Derived from the French word ‘surveiller’, meaning ‘to keepwatch’ or ‘to watch over’, the surveillance camera has been used to regulateborders, to assist war-time scouting, to gain advantage over political opponentsor simply to gather information.
Each and every one of us is entitled to theright to privacy, yet our own government are constantly proposing advancementsin surveillance technology in order to closely monitor our every movements foran array of uses. Within this study I will be exploring the ways in whichsurveillance, as a modern-day affair, has influenced contemporary art work andhow that art explores the different controversies surrounding surveillance. Anartist I have investigated is American multimedia and installation artist, TonyOursler; whose writings and work have been very influential in both my productionand my own interpretation of contemporary and conceptual art work thatencapsulates the issues with new technological developments in surveillance. Moreover,Parisian artist, Sophie Calle creates works of art that challenge theboundaries of documentary and artistic photography. She photographs people andtheir possessions without their knowledge. She reveals intimate details abouther personal life, her relationships, and those of her subjects. As a result,she has been labelled a voyeur and an exhibitionist by her critics and by hersupporters.Criticalsurveillance artwork has blossomed in recent years, pushing inquiry of thissort through a multitude of approaches and stances.
One of the bearings Belgianartist, Dries Depoorter takes is by disturbingly and effectively probing theethics of surveillance made possible through the combination of public datasources. For instance, his 2016 conceptual artwork, “Jaywalking” takesadvantage of unprotected, open video feeds from close circuit camera at bigroad junctions in different countries to ‘catch’ pedestrians in the act ofjaywalking across streets. If a pedestrian cross without the proper signal,Depoorter’s algorithm will automatically flag that violation and take a screencapture, thus producing legal evidence; next, it will ask gallery-goers whetherthey would like to report the violation to the local police department withlawful authority. If viewers choose to interact with the piece and press thebutton when prompted, the images will be emailed to the police departmentclosest to the offender, who could then allegedly name the person guilty of theoffence. Although it is unlikely that images sent to police from thisinstallation will result in fines for the identified offenders, this immersiveart project reveals the immoral logics of data systems and introduces subjectsas potential complicit actors in those systems. The innocuous-looking camera onthe street corner can easily be integrated within larger systems of control,perhaps – as shown here – completely unknown to the people being watched or thevery owner of the camera in question.
I’ve taken heavy influence from theimmoral logics of Dries Depoorter’s work and the ignorant rationalities thatmodern surveillance technology has over our feelings and desires that thisartist’s work represents. The feeling of helplessness on the part of theunknowing participant is something that has transpired in my piece, ‘Subjects’.My piece captures public suspiciousness in a raw, unmodified outlook – andreflects a sense of power and guilt on the person viewing the images, andagain, that identical sense of vulnerabilityon the unaware partaker. In addition, my later piece, ‘Echoes’, a moving-image video installation piece,shows the manipulation of figure, form and individuality into digits, data andevidence. The work sees heavy inspiration from ‘Jaywalking’, in the sense thatthe piece sees silhouettes of people in a rush-hour stricken city walking leftto right across the screen.
The silhouettes are layered on top of each other,and frequently we can see a positive image of a person through asilhouette. Again, the transcending feeling of helplessness on thepart of the unknowing participant is represented in my piece, ‘Echoes’. Whereasrepeated exposure to dedicated surveillance devices, such as public video(CCTV) cameras, can cause them to fade from active attention or recognition,uncanny and unexpected configurations of such devise can snap awareness backinto place. This is the conceit of Czech artist, Jakub Geltner’s public artseries titled, ‘Nests’. For these installations, Geltner places a surfeit ofvideo cameras and satellite dishes in unusual positions and sites, denselyclustered along the walls of buildings, on rooftops, along walking paths oreven on rocky outcrops along seashores. The tactic if definitely one ofdefamiliarisation, or making strange, which follows from a mode of literary theorythat finds the value of art in its ability to shift perception andunderstanding of everything things. Because Geltner’s works appear in publicplaces, their success at defamiliarising is readily observed in the behaviourof passers-by who look up, point at and take photographs of the arrangedsurveillance devices.
The term ‘Nest’ cleverly symbolises the tensions produced bythese works. Nests are typically places of safety, shelter and propagation. Byplacing surveillance devices in nest arrangements or suggesting that theypossess attributes similar to (other) nesting creatures, Geltner naturalisesthe potentially predatory behaviour of surveillance as an expected, instinctualresponse to threats, such as humans who may seek to challenge the need for, orappropriateness, of surveillance. The hint of natural configurations forsurveillance technologies defamiliarises them for viewers; opening them up torenewed attention and inquiry. Multi-award winning, contemporaryAmerican installation artist, Tony Oursler produces work encompassing the nature ofexploring human identity. Within his latest composition,”template/variant/friend/stranger”, Oursler intertwines sculptural objects withvideo art to reflect the complicated nature of contemporary identity. Residing in London’s “Lisson Gallery” is Oursler’ssculptural collection of seven faces, nearly nine feet in height.
The seven portraitsdisplay the captures intended for photo identification cards, and otherdisturbing trends in security technology. Oursler reminds the viewer – havingjust left the flurry and hustle of Bell Street in North-West London to enterthe quiet of Lisson’s space, only punctuated by the artist’s talking heads –that they are living in the age of the world’s largest system of surveillance.In this moment the gallery is no longer a white cube space, as the camerasbecome blatantly obvious in juxtaposition to the nature of the works. Overlayingthe giant, emotionless faces are marks and motifs imitating those of networksof nodes on specific features, of which modern facial recognition systems utilisein order to recognise and differentiate between individuals, transforming thesestandard portraits into electronic profiles and pieces of evidence.
The surfacesof each of these impassive faces are disrupted by video screens of eyes ormouths, animating the cut-outs and forming a dialogue between them – and arelationship with the viewer – as the artist crafts a collection of faces thatend up watching you, introducing their blinking eyes, and the disconcertingfeeling of being spied upon. The works highlight the wholly inhuman nature ofbiometric analysis; the artist draws on the ways in which we have distorted andsubverted our own identities through contemporary technology; sifting us andcategorising us in terms of visual recognition, physical body traits, storingour genetic fingerprints, and following us with GPS via our mobiles, the worldhas never been more invasive and yet utterly impersonal. In terms of the piece as an installation, we see the images(the faces), staggered in a maze-like layout throughout the space in the mannerof theatrical props. As if oversized police mug shots or closed-circuit camerastills, the original identity of the individuals is distorted andimpersonalised by their mediation through technology. All the while, London’sLisson Gallery is filled with mutters and murmurs, as Oursler’s giant talkingheads advocate the sheer power of technology in terms of both its potential andits dangers, conveyed in their fears in whispers, creatingan effect of people talking to themselves, or bidding to break through thetechnology that their true identity is locked behind – in an attempt to talk toeach other.
The faces at once signify an attempt to break with theirtechnological subversion. Oursler’s body of work serves creates a dialoguewhere traditional social structures and definitions of identity are mediated bytechnology, the effect of which is dangerously dehumanising, and impersonal. In addition, the slight scatters of paint on Oursler’svideo mouths and eyes is at once a reference to the theatricality of the works,and individual’s attempts to render themselves unreadable to the system. Theartist’s own systems are, as always highly engaging works as powerful inpresence as they are disturbing in subject matter. The artist’s works presentindividuals stripped of personality and subjective identity, they are in factreduced portraits, standardised, the ultimate objectification – they arereflections of our own disturbing invention. Moreover, on thefront of voyeurism and espionage, Sophie Calle (an internationallyrenowned artist whose controversial works explore the tensions between theobserved, the reported, the secret and the unsaid).
For more than 30 years now,Calle has engaged in art as provocation; her 1983 project “The AddressBook” begins with the discovery, on a street in Paris, of anaddress book, which she then uses to excavate the life of its owner, contactingeveryone within. The point is voyeurism, yes — or more accurately, a sort of premeditatedand intentional invasion of privacy — but it is most essentially, an inquiryinto the unbridgeable distances between us, the layers, the nuances, everythingwe cannot know. Calle developed her own sort of investigative style andaesthetic within her first book, “Suite Vénitienne”, whichoperates as something of a simple diary; Calle follows a man, known only asHenri B., from Paris to Venice, where she spends 12 days trailing him. The twodon’t know each other, or only slightly; as Calle explains, “At the end ofJanuary 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of afew minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he wasintroduced to me at an opening.
During the course of our conversation thatevening, he told me he was planning a trip to Venice very soon. I decided tofollow him.” The consequence is this thrilling book, first published in 1983, blendingmatter-of-fact daily text entries with Calle’s subtle and elusive black andwhite photography. For Calle,the idea is to push the bounds of decency, to go where one wouldn’t ordinarilygo. This is, without a doubt, an assault on privacy, autonomy, undertakenwithout permission and enacted for the public, a public with which the subjectmay or may not wish to engage. That’s oftenone of the challenges with Calle’s work, the mutual distress felt by the vieweras she crosses the line.
During the course of this following, Callephoned hundreds of hotels, even visited the police station, to find out where thisman was staying, and persuaded a woman who lived opposite to let her photographhim from her window. Her photographs show the back of a raincoated man as hetravels through the winding Venetian streets, a surreal and striking backdropto her internalised mission. The very beauty of her surroundings has a cinematicquality, intensifying the thriller-esque narrative of her project. Sometimesher means of following Henri B. are methodical – enlisting Venetian friends to make aphone call on her behalf – and sometimes capricious and random – following adelivery boy to see if he will lead her to him. Alongside the photographs,Calle documents her surveillance, noting and evaluating her emotions as shetrails this mystery figure, reminding herself that though she feels like she’sin love with him, it is his very elusiveness to which she is drawn. Shedescribes the wide gap between her own thoughts and his, which she cannot know.And there is one meeting between the artist and her subject– Henri B.
confronts her after Calleeventually strays too close. Calle’s SuiteVénitienne manages to turn a viewer/reader who originally might haveturned away at the very premise of following someone and photographing him notonly into a willing accomplice, she makes her/him into a co-conspirator. Theviewer/reader can’t help but root for Calle, who somehow adapts between beingan artist and into a woman on a conquest for a man. This is what lies at thecore of why this particular artist, as conceptual as most of her work may be, managesto elevate the work out of dry conceptualism, into something entirelydifferent.
The conceptualism aims at the most human of our desires and dreams.Even seemingly irrelevant details are made to acquire stinging meaning. InCalle’s work, the combination of text and imagery serves along the best linesof visual storytelling there is in the world of photography. The photographs,while usually not in that realm of technically, or even aesthetically, amazingpictures, still add not only just enough, in fact they kind of are amazingpictures because they’re so uninspired. They don’t draw attention to the effortneeded to make them. They’re documents and evidence more than anything.
They’reimpassive and vacant, but they’re perturbing and poignant at the same time. Andthey’re being brought to life through the text. To conclude, critical artworks about surveillance introduce compellingpossibilities for rethinking the relationship of people to larger systems ofcontrol. They call into question the hidden logics of surveillance systems,which reduce people to decontextualised pieces of data to facilitatemanipulation. By revealing some of these logics and pushing people to questiontheir places within the systems, these art projects create a space forideological critique. If the goals are to challenge viewers and generatecritical insights about surveillance, then the projects that nurture ambiguityseem best equipped to achieve these goals. For instance, the works by JakubGeltner and Dries Depoorter each boast ambiguous situations that provokediscomfort, reflection and participation on the part of viewers.
With Geltner’sNests installations, viewers must make sense of unusal arrangements and placementsof video cameras that do not fit within standard explanatory models. Viewersappear to find the pieces oddly unrealistic and are kept ignorant about whetherthe cameras are real, if the footage is being watched, what the messages of theworks might be, or perhaps even if the camera configurations are an artwork.With Depoorter’s Jaywalking piece, viewers are forced to make a decision thatmight affect someone else’s life, someone whom they see but who is completelyunaware of them. The ambiguity rests in whether the action of pushing the redbutton will or will not generate a chain reaction for which the participantwould be responsible. By fostering ambiguity and decentring the viewingsubject, critical surveillance art can capitalise on the anxiety of viewers tomotivate questions that might lead to greater awareness of surveillance systemsand protocols.
Works that use participation and interaction to make viewersuncomfortable can guide moments of personal reflection about one’srelationship.