You’re being watched. As you walk the street, enter the train or a café or a club. At a store, at the workplace. Probably at home too, if in fact the NSA and other organisations are tapping into your webcam. It’s just regular surveillance. We know it. And we’re ok with it.
Most of us really don’t question it. It’s just another one of those things that’s now part of the world we live in.
To a large extent, you contribute to and feed into the surveillance system as well. Everytime you post a picture or a video online on a social network you’re giving up rights to it’s ownership and usage. The implications of doing so aren’t really considered. It doesn’t help that there isn’t really an established system of laws or rules governing surveillance or it’s ethics. Besides do you really care what happens with your private information as long as you get more likes, comments, shares and other ego boosters.
Undoubtedly, there is a positive side to surveillance. Security being the foremost of the reasons. Being under the watchful eye gives you a certain sense of safety. You know you’re being watched, so why would anyone dare do you any harm?
Watched! Surveillance, Art & Photography touches on these topics. More than anything though, it really raises the questions of how we are monitored, why we are monitored and the bigger question of privacy, rather the lack of it, in the generation we live in.
The exhibit is a small one, housed in the C/O Gallery in Berlin. As a visitor to the city, it is only when you arrive at the gallery that you realise that the main communication for the exhibit – a simple vector of an eye on a yellow background is the same used across the public transport systems of the city – in the S and U systems. Travelling 40 minutes to the gallery and seeing the city’s sign for having you under their surveillance in a way sensitises and prepares you for the exhibit.
You are under surveillance.
The exhibit wastes no time in showing you your own place in the world of surveillance. Three screens in the first room itself greet you with a feed of where you’ve walked in from and where you currently are. Seeing yourself on a tiny CCTV monitor immediately takes away any sense of privacy you might have. You know you’re in a public space, but it’s akin to standing in front of the mirror. It might be your vanity, but at first you’ll fix your hair and then your posture and then the overall manner in which you behave. You know you’re being watched. You’re not behaving outside the lines of normalcy and righteousness defined by society, but you are more aware and more careful. God forbid you trip in the gallery and get caught on camera and viewed by other art aficionados.
Satire in surveillance.
It’s interesting the way the exhibit flows from one piece to the other. A feed of yourself which definitely highlights the lack of privacy is immediately washed away in the next exhibit, Evidence Locker by Jill Magid, that almost instantly makes you laugh. A video feed of her in a red trench coat being guided, blindly, by the Liverpool city surveillance team has enough of it’s funny moments. From not being spotted by the team because of 3 other women also in red trench coats to the subject, the artist herself, unknowingly veering leftwards instead of straight and almost in a fish and chips cart. Given the situation and need would the city use surveillance technology to assist those who actually need it? Perhaps, but I trust the government to genuinely help me out and not meddle in my affairs just as much as I’d trust my middle aged neigbhour next door. Sure, I’d get some sugar when I need it but I’ll definitely not expect any leaked secrets to stay secrets.
Surveillance is pretty much a one sided thing. You know you’re being watched. You know the people around you are being watched. And it can get scary when you question the personalities of the people actually doing the watching. Is it a pervert admiring the way your hair blows in the wind? Will he track your Google Maps navigation to study your behavior and stalk you. There’s no denying our voyeuristic nature. So there’s no denying the lack of ethics that most certainly exist in the world of surveillance.
Watch me watch you.
Paolo Cirio’s series of work – Overexposed puts into frame some of the top officials in charge of the most robust surveillance programs run by the CIA, the NSA and the FBI. Unofficial pictures sourced from public profiles on social media recreated using creative techniques. A moment of “you’ve been watching me and now I’m watching you.” Hopefully a way to have the powers that be reflect on their practices and question the ways in which they carry out surveillance. It’s just as easy for the public to gain access into their personal lives as it is for them to gain access to ours. The power that technology enables us exists on both sides of the fence.
Turn your back on Cirio’s pieces and you’re greeted with the overblown image, of the already rather big head, of Ai WeiWei. It’s in moments like these that I feel I should research the exhibits I visit a bit more. However there’s no surprise in such moments then. It’s like turning around a corner and unexpectedly seeing someone you know. Of course, I could fairly easily have known that you’d be around the corner if I wanted to. But I’m not as interested in knowing your whereabouts as Mr.John Brennan who I had the pleasure of being acquainted with just a few moments ago.
WeiWei has a knack of making statements. The piece on display here is his WeiWeiCam. A video feed of his life for a period of 4 days coupled with blown up images capturing his daily life in the same time frame. The live feed he setup and streamed worldwide to basically tell the Chinese government to fuck themselves when they released him from jail, put him under house arrest and set up cameras across his house went viral in a matter of hours after he went live with it. A classic case of if you can’t beat em, join em. The piece again raises the question of the sense of security. If you were held captive by a group of hostile individuals, would it give you a sense of safety to have you, and said hostile individuals, monitored by millions of strangers. Does it put a sense of fear in the people that hold you captive. Evidently it does.
No escape from surveillance.
While your house in an urban city gives you the highest sense of privacy at some level you do know that there’s still a chance of it being invaded. There’s a level of sensitized paranoia that we all live with and are unfortunately OK with. Escape to hinterlands, deep in the jungles to escape it. Find a cave to dwell in to get that complete sense of escapement from the surveillance eye. That too is a myth as Florian Mehnert displays, more audibly, in his work titled Waldprotokolle where he recorded conversations by passers by in a secluded forest. It extends the idea of expected surveillance from government agencies to that by individuals. You can’t trust the government, but can you trust the fellow individual is some food for thought too.
The point really is, you can’t escape being watched. So you accept it. We don’t really have a choice. But the question must be asked, where does the use of technology get it’s ethics from? Who monitors it? And more importantly are we giving up more than we would like? Where does this take us into the future as a society? And more importantly, will privacy be a relic of an idea in a few years from now? The question extends to a multitude of topics beyond just surveillance under the data protection and privacy umbrella, but do we as individuals and citizens really care about it? To finally throw it in, are we heading towards an environment much like the one described by Orwell in 1984? And is that something we’re aware of? And if we are, are we ok with it?