'Infrastructures of Control': Focus on border surveillance at UA photography show

Dave Maass, the director of investigations at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, will be in Tucson this week for the opening reception for “Infrastructures of Control,” a new exhibit on the University of Arizona campus featuring large-scale photographs of surveillance towers in Southern Arizona. 

The show continues through April 26 and will include an April 19 panel discussion with Isaac Espósito of No More Deaths, Dora Rodriquez of Salvavision, Pedro de Velasco of the Kino Border Initiative and journalists Todd Miller and Daniel Torres.

Maass, who previously worked as a journalist for publications such as Tucson Weekly, Santa Fe Reporter and San Diego City Beat (where the San Diego City Council declared “Dave Maass Day”), has spearheaded an Electronic Freedom Foundation project mapping the surveillance towers and will be distributing a field guide to them during at an opening reception at 5 p.m. Friday at the Environment and Natural Resources 2 Building, 1064 E. Lowell St.

EFF, a nonprofit dedicated to defending digital privacy, free speech and innovation, will host an EFF Speakeasy gathering afterward from 7 to 9 p.m. at Borderlands Brewing, 119 E. Toole Ave.

At a separate event, Maass will discuss his new graphic novel, “Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis,” which is based on an opera that was written in a Nazi concentration camp. Author Neil Gaiman said the book “is beautiful and strange, for what it is and what it isn’t. As a story, it’s fascinating and excellently told, as artifact, it’s heartbreaking and affecting.” Maass will discuss the book from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 11, at the Tucson Jewish Museum and Holocaust Center, 564 S. Stone Ave. For more information, click here.

The Sentinel spoke with Maass about “Infrastructures of Control” and his new book. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What is this exhibit all about?

These two geographers from the University of Arizona, Colter Thomas and Dugan Meyer, have been traversing the U.S.-Mexico border looking for surveillance towers. And they have been using a map that I helped create last year to find them. In the process, they’ve been finding new ones and sending them to me, and I’ve been adding them to our map. 

So it’s kind of this collaboration to document surveillance infrastructure. But the exhibition is really work by Dugan and Thomas. As I understand it, there’ll be 30 photographs mounted on aluminum panels, along with a replica surveillance tower and a giant map of where we have found the surveillance towers.

What inspired this mapping?

We were going down to the border, we wanted to find these towers. So we tried to figure out where to find them. And nobody seemed to have any data, so we started building it ourselves. 

And pretty quickly, we discovered that other people would find it helpful. And so then it became what I like to call the most dystopian version of Pokemon, where we want to capture them all. And, you know, so I started reviewing public records and using Google Street View and Google Satellite View to try to find them, as well as going down there in person. 

I’ve been down to the border and looking for these towers about four times. And then Dugan and Colter themselves have gone on three big trips, but then they live in Tucson and travel down to the border quite regularly.

What did you learn as you began assembling this data?

One of the things is that is that in the public consciousness, in the zeitgeist of America, the border is just this desolate desert region—the only people near the border are going to be drug mules and cartel members and the migrants and that sort of thing. 

And that perception misses the fact that these are actually very populated areas. Not just on the U.S. side, but on the Mexican side. 

So when you start looking at where these towers are placed, they’re not always in the middle of nowhere. They’re in neighborhoods and have been in neighborhoods for decades and people have, in some senses, forgotten that they’re there. 

And it’s often quite shocking how these are able to peer into people’s backyards, and into their back windows and just gather information on people’s lives day to day. And the reason I bring this up is that CBP is undergoing a huge expansion of its surveillance tower network, with a plan to integrate them all with artificial intelligence or having a computer that is deciding what to look at, categorizing everything, tracking everything, identifying everything, and storing that data for who knows how long.

What kind of perils do you see ahead?

There are a huge number of concerns about this surveillance infrastructure. But one thing I’ll point to is that putting digital cameras on the border isn’t a new thing. This probably started in the ’80s, started picking up in the ’90s. 

And there’s this cycle where, every five years, there’s some sort of investigation or government report that finds that it’s been a big waste of money, not proven effective, open to abuse, etc., etc., etc. And yet, every five years, the government hears that, they’re like, “OK, well, we’ll start dialing this back, we’ll start doing something differently.” 

And then they just start doing the same thing again. And sure enough, it turns out to be a waste that’s totally ineffective again. There’s an immense amount of money going into these surveillance systems. And I think the only people it’s ultimately going to benefit are the tech companies selling it. They’re going to rake in a bunch of money, but I don’t think it’s going to have much impact on the border. 

I don’t think it’s going to really have any return on investment in terms of whatever “problem” they’re trying to address with it. What it will do is potentially gather data on everyone who lives at the border, who are just going about their lives, and that may result in adverse outcomes for them, particularly if an AI gets something wrong and tells CBP or Border Patrol that some kid in a park is an undocumented person, and they go and intercept when really, he wasn’t doing anything at all, except just playing soccer.

How much money has the federal government spent on these towers?

It’s really hard to track the money on this, because it doesn’t just come through CBP. It also goes through the Federal Aviation Administration, bizarrely enough. You find stuff going through the Army Corps of Engineers. I’ve never a comprehensive accounting for the stuff, but we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars every time they re-up one of these programs. I would say that for every surveillance tower costs a minimum of a million dollars.

You’ll have a map of these towers to hand out at the opening reception on Friday?

As long as it comes back from the printers in time, EFF has put together a zine that serves as a sort of birdwatchers guide to how to spot this technology and how to identify it. People who come to the opening will get a copy.

You’re also going to be at the Tucson Jewish Museum and Holocaust Center to talk about your new graphic novel, “Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis.” What is this all about?

I figured while I was in town, since Tucson is the place that I really got my start as a writer, that I would try to see if I can do a speaking engagement about my graphic novel. It is called “Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis,” and it is based on an opera that was written by Peter Kien and Viktor Ullmann in 1943 in the Terezín concentration camp in the Czech Republic. 

It’s this satirical sci-fi fantasy opera with this weird, funny but dark, take on war. 

It imagines a world where Atlantis, the famed mythical city, never sank, and instead became this warring superpower that declares war on everyone. And one day, the emperor of Atlantis decides to declare all-out war against everyone. 

And in response, Death—the Grim Reaper himself— decides that’s one step too far, and decides to go on strike, creating a world of the living dead, where everybody has to fight, but nobody can die. And the story takes off from there. 

It came out in late January. We’re really proud of how it came out. And at the talk, I’ll be taking people through the secret symbolism and imagery and references baked into the book that we weren’t able to fit in what they call the back matter, the back end of the book. So it’ll help people appreciate a little bit more of the symbolism packed with each panel,

How did you stumble across this work?

I came across it in a Best Buy in Paradise Valley, in the late ’90s. I was just randomly walking around, this teenager looking for music. And this collection of music that had been suppressed by the Nazis was sitting on a shelf, and I grabbed the sampler and it came with a little VHS tape. 

And I took it home. And I watched it. And I listened to it. I became kind of obsessed. It just really grew on me more and more, particularly after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, and (I thought about) the power that a story from 1943 can have if you think about things that are going on today, particularly when it’s taking on an issue like authoritarianism or war.

Talk about how this came to be written in a concentration camp.

The concentration camp itself was a show camp. It was designed to be able to release images to the rest of the world saying, “Look, all these Jews are making art and they’re playing football and they’re able to do musical performances. Isn’t it great?” And so there were all these composers, these musicians, they were able to make music. 

However, this particular thing that they wrote was never performed. They did rehearse it in the camp, but they were never able to perform it. And then a few months later, they were sent to Auschwitz, where they died. And so in the 1970s, the opera reemerged and people started performing it. But that was long after the creators had passed.

Who’s your illustrator on this?

There are actually two artists involved in this project. Ezra Rose did the character design. Ezra Rose is this great nonbinary, anti-fascist, Jewish witchcraft-like artist that just really had the aesthetic that I was looking for in designing the characters. Patrick Lay is a cartoonist and an educator who I met at this thing called the Alaska Robotics Comics Camp, it’s kind of a miniature little convention at a at a summer camp for people who want to get into comics. He’s based in Ohio.

You ended up at Dark Horse with editor Karen Berger’s imprint.

We were really, really lucky here. When people hear that this is a comic and it’s based on something from the Holocaust, people think about “Maus” and think about very dark, serious graphic novels. I try to tell people that this is really more Neil Gaiman than Art Spiegelman. 

It’s got Death as a character and it’s got a lot of humor to it. It’s got a lot of fantasy and sci fi mixed together. And so it just happens that we actually got about as good to editor as you could get, because Karen Berger is a legend in the field. Probably the thing she’s best known for is from being the editor on “Sandman,” Neil Gaiman’s signature work. 

It’s really quite good to have somebody with a lot of experience, who was able to help the three of us—who are very new to a graphic novel—bring this to fruition. It was really just quite a dream, because you’re able to work with somebody who has basically full artistic control over her imprint and was always going to help us make the best possible version of the book, as opposed to the fastest version of the book, or the cheapest version of a book.