Derived from the French word ‘surveiller’, meaning ‘to keep
watch’ or ‘to watch over’, the surveillance camera has been used to regulate
borders, to assist war-time scouting, to gain advantage over political opponents
or simply to gather information. Each and every one of us is entitled to the
right to privacy, yet our own government are constantly proposing advancements
in surveillance technology in order to closely monitor our every movements for
an array of uses. Within this study I will be exploring the ways in which
surveillance, as a modern-day affair, has influenced contemporary art work and
how that art explores the different controversies surrounding surveillance. An
artist I have investigated is American multimedia and installation artist, Tony
Oursler; whose writings and work have been very influential in both my production
and my own interpretation of contemporary and conceptual art work that
encapsulates the issues with new technological developments in surveillance. Moreover,
Parisian artist, Sophie Calle creates works of art that challenge the
boundaries of documentary and artistic photography. She photographs people and
their possessions without their knowledge. She reveals intimate details about
her 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 her
supporters.

Critical
surveillance artwork has blossomed in recent years, pushing inquiry of this
sort through a multitude of approaches and stances. One of the bearings Belgian
artist, Dries Depoorter takes is by disturbingly and effectively probing the
ethics of surveillance made possible through the combination of public data
sources. For instance, his 2016 conceptual artwork, “Jaywalking” takes
advantage of unprotected, open video feeds from close circuit camera at big
road junctions in different countries to ‘catch’ pedestrians in the act of
jaywalking across streets. If a pedestrian cross without the proper signal,
Depoorter’s algorithm will automatically flag that violation and take a screen
capture, thus producing legal evidence; next, it will ask gallery-goers whether
they would like to report the violation to the local police department with
lawful authority. If viewers choose to interact with the piece and press the
button when prompted, the images will be emailed to the police department
closest to the offender, who could then allegedly name the person guilty of the
offence. Although it is unlikely that images sent to police from this
installation will result in fines for the identified offenders, this immersive
art project reveals the immoral logics of data systems and introduces subjects
as potential complicit actors in those systems. The innocuous-looking camera on
the street corner can easily be integrated within larger systems of control,
perhaps – as shown here – completely unknown to the people being watched or the
very owner of the camera in question. I’ve taken heavy influence from the
immoral logics of Dries Depoorter’s work and the ignorant rationalities that
modern surveillance technology has over our feelings and desires that this
artist’s work represents. The feeling of helplessness on the part of the
unknowing participant is something that has transpired in my piece, ‘Subjects’.
My piece captures public suspiciousness in a raw, unmodified outlook – and
reflects a sense of power and guilt on the person viewing the images, and
again, that identical sense of vulnerability
on 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 and
evidence. The work sees heavy inspiration from ‘Jaywalking’, in the sense that
the piece sees silhouettes of people in a rush-hour stricken city walking left
to 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 a
silhouette. Again, the transcending feeling of helplessness on the
part of the unknowing participant is represented in my piece, ‘Echoes’.

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Whereas
repeated 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 back
into place. This is the conceit of Czech artist, Jakub Geltner’s public art
series titled, ‘Nests’. For these installations, Geltner places a surfeit of
video cameras and satellite dishes in unusual positions and sites, densely
clustered along the walls of buildings, on rooftops, along walking paths or
even on rocky outcrops along seashores. The tactic if definitely one of
defamiliarisation, or making strange, which follows from a mode of literary theory
that finds the value of art in its ability to shift perception and
understanding of everything things. Because Geltner’s works appear in public
places, their success at defamiliarising is readily observed in the behaviour
of passers-by who look up, point at and take photographs of the arranged
surveillance devices.

 

The term ‘Nest’ cleverly symbolises the tensions produced by
these works. Nests are typically places of safety, shelter and propagation. By
placing surveillance devices in nest arrangements or suggesting that they
possess attributes similar to (other) nesting creatures, Geltner naturalises
the potentially predatory behaviour of surveillance as an expected, instinctual
response to threats, such as humans who may seek to challenge the need for, or
appropriateness, of surveillance. The hint of natural configurations for
surveillance technologies defamiliarises them for viewers; opening them up to
renewed attention and inquiry.

Multi-award winning, contemporary
American installation artist, Tony Oursler produces work encompassing the nature of
exploring human identity. Within his latest composition,
“template/variant/friend/stranger”, Oursler intertwines sculptural objects with
video art to reflect the complicated nature of contemporary identity.

 

Residing in London’s “Lisson Gallery” is Oursler’s
sculptural collection of seven faces, nearly nine feet in height. The seven portraits
display the captures intended for photo identification cards, and other
disturbing trends in security technology. Oursler reminds the viewer – having
just left the flurry and hustle of Bell Street in North-West London to enter
the 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 cameras
become blatantly obvious in juxtaposition to the nature of the works. Overlaying
the giant, emotionless faces are marks and motifs imitating those of networks
of nodes on specific features, of which modern facial recognition systems utilise
in order to recognise and differentiate between individuals, transforming these
standard portraits into electronic profiles and pieces of evidence. The surfaces
of each of these impassive faces are disrupted by video screens of eyes or
mouths, animating the cut-outs and forming a dialogue between them – and a
relationship with the viewer – as the artist crafts a collection of faces that
end up watching you, introducing their blinking eyes, and the disconcerting
feeling of being spied upon. The works highlight the wholly inhuman nature of
biometric analysis; the artist draws on the ways in which we have distorted and
subverted our own identities through contemporary technology; sifting us and
categorising us in terms of visual recognition, physical body traits, storing
our genetic fingerprints, and following us with GPS via our mobiles, the world
has 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 manner
of theatrical props. As if oversized police mug shots or closed-circuit camera
stills, the original identity of the individuals is distorted and
impersonalised by their mediation through technology. All the while, London’s
Lisson Gallery is filled with mutters and murmurs, as Oursler’s giant talking
heads advocate the sheer power of technology in terms of both its potential and
its dangers, conveyed in their fears in whispers, creating
an effect of people talking to themselves, or bidding to break through the
technology that their true identity is locked behind – in an attempt to talk to
each other. The faces at once signify an attempt to break with their
technological subversion. Oursler’s body of work serves creates a dialogue
where traditional social structures and definitions of identity are mediated by
technology, the effect of which is dangerously dehumanising, and impersonal.  In addition, the slight scatters of paint on Oursler’s
video 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. The
artist’s own systems are, as always highly engaging works as powerful in
presence as they are disturbing in subject matter. The artist’s works present
individuals stripped of personality and subjective identity, they are in fact
reduced portraits, standardised, the ultimate objectification – they are
reflections of our own disturbing invention.

 

Moreover, on the
front of voyeurism and espionage, Sophie Calle (an internationally
renowned artist whose controversial works explore the tensions between the
observed, the reported, the secret and the unsaid). For more than 30 years now,
Calle has engaged in art as provocation; her 1983 project “The Address
Book” begins with the discovery, on a street in Paris, of an
address book, which she then uses to excavate the life of its owner, contacting
everyone within. The point is voyeurism, yes — or more accurately, a sort of premeditated
and intentional invasion of privacy — but it is most essentially, an inquiry
into the unbridgeable distances between us, the layers, the nuances, everything
we cannot know. Calle developed her own sort of investigative style and
aesthetic within her first book, “Suite Vénitienne”, which
operates as something of a simple diary; Calle follows a man, known only as
Henri B., from Paris to Venice, where she spends 12 days trailing him. The two
don’t know each other, or only slightly; as Calle explains, “At the end of
January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a
few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was
introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation that
evening, he told me he was planning a trip to Venice very soon. I decided to
follow him.” The consequence is this thrilling book, first published in 1983, blending
matter-of-fact daily text entries with Calle’s subtle and elusive black and
white photography. For Calle,
the idea is to push the bounds of decency, to go where one wouldn’t ordinarily
go. This is, without a doubt, an assault on privacy, autonomy, undertaken
without permission and enacted for the public, a public with which the subject
may or may not wish to engage. That’s often
one of the challenges with Calle’s work, the mutual distress felt by the viewer
as she crosses the line. During the course of this following, Calle
phoned hundreds of hotels, even visited the police station, to find out where this
man was staying, and persuaded a woman who lived opposite to let her photograph
him from her window. Her photographs show the back of a raincoated man as he
travels through the winding Venetian streets, a surreal and striking backdrop
to her internalised mission. The very beauty of her surroundings has a cinematic
quality, intensifying the thriller-esque narrative of her project. Sometimes
her means of following Henri B. are methodical – enlisting Venetian friends to make a
phone call on her behalf – and sometimes capricious and random – following a
delivery boy to see if he will lead her to him. Alongside the photographs,
Calle documents her surveillance, noting and evaluating her emotions as she
trails this mystery figure, reminding herself that though she feels like she’s
in love with him, it is his very elusiveness to which she is drawn. She
describes 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 Calle
eventually strays too close.

 

Calle’s Suite
Vénitienne manages to turn a viewer/reader who originally might have
turned away at the very premise of following someone and photographing him not
only into a willing accomplice, she makes her/him into a co-conspirator. The
viewer/reader can’t help but root for Calle, who somehow adapts between being
an artist and into a woman on a conquest for a man. This is what lies at the
core of why this particular artist, as conceptual as most of her work may be, manages
to elevate the work out of dry conceptualism, into something entirely
different. The conceptualism aims at the most human of our desires and dreams.
Even seemingly irrelevant details are made to acquire stinging meaning. In
Calle’s work, the combination of text and imagery serves along the best lines
of visual storytelling there is in the world of photography. The photographs,
while usually not in that realm of technically, or even aesthetically, amazing
pictures, still add not only just enough, in fact they kind of are amazing
pictures because they’re so uninspired. They don’t draw attention to the effort
needed to make them. They’re documents and evidence more than anything. They’re
impassive and vacant, but they’re perturbing and poignant at the same time. And
they’re being brought to life through the text.

 

To conclude, critical artworks about surveillance introduce compelling
possibilities for rethinking the relationship of people to larger systems of
control. They call into question the hidden logics of surveillance systems,
which reduce people to decontextualised pieces of data to facilitate
manipulation. By revealing some of these logics and pushing people to question
their places within the systems, these art projects create a space for
ideological critique. If the goals are to challenge viewers and generate
critical insights about surveillance, then the projects that nurture ambiguity
seem best equipped to achieve these goals. For instance, the works by Jakub
Geltner and Dries Depoorter each boast ambiguous situations that provoke
discomfort, reflection and participation on the part of viewers. With Geltner’s
Nests installations, viewers must make sense of unusal arrangements and placements
of video cameras that do not fit within standard explanatory models. Viewers
appear to find the pieces oddly unrealistic and are kept ignorant about whether
the cameras are real, if the footage is being watched, what the messages of the
works might be, or perhaps even if the camera configurations are an artwork.
With Depoorter’s Jaywalking piece, viewers are forced to make a decision that
might affect someone else’s life, someone whom they see but who is completely
unaware of them. The ambiguity rests in whether the action of pushing the red
button will or will not generate a chain reaction for which the participant
would be responsible. By fostering ambiguity and decentring the viewing
subject, critical surveillance art can capitalise on the anxiety of viewers to
motivate questions that might lead to greater awareness of surveillance systems
and protocols. Works that use participation and interaction to make viewers
uncomfortable can guide moments of personal reflection about one’s
relationship.