SURROUND SURVEILLANCE: THE WATCHERS
—Sara Reisman, June 2019
One home computer can plant a bug in the programs of other computers. Public space is the air space between bodies and information and other bodies; public space is a mix of electric current and sexual magnetism. So much information fills the air…1
— Vito Acconci
A blonde woman peers out from a window. Another woman carrying a bag of groceries passes by another window. A grey haired man listens intently to telephone call, cradling the receiver. A partially dressed man, wearing just a shirt, walks across a room. Private, domestic moments are illuminated from within, in a sequence of slowly paced establishing shots, woven together in Amie Siegel’s 1999 film, The Sleepers. With her camera, Siegel hones in on these windows, found apertures opening onto an anonymous cast of characters. Each shot captures the boundary between private and public, subtly shifting the membrane separating the two realms. Difficult to parse is whether these scenes have been staged, shot illicitly, or culled from found footage. Regardless of how the film is constructed, this eery perspective borders on the not-so-neighborly act of espionage. Glancing into a neighbor’s window may be within the confines of the law, but this film required photographic methods likely considered illegal by Peeping Tom laws, which prohibit “unlawful surveillance in the second degree,” and might involve photographing or filming a subject without consent.2 Call it what you will: old fashioned stalking and spying represent breaches of privacy, a concept that is rapidly changing as advances in technology enable greater public access to personal information. As Jill Lepore wrote in 2013, “The defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets. In other words, the case for privacy always comes too late.”3
Privacy, something that Americans have come to expect, is alluded to in the Fourth Amendement to the U.S. Constitution, which protects, “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…” unless there is an established probable cause.4 Yet what constitutes privacy is often determined on a one-to-one basis, frequently without both parties’ mutual awareness, as Vito Acconci demonstrated in his Following Piece (1969).
“Each day I pick out, at random, a person walking in the street. I follow a different person everyday; I keep following until that person enters a private place (home, office, etc.) where I can’t get in.”5
Acconci’s ‘following’ episodes lasted anywhere between a few minutes and eight hours. Attention to the public realm was prominent throughout his artistic trajectory, particularly between his performative artwork and later architectural projects. In 1990, he penned the essay “Public Space in a Private Time,” reflecting on how technology was in the process of transforming our relationship to both time and space, and the resultant erosion of a shared physical commons. Siegel’s film enables sightlines into domestic spaces that Acconci, by his own design, did not trespass, yet his undertaking might be understood as a ‘non-consensual collaboration,’6 enacted without his subject’s knowledge. A contemporary version of unwitting targets is presented in Orkhan Huseynov’s Dear Beloved (2017), a series of videos that cinematically stage composites of fraud emails. A scam tactic familiar to anyone using email: the sender typically solicits personal banking information from the recipient, under the guise of an urgent need to offload large sums of cash. While Acconci’s performance didn’t infringe on his ‘participant’s’ consciousness, Huseynov’s videos seep into the psyche of the viewer, tapping into one’s empathy for fictional characters like Mrs. Noor, who is undergoing cancer treatment and needs to find a suitable place for her money:
Dear Beloved, Please forgive my intrusion into your privacy. I’m a Malaysian sick widow, admitted in a private hospital here, in Burkina Faso, where I and my late husband spent all our life together…
An uncanny quality underscores Huseynov’s series, in which the point of view between writer and recipient becomes ambiguous. A second video is based on an email by a Mr. Mohamed, who introduces himself as a personal assistant to Syrian President Bashar el-Assad. Mohamed is desperate to move funds out of Syria, frustrated with the government for its attack on his people. The narrative of the letter quickly becomes disjointed, as Mr. Mohamed, a janitor, continues to explain that he sought asylum in another country and wants to move funds to ‘your country.’ The fantastical qualities of these emails are exaggerated by Huseynov, who, through the blurring of characters, amplifies the manipulative tug of the original text, pointing to our capacity to empathize with the suffering described. The ubiquitous, formulaic language belies the believability of these messages, forcing those on the receiving end to establish boundaries against such potential breaches of trust.
As spam filters create virtual walls against fraud, the United States and other countries are ramping up physical barriers as a manifestation of national security. Elaine Byrne produced Borderline to document and analyze this recent fortification of numerous international borders, which have been built up in part to block Central and South Americans seeking safety and resources in the north, and the Syrian refugee crisis, flowing west into Europe. According to Byrne, “on the surface, these walls vary in what they aim to deter—workers or asylum seekers; drugs, weapons, terror; ethnic or religious mixing—yet there are common dimensions to their proliferation at this moment in world history.”7 She has traveled extensively to contested sites: the United States and Mexico, Spain and Morocco, Spain and the United Kingdom, and Greece and Turkey. In spite of the prominence each of these borders have in the news, they are difficult to access, which limits the circulation of images depicting them. Byrne’s photographs show the mundane, and at times, artfully happenstance views to the other side. Like the glimpses into private homes in Siegel’s The Sleepers, Byrne’s images of borders are also eerily familiar. They provide a comment on the futility of ‘walling,’ where the most contested lines appear unguarded, porous.
In connection with Borderline, Byrne photographed the eight U.S. border wall prototypes, ordered by President Trump and built in the fall of 2017. Following their erection, artist Christoph Büchel proposed that Trump’s prototypes should be designated as national monuments, hailing Trump as a conceptual artist.8 Describing them as an unintended sculpture garden, Büchel has said, “This is a collective sculpture; people elected this artist.”9 Büchel’s contribution to the 2019 Venice Biennale is a shipwreck,10 the very one that sank in the Mediterranean in April 2015, with 800 refugees on board.11 Byrne and Büchel both address the high stakes of borders and instrumentalize absence in their work, though Büchel’s project makes a more sensationalistic statement about the loss of human life, and Byrne’s approach to her series offers a more measured comment on the global refugee crisis. She dispassionately questions the efforts to prevent the movement of immigrants in spite of their need for asylum, highlighting this as a global problem.
That Trump’s border wall prototypes have been called conceptual or public art suggests an ironic twist: What if the eight monoliths were eventually monuments to a historical moment? The notion of memorial—as public art or national monument—is a thread that links many artworks in the exhibition and looms large in Phantom Limbs (2001–2011), Pedro Lasch’s monumental series of paintings. They were begun in response to the September 11th attacks, just as the first large-scale commemorative gestures following 9/11 were being staged. Lasch refers directly to Tribute in Light, initiated in early 2002 by Creative Time as an ephemeral memorial in lower Manhattan. He painted imagined reconstructions of the Twin Towers in different cities where tributes to the attacks have been locally recreated, including New Orleans and Budapest, and contested locations like Guantanamo, Kabul, Baghdad, and Gaza City. Each work is painted in a specific art historical style—the memorial proposed for Gaza City is Impressionist, Paris is Constructivist, Panmunjom is Pop Art—that does not appear to logically correspond with each of the proposed locations. The conceptual framework of paintings, which were intended for discreet placement in museums among real historical objects, are imbued with ten years of research he conducted through a website (www.twintowersgoglobal.org, or, as Lasch refers to the project, TTGG), social networks, news stories, an international design competition, and collaborations with existing organizations. Lasch’s staging of the paintings in the context of social networks and a fictional design competition presciently points to the increasing challenge of sorting fact from fiction in the context of news media, particularly since the 9/11 attacks.
If this series presents us with a template for memorializing 9/11, it is important to recognize that what the artist is commemorating is much larger and more complex than the Twin Towers. The project directly honors the loss of life marked by the destruction of the World Trade Center. It indirectly acknowledges the aftermath and what has been lost in the signing of the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) in October of 2001 by Congress to strengthen national security.12 It has enabled increased access to personal records deemed unconstitutional by federal courts. Perhaps Phantom Limbs also mourns the loss of privacy as we knew it. As if to reinforce this sense of being watched, Lieven De Boeck produced M.I.R.R.O.R.Nr3.eagle (2010) using an anti-theft mirror as the surface for a painting in white, based on the seal of the Executive Office of the U.S. President and the logo for the Office of Homeland Security. It incorporates pared down symbols of an eagle holding an olive branch in its right talons, and arrows in its left, symbolizing the country’s history of advocating for peace. The 13 stripes, stars, and arrows represent the 13 original states. Like Acconci, De Boeck has a background in architecture. His work has involved the production of typologies, specifically systems of communication that have included built spaces, drawings, textiles, graphic design, as well as performance. The painting is a play on the security mirrors installed in everyday spaces like convenience stores, parking garages, and airports. The outline of the symbols obscures much of the reflective surface. De Boeck’s installation utilizes a convex mirror, one of the simplest forms of surveillance (perhaps after Acconci’s performative exercises in spying), yet the piece is a more complex comment on the expansion of the surveillance state.
Even with all of the knowledge enabled by technological advances, there is a discrepancy between the perceived and actual levels of freedom and privacy that existed prior to 9/11. National security is not new; the Federal Bureau of Investigation was founded more than 100 years ago, in 1908,13 tracking the personal and business dealings of individuals and organizations. No detail of the late artist Arnold Mesches’ life was too small for the F.B.I., which monitored his activities for 25 years.14 In 1956, when more than 200 paintings were stolen from his studio, he believed the bureau to be responsible. Much of the stolen artwork was made in response to the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.15 In the 1990s, Mesches was able to obtain his F.B.I. files following the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. The heavily obscured pages detailed everything from his signing of petitions to wearing paint splattered pants. Mesches noted the beauty inherent in the redacted documents, describing them as “Kind of like Franz Kline sketches. Those big, black slashes where they block things out.”16 Mesches incorporated them into collaged paintings, a series titled The F.B.I. Files. Anne Deleporte’s painting series Photo-Fresco involves taking the act of redaction further. She uses a limited palette to cover up the predominantly text-based information found in newspapers. Her monochromatic architectural murals are an ongoing exercise in alternative reading, favoring images over text. Deleporte’s selective reading isolates moments from the glut of visual and textual matter we encounter on a daily basis, while leaving the work open to the viewer’s subjective interpretation. In a site-specific installation Watching the Watchers, Deleporte has wheatpasted pages of The New York Times onto a column, and focused on symbols of the surveillance state. Much like the politically-selective editing of news, her paintings omit critical information, yet she sets her work apart by transforming The New York Times into a surrealist rebus through a process of obscuration and filtration.
The analysis of images is, of course, intrinsic to surveillance. Woodland (2019), a large-scale camouflage installation, is made up of tiny sousveillance17 images collected by Hasan Elahi, an artist who was mistakenly added to the U.S. government’s watchlist in 2002, when he was taken into questioning at Detroit Metro Airport. Over the following months he was asked to report on personal details including his whereabouts, the contents of his storage unit, and whether he had belonged to any groups, or witnessed any act detrimental to the U.S. or any nation.18 Initially Elahi didn’t see this experience as material for an artwork, but he decided to keep the F.B.I. continually informed, notifying them of any travel plans, communicating first through phone calls, then emails, then photographs. Despite putting out a barrage of information, the artist lives what he describes as “a pretty anonymous life.” He suggests that the problem of everything being out there can be solved by controlling the information yourself. He believes by making information available, its value is greatly reduced, from an intelligence perspective. His effort began before social media had advanced to its current level of surround surveillance, but his theory of information transparency, and cooperation with the Feds, has worked to prevent further interrogation.
The pattern and colors of Woodland are based on the design of camouflage uniforms worn by U.S. soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, and were also used by Andy Warhol in some of his final works. To connect Warhol and Elahi on the basis of their use of camouflage alone may seem tenuous, but Warhol’s repetitive imagery—for example, Twelve Electric Chairs (1964) made to commemorate the Rosenbergs’ execution at Sing Sing Correctional Facility—can be likened to the grid of Elahi’s sousveillance shots. Critic Hal Foster describes Warhol’s Death and Disaster images from the 1960s as “traumatic realism.” In his 1996 essay “Death in America” published in October Magazine, Foster wrote, “Clearly, this is one function of repetition: to repeat a traumatic event (in actions, in dreams, in images) in order to integrate it into a psychic economy, a symbolic order.”19 Foster’s proposition also applies to the seriality of Pedro Lasch’s nine Phantom Limb paintings as he uses repetition to historicize a disaster narrative. In an era of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, many micro-aggressions have been normalized and integrated into everyday life, like the experience of being surveilled without just cause and profiled for terrorist activity. Elahi’s experiments in self-surveillance follow the methodology of Arnold Mesches, as both expose the futility of excessive government scrutiny through their differing forms of artistic resistance. Elahi closes the information loop by delivering his personal archive directly to the F.B.I., thereby creating and controling the data. His strategy for producing these images protects his personal information by leaving out significant visual cues. Through this process, he prevents the oversharing that has become increasingly common across social media platforms.
What happens when we look beyond the interface designs that populate our lives online? Knowing that information is selectively withheld and made visible based on algorithms, is there any way to comprehend what is just out of plain sight? In Karin Ferrari’s Hyperconnected (The Whole Picture), 2017, much of the video is shot as a screen capture from an iPhone. A digitized voice-over narrates the interconnected relationships between covert operations and our personal use of the internet, and how smart phone technology has enmeshed our culture in aneven deeper web of surveillance. The animated scalable vector map delineates the corporate interests, government bodies, and supernatural forces that many believe converge within the global network. Ferrari unpacks the symbolism of logos like that of the Firefox browser, which incorporate the necromantic symbol of a snake eating its tail, a signifier of wholeness, or infinity. The video begins with an explication of the icon of the Information Awareness Office (IAO), which is composed of a triangle (a pyramid), and a circle (the world). Here the IAO is linked to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, more commonly known as DARPA. Their site reads, “For sixty years, DARPA has held to a singular and enduring mission: to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.” These breakthroughs include the Internet, precision weapons and stealth technology, automated voice recognition, and Global Positioning System receivers “small enough to embed in myriad consumer devices.”20 According to Hyperconnected (The Whole Picture), DARPA’s covert activities became widely known as a result of Edward Snowdon’s data breach. The symbols of the pyramid and globe are an allegory for the U.S. spying on the whole world. Whether or not you agree with Ferrari’s belief that we are being watched and our activities tracked, her theory of hyperconnectedness points to deeper systems of information capture.
Symbology, an ongoing project begun in 2006 by Trevor Paglen, is comprised of a collection of 75 embroidered military insignias, based on the artist’s investigative research of black ops. “Black ops” refers to covert or clandestine government, military, and paramilitary programs. The insignias provide a lexicon of visual symbols relating not just to obscure associations, but hidden military operations, like an air force unit, a stealth cruise missile, or a team that is building a secret airplane.21 Both Ferrari and Paglen’s projects are experiments in visualizing the opaque operations that surround us. Without specialized expertise, these unfamiliar symbols can be difficult to decode, as they are not intended to be legible to the general public.
Paglen, and other artists in The Watchers, map out and rethink systems of knowledge related to the military and other forms of intelligence gathering. Acconci’s small act of stalking, spying, or, as he described it, following, demonstrates a curiosity in the form of performance art many might question the value of, yet such an experimental approach is found in works by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and American Artist, both of whom are working with types of technology pioneered by DARPA, specifically facial recognition and artificial intelligence. Each of their works in the exhibition require audience interaction to be fully realized. Lozano-Hemmer’s Level of Confidence (2015) uses biometric software to match the faces of gallery visitors with a group of 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, who were forcibly taken by local police in collusion with those involved with organized crime. Typically used by military and police forces to search for suspicious persons, facial recognition software has come under fire due to its potentially oppressive uses by law enforcement. In recent months, municipal governments in San Francisco and Oakland, California, as well as Somerville, Massachusetts, have proposed bans on the software to prevent the misuse of personal information.22 In Level of Confidence algorithms attempt to match the viewer’s face to those of the missing students. A positive match is, of course, impossible. Instead, the work functions as a memorial to the students who were likely murdered. Interacting with the piece, the viewer can see the program attempt to make a match with one of the disappeared, thereby fostering a sense of empathy with the victims.
The frustration that Lozano-Hemmer conveys in the failure to match viewers with those he is commemorating in Level of Confidence is also present in the work of American Artist, specifically in Sandy Speaks (2017). The work is comprised of an Artificial Intelligence chat platform, which the artist programmed to guide viewers through a written exchange about Sandra Bland, her death in a prison cell, as well as her vigilant efforts to uphold her own rights in the face of the police officer, Brian Encinia, who arrested her for a “failure to signal” just three days before she died, while in police custody, in July, 2015.23
In May of this year, a 39-second video clip was released by the Investigative Network, a nonprofit news organization in Texas, which shows the force Encinia used against Bland, pointing a stun gun in her direction as she was made to leave her vehicle. In Artist’s video chat, Sandy Speaks greets the viewer with:
I am a system named after Sandra Bland and her eponymous video series “Sandy Speaks”. It was a video series she made to engage people politically during the months prior to her arrest.
Try asking me something about our prisons, their use of surveillance, or about Sandra Bland. Sandra Bland was a young black woman whose death gained national attention for suspected foul play by law enforcement throughout her arrest and her time in jail.
The project raises awareness about the injustice of Sandra Bland’s arrest and death, while offering advice about what is allowable and legal behavior while under arrest and in police custody. Like many other works in the exhibition, Sandy Speaks serves to memorialize, and more pragmatically, is a resource for the public to better understand their constitutional rights. Sandy explains, “I have one goal, to try and make sense of what’s going on in this country.”
Underlying the question of ‘what’s going on in this country’ is the legacy of everyday racism and the oppression of native communities in the United States. Cannupa Hanska Luger, whose work The Weapon is Sharing (This Machine Kills Fascists), 2017, is a series of ceramic objects made to look like smart phones. It addresses the need to make enduring contemporary stories, based on reports and calls to action that are often quickly forgotten after being disseminated through what he refers to as “throwaway technology.” Recognizing the lack of sustainability inherent to mobile devices and the negative environmental impact they have, Luger’s objects depict protests against the Dakota Pipeline at Standing Rock, inscribing these events into the art historical record, bringing these historical moments into dialogue with museological artifacts. Presented in a vitrine filled with local New York City soil, Luger also connects the use of social media—something that can be read from multiple global perspectives—to the local, asserting the materiality of both the message and the site. Raising questions about how we honor ancestral, indigenous lands, the artist continually challenges discourse about land rights. Luger’s work also reveals the positive potential of surveillance and social media, pointing to the international attention its widespread use brought to the crisis at Standing Rock, and the increased accountability it has brought to bear on authorities.
Viewed as a non-linear narrative, the varied technological turns taken by each artist in The Watchers—from Arnold Mesches’ painterly reuse of redacted documents and Elaine Byrne’s on-the-ground photographic research of borders, to American Artist’s chatbot platform—tell the story of a stunningly transformed media landscape. The effects of the Internet and social media on global culture has revolutionized how we exchange information, and the potential to amplify what we believe to be true, with our peers, our communities, and the press. What makes the story incomplete and unresolved is the elusiveness of truth. As our perception of truth continues to shift, more nuanced and considered uses of technology are called for in holding ourselves and our political system accountable.
We are watching.
Acconci, Vito. “Public Space in a Private Time.” Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4 (1990): 900-18. doi:10.1086/448566. p.915.
“Unlawful Surveillance in the Second Degree.” NY State Senate. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/PEN/250.45.
Lepore, Jill. “The Prism: Privacy in an Age of Publicity.” The New Yorker. June 17, 2013. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/06/24/theprism.
U.S. Constitution, Amendment IV.
“Following Piece (1969).” Vito Acconci. Accessed June 17, 2019. http://www.vitoacconci.org/portfolio_page/followingpiece-1969/.
A term coined by artist and critic Aliza Shvarts, in regards to a 2015 project about consent.
Kevin Kavanaugh Gallery. “Borderline: Elaine Byrne.” News release, September 6, 2018. Kevin Kavanaugh Gallery. Accessed June 17, 2019. http://www.kevinkavanagh.ie/borderlineelaine-byrne-06-09-29-09-2018.
Walker, Michael. “Is Donald Trump, Wall-Builder-in-Chief, a Conceptual Artist?” The New York Times. January 03, 2018. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/arts/design/is-donald-trump-wall-builder-inchief-a-conceptual-artist.html.
Tondo, Lorenzo. “I Have Seen the Tragedy of Mediterranean Migrants. This ‘art’ Makes Me Feel Uneasy.” The Guardian. May 12, 2019. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/12/venicebiennale-migrant-tragedy-art-makes-meuneasy.
The Editors of Artnews. “In Venice, Christoph Büchel Will Show Ship That Sank in Mediterranean, Killing Hundreds of Migrants.” ARTnews. May 06, 2019. Accessed June 17, 2019. http://www.artnews.com/2019/05/06/in-venice-christoph-buchel-will-show-shipthat-sank-in-mediterranean-killing-hundredsof-migrants.
“PATRIOT Act.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.eff.org/issues/patriot-act.
“A Brief History.” FBI. May 03, 2016. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.fbi.gov/history/brief-history.
Grimes, William. “Arnold Mesches, Artist Who Was Recorded by the F.B.I., Dies at 93.” The New York Times. November 09, 2016. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.nytimes. com/2016/11/10/arts/design/arnold-meschesartist-who-was-recorded-by-the-fbi-diesat-93.html.
Elahi, Hasan. TED. July 2011. Accessed June 17, 2019.
Foster, Hal. “Death in America.” October 75 (1996): 37-59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/778898. p.41-42.
“About DARPA.” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/about-darpa.
Stewart, Alison, and Trevor Paglen. “Top Secret: A History of Black Ops Patches.” NPR. January 14, 2008. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=18067308.
Conger, Kate, Richard Fausset, and Serge F. Kovaleski. “San Francisco Bans Facial Recognition Technology.” The New York Times. May 14, 2019. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/14/us/facialrecognition-ban-san-francisco.html.
Weber, Paul J. “Sandra Bland’s Own Video of 2015 Texas Traffic Stop Surfaces.” AP NEWS. May 07, 2019. Accessed June 17, 2019. https://www.apnews.com/1a92859cc6d54b0bb23dc1b6a6e30e36.