Sophie Hamacher

‘Motherhood and Surveillance’
Interview with Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann
2019

Sophie Hamacher:
I’ve been researching and experimenting with different baby monitors, trying to use these baby monitor cameras in different ways and do little experiments with them. Some of them you can’t take out of the house and they have to be plugged in with a cable, so I’m doing experiments with a computer, a camera and a mirror and seeing what I can do in the room. But I haven’t gotten very interesting results from it. All of the images look the same.

Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann:
You mean in terms of image and frame? When were these monitors with videos developed? I’m just thinking about multimedia surveillance in relation to multimedia exhibition because what you are trying in a way is reversing the surveillance tool. But maybe that is getting into another topic.

SH:
The technology is not very old.

LBH:
Yeah, I think just three years ago the choice was more limited than now. Maybe there were ten items to choose from and only two of them were video monitors. The rest were still only audio. It’s strange because I don’t understand why you really need the image. If you hear something you just go and check. You don’t need to actually have the visibility. It’s becoming the new norm for care.

SH:
One of the top baby monitors on the market right now is called the Nanit, which is this surveillance camera that sits on top of the crib and it monitors—it’s similar to the body monitors that you put around the ankle of the baby when it is sleeping—not only how it is sleeping, but it also tracks the heart rate. It is monitoring everything and it sends updates to your phone and it tells you “now the baby is crying, now the baby needs to be turned around, now the baby woke up.”

LBH:
You are informed about everything and it is also telling you everything about the past, since it’s being archived in your data. There is a line between precious information in the case of a sick body and something morbid in tracking and recording everything, in anticipating the disappearance of time and, obviously, of life. Take the Nanit, for example, a bestseller, it suggests that any healthy baby be treated like a potentially sick body. Domestic monitoring then turns into an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

SH:
And you become reliant on this technology, and comfortable with it.

LBH:
And deeper and deeper in anxiety. Is this mostly marketed to an American public or European or Asian or…?

SH:
It’s mostly for the American market. I recently ran into an acquaintance whose friends have the nanny cams installed in their home. Have you heard of those? Surveillance cameras to surveil the nanny while she takes care of your child. And then the parents are constantly glued to their phones and tracking every move either that the child is making or that the caretaker is making. I don’t really know where I want to go with the gathering of all this information. What am I trying to say with it that hasn’t been said before? It’s kind of pure science fiction.

LBH:
What has been said before?

SH:
Well, moving away from touch, moving away from believing in intuition and knowing when the child is okay or not.

LBH:
And leaving a space for confidence and development of reason. Maybe the kid is going to be a little too hot, or maybe she is going to turn, or maybe she is going to have a little nightmare but you don’t have to go and be there. The fact that the nanny is under surveillance also emphasizes the race and class inequalities. Maybe the nanny is going to be a bit stressed one day. You have to regain a sense of trust in relationships that surveillance tools tend to erase, which actually points back to the power dynamics around race and class. All of these things are about restricting movement, and maintaining the “right” distance is somehow about domination.

SH:
I think I want to know more about what you think, not so much about the technology or the big brother social media stuff, but I want to know what you think about the possibility of there being something like tender or benevolent surveillance? That is more interesting to me.

LBH:
Tender surveillance is much more related to care. Do you mean like kind surveillance? All these technologies are also related to aging populations and general healthcare. Going from healthcare and caregiving to surveillance and restrictive and negative surveillance—all these things are very close.

SH:
It is about care, but at the same time it is also about distance. All of these baby monitors create a distance that seems unhealthy. If you closely observe and are caring for your child you don’t need all of this technology. Doesn’t care also have to do with proximity of the body to the other body? With all this technology there is no proximity.

LBH:
I think there is a forced, even unhealthy, proximity through surveillance tools. Let’s say you are in a different room from your child. You are going to have the monitor and you will be regularly checking while you read a book or whatever. So your screen will be lighting up every minute—it’s automatically and regularly updating. You cannot get a proper distance because you are constantly tethered to it. It’s actually terrifying. In the 80’s, parents just left the door of the bedroom open. Or even if you didn’t leave it open, the baby was going to cry and then fall asleep again. Now everything has shifted to this close looking at every movement that adds anxiety for the kid and for the caregiver, because you are always thinking,“maybe something is going to happen.” Companies are creating the expectation that maybe something is going to go wrong and that is why you need to buy all these things. It’s the same system with insurance, a preventive market, purely issued from the capitalist system.

SH:
You’re right. Insuring your investment and your investment is your child.

LBH:
Of course, because who is going to take care of you when you are old? 
[laughter]

SH:
Can we think about the positive aspect more? As artists, we are thinking about close observation all the time—that’s what we do. Right?

LBH:
Yeah. I think one of the most important things is being a witness to someone growing up. For me, it’s about being in a super privileged position of being a witness to my daughter’s life, her development, her first experiences and progression as a human being. It is the most important and precious thing to be there and be able to care or help a little bit here and there, you know. If I think about it in terms of filmmaking—it doesn’t feel like a tight focus or a wide shot. It’s just like a gaze, this way that we are together. I don’t know how to say it. The notion of self-surveillance is also hierarchical. Obviously, I have the power as the parent to keep her safe, or to make sure that she isn’t hurting herself by accident. But maybe what is interesting about the reversal is the way that I have to reposition myself in relationship to her life or by the space that opposes danger and the way I have to move and observe or care in a different way than before in relationship to her or my surroundings. Everything changes when someone arrives (as in birth) as everything changes when someone is leaving (dying).