaker get them? “Obviously there is no real way to know the exact words. This was from a lot of Google searches. I came up with a real array of sites, some of them kind of nutty surveillance conspiracy sites, some British newspaper reports. These are the ones that were coming up on different lists from different sources. I mean, ‘jihad’ obviously is probably going to be on there.”

Others, on the other hand, seem utterly obscure. I mean, guerilla, ok, but gorilla?

“Yeah, there are a ton. Really innocuous words that you think about for a while [until] you’re like, oh yeah, I guess. [And then] there are a couple of words that came up in alphabetical order; they were kind of together — there’s this one, “jack, java, jihad,” and there’s one, I think it’s “nerd, Nike, ninja” — [making for] another level of disconnection between the keywords. There are a lot of places too. Even city names like Austin. Really strange. But it’s kind of the best guesses from different sources.”

McInnis’s work has repeatedly concerned itself with surveillance and its social dimensions. Her website, for example, features a work called “Suspicious Activity,” made in the immediate aftermath of the London bombing, which uses footage shot in SF’s transit tunnels and underground to comment on the sense of heightened security and visual monitoring.

“I’m definitely interested in surveillance, totally fascinated with surveillance cameras. I have another piece in the festival that also has a surveillance theme [“Open,” in the Circles of Confusion program]. I’m interested in surveillance cameras not only for their obvious social ramifications but also because they capture such interesting images sometimes. Their primary purpose isn’t necessarily capturing an interesting image, so they do. It’s an interesting aesthetic.”

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