Visual Art

There's More Than One Way to Stare Down a Camera

The Messy Feedback Loops of Surveillance Art

There's More 
Than One Way to 
Stare Down a Camera

Courtesy Gary Hill

WATCHED A still from Gary Hill’s 12-minute video ‘Blind Spot.’

  • comments (7)
  • Print
+ Enlarge this Image
+ Enlarge this Image

The park outside my office window, Cal Anderson on Capitol Hill, was recently outfitted with three city-owned surveillance cameras. I look at the playing field occasionally; the cameras watch it all the time.

These are the first cameras to be installed in a Seattle park, but not the last. More will come: to Hing Hay Park in the International District, Occidental Park in Pioneer Square, and Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market. The cameras operate continuously, but city bureaucrats don't monitor them unless a complaint is filed or 911 is called. They demonstrate Jeremy Bentham's principle of internalized surveillance, that people watch over themselves on behalf of the authorities when they know they can be watched but don't know when or by whom.

Then there is the raging flip side to the fear of surveillance: the desire to be seen. Nobody has to talk bloggers or reality-TV stars into "oversharing"; they joyfully relinquish their rights to privacy, even if they regret it in the morning (an experience that, of course, must be publicly narrated as well). We have a love-hate relationship with surveillance. It's no wonder the American government finds itself engaged in a global war whose fundamental challenge is finding the enemy. This country has been projecting images into the world for decades without doing much deep looking in return. The global "clash of cultures" is, among other things, a problem of vision.

Artists are ophthalmologists. In the small, rich exhibition Don't You F#{%ING Look at Me!: Surveillance in the 21st Century, curated by Misha Neininger at 911 Media Arts Center, three technologically sophisticated artists address big questions about contemporary surveillance: Does it matter if you can't control your own image? Where is privacy? How do you look back at whoever or whatever is looking at you?

Each artist works in film, and each rejects the idea of the artist as director—these are far less stable forms of filmmaking. In these films, the relationship between the "filmmaker"—sometimes a closed-circuit surveillance camera—and the subject is recursive or deliberately reversed. It's not as simple as a director giving instruction or an objective camera capturing an unwitting subject. Instead, the feedback loop is very messy.

London-based artist Manu Luksch takes advantage of the fact that Great Britain is highly surveilled. She creates films entirely from CCTV tapes she gets from the government, which she calls "legal readymades." Her Manifesto for CCTV Filmmakers explains how to get footage from the government: Send a letter naming your protagonist or "data subject" along with 10 pounds, a photograph of your "data subject," and a promise to blank out other people in your final project.

The results are creepy and funny. In Faceless, a sci-fi fairytale with voice-over by Tilda Swinton, Luksch organized Busby Berkeley– like choreography for CCTV cameras, whose operators must have been wondering what the hell was going on. The cameras weren't "capturing" their subjects; their subjects, in a gentle revolt, were creating preordained scenes for the cameras. (Like the recent works of L.A. artists Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, this project is an implicit critique of auteur-driven video art like Matthew Barney's.) The entire premise of Faceless is that the "data subject," though suffering under a regime of continuous real-time observation, is also reinscribing herself by performing rather than being recorded.

Public parks, with their conflicting promise of personal escape, are a perfect place to play out these tensions. In 2004, when Chicago's new Millennium Park opened, its art quietly spoke volumes about the current culture of hypersurveillance: Anish Kapoor's giant bean-shaped sculpture became the city's largest multidirectional mirror; Jaume Plensa's beloved tower of LED images of the faces of local residents contrasted with protests against a surveillance camera on top of the tower, demonstrating a troubled border in representative democracy, between being counted and being called out.

When Seattle-based artist James Coupe wanted to create surveillance art, he went back to his native England, to a park called Parkers Piece in Cambridge. Ten cameras he placed around the city collected footage of people going about their business; at the end of the day a computer sorted the footage according to an algorithm Coupe wrote that recognized movements similar to scenes from the classic Antonioni photo-thriller Blow Up. Then, each day for four days, the computer assembled and reassembled all its footage and projected a narrative film onto a cinema-sized screen in the park in the center of the city. Interspersed with the images were text cards with lines from Julio Cortázar's 1959 short story "Las Babas del Diablo," the source for Antonioni's film. On four screens in the gallery at 911, the remix of the material continues, and what was once documentary takes on a tone of mystery. What must CCTV operators think is going on when they watch? Or are we all doing the same things, moving in clichés?

Part of what's intriguing about Coupe's piece, called (re)collector, is its presentation as a public spectacle, a giving-back of individual stories as a public puzzle. In a gallery, even though the material is continually remixed, the larger feedback loop has been closed and the piece takes on a little of the moldy smell of the archive.

The large screening room at the back of 911 is reserved for Gary Hill's 2003 video Blind Spot, which is terribly simple and yet pretty much a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. The camera (Hill, presumably) captures an older man in Belsunce, an Algerian neighborhood in Marseilles, as he walks out of a building and down the street. The action is probably only a minute long, but Hill stretches it to 12 minutes by slowing the playback and increasing the length of the blackouts between frames. At first the frames blink quickly, but by the end you're waiting for what seems like forever between them.

Not much happens, but in this slowed-down format you have time to register every shred of emotion that crosses the man's face as he reacts to what seems to be an unexpected and unauthorized filming. He looks protectively at the women near him, their heads covered. He hesitates. He looks the other way. He hesitates again. He becomes angry. He approaches the camera. When he gets close he has cold feet. His face slackens to bored. He regains his determination and clenches his jaw. In the climactic moments, he raises a fist and makes a gesture at the camera. His middle finger is up, but does it mean the same thing to him that it does to us? Through it all, the camera never looks away.

These few seconds of a man coming to terms with a camera speak volumes about the mutual gaze between a human and a machine. After every frame, you're left with more total darkness in which to run over the possibilities of what's going on. Is this man the archetypal "other," watched by a wealthier, technology-equipped overlord? What does it mean that as the man gets closer and angrier, we are left more and more in the dark? Hill magnifies decades of fancy theory about surveillance and power by isolating the rush of conflicting emotions that accompany this mutual deadlock stare. One man, one camera. You'll see: You can't look away. recommended

 

Comments (7) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
1
The government is rationalizing its surveillance by claiming that people in public places have no right to expect privacy.

That being the case I believe we should be insisting that all such "public place" surveillance be made available in real-time on the internet for everyone to see.

If we do that we can ensure that the cameras are not used to peer into apartment windows, as the cameras at Cal Anderson have sometimes seemed to be so aimed.
Posted by Zane on October 23, 2008 at 1:56 PM · Report this
2
Great review. Well said.
Posted by Pete Nice on October 23, 2008 at 2:05 PM · Report this
3
so good to see a quality, curated art show that is actually dealing with something relevant!
Posted by me on October 25, 2008 at 9:20 AM · Report this
4
reminds me of 1984. the gov has cameras in all living quarters, but the tenants never know if they are being watched or not.
Posted by shade on October 29, 2008 at 9:34 AM · Report this
5
Actually, I'm quite certain it was filmed in France, in Marseilles, where there is a firm and vibrant Muslim population. Check your facts, Ms. Graves.
Posted by Natasha on October 30, 2008 at 10:51 PM · Report this
6
Natasha: Nope. It was filmed in North Africa. http://www.eai.org/eai/title.htm?id=1067…
Posted by Jen Graves on April 16, 2009 at 2:53 PM · Report this
7
Natasha: I double-checked with Gary Hill himself, since you seemed so sure, and you are absolutely right. The group that distributed the video mislabeled it. My sincere apologies and we'll get it corrected right away!

Jen
Posted by Jen Graves on May 5, 2009 at 12:13 PM · Report this

Add a comment