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Complexities of Surveillance 


I was first drawn to the topic of surveillance while reading Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), particularly the chapter “Panopticon.” Foucault focuses on Jeremy Bentham’s architectural plan for a prison called the Panopticon to investigate systems of control over one's physical surroundings, such as schools, churches, and prisons. Through this example, he argues that bodies and minds are trained to conform under strict methods of control based on the codes of each institution (Foucault 196).  These predictable behavioural models that were based on the threat of surveillance and punishment had produced citizens who would govern themselves. Surveillance, here, refers to disciplinary power; the subject will behave according to the laws of disciplinary power due to the risk of being seen if they do not obey (Foucault 220). This power structure, as Gilles Deleuze has described, transitioned from Foucault’s disciplinary societies to societies of control, where the systems of control were no longer limited to citizens of an enclosed location; but to an evolving and entangled form of multiple discipline systems of overlapping networks. With the predominance of universal systems and card transactions, the disciplinary powers, formerly controlled by each institution in isolation, began to overlap.  


In the societies of control. . .what is important is no longer either a signature or a number, but a code: the code is a password, while on the other hand disciplinary societies are regulated by watchwords (as much from the point of view of integration as from that of resistance). The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’.  (Deleuze, 5) 


In this sense, societies of control have exponentially grown. In Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation, Zygmunt Baunman and David Lyon speak to the new flexibility of our mobile world in connection to ubiquitous surveillance practices through the form of data collection for customized online experiences and advertisements. “Everything moves from enforcement to temptation and seduction, from normative regulation to PR” (Bauman 57). For example, Bauman expands, that the phenomenon of filter bubbles, will change how consumers act; they will assume every request for personal information will benefit them, rather than questioning how their information will be used in the future (128). Julia Scher investigates our susceptibility to releasing personal information on her website <>.  Using a playful rhetoric, her site asks users to enter personal information, such as secrets, to navigate between the webpages. Scher utilizes the digital space to ask, what information are we willing to give up to be online? 

When the relationship between subject and observer is clear and without manipulation it can be helpful and healthy. However, this is not the experience most users are having online. As Shoshana Zuboff explains in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the information extracted from our digital interactions is sold to third parties to develop human behaviour algorithms. One of the uses of these algorithms is targeted advertisements (Naughton 2019). This practice is abused through sites like Facebook, where third parties target users of certain demographics and can send them false information (Mulhall 2019).  

The method by which the conceptual watcher is fabricated alters in relation to the transitioning development of our society. As we become a more digital society and our technology becomes more sophisticated, so will the systems of control. It is important to note that this evolution is dependent on the complexities of what these systems are controlling. In each example, from Foucault to Lyon and Baunman, the subject’s behavior is being controlled in some way by the perceived view of the system. However, which behaviour is targeted is based on which system of control is at play. For example, corporations monitor their customer's behaviour in order to gain personal information and improve sales of their products. This type of surveillance is rooted in manipulating the subject’s desires towards the watcher's products. The complexities of digital surveillance are not as clear as first described by Foucault and the Panopticon. In digital media, the observer or guard is lost. Additionally, social media emulates the intertwining of sousveillance and surveillance capturing methods. Through the act of posting themselves on various platforms, subjects are observing each other, being observed, and self-observing. The relationship is no longer one-to-one. We are the subject, manufacturer, and viewer. 


Surveillance is complex. It is a practice in which we all participate, on both sides of its inherent power structure; we fall victim to and benefit from it. Surveillance is a power word because it involves control over others. This control is violent and invasive and yet, in the name of safety, it has merit. Throughout my research, I struggled to understand my personal feelings about surveillance; it wasn't simply good or bad. Additionally, we interact with many kinds of surveillance. In order to assess my relationship with surveillance, I looked at all aspects of my life that were impacted directly or indirectly.


Being a woman, I experience restrictions in my ability to wander alone freely. I feel the need to constantly account for my safety. When walking alone at night, I am vigilant about assessing my surroundings and I give thought to which route I will take. Is it well lit? Since I have established a rapport with the security guards as have other students, I feel safe when I am working late in my studio.  In other respects, as a white female, I am privileged to go about my life. The police do not card me. I am not racially profiled in airports or neighborhoods. If I were to be harmed, the media is more likely to cover the incident and take my side. I am able to rent an apartment in a safer part of town and I own a vehicle. I can walk to the 7-eleven and feel assured that I will not get shot by a citizen or the police. For the most part where state surveillance exists, I feel safe.  Through navigating my surroundings and assessing where and when I feel safe or danger, my understanding of place is expanding.  

The icon of a security camera is often associated with surveillance and most commonly used in public places to record areas where crime is likely to occur. Similar to the Panopticon, the object itself creates the system of control; because the watcher cannot be seen, it insinuates that there is a watcher at all times. The Surveillance Camera Players (1996-2006) protest the proliferation of security cameras by "performing specifically adapted plays to perform in font of these cameras. [They] use [their] visibility... to explode the cynical myth that only those who are ‘guilty of something” are opposed to being surveilled by unknown eyes” (Surveillance Camera Players 2001). Jill Magid similarly uses CCTV cameras as a tool in her work. For example, in her project System Azure Security Ornamentation, she covered surveillance cameras in rhinestones, playfully bringing attention to the ever-watching eyes (Magid 2002). Magid and the Surveillance Camera Players, protest State Surveillance by actively responding to the security cameras around them; however, with the proliferation of mobile digital devices that have recording abilities, the mobile surveillance camera has become, in fact, a soft form of surveillance. Although subjects are video recorded and possibly viewed from a closed-circuit television, they are aware to some extent that this possibility exists. In other words, the surveillance camera is visible to the subject it is watching. Comparatively, there are other forms of surveillance, which we participate in everyday that are less obvious. For example, point cards used at different shopping locations track the spending, time and location of their subjects. This form of surveillance is less visible, and where and how the information is being used is even less clear. We submit our information willingly in many more ways. Social media encourages us to share our location, our image, and personal information. For example, the titles of my Untitled Drawing series were processed using A.I. alt text software, used to provide users with descriptions of images. Likewise, anyone with a mobile recording device permits anything and everyone to record for long as their battery and storage space allows. Moreover, the ability to capture and share at any moment blurs private and public spaces. 

Once life itself is digitally calculable, will the direct coupling of live observation and electric flow result in a different aesthetics of life itself? Autobiographical memories, so far narratively prefigured, will be replaced by data banks, which only powerful search engines might conquer. Algorithms, that is, already replace the panoptic regime. The individual (a term which seems to be coexistent with the discourse of privacy) will be deprived of historical time and subjected to a cyber- archival discourse, instead. If the state of privacy is defined as being free from intrusion or disturbance in one’s private life or affairs, individual memory is degraded when it enters electronic circuits. (Wolfgang Ernst 463) 

The act of watching people is something we are all guilty of -- myself included, as an artist in the practices of portraiture, photography, and observational drawing. In these disciplines, there is always a subject and an observer. Issues arise with the recording and spread of information gathered from that said ‘watching’. As Susan Sontag explains, “there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed” (14). For example, observational drawing has two consequences. Close observation promotes empathy towards the subject; however, it also holds a subsequent power relationship of observer over subject.  Both aspects are important to note when comparing drawing to our interactions with digital media.  

To elaborate, in portraiture, there is a certain trust relationship that is established between the sitter and the artist. Capturing the subject and creating a record of their 'image' as perceived by the artist, is a sensitive action. It involves spending time with and deep observation of the subject. This submission of time, attention, and subsequent image, creates a power relationship between the artist and subject. As an artist, I find this power relationship is important to acknowledge; however, the intimacy created by this practice likewise has an impact on the artist.  In my installation, i2i, I investigated my relationship with the University's security guards. Once drawn, each full body portrait was traced and transferred directly on the walls with blue chalk dust in a hallway. Additionally, the space was lit with blue gels. When entering the installation the portraits blended with the lighting, making them only appear when approached. In drawing these portraits, I took the position of watching the watchers, inverting the power relationship, while appreciating their role in our institution.


Portraiture is an opportunity to connect and understand the subject in a different way, as well as strengthen and honour the relationship. However, this relationship is altered through permission given by the sitter and respect promised by the artist when creating the relationship and developing a record that can be shared and spread.  When looking at the record (in this case the drawing), it will never be a true representation of the subject; it will be an accurate representation of this artist-subject relationship. This lens provides the viewer of the drawing with critical questions: who is the subject, who is the artist, and what is the relationship that is being presented? These same questions are valuable to ask when looking at digital media. 

Within my research, the watcher-watched relationship has perplexed me, especially in the context of social surveillance and surveillance capitalism that is overtly and constantly executed online. There is an odd occurrence that is happening online. As users continually attempt to self-represent themselves on online spaces, they are becoming both the artist and subject. The question is whether this behaviour is a gain in power or an overwhelming loss of power to the Big 5 (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft). Portraits are biased and can truthfully be only partially representative of the relationship between the artist and subject. So, what does our digital portrait represent about our relationship with the digital realm? 

Because we usually change our actions when we are being observed, the re-creation of privacy as a rare and expensive commodity produces behavior modification on a societal scale. We have built the Panopticon, and it is us. If people today are acting out more, it is in part because they understand, correctly, that they are on stage more. This is a dorm of governance, as depicted in George Orwell's canonical novel 1984; but what Orwell didn't predict was that governance does not require a Government. It turns out that ubiquitous observation is best achieved through ubiquitous observing, and social and marked forces are better at driving that sort of change. (57 Shirky) 

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