Broken Water, “1984”

Post Author: Liz Pelly

Next month will mark two years since the Edward Snowden released information about the NSA’s massive surveillance apparatus. Since those stories broke in June 2013, the realities of the U.S. surveillance state have sunk into a global cultural consciousness. Surveillance art has become increasingly popular—art that uses the mechanisms of surveillance to in turn offer commentary on spying in general. It’s a medium that Broken Water employ in the video for their song “1984”, which also happens to be directly about mass surveillance.

“Whose watching you / can you feel the gaze?” the songs asks over a wash of noisy psychedelic guitars that build throughout. “No words written on this light box / will stay private /state captured thoughts.” The lyrics to the song specifically get at the workings of metadata collection, the tiny pieces of information about times, dates, places and durations of phone calls that the government regularly collects: “You carry a telephone, that do disclose / name and location the address of your home  / what are you buying on your card? are you aware you are observed?”

Those concepts can be hard to connect with when presented as abstract or statistical truths, but the song acts to make them feel more relatable. The video does the same in terms of public video surveillance; it is comprised almost entirely of found footage downloaded live from public webcams, plus some footage gathered from Spokane police bodycams. As the band explains, “it presents glimpses of the public surveillance of individuals in the United States.”

“1984” is from Broken Water’s Wrought, out now on Night People.