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The Operative Aesthetics of Police Body-Cam Video

Fri, May 26, 15:30 to 16:45, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Floor: 2, Indigo 202A


Over the last few years, police agencies in the United States have begun to adopt body-worn cameras, a move that promises greater police accountability in the context of an increasingly visible problem of police brutality and misconduct. In fact, there is a veritable avalanche of audio-visual content depicting police activities circulating across media forums, enabled by the spread of video surveillance, mobile recording devices, and online platforms for sharing media content. How can we make sense of the intensified audio-visualization of policing? What can cultural and media studies, and a media-archaeological approach in particular, bring to the study of this phenomenon? To begin to address these questions, this paper focuses on the formal and aesthetic dimensions of police body-cam video specifically, examining what is unique and significant about this new form of audio-visual media. While this video content is typically understood to have informational and evidentiary value, in the legal system and in broader public debates police brutality and institutionalized racism, it is also important to understand how it works aesthetically, as part of the “structure of feeling” that defines the cultural relationship to policing in these times. I argue that while the utility of police body-cam video is assumed to be primarily documentary or evidentiary, these videos have aesthetic, affective, and semiotic excesses that spills over and complicates their evidentiary qualities. The most visible and widely circulated police body-cam videos are those that embody what I call an “operative aesthetics,” or an aesthetics that derives from and invokes the operative relationships enacted in these video-production scenarios among cameras, bodies, and weapons. The operative aesthetics of police body-can video shares qualities in common with other weaponized screen media that enact an intimate camera-body-weapon relationship, especially first-person-shooter video games and the now-familiar “phantom images” (Farocki) that capture bombs hitting their targets.