Artists Exposing the Screen

Many Artists are utilizing interactive installations to examine digital surveillance practices in North America. In my research I focused on the following artist’s installation works to understand how they use digital media to criticize the prominent role of technology in society today. 

For example, the interactive installations, Hansel and Gretel by Ai Weiwei, and Blink by Chris Echert, both use surveillance technologies to reveal the invasive nature and extensive database of ubiquitous video footage. In Blink, Echert aims to investigate the unsettling aspects of retroactive surveillance made possible by video recording programs. Blink is composed of 20 realistic moving eye cameras in one room as the direct feed of the live video footage is broadcast in the next room with facial recognition software (“Look Out!”). The interactive eye machines place the viewer into a seemingly playful environment that quickly changes to startling invasive realizations, when the footage is revealed. Echert explains he is not interested in the collecting of video data but in demonstrating the act of observation that takes place every day on online browsers (“Look out!”). 

The unsettling aspect of the installation is revealed the moment the viewers realize they were being watched by other viewers on the other side of the gallery walls. The question here is, if the footage were not readily accessible for viewing, would the installation have the same effect?  As Gordon and Silva de Souza explain, “in a culture that values location, privacy becomes about the inability of the subject to conceal oneself in a sea of user data” (10). The question of privacy has changed in an infinitely growing and accessible data-based-world, from what is hidden to what we have the power to conceal. For instance, if video documentation occurs but it is not stored or viewed, it changes the menacing nature of video surveillance. The unsettling aspect of online data collection is that the subject does not know who is looking at their information or what it is being used for.  

Whereas, in Ai Weiwei’s installation, Hansel and Gretel, the viewers image is captured by drones and projected on the floor in which they walk. Here the viewer is put in a position of interactive play; however, as Liz Stinson outlines, “the fact that you were being monitored was no secret, which made it easy to work the technology in your favor. All around the hall, people paused for eerie photo shoots; posing, smartphone in hand, as the cameras above snapped their picture and replicated it on the ground” (2). In Weiwei’s installation the viewer is aware that their information is being recorded and projected back to them, yet they still playfully participate.

Lynn Hershman Leeson strives to expose and educate the viewer about technologies around them. In the Installation, Shadow Stalker, she explores invisible data collection and the dangers of algorithmic law enforcement tools. The second component of the installation is a video work that mimics a sleek video documentary. The stage is set with actor Tessa Thompson looking directly into the camera while informing the viewer about algorithmic policing. Halfway through the video, Thompson introduces the Fairy of the Dark Web who poses as a fictional character, further explaining the dangers of location-based algorithmic profiling. 

 

The addition of this character adorned in odd plastic outfits re-frames the video to a more playful children TV program format. The contrast in tone from the news broadcaster format to the fictional character allows for the dense topic of digital data-collection to be broken down into a more digestible configuration. The Fairy of the Dark Web defines the red square through singing in front of maps, informative video collages, and news interviews. The final advice given by the Fairy of the Dark Web is to reclaim the red square not as an enclosure of control but as a place of rebellion, “even if you have to threaten a meltdown... Insist on being legible, own your profile, take hold of your avatar, honor your digital shadow” (The Shed). This advice could be interpreted many ways, the description of owning, rebellion and meltdown suggest a destructive force created from the very technology that oppresses certain demographics.

 

Like Marshall Mcluhan’s optimistic outlook, that if we accept the symbiotic relationship of technology and society, we can wield it in powerful ways (Collamati). Here, the Fairy of the Dark Web, a personification of the dark web, is giving the advice to embrace the very technology that is causing the oppression. This solution leaves little to no tangible outcomes, it possibly fits better with Leo Marx’s warning from his writings on, The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept, where the bewitching nature of technology as a mystical, solve all form, is dangerous because it does not hold the user accountable. How can the user embrace their digital shadow? 

In the works by Echert, WeiWei and Leeson, the viewers are caught on camera and then displayed back to themselves to expose the immense amount of data being collected through digital technologies. Thereby, all regurgitating the same statement – you are being watched. Although, the intent to uncover and share information about these technologies is on route to change, I wonder how effective these technological-reveal installations are when they are offering no insights or nuance to the already fearful narrative attached to surveillance and data collecting technologies. Are they merely creating more fear around these issues without providing alternatives and/or solutions? 

Hasan Elahi also reverses the control of the gaze with his practice of sousveillance. Targeted by the FBI at an airport as a terrorist, Hasan Eliah provided the state with an inexhaustible number of photographs of his daily life and travels. Through photographing every aspect of his life from the meals he eats to where he travels, he discovered, “that everything is there, but you have to really work through it. So, by me putting all this information out there, what I'm basically telling you is I'm telling you everything. But in this barrage of noise that I'm putting out, I actually live an incredibly anonymous and private life” ("FBI”). What he is striving to show with his work is that, if he controls what is out there in mass amounts, “it's a very different type of identity than if you were to try to go through and try to get bits and pieces” ("FBI”). His solution to the influx of information is to override the system with so much information that the information becomes meaningless. 

Similarly, artist Trevor Paglen aims to expose the infrastructures of state surveillance in America. For example, in The Other Night Sky (2011) is a series of photographs captured of classified American satellites; and in Limit Telegraphy (2012) of American military bases (Paglen). By seeking out and tracking the physical spaces running these systems Paglen is connecting the data collection to its source. Additionally, by turning the camera on to these sites of collection, Paglen is altering the power dynamic from observer to observed.  

In Sophie Calle’s series of portraits obtained from a bank’s atm footage, called Cash Machine, she describes the feeling of the raw footage without any intervention, being incomplete (Helfand 2015). She recently re-showed the work in the form of a video titled, Unfinished, where she outlines the process and failures of trying to add artistic gesture to the raw footage unsuccessfully (Helfand 2015). When viewing Cash Machine, without the artistic gesture, the viewer cannot fully understand or observe how Sophie Calle observed the footage. "Calle later wrote 'I kept thinking that these images were not enough in themselves. They needed text. This text that is me. My trademark: image and text." Without introducing anything new into these images, could she really expect them to convey her intent?" (Connor 20) 

As an artist, I hold similar views to Calle. I think it is important that the artist’s observation of the subject is distinguishable to the viewer. Moreover, in digital spaces this same perspective can promote responsibility and critical thinking of oneself and of the content. Possibly then, sympathy, as Ruskin described, could be a result. The gesture of drawing as a way of thinking, creating networks, connecting to our surroundings, recording time spent observing, creating critical discourse, and formulating sympathy. Through my gestures in and out of the digital terrain, I utilize the scope of drawing to better understand digital space and my actions within it.