Crisis Vision: Race and the Cultural Production of Surveillance | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Crisis Vision: Race and the Cultural Production of Surveillance

Crisis Vision: Race and the Cultural Production of Surveillance
by Torin Monahan

Part of the Errantries series edited by Simon Brown, Deborah Cowan, and Katherine McKittrick
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2022
232 pp., illus. 29 b/w. Paper, $25.95
ISBN: 9781478018759.

Reviewed by: 
Molly Beth Hankwitz
June 2023

Surveillance culture has become overwhelmingly a function of the representation of people of color as criminal actors. This vector is justified by Black men’s alleged “visible” (read: ‘obvious’ or ‘inherent’) potential as agents of terror and urban crime, in particular. Torin Monahan defines “crisis vision” as a narrative construction which produces bias especially towards people of color. “Crisis vision’s” negative effect upon Black lives, Black families, and Black equality in the United States is more than apparent in statistics. Two million people are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. This is a “500% increase over the last 40 years” and can be attributed to “changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates.” [1] The trend towards the U.S. judicial system becoming one based on incarceration has resulted in “prison overcrowding and fiscal burdens on states to accommodate a rapidly expanding penal system” despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means to deter crime and achieve public safety. [2] Moreover, in 12 U.S. states, more than half the prison population is Black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. [3]

The book, Crisis Vision: Race and the Cultural Production of Surveillance is a comprehensive analysis of multi-faceted surveillance culture and how it is racist. Using artworks made about surveillance as a mainstay in the critique, it offers readers nuanced analysis of how today’s surveillance culture, its justifications as a “public safety” measure, and relationship to “crisis vision” contributes to racial profiling and makes explicit connections. It argues that the production of “crisis vision” perpetuates these ideologies. An excellent cross section of surveillance art, from the late 1990s to the present day, covers critique of the surveillance state, the threat of drones; the weaponizing of faces, facial recognition software, et al. Critical practices are cited which focus upon surveillance as social control towards different bodies and as visible technological presence in our environments. Trevor Paglen’s photos of clandestine governmental data-gathering compounds frame an overarching discussion in which various topics are broken down: ‘avoidance’, ’transparency’, ‘complicity’, ‘violence’, and ‘disruption’. Ultimately, what a reader might assume about being “visible” in public space, is where this book offers a powerful critique, because it becomes apparent through analysis of “the right to hide” and “being seen” that full personhood under “visibility” is not an equal privilege, rather, many individuals are rendered permanently criminalized within authoritarian systems enabled by surveillance. Works by Dread Scott, Paulo Cirio, Leo Selvaggio, Danielle Baskin, Trevor Paglen, Josh Begley, Kai Wiedenhofer, Andrew Hammerand, Hasan Elahi, #NotAtBugSplat, Jakub Geltner, Dries Depoorter, Marco Poloni, Hanne Nielsen and Birgit Johnsen, Santiago Sierra, Phil Collins, Charlotte Haslund-Christensen, Hank Willis Thomas, JR, Will Rawls, Claudia Rankine and John Lucas are also included and discussed.

Visibility, and how one is rendered visible, the book argues, is dependent upon the  color of one’s skin, or one’s gender, or sexual orientation. It can be a sinister and violent encounter with power, a priori entrenched within technologically-enabled and unequal systems. The giant pixellated face of an Afghan refugee girl, presented on the ground looking up to the sky, and an invisible drone by #NotaBugSplat (2014), for instance, offer emotional retort to the calculated death of the girl’s entire family through drone targeting. Thus, “crisis vision” is defined as a “component term of crisis and vision”. [4] “Crisis implies a temporary rupture of actions; an unsettling that motivates emergency measures and extreme actions” while vision implies a “neutral mechanism by which one can parse crisis…and  reestablish normality.”[5]

The “powerful fiction” that vision is “seeing… equated with understanding, and understanding with control” is thus underscored by the term, particularly, “with respect to its role in maintaining racial order through the construction of racialized subjects as threats and white subjects as victims.”[6] To this end, Monahan’s book draws upon a cyber-judicial-military-industrial-entertainment state which creates biased control and maintains that control through its own apparatus. This has historic precedent in the treatment of the enslaved, incarcerated, and ghettoized.


[1] The Sentencing Project,, accessed 2/2023

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nellis, A. “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons”, The Sentencing Project, Oct. 31, 2021. disparity-in-state-prisons-the-sentencing-project/

[4] Monahan, T. Crisis Vision, 2022, p. 13.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.