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Futuristic Body Armor for Police Violence Activists

Gan Golan, artistic director of The Argus Project, talks building a wearable body armor sculpture to highlight police violence and surveillance.

It would be an understatement to say that, in the last few years, there's been increased awareness and coverage of systemic police violence, bringing national exposure to cases like those of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Grey, and Sandra Bland, to name but a few. Some politicians and law enforcement officials promote police body cameras as the solution to police violence. Others, like Julien Terrell from Harlem Copwatch, reject this idea. Writing in The Nation, Terrell says police bodycams promote a false notion of accountability, since police routinely turn off the cameras or edit and withhold footage. This critique is one of the many seeds of The Argus Project, a creative technology project designed as “countersurveillance armor for the citizen body.”

Simultaneously a wearable sculpture, video installation and performance intervention, The Argus Project conceptually addresses police accountability and state surveillance. The wearable sculpture imagines a futuristic body armor suit to protect those who those who feel under threat of police violence. When not deployed on the street, the suit is the centerpiece of a 3-channel video installation, a movie theater of sorts, where people can watch in three directions, taking in very personal interviews with family members who have lost loved ones to police violence. Able to show up when and where it is required, the team behind The Argus Project hopes it will help spark a real conversation on police violence, and the increasing levels of state surveillance infrastructure connected to it.

Copwatch Harlem member Julien Terrell in the Argus exo-suit.

The Argus Project’s artistic director Gan Golan, an author and artist, tells The Creators Project that Terrell—a producer on the project—pointed out that whomever possesses the camera, holds the power. Terrell reminded readers that despite what police often claim, people do have the right to film officers. And beyond that, this right needs to be asserted.

“I thought, how do we take this concept and put it in overdrive, do something creative, even create a new technology, that really helps popularize this idea in a new way, and use it amplify the work of people who are on the frontlines?” Golan explains, “That’s about the time the basic idea of Argus came to me, and so I reached out to Julien, and since then we have been working on making the idea real.”

Once assembled, the team’s first step was to begin building relationships of trust and accountability with frontline activist groups. Golan, along with producers Raquel de Anda and Terrell, as well as filmmaker Ligaiya Romero, reached out to groups like Families United for Justice, co-founded by Cynthia Howell, the niece of Alberta Spruill, a woman who died after police mistakenly raided her apartment. Howell connected the team to other family members, which Golan describes as the “heart and soul of the story.” (The family members featured in the video installation include Ramarley Graham’s mother, Constance Malcolm, Akai Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen, and Eric Garner’s mother, Gwenn Carr.)

A scene from the video installation, currently on display at Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas

“These women are not victims, they have become courageous leaders who pierced through their grief to become public voices and movement leaders,” Golan says. “For us, building strong relationships with them, and with each other, is just as important as the art, so we continue to be in contact with them.”

The Argus Project team didn’t just want to make art that sat in a gallery. For them, it was important to create an intervention that broke through into the real world, where people go about their everyday lives. Hence the wearable sculpture that could be deployed where needed.

The Argus team designed and fabricated the suit by hand, crafting it mostly out of special impact-resistant foam. This was then combined with neoprene, mesh and other sports fabrics. Computers, cameras, wireless transmitters, lights and power supplies were then embedded throughout the suit. It can be worn by Copwatch activists on neighborhood street patrols to watch police during protests to ensure they behave properly.

The suit takes its name from mythical Greek figure Argus Panoptes, a giant with 100 eyes dotting his body. Golan explains that in this myth, Argus Panoptes could see everything—a watcher both for and against the gods.

The ‘eyestream’ interface that allows remote users to see through Argus’ many eyes.

“Like the mythological character, the body cameras in the suit allow every part of the body to see, which is meant to protect the wearer with a kind of  ‘forcefield of accountability’ around their body, so nothing can touch them without being seen and recorded,” Golan explains.

The 3-channel video installation, which recently debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival's interactive Storyscapes program in April, explores the larger issues surrounding the suit, systemic racism and police accountability—everyday realities for millions across the country.

“It features very personal interviews with family members who have lost loved ones to police violence,” says Golan. “[And] some very candid talk by retired police officers who were willing to be honest about their experiences, and Copwatch activists. Each of the six chapters starts with Argus’ many eyes ‘awakening’—a metaphor for us all opening our eyes to see how pervasive police violence and systemic racism really are. The style is a bit science fiction, but the content is very personal.”

Technologist Ayodamola Okunseinde and artist Gan Golan working on an “Argus mini.”

An aspect of The Argus Project that isn’t science fiction is the surveillance commentary. Golan says that since the Snowden revelations, most people have fixated on protecting personal data and privacy. But as people living in poor neighborhoods or communities of color can attest, surveillance isn't just about one's digital self, it's about one's body. The second someone in their neighborhoods steps out the front door, their movements are being watched, and even physically controlled.

“A lot of people don’t realize the ridiculous amounts of surveillance infrastructure already installed in poor communities,” says Golan. “Police towers that would make middle class suburbanites scream their heads off are just planted right on the street. You can go to 125th and St. Nicholas in East Harlem and see police vans or 360-degree cameras on all 4 corners of the intersection, 24 hours a day.”

Surveillance in these neighborhoods is a constant fixture. More than that, it’s a dystopian form of intimidation. But, as Golan explains, surveillance is closely connected to physical violence.

Gwenn Carr (mother of Eric Garner), Ray Lewis (retired Philadelphia police captain), Hertencia Petersen (Aunt of Akai Gurley) and Karina Hurtado (Copwatch activist).

“If you are targeted for any reason, the police are right there—you can immediately be stopped, frisked, arrested, or worse,” Golan says. “So, as important as the current conversation on surveillance that we are having is, there are some walls around it that are blocking out issues of race and class. Our aim is to knock down the walls so that we can have a more complete picture of what’s happening.”

“On a larger level, Argus is also a metaphor for an awakening citizen body,” he adds. “The more we turn on our cameras, the more we are opening our own eyes as a society to the realities of police violence, and showing the truth to the world, the more that we can wake up, and wake others up. In a sense, as a society, we are the giant with 100 eyes. We are all Argus.”

Click here to stay up to date on The Argus Project.

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