Five Surveillance Artists To Watch

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By Max Larkin

Whether or not we’re doing so out of a sense of centenary obligation, it’s a good thing that readers are revisiting The Great War in Modern Memory, by the late critic Paul Fussell. It’s a book in which a world (like ours, at war) and the art it produces are presented in their odd, dancelike interplay.

One example. John Ruskin taught British artists to see the sky how J. M. W. Turner saw it, when he put sunset to poignant political use in The Slave Ship. In the water are a boat, bloody fishes, and the bodies of slaves thrown overboard to drown. The sky is all hell and damnation. Turner became, Fussell wrote, “a master artist whose achievements in light and color imitate those of God himself in His most earnest pedagogic moments.”

Forward seventy years. A generation of young British innocents were sent to spend day and night in trenches dug in the continental earth. Suddenly all they could see was Ruskin’s reproaching sky. And the twilights were deeply colored because of the haze hanging low over the land, and at sunrise and sunset they were asked to brace for the worst of the fighting.

How Fussell ties all the irony together:

It was a cruel reversal that sunrise and sunset, established by over a century of Romantic poetry and painting as the tokens of hope and peace and rural charm, should now be exactly the moments of heightened ritual anxiety.

Today it’s our guest Trevor Paglen who is exploiting the sky in his art, as belowin Untitled (Reaper Drone). He’s nodding to Turner, with the slave ship replaced by a drone almost invisible against the clouds in hypersaturation. And Paglen traffics within the same ironies that drive Fussell’s book. The Reaper is small but catastrophic; hard to find, but definitely there; meanwhile nature is all around, but mute.

Trevor Paglen, ‘Untitled (Reaper Drone)’ (2011).

We ignore the artists at the peril of the present moment. We’ll never hear what we need to hear from the journalists and their sparring partners in government. Some truths, even political truths, can only be captured in the deep speech that happens on a canvas or in an installation.

Here are five artists who raise the warning or speak the truth about our culture under surveillance.

Lauren McCarthy

If some of these artists want to scare us, Lauren McCarthy represents the Playful Alternative.

She’s a programmer and artist who’s learned from the world of ‘assistive technology’ intended to help children who have problems with distraction and autism. She extends that project with 21st-century social help for all: a Happiness Hat, which stabs you in the back of the neck with a spike when you stop smiling, for example, and the Facebook Mood Manipulator, a riff on the news that Facebook itself tinkered with its users’ feeds then studied their emotional reactions.

McCarthy’s high comment on surveillance comes in Social Turkers, in which she allowed online spectators into her blind dates and even took and acted on their advice, as below.

McCarthy told me she was surprised how that project divided people — Fox News wanted legal action taken against her, and even our host, Chris Lydon, was evidently freaked out by it. I think it’s nice: anything to make that first date easier.

Excerpts from ‘Social Turker’ questionnaires.

Lauren told me that she thinks of the word “awkward” as coming from the wrong place altogether, from “this expectation that we’re all supposed to be normal,” a danger maybe intensified by the Big Data lens through which we’re all being observed in digital public and private.

César Hidalgo

You get that view in ‘Immersion’, the project of Cesar Hidalgo, not quite an artist, but the director of the Macro Connections project at the MIT Media Lab. It taps into the metadata generated by our email — the same information dismissed as unrevealing, and not deserving privacy, by President Obama and others in government — to give, in the space of a browser window, a view of who the subject knows, how they know them, and an intuitive presentation of who’s family, who are coworkers, and who are the people we know from summer camp or our secret society.

Much easier to try it — and they say it’s secure! — here.

The author’s de-labeled social map, created with ‘Immersion.’

Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Dewey-Hagborg, posing with a genetically-generated ‘self-portrait.’

Heather Dewey-Hagborg lives in one grim possible future of the surveillance state. She works in the biological medium: picking up, for example, cigarettes in empty lots. Then she back-engineers faces from the DNA she finds on them. In this she may be only a little ways ahead of of the surveillance state; one recent disclosure shows that the NSA is starting to gather data from faces as well as from phones.

Dewey-Hagborg helped organize an anti-surveillance affair in New York known as PRISM Breakup. She’s assuming an activist/innovator stance with her latest project, called Invisible, a pair of bioactive sprays: the first destroys 99.5% of the genetic residue we leave, and the second makes the rest unreadable. You can buy one of the limited first-run kits (for $230) here.

Kyle McDonald

One of Kyle McDonald’s projects is accessible here:twitter.com/conversnitch. Go check it out and come back.

What’s going on? Conversnitch uses the same Mechanical Turkers — online wageslaves getting micropayments from Amazon — that watched Lauren McCarthy’s dates to transcribe conversations captured on microphones hidden in public places.

None of it has ‘intelligence value’. It’s just a New York conversation, broken up into small bites, as banal as it is scary, or hypnotic:

“Like its so fucking self indulgent this brand of espresso.”

“No. no. no. no.”

“I listened to a Bright Eyes album on YouTube this morning. It felt like I was 16 again.”

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but umm.”

Marie Sester

Finally, a classic of the genre that gets to the center of our watched/watching behavior. Marie Sester’s Access, from 2003, involved a mechanized spotlight hanging from a ceiling that can be controlled automatically or by a stranger.

Like Javert, like a manic spy, the light fixes on one person and tells them things over an acoustic beam: “You look great!” “Show some identification, please!” “Step forward.” And individuals react, as you might expect, individually: some love being at the center of attention. Others run away. It calls to mind the terrific essay by Ryan Horning, out this week in The New Inquiry, and the paradox — the last in this piece, promise — that a government or business must surveil everyone to be able to track anyone ‘irregular’, put this way in Horning’s essay by the theorist Mark Andrejevic:
In population-level intelligence-gathering, authorities count on the fact that the vast majority of those details that are collected are innocent because it is against this background of unsuspicious or normal activity that the anomalies of deviant and particularly threatening behavior are meant to emerge.