ArtistsGalleries 31-10-2016

The art of surveillance, making visual the invisible

“We have never found Paglen’s work to repel institutional or state audiences,” says Daelyn Farnham, director of the Altman Siegel Gallery in San Francisco, “we have found that there are collectors who see it as a celebration of military prowess, while others find it to function as a critique,” he adds. Trevor Paglen, is one of the leading voices in the emergence of surveillance art.

With one week left until the U.S. election, surveillance is back in the public eye thanks to the release of a film by Oliver Stone that focuses on the whistleblower Edward Snowden. The topic has been relatively absent from public debate in America, only arising due to questions of national security raised by Hillary Clinton’s now notorious leaked emails. Yet over the past decade artists have seized upon the subject, and with good reason: in the UK there is almost one security camera per 11 inhabitants, and whilst some of them are not in use, there seems nonetheless to be a growing distaste for this mania for surveillance.

This year, the Whitney Museum hosted “Astro Noise,” an exhibition of work by Laura Poitras that focused on mass surveillance, and revisited the revelations the artist learnt from Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room. “Astro Noise” helped bring to the fore artists working on the issue of surveillance. Today, the subject is at the heart of many artists’ research, especially in the U.S. But why this sudden interest? Is it just curiosity? Or a fierce desire to denounce contemporary surveillance practices?


Critic Paul Ardenne explains that “political art can of course be propagandist or genuinely engaged, but can also just be simple actions which are not concerned with any given ideology and indeed just set out to ask questions, or to stop us going round in the same circles, to challenge the accepted wisdom.”

Trevor Paglen, NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK, 2014 — Courtesy of the Artist, Metro Pictures, New York and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

In 2016, Trevor Paglen was one of the joint recipients of the Deutsche Börse Prize for his work on mass surveillance. “I’m interested in images that teach us how to see the world that’s around us all of the time,” he says. In this way, Paglen uses art to  “educate, defend and explain quasi-philosophical concepts.” The panel of judges announced through the chair Brett Rogers, that they selected Paglen for his “significant contribution to current issues that deal with the disquieting impact of unseen aspects of technology on our daily lives.

Paglen is interested in the current historical moment in which we live. His projects include a series of photos taken at Miami beach which reveal fibre optic cables snaking across the ocean floor that were tapped by the NSA as part of a surveillance operation. The artist dived underwater in order to capture images of the cables.
Without wishing to reduce his work to a simple “interest in surveillance,” Paglen’s gallerist Farnham acknowledges these questions “are pertinent for collectors” who are “attracted to the questions his work poses in terms of reflecting on our way of seeing the historical moment that we're living in.”
“I feel confident that if we knew what the state was doing, our relationship to it would be different,” contends filmmaker-turned-artist Laura Poitras. “I want to do work that brings some of those realities to life so that we can reckon with them.” In the same way that painters of the 19th century denounced misery and war, so too do these artists aim to identify, explain and denounce the actions of the State. Incidentally, in the case of the Whitney’s Laura Poitras show, the museum clarified that it had not received money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) — in other words the State — as is normally the case. The institution explained it had not put in a request for funding given the nature of the exhibition.

Arne Svenson, « The Neighbors »

In the last few years the photographer Arne Svenson has thrust into relief the difficulties inherent to this topic. His long-lens snapshots of his neighbours in their apartments, taken unbeknownst to them, have generated polemic and helped to attract a large audience to his exhibitions. “I do not view Arne’s work as an infringement of privacy. But, many people enjoyed discussing the boundaries around public/private in today’s technology-driven world,” says Nora Abrams, the curator of Svenson’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver “The exhibition also really facilitated larger conversations about the role of surveillance in today’s world.”

Installation shot, Tracking Transience by Hasan Elahi from “Surveillance Series”​


Liza Faktor, curator of the exhibition “Surveillance Series” at the New York Media Center in 2014 and Dubai’s East Wing gallery in 2015, cites the artist James Bridle who has claimed that “the problem with too much Surveillance Art is that it simply creates more surveillance.”

In an essay on the website Digital ethics, the journalist Nikki B. Williams denounced the hypocrisy of artists working on the subject of surveillance, in particular on CCTV, stating, “most of this art encourages the breach of privacy through the publication (or re-publication) of personal images without authorization… At the very least, artists should set an example.”

In terms of the concrete impact Surveillance Art can have, Amnesty International’s Libertés campaign is an example of a project that has incorporated work by artists who explore the topic. Nicholas Krameyer, director of Libertés, explains, “the  campaign has collaborated a lot with Laura Poitras. This artistic angle allows us to engage and raise awareness amongst the public through a different approach, and ultimately to reach new audiences.”
Yet for Faktor “we have to go beyond mass surveillance and big data at this point,” awareness of the matter is steadily on the rise, yet there remains “so much to talk about — AI, our relationship with the internet and how it’s affecting our physical interactions. Digital artists such as Kyle McDonaldLauren McCarthy and Jonathan Harris are at the forefront of this exploration.”  
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