March 4, 2016

Art reflects the changing values, mores and daily life of the society it characterizes, painting a brilliant overview of the triumphs and struggles of its time. In the 21st century, some artists have begun to use interactive, and sometimes intrusive, installations to capture the ethical struggle between privacy and information as it plays out in today’s world. This “surveillance art” highlights the widespread unethical gathering and dissemination of information by authorities, governments and other citizens. But the line between highlighting this ethical struggle and contributing to it can be thin.

Modern sources define “surveillance art” as “the use of technology intended to record human behavior in a way that offers commentary on the process of surveillance or the technology used to surveil.” It can be as creative or as mundane as any other art form, ranging from plays staged in front of Google Street View cameras to unauthorized images of pedestrians displayed on 43 foot towers as in Christian Moeller’s Tokyo-based “Nosy.”

Andy Warhol was among the first artists to experiment with the evolving technology of videotape in the mid-60s performance piece Outer and Inner Space. In it, he filmed actress Edie Sedgwick using standard 16 mm film. Then, he used videotape to observe and record her reaction to watching herself in the initial shots. He spliced both types of footage together for a unique split-screen movie containing his surveillance of the actress.

Since then, technology dedicated to surreptitious observation has exploded. Popular Mechanics notes that more than 30 million surveillance cameras in the United States capture four billion hours of footage a week. And that’s just video. That number doesn’t include cameras on cell phones, electronic devices, and webcams. In recent decades, surveillance has gone beyond mere cameras to include wiretappingbiometric surveillancecyber surveillance, and more.

Enter the artist with an agenda. Through the centuries, artists have used their creativity to comment on, and bring attention to, social injustices like invasion of privacy. In an essay published in the journal Social Justice, community activist and senior staff to the director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Maria X. Martinez, reminds us that, “Artists not only document social change; they promote, inform, and shape it.”

In attempting to comment on privacy issues, surveillance artists have found in our burgeoning spy technology a new medium with which to catalog their complaints and express their hopes and fears. Some, like James Bridle, seek to inform viewers of the hidden machinations of authorities and nations. He created Citizen Ex, an extension for web browsers that allows users to see how information is stored and tracked across the infrastructure of the internet. He calls this an “algorithmic citizenship” and represents it as a badge made up of the flags of nations through which your data has been disseminated. Others artists, such as “Surveillance Camera Man” in Seattle, are content with demonstrating to their viewing public the ease with which they can intrude on private moments. Surveillance Camera Man’s YouTube channel demonstrates this by showcasing the reactions of random people he secretly films.

There are two ways surveillance artists can make their point regarding personal privacy: by using other, often unsuspecting individuals as subjects, or by shining the light on themselves. This second technique is called inverse surveillance or “sousveillance.” One artist, Hasan Elahi, uses the inverse technique to turn the tables on authorities by voluntarily broadcasting his daily life with minute-by-minute videocast. In his TED talk on NPR, he explains that intelligence agencies consider restricted access to information a prized commodity. Elahi, who also gave the keynote address at the CDEP’s annual symposium last November, feels that information is only valuable to these agencies because no one else has access to it. By making every bit of his personal information available on a moment-by-moment basis, he not only devalues it but makes it more difficult for intelligence agencies to sift through all the minutiae.

Elahi isn’t the only artist to take issue with government infringement of personal privacy. To protest the use of drones, Tomas Van Houtryve created Blue Sky Days in response to the killing of a 67-year-old Pakistani by a U.S. drone strike. The Guardian reported that her grandson, Zubair Rehman, later spoke at a U.S. Congressional hearing about the event, saying: “Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear.” Van Houtryve's efforts involved attaching a camera to a drone that traveled across the U.S. photographing, without authorization, the kind of events mentioned in drone strike reports. These included weddings, funerals, parties and other gatherings. Using a map of approved drone use areas from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), he moved his camera across oil fields, prisons and the U.S.-Mexico border, demonstrating the ease of access drones enjoy.

Several artists use Google images to illustrate the pervasiveness of privacy invasion. Paolo Cirio’s work, Street Ghosts, takes the photographs of people caught in Google Street View images, prints them into life-size posters and places them—without authorization—at the precise spot the Google team photographed them. Visitors of the Street Ghosts website can even suggest a “ghost” and a location. Another artist, Mishka Hennig, uses censored Google Earth images of Dutch economic, military and political locations to draw attention to the Dutch government’s attempt to subvert monitoring of their facilities.

Artist Marie Sester’s installation Exposure explores the use of X-ray imagery for surveillance. In an article for the online magazine Wired, she explains her installation as representing “…the ways in which our culture obsesses with hyper-vigilance, penetration, and control.” Interestingly, art aficionados don’t have to attend the gallery to check out her exhibit—they can watch it via live webcam feed. Of course, if you do this you can surreptitiously scrutinize the people visiting the exhibit. Thus, ironically, the gallery is conducting surveillance of a piece of art protesting surveillance.

To display how simple it is to invade the private lives of individuals, Boston photographer Andrew Hammerand put together the exhibit “The New Town” after he discovered he could access a Midwestern planned community’s webcam. He grabbed control of the camera and spent years watching the residents and visitors of the town and documenting them through screenshotted photos that he has now compiled. Visitors to his website and to galleries displaying his exhibition can peer into the faces of the town’s population unknowingly captured going through their daily lives.

There is no doubt that surveillance art is a unique way for people to comprehend the level to which their privacy is eroding as they move through today’s technologically precocious world. There are no essays to plow through and no big words to understand. People from all walks of life are able to follow the simplicity of the messages in these exhibitions. However, most of this art encourages the breach of privacy through the publication (or re-publication) of personal images without authorization. With the addition of the live webcams trained on some exhibits, the art descends into the very quagmire of intrusion and encroachment that the artists seek to unmask. At the very least, artists should set an example by honoring the privacy of the individuals included in the work by gathering authorized releases for images and other personal information.

Nikki Williams
is a bestselling author based in Houston, Texas. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at nbwilliamsbooks.com.