Richard Hugo House Fifth Annual Inquiry: Surveillance
Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave, 322-7030. Fri-Sun Oct 4-6. Call for tickets.

In what promises to be the most ambitious program yet mounted by the Richard Hugo House, director Trisha Ready and project coordinator Jeb Lewis have organized a weekend-long excursion that includes video, film, sound sculpting, printmaking, theater, and music performance as the iceberg tip of an exploration on the meaning and implication of surveillance in contemporary society. Simply called Surveillance, the weekend is the fifth cultural inquiry Hugo House has hosted in as many years.

Whereas previous inquiries concentrated on writing exposition and spoken word, with a smattering of other disciplines thrown in for effect, Surveillance has more than 60 artists who will use the entire labyrinthine Hugo House space. Because of the scale of the event and its theme, I recently met with Trisha Ready and Jeb Lewis, and asked them to break it down for me.

RIZ: How is this year's program different from those in the past?

TRISHA: In the past we've had some performances--cabaret and music that were held concurrently with readings and panels on the first floor (the main space)--but this time we've broadened the focus of the inquiry. What we're trying to do this year is get people up and moving through the whole house. There will be visual art installations in the basement while upstairs we'll have displays that will surround the literary experience. Sound artist John Bain is going to attach seismic sensors to the house and amplify those sounds so that the entire environment will be under surveillance. Everybody who comes to the house will experience the house.

JEB: The idea is not just to talk about surveillance, but to give people a chance to get their heads around it, to give everyone a chance to be under surveillance while talking about it. Originally our ideas about the subject were confined to the Cold War aspects of surveillance. While there will be some panels and exhibitions that concern themselves with those conventional notions, we also had to heed suggestions from some of the early participants that broadened the scope of the inquiry. Ray Pompon, who is a network security architect, was highly instrumental in this regard.

TRISHA: Our past intellectual inquiries usually removed people a few steps away from their subjects. When people come into this experience we'll be asking them to sign something that will give us permission to take their image and use their voices to incorporate them into the space. Actually, by buying a ticket you'll be consenting to the use of those images for the exhibits. People will feel more intensified watching other people watch themselves.

How do you anticipate that the knowledge of being under surveillance will affect the behavior of the participants of the experience?

TRISHA: We could expect some mild annoyances, but for the most part, even with some surprises thrown in for measure, one can expect the experience to be more interactive than invasive. There's this idea that when we are used to being watched, we then play to being watched. And then there's the question of what happens to our identities and our sense of identity. Because people tend to believe that our identities are connected to a kind of public privacy, like banks and Social Security numbers. The more that there are these sophisticated ways of privacy and identity, of playing around with information, with more people having access to information and hacking information, you can see the traditional definition of identity dissolve.

JEB: There's this Mexican proverb: "The person with nothing to hide sleeps naked with both doors open." I have a notion that there is a phenomenon where people behave worse when they know that they're being watched. All these reality shows know where people do the most awful things to other people: on camera.

So now the lines between voyeurism and exhibitionism are boldly dissipating.

TRISHA: The idea of this inquiry is to put all these things in everyone's face and then let them go away and chew on them, to engage both the physical and emotional, and press people into deeper involvement with these states. At the very least, I want to engage people with their own fears, not to scare them.

JEB: In assembling the inquiry we tried to involve people who are engaged in surveillance for a wide variety of reasons. For example, John Landowski, who is a musician and a web designer, used a hidden camera to capture footage of this local pastor, Pastor Kaleb, who goes to Volunteer Park to harass and convert people who are cruising. At the other end of the spectrum there's Nigerian poet Chris Abani, who experienced censorship and imprisonment as a result of his writings while he was a teenager. After he gained his freedom, he moved to London only to find himself under surveillance there--London has the most extensive system of surveillance in the world. Or George Divoky, who uses surveillance in nature to track the habits of birds and the trends of global warming. People tend to think of surveillance as an electronic process that happens somewhat quickly, but Divoky tracks what goes under the wire--what cursory observation misses, diligent and studious surveillance picks up.

And even in the midst of this inquiry there is the daily news. Stories about how now it's legal to take, in public places, pictures of women's underwear without their knowledge. Or the woman who got busted beating her child in a parking lot by a security camera mounted outside a department store. The inquiry promises to touch all those hot-button topics, international politics, gender, class, and race.