Technologies Are Not Neutral: Theo Anthony Interviewed by Conor Williams

Investigating the bias of vision, unnerving advances in surveillance, and the sociopolitical consequences of a changing digital landscape.

A young white boy wearing solar protective glasses looks up at the solar eclipse while holding a popsicle. He sits among a swath of empty, yellow, plastic stadium seating which fill the frame of the image.

Still from Theo Anthony, All Light, Everywhere, 2021, digital film. Courtesy of Super LTD.

Theo Anthony made audiences squirm with his 2016 debut feature, Rat Film, not just with close-up scenes of the titular rodents, but by using the documentary mode to illuminate a city’s history of racism. His new film, All Light, Everywhere, investigates the bias of vision, unnerving technological advances in surveillance, and the sociopolitical consequences of a changing digital landscape. Anthony is unflinchingly interested in watching how we’re watched.

In order to help viewers register the unrealities concocted by the sprawling gray systems of worker drones and surveillance drones alike, systems in the business of creating narratives, narratives that become protocols, protocols that become the tools used to maintain paranoid white-supremacist lies that become “law and order,” Anthony ventures into the cosmos. All Light, Everywhere is at once a historical account of early photographic techniques, tripped out on the wondrous physics and origins of the medium’s solar pull, and an eerie confrontation of cinematic and societal narratives.

—Conor Williams

Conor Williams Something I admire about your work is your ability to tie together seemingly disparate strands in a very thoughtful way. Your documentary Rat Film is ostensibly about Baltimore’s rat problem, but it also touches on issues of redlining and physically maps out the city’s history of racism. How did these things come to collide for you? 

Theo Anthony I’m just this very particularly shaped magnet, like everyone is. I’m drawn to certain things, and I have a process for saving these things and making sure I can find them later. When I was reading about rats and the history of a certain kind of rat poison at Johns Hopkins University down the block from me, I thought, okay, these things fit together, and then it just became a slow accumulation of different ideas. I talk about it like elementary particles that attract each other, building up something more and more complex until at a certain point you have a film. I’m also always driven to the same questions of power and how it works, how it works in images and how institutions control those images, while mapping between correlations and simulations of reality. I’m just kind of moving around and inspired by things other people do. But I try to make sure I’m leaving a trail so I can find that trail again. 

CW You’ve been compared to masterful artists known for working within the realm of the real—Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, Werner Herzog, Harun Farocki. I’ll throw two more comparisons at you: I’m reminded of Hito Steyerl and Adam Curtis in your work. How does it feel when you hear those sorts of comparisons? And what would you say those artists taught you? 

TA It feels like total imposter syndrome because those are my gods. All I can really say is that those names and many others are among the people who showed me the type of images that I wanted to make, and that it was possible. I’m especially glad you added Steyerl; her writing, filmmaking, and installation work are some of the main inspirations for what I do, and she does it so playfully and so poetically. I’d also like to add the Black Audio Film Collective, looking at the way they constructed essay films, working without institutions. There’s a lot of people I owe a lot to. 

A close up photo taken through the retina of a human eye.

Still from Theo Anthony, All Light, Everywhere, 2021, digital film. Courtesy of Super LTD.

CW I was just going to ask, do you consider your films essay films? 

TA I do, personally, but I think there are a lot of academics who might take issue with that. I’m honestly not so interested in the fight over what it is. Even if we take out the lineage, the word “essay,” from the French “essayer,” means “to try,” and that’s something so particular about the essay film. There’s an inherent limitation or sense of failure to it, and there’s a lot of failure in my latest film that I tried to really embrace. It’s not a film that tries to close in on an easy outcome or an easy truth. It’s about the very process of seeking these things, and not where we ultimately end up. 

CW Your new film, All Light, Everywhere, is about surveillance. You focus a great deal on policing—body cameras, things of that nature. You’ve said that the work sprang from the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. While I was watching, I thought about the recent murder trial of Derek Chauvin, and how instrumental the cellphone footage taken by Darnella Frazier was to the outcome of that case. Ultimately, it’s not the surveillance footage from outside the store where Floyd was killed, not body camera footage, but cellphone footage. You say in the film that cameras do not “reproduce the world; they produce a new world.” Could you expand on that thought and what the possibilities behind it mean?

TA I’m glad you brought up Darnella Frazier and the impact of her film. When we were in those classrooms where police officers were learning how to use their body cameras, the cameras were pitched as a way to combat citizen journalism—that was the word used by the officer in charge. It’s very much not about the truth; it’s about combatting a non-institutionalized perspective. The film talks about the ways in which tools and technologies are not neutral. They’re brought together from specific desires, moments in history, to accomplish certain things. They’re used by certain people against other people. When it comes to the history of photography and the post-industrial revolution, these colonial histories where you have this new technology being used to subject and exploit and extract natural resources and people living on that land, you start to see a history of tools that produce evidence for their own authority. That is a through line that gets used again and again, but it’s always hidden under the guise of optimization, efficiency, objectivity. It treats that exploitation as a fact of nature when there’s actually a very particular legacy being perpetuated through these tools. 

A close up of a young black woman wearing disposable solar protection glasses looks up toward the sky.

Still from Theo Anthony, All Light, Everywhere, 2021, digital film. Courtesy of Super LTD.

CW Have you heard of the Citizen app? What are your thoughts on it?

TA There’s “abolish the police” and “defund the police,” and I think what’s very often missing from these conversations is: What public safety steps in? Do we want Amazon having its own private security forces? Do we want these neighborhoods to have their own private security forces? With the Citizen app, the last thing I heard was that they were test-driving their own mobile response unit, their own privatized police force. It’s just extremely dangerous.

So much of the violence in this is that these histories have broken apart communities, and the ways in which conflicts would normally be resolved in a community have been outsourced to policing and private companies. It’s really sad that it’s just turned into this culture of the “neighborhood watch” or amateur vigilantes. Any time that there’s a private company stepping in where a more communal relationship should take precedence, I think there’s a problem. 

CW In the introduction to Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire, philosopher Nick Land is quoted as saying that cyberspace is “under our skin.” It has invaded not only our lives but also our bodies, our brain wiring. What do you make of how technology has encroached itself onto us?

TA Well, I’d be careful about Nick Land. I think accelerationism can creep over into fascism super quickly. But I think that maybe technology has always been under our skin. As Marshall McLuhan said, these tools are always an extension of the body. Then, of course, you’re kind of getting into Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto territory. It’s more productive to look at that integration rather than the separation. It’s already under our skin. It’s in our minds. I think there are ways to work through that. 

A close-up image of middle-aged white man wearing red ear-bud headphones and a brain sensing experimentation device on his bald head is overlaid onto an image if what appears to be a telescopic view of the sun.

Still from Theo Anthony, All Light, Everywhere, 2021, digital film. Courtesy of Super LTD.

CW In the last section of the film, you introduce footage shot over the course of several months in a classroom of young, Black students learning to make short films. You explain that this thread ultimately didn’t make it into the film, but I thought it could have served as a striking counterpoint to the footage of police officers learning to use their body cameras. You stress in the film how meaningful it was for you to be able to work with those students. Do you think you may ultimately return to that footage for a future project? 

TA That was also our thinking, that it would have been a counterpoint to the police officers. It’s a classroom of Black teenagers, whom we all know are the targets of this technology. But it just kind of felt like, why are we using this beautiful experience that expresses so many other possibilities just as a counterpoint to this thing that we’re creating? Ultimately, we wanted to give space to everything else that that experience was. And we felt that it couldn’t have happened within the film that we had made, which is, admittedly, a very limited perspective. You could say that is a failure that we were trying to explore thoroughly from every possible angle.

In terms of using the footage again, there’s no plan for it right now. We shot it almost four years ago. It’s a lot of beautiful footage I would love to show. The students were making their own stuff too! And we were making this stuff with them. Maybe there’s a world where they want to release their stuff, but do you necessarily want your high school project out there in the world getting scrutinized? This whole project was about such a deep critical reading of images and picking them apart. Why do that to these students’ footage? It didn’t feel right to go from this critical, scrutinizing eye to then look at these obviously amateur images. It didn’t feel right to tear apart something so fresh that they were just finding out how to put together on their own.

CW What’s one thing you learned from those students?

TA It really shifted our ideas around: “How do we best and accurately index this experience that we had? How do we capture this?” Just deeply thinking about evoking something or gesturing toward something. It shifted a lot of our goals and ambitions for what we wanted to do with images. That was not some heady, cerebral experience; it was just being there in that classroom, passing the camera around, and realizing that there was so much else happening that was just not going to fit into what we were doing. It was just very in-our-bodies. It wasn’t some essay I had read. We read plenty of essays, you know. It was something else. And I’m grateful for that. 

Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere was released in June 2021 and will be screening at IFC Center in New York City through July 8.

Conor Williams is a filmmaker and writer from Long Island, NY. He has previously written for Interview Magazine, Reverse Shot, and Screen Slate, among other publications.

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