Surveillance and Art

Interrogating and debating surveillance and its impact on society is not the prerogative of scholars and activists. A number of artists have over the years engaged with issues related to surveillance and produced remarkable works that investigate, expose and illustrate the extent and depth of surveillance in society today. Many artists are themselves using surveillance technologies, for example footage from CCTV cameras or drones, or engage in self-surveillance, to better address themes of visibility asymmetries, threats to privacy, and surveillance.  Artists also engage in sousveillance, turning the gaze towards those in power, in attempts to resist surveillance and create counter-images. The art works, and the analyses and discussions of them by artists themselves, art curators, and scholars, help contribute to a better understanding of  the intervention of surveillance in everyday life, and also draws attention to the performative aspects of surveillance itself. Art, in short, can help make surveillance, often by its nature quite invisible, visible to us. Many artists are through their works raising serious social and political questions about power asymmetries in surveillance regimes (between governments and individuals, corporations and individuals, and between the global north and global south), revealing the vulnerability of weak groups (for example migrants and refugees). Their work is thus not just a form of aesthetic appropriation of surveillance technologies but constitute resistance and a challenge to governmental and corporate surveillance, and thus contributes to multiveillance i.e. horizontal and participatory monitoring.

Last week I went to the Hasselblad Center to see the exhibition Watched! Surveillance, Art and Photography that included works by a range of artists with a special focus on photography and the European context. In the exhibition there were some interesting works by Trevor Paglen and James Bridle who long have been involved in documenting and visualizing surveillance. Trevor Paglen, who in 2014 was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, has for example taken photos of NSA bases and American satellites. A very disturbing art work was Mishka Henner’s work No Man’s Land based on internet forums where men share images and locations of alleged sex workers using Google Street View. His work show corporate surveillance and how male sex buyers are using these technological affordances, and it also illustrates the vulnerability and asymmetries built into surveillance regimes. Other vulnerable groups are migrants and refugees, and several artists, including Tina Enghoff, Julian Röder, James Bridle, and Marco Polini, dealt with how surveillance and diverging visibilities affect these groups.

The very rich and beautiful catalogue, apart from the art works, also includes several insightful articles by some of the artists, as well as art curators, and media and surveillance scholars. There is also a very informative short video about the exhibition where the curator introduces the exhibition and some of the works, and several of the artists discuss their own works.


There have been other major exhibitions addressing surveillance and art at different art institutions and museums. In 2010, for example, Tate organized Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, and in 2015 the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art organized Panopticon: Visibility, Data, and the Monitoring Gaze. Earlier this year the Pratt Institute organized the exhibition Little Sister (is watching you, too), whereas Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum organized To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare. And I am sure there have been other exhibitions on this topic.

This year, Laura Poitras, also held her first solo exhibition, Astro Noise, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, with art and video installations addressing topics such as a mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, and Guantánamo Bay Prison. Topics that are also the focus of her films within the 9/11 trilogy, My Country, My Country (2006), The Oath (2010), and of course Citizenfour (2014) that documents her meetings with Edward Snowden and the revelations of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programme. The exhibition also resulted in a book, Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance, with articles and works by artists, authors, data journalists and activists, including Trevor Paglen, Ai Weiwei, Edward Snowden and Kate Crawdord, that illustrate different aspects and responses to mass surveillance and the ‘war on terror’.

In 2015 Rhizome and the New Museum in New York in an art-meets-tech event  paired activist Jacob Applebaum and artist Ai Weiwei. Their art project was documented by Laura Poitras in the film, Art of Dissent, showing them working on their project Panda to Panda, stuffing toy panda bears with shredded N.S.A. documents and memory cards as a backup, and talking about their experiences of surveillance.

Ai Weiwei is the Chinese artists who most explicitly and actively have engaged with different types of surveillance. When surveillance cameras were installed outside his studio, he hung lanterns from them, and in an act of defiance while under house arrest in 2012 he installed web cameras in his home and broadcast 24-hour live on a website called weiweicam. This form of self-surveillance was too much for the Chinese authorities, however, so he was soon forced to close down the cameras.  Ai Weiwei has also made other artwork addressing surveillance, including a sculpture entitled Surveillance Camera and Plinth made in marble. Another work that reveals a very close up and haunting experience of surveillance is S.A.C.R.E.D, a series of lifelike dioramas depicting his 81-day imprisonment. The work, which was first shown in Venice, is exhibited in small metal boxes and the viewer needs to peer through tiny windows in the ‘roof’ and ‘walls’ and thus in a sense becomes an accomplice in the act of surveillance. He has over the years also documented the constant police surveillance and a selection of these photographs that exemplify sousveillance are included in Laura Poitras book Astro Noise. Surveillance and sousveillance are also dealt with in many of Ai Weiwei’s documentary films beginning with his first film Disturbing the Peace.


August 13, 2016

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