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 with video art to reflect thecomplicated nature of contemporary identity. Residing in London’s “Lisson Gallery” is Oursler’ssculptural collection of seven faces, nearly nine feet in height. The sevenportraits display the captures intended for photo identification cards, andother disturbing trends in security technology. Oursler reminds the viewer –having just left the flurry and hustle of Bell Street in North-West London toenter the quiet of Lisson’s space, only punctuated by the artist’s talkingheads – that they are living in the age of the world’s largest system ofsurveillance. In this moment the gallery is no longer a white cube space, asthe cameras become blatantly obvious in juxtaposition to the nature of theworks. Overlaying the giant, emotionless faces are marks and motifs imitatingthose of networks of nodes on specific features, of which modern facialrecognition systems utilise in order to recognise and differentiate betweenindividuals, transforming these standard portraits into electronic profiles andpieces of evidence. The surfaces of each of these impassive faces are disruptedby video screens of eyes or mouths, animating the cut-outs and forming adialogue between them – and a relationship with the viewer – as the artist craftsa collection of faces that end up watching you, introducing their blinkingeyes, and the disconcerting feeling of being spied upon. The works highlightthe wholly inhuman nature of biometric analysis; the artist draws on the waysin which we have distorted and subverted our own identities throughcontemporary technology; sifting us and categorising us in terms of visualrecognition, physical body traits, storing our genetic fingerprints, andfollowing us with GPS via our mobiles, the world has never been more invasiveand 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 and impersonalisedby their mediation through technology. All the while, London’s Lisson Galleryis filled with mutters and murmurs, as Oursler’s giant talking heads advocatethe sheer power of technology in terms of both its potential and its 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 onOursler’s video mouths and eyes is at once a reference to the theatricality ofthe works, and individual’s attempts to render themselves unreadable to thesystem.
The artist’s own systems are, as always highly engaging works aspowerful in presence as they are disturbing in subject matter. The artist’s workspresent individuals stripped of personality and subjective identity, they arein fact reduced portraits, standardised, the ultimate objectification – theyare reflections of our own disturbing invention. Moreover, SophieCalle is an internationally renowned artist whose controversial worksexplore the tensions between the observed, the reported, the secret and theunsaid. 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 kind ofintentional intrusion — but it is also, and most essentially, an inquiry intothe unbridgeable distances between us, the layers, the nuances, everything wecannot know. Calle developed her own sort of investigatory aesthetic within herfirst book, “SuiteVénitienne”, which operates as something of a simple diary; Callefollows a man, known here as only Henri B., from Paris to Venice, where shespends 12 days trailing him.
The two don’t know each other, or only slightly;as she explains, “At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, Ifollowed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That veryevening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During thecourse of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip toVenice. I decided to follow him.
” The result is this thrilling book, firstpublished in 1983, blending matter-of-fact daily text entries with Calle’selusive black and white photography. For Calle,the idea is to push the bounds of propriety, to go where one wouldn’tordinarily go. This is — have no doubt — an assault on privacy, autonomy,undertaken without permission and enacted for the public, a public with whichthe subject may or may not wish to engage. That’s often one of the challenges with Calle’s work, the mutualdiscomfort felt by the viewer as she crosses the line.
During the courseof her following, Calle phoned hundreds of hotels, even visited thepolice station, to find out where this man was staying, and persuaded a womanwho lived opposite to let her photograph him from her window. Her photographsshow the back of a raincoated man as he travels through the winding Venetianstreets, a surreal and striking backdrop to her internalised mission. The verybeauty of her surroundings h as a filmic quality, intensifying the thriller-esquenarrative of her project. Sometimes her means of following Henri B. are methodical –enlisting Venetian friends to make a phone call on her behalf – and sometimesarbitrary – following a delivery boy to see if he will lead her to him. Alongsidethe photographs, Calle documents her surveillance, noting and evaluating heremotions as she trails the mystery figure, reminding herself that though shefeels like she’s in love with him, it is his very elusivity to which she isdrawn.
She describes the wide gap between her own thoughts and his, which shecannot know. And there is one meeting between the artist and her subject –Henri B. confronts her after she has strayed too close. Calle’s SuiteVénitienne manages to turn a viewer/reader who originally might haverecoiled 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 morphs from being anartist into a woman on a conquest for a man. This is what lies at the core ofwhy this particular artist, as conceptual as most of her work might 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. ForSophie Calle it is exactly this switch that creates part of her work’spoignancy, where seemingly mundane or irrelevant details are not just givensome minor role. Instead, they are made to reveal something about the artist’sown vulnerability: here, it’s not just about following some man any longer,it’s also about the flip side, about desiring and being desirable, about the variousthings that are tied to it. In Calle’s work, the combination of text andphotographs operates along the best lines of visual storytelling there is inthe world of photography. The photographs, while usually not in that realm oftechnically amazing pictures, still add not only just enough, in fact they kindof are amazing pictures because they’re so uninspired. They don’t drawattention to the effort needed to make them. They’re documents and evidence morethan anything. They’re deadpan, but they’re affecting and poignant at the sametime.
And they’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.