Digital surveillance art is a popular motif in new media art practice.  Is it a Snowden aftershock? Is it a change in our disposition towards big data? Is this the legacy of 9/11. Has something fundamentally changed? Or has it always been an intrinsic part of media art practice.  Art and voyeurism has been entangled from the get go.  New or old, “Surveillance” is our new descriptor for scopophilia in our current “weaponized” social discourse.

In media art, the frame has atomized and the observed fragmented into particles of information, data. Yet, the diminutive size of this iota is offset by the sheer mass and pervasiveness of it.  This mountain of sand accumulates at the scale of petabytes and lives in silicon (eternally?)  The technology/technique of capturing this personal, biometric, and transactional data is a method not an end. It relies on reconstitution, presentation, distribution and access.  Accessing the inaccessible is the opportunity to peak at something that hasn’t been seen before.  This thrilling exposure is tricky territory though.  Depending on how power dynamics are employed, surveillance can go from exploit to exploitative.

Voyeurism and its antecedent the Peeping Tom have not always required a sophisticated lens to satisfy their needs.  Desire was once enough. However, technology allows the voyeur to create distance from observational behaviors and their implications.  If our telescope lets us look across the city and see the anonymous actions of another, our fascination, our engagement is in access to privacy and intimacy, but also in our power to do so without consequence.  The extensions of man are multiplied in n dimensions. The fetish of technology and our belief in its grand project allows us to even further our distance, anonymize our watching even as we sift through the most specific details, the most mundane or arcane. We perceive we are closer to something that moves farther away in observability.  What are we looking at, or maybe what are we looking for?  Where is the art in it?

The audience of surveillance and the stakes are as much part of determining the location of the art as the techniques, concept and documentation.  It is a performative experience that is for the surveilled as much as the objectified outputs that can be shared in a gallery.

Trevor Paglen’s work within this framework, observes the installations and spaces that do not officially exist.  Like the surrealists who brought the internal  psychographic spaces of desire to their canvases, Paglen sites our political psychosis in image.  These images punch out from the white cube to distant locations, collapsing space through a telescopic act.


Paglen implicitly performs the role of explorer bringing exotic locations in the mundane landscape into the everyday image.  It is an act of translation and mapping, an exposure.  The fact that Paglen situates this work in an art context has the effect of neutralizing aspects of context that could be dangerous, (it becomes about the object, the aesthetics are as much part of it, it participates in a specific economy that celebrates intangible values), while also creating a funding source for political, social work that flattens into the sublime effect of these objects while documenting our hidden programs. It holds up a reflection to our now.  Our public portraits taken from the other side of the mirror.  The audience is the public, the method of dissemination is high culture, and the subject is ourselves.

Within the Peeping Tom dynamic there are two roles, the observer and the observed.  Sherry Turkle dig into the motivational dynamic that is at the heart of this relationship in her book Alone Together. This excerpt from her Ted Talk describes the personal alienation built into our mediated environment.

These days, those phones in our pockets are changing our minds and hearts because they offer us three gratifying fantasies.

One, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; two, that we will always be heard; and three, that we will never have to be alone.

And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light. Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting.

But here, connection is more like a symptom than a cure. It expresses, but it doesn’t solve, an underlying problem. But more than a symptom, constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves. It’s shaping a new way of being.

What is this way of being? Is loneliness and a need for intimacy the insecurity that feeds the social information economy.  Do I feel less alone after I have consumed a piece of information? Or does it leave me  looking for more like an media junkie?  Is this need to consume intimacy in the form of voyeurism one of the side effects of our pop culture?  Celebrity nudie pics? Downloaded.  An analysis of your own value within our social network? Klouted.  A review of every vacation picture of your co-worker/high school friend/neighbor/friend-of-a-friend?  Liked.  Where does the failure of media (because it always fails in representation, it’s built-in to its construction) create mania? Perhaps pathologies are executed in platforms in order to appeal to the everyman-ia.  We know insecurity is the fodder of markets.  Fear & Greed are  the market’s best friend.

There is another side to this, the feedback loop.  In our act to consume information we produce information, all sorts of information about ourselves.  Transparency goes both ways.  If I can see you, you can see me.

Representational art has always pursued realism as a motivation, from the mark-making at Lascaux to the first architectural perspective portraits to Warhol’s silkscreen transfers.  There is a sense of capture.  What we capture and what feels real has changed accordingly to medias methods. From stiff portraits to the candid,  the gaze and its effect on the subject changes our results down the line. The persona, of both person and object becomes embedded with new logics that change the way that it performs its authenticity. It’s material must subvert the gaze in order to claim its own powers of identification.  The notion of a private self must fight against our own commodity in the socioeconomic cultural exchange of participation.  But then what choice do we have, someone is always watching me, maybe we were asking for it.

15 minutes of fame, anyone?

So somebody’s watching me … it’s time to perform?  If Facebook is a mass performance of identity avatars in the world’s largest MUD, then what is at stake, how do you win?  Mastering the platform? Performing for the overseers for reward?  On to the next level? Impressing your friends with your feats. There is a certain thread of surveillance art that seeks to show technical prowess.  Look how easy it is for me to do this.  It’s a hacker’s logic and a demonstration of technical prowess and facility with the medium.

The Chaos Computer Club has spanned the last 30 years with many feats of skill and creativity.  Whether it is hacking the Apple TouchID or creating an addressable display of a building with Blinkenlights.  There is a certain bravado and talent in their work that has contributed a specific hacker mindset to media art.  Whether it is for the fame of the feat or the sheer complexity of the problem, media art has collocated with much of the philosophy (oftentimes to the good) of organized hackers to the point of creating a strong aesthetic and philosophical presence.  Anonymous has created a political presence, a visible invisible in the public discourse on technology and its subversion for political end.  It can be Art, or is that an afterthought?  The technical innovation and ability can completely upend dynamics but is it engaged as Art?

Kyle McDonald’s work, People Staring at Computers, works on several different levels of surveillance and digs into the question of where and what is the art.  It also functions as a form of agitprop on topics of surveillance, the function of an art gallery, audience and artist.  The difficulty of this work is in locating the politics of this act of artistic intervention and some of that is related to the performative element of the work.  Like a software mediated “happening” in an Apple Store it is experienced by its primary participants and also unknowingly.

Is that where the art is, in the direct experience in the store?  Or maybe it is in the media art space where the images were posted allowing technologists & media artists to have a higher level discussion of their own reach in the publics sphere. Is it in the technical prowess as an effort to generate respect & fame?  And where are the politics in this act?  Is this a hacked website showing the owner how to fix it?  Is it the act of a white hat?  Maybe it is a provocation towards the hegemony and perceived safety of Apple?

If surveillance art is about making the invisible visible and aestheticizing our experience, I am not sure where the art is in this act. It seems like it may simply perpetuate our fears of surveillance and re-deploy it on its existing terms.  The primary audience/experiencer of the art retreats into anonymity even as they post comments to the documentation.  Benjamin’s aura reverberates with every share, play, and favorite, and the original is myth over material.

Surveillance art identifies its location in its dislocation.  Who is observed, what are the methods of the observation (and is there an aesthetic to it), where is the experience located, what is the role of audience in observing, and what are the politics of its activity are all acts of identification.

Christiane Paul in talking about media art at a recent talk said sometimes she is talking with other curators and they are not even talking about the art that she sees within the art.  This pursuit of the authentic in its understanding of privacy and what we are willing to share is an intimate understanding of your audience.  Within that dynamic, the gaze and its power employ a politic.

The origin of the Peeping Tom story is with Lady Godiva. The story goes that to free the town of its crippling tax burden, Lady Godiva took up her husband’s challenge. He said he would stop collections if she were to ride naked on her horse through the town.  She instructed the townspeople to close up their windows and doors in respect. Yet one man bore a hole through to see her and was stuck blind by Heaven.

At what point will these infinite peepholes, our personal panopticons, our desire to see it all, flood us to incomprehension.  Will we ever see it coming?