Watched!. Surveillance Art & Photography

In Featured Events / March 29, 2017

“First of all, I know it’s all people like you. And that’s what’s so scary. Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively.” Dave Eggers, The Circle

On February 18, 2017, C/O Berlin has opened the exhibition Watched! Surveillance Art & Photography, running through April 23, 2017. Total surveillance? Video cameras in banks, department stores, and public spaces; algorithm- based advertising and cookies on the Internet; government data collection and private cloud storage—today, we take permanent observation and data sharing for granted as a normal part of our everyday lives. We are constantly using services like Google Maps, watching live streams of films, trying out exciting new health apps and exploring unimagined possibilities for self-tracking. We follow friends and complete strangers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and we ourselves are constantly being tracked. We profit from the new digital technologies and services and are willing to open up more and more of our private lives to public view. Surveillance and big data have long since become a major social issue.

Contemporary surveillance is not limited to visual monitoring. Yet to understand how surveillance works, it is necessary to address the photographic aspect. Today, our entire existence is being photographed and visualized to an unprecedented degree, raising new questions about voluntary and involuntary visibility as well as photo-historical issues of observing and being observed. The exhibition Watched! Surveillance Art & Photography examines the complexities of modern surveillance with a focus on photography and visual media. The works in the exhibition deal with themes ranging from technologies used by government and regulatory agencies to everyday surveillance practices that have become integral parts of our lives, especially in social media. The question is: How can contemporary art and media theory contribute to a better understanding of our modern surveillance society?

The Berlin exhibition presents works by around 20 international artists who offer different commentaries on and reactions to precisely this question. It combines emerging artistic practices, represented by young artists such as Julian Röder, Viktoria Binschtok, and Esther Hovers, with the work of internationally recognized artists like Hito Steyerl, Trevor Paglen, Jill Magid, Hasan Elahi, Paolo Cirio, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, James Bridle, and Ai Wei Wei to present as wide as possible a spectrum of artistic approaches. The artists in the exhibition appropriate technologies like video surveillance, facial recognition, Google Street View, digital lifelogging, and virtual animation. They probe the need for safety and security, which is frequently used as an argument for increasing surveillance while often ignoring the problems of discriminatory controls and criminalization that follow. The viewer is invited to think about how we can live in a society with diverse surveillance networks without contributing to the inequalities that surveillance produces.

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, The Painter‘s Wife, 2013, from Spirit is a Bone © Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. Used here by kind permission from C/O Berlin. All rights reserved.
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, The Painter‘s Wife, 2013, from Spirit is a Bone © Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. Used here by kind permission from C/O Berlin. All rights reserved.

Artists and Artworks

Trust (The Evidence Locker) is a multimedia work by artist Jill Magid [1] based on a thirty-one-day performance in Liverpool and composed of CCTV footage and a novella. Magid asked Citywatch, the company in charge of the city’s surveillance, to film her, dressed in a red trench coat, in different locations and poses, and in one case even to guide her through the city with her eyes closed. The request forms she submitted to access the footage were written in the form of love letters. The project engages the city’s closed surveillance system into an intimate, two-way dialogue and alludes to the extreme degree of trust which surveillance practices demand of us.

Nature, and forests in particular, is generally regarded as a place of retreat where one can live undisturbed and safe from prying eyes and ears. In Forest Protocols, Florian Mehnert [2] installed microphones in forests and recorded the conversations of people passing by. Thus no place of retreat remains. The Forest Protocols thereby hint at the danger and absurdity of surveillance, and by making his surveillance recordings public, the artist concretizes the threat, demanding a critical reflection on the problems of surveillance. In this manner these clandestine recordings in the woods illustrate the secrete threat and serve as a metaphor for the way the boundary between the public and private sphere is dissolving: privacy becomes a more and more precious good in need of protection.

Hasan Elahi’s project [3] began in 2002 when he was detained at a Detroit airport in the high-alert climate after 9/11, under the false suspicion that he had a storage unit full of explosives. When US authorities continued their investigation for months after he had been cleared of all suspicion, the artist decided to take matters into his own hands and continuously register his whereabouts. He turned his phone into a tracking device, set up the website trackingtransience.net, and began compiling all data of his movements using photographs and Google Maps. Now vast in size, this archive has since generated a number of related artworks which continue to reflect current surveillance practices and today’s excess of information sharing. Prism alternates seven colourful bars with black-and-white imagery that comprises aerial photographs of the roof of NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland. Showing electronic surveillance equipment that cannot be seen from ground level, someone is now watching the watchers; the surveillance agency itself is being monitored. The colourful strips, on the other hand, turn out to be a myriad of images of Elahi’s self surveillance from Tracking Transience. All bars counted together, are showing a significant similarity with the American flag: Both have a total of thirteen stripes…

WeiweiCam is a self-surveillance project by the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei [4] which went live on April 3, 2012, one year after he was arrested by the Chinese authorities at Beijing airport. Upon his release in June 2011, after 81 days in prison, Ai Wei Wei was instructed not to leave Beijing. Moreover, 15 cameras were installed around his home to keep him under constant surveillance. In response, Ai Wei Wei himself installed four cameras in his home: one in his bedroom, one in the garden, and two in his office. He put the live stream on his website, making it accessible to the world. 46 hours later, the authorities forced him to take the site offline. In this short time, the site had over 5.2 million visitors.

Hito Steyerl, Still from How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, 2013, HD Video © Hito Steyerl, Courtesy the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York. Used here by kind permission from C/O Berlin. All rights reserved.
Hito Steyerl, Still from How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, 2013, HD Video © Hito Steyerl, Courtesy the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York. Used here by kind permission from C/O Berlin. All rights reserved.

In Overexposed, Paolo Cirio [5] targets high-ranking US intelligence officials connected to the programmes of mass surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden. Cirio obtained portraits of these key figures by way of social media and online searches, and subsequently reproduced and disseminated them by rendering with the HD Stencils technique and mounting them onto public walls throughout major global cities in a call for civil transparency. The unauthorized portraits were found in public spaces in Berlin, Paris, London, and New York. The artwork satirizes the era of ubiquitous surveillance and overly-mediated political personas by exposing the main officials accountable for secretive mass surveillance and over-classified intelligence programs. New modes of circulation, appropriation, contextualization, and technical reproduction of images are integrated into this artwork.

In Homo Sacer, James Bridle [6] explores what he calls the ultimate twenty-first century worker: the hologram, fully virtualized, programmed, tireless and captivating. Here, the hologram is reciting lines from legislations of United Kingdom, European Union, and United Nations, as well as quotations from government ministers concerning the nature of citizenship, and how it can be revoked—turning a citizen into a homo sacer: an accursed man or a person without rights.

Trevor Paglen deals with the materiality of the Internet and the massive data monitoring occurring over its channels. [7] While a metaphor like “cloud” suggests that the Internet is a ubiquitous entity without place, it nonetheless requires an real and physical infrastructure. The here presented photograph of the south French coastline points to the place where undersea cables connecting the European and American continents meets the mainland and is tapped by the NSA for the purpose of surveillance. A maritime map produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for marine navigation visualizes the locations of fiber optic cables to prevent ships from colliding with them. The work is supplemented by various internal NSA documents from the archives of Edward Snowden, corporate documents and additional photographs of the sites.

With staged full-body images made using an airport body scanner, a self-portrait made using facial recognition software, and videos of drone attacks, the Collateral Visions series by Swiss artist Clément Lambelet [8] investigates how human beings are represented and perceived by digital algorithms and computer-based technologies. He reinterprets modern ways of surveilling individuals, lifting these methods from their typical usage scenarios, and transforming them into visual stimuli pointing up the risks of control technologies in a manner that is at once contemplative and confrontational. Lambelet also makes use of additional documents, data, and images in the form of an atlas which lays out the principles of dehumanization underlying these algorithms, and the negative social consequences of surveillance societies. The publication Happiness is the only true emotion also treats the topic of algorithms intended to recognize emotions, which often fail. By co-opting operational surveillance devices images and scenes, Collateral Visions reveals the systems of dehumanization and fear inherent to contemporary monitoring methods.

Borders are no longer made of fences but of data and information. In his series Mission and Task, Julian Röder [9] turns the camera around on officers of the European Border and Cost Guard (EBCG, formerly called Frontex) who collect the data and information used to control and protect Europe’s external borders. The artist not only photographs these observers; he also documents the high-tech equipment and intelligent computer systems that EBCG is using to tighten border surveillance and prevent refugees from entering the European Union. As an attempt to find images representing something that eludes direct observation and that has become almost virtual, Röder’s series shows border security to be a visual production system consisting of information and data that now takes the place of physical barriers.

Jill Magid, Still from Trust, (Evidence Locker), 2004 © Jill Magid, Courtesy the artist & Until Then. Used here by kind permission from C/O Berlin. All rights reserved.
Jill Magid, Still from Trust, (Evidence Locker), 2004 © Jill Magid, Courtesy the artist & Until Then. Used here by kind permission from C/O Berlin. All rights reserved.

In World of Details, Viktoria Binschtok [10] uses Google Street View shots as the starting point for her work. These authorless, automated images showing a specific location in New York City are contrasted with her own high-resolution colour photos. Travelling to the same places, the artist attempts to plunge into the surface of the locations depicted by overcoming distance and getting physically closer to the objects. The result is two perceptions of the same place, reflecting today’s use and perception of photography in times of the internet and surveillance age: here you have the outcome of a systematic recording process; there you have the human, artistic view of the camera, aiming at a totally different kind of documentation.

Spirit is a Bone [11] is a series of portraits by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin based on new facial recognition technology developed by Russian software engineers, and aimed at an international market of security and border control surveillance. Without requiring the subject’s co-operation, the system captures a face with four different cameras, creating a digital three-dimensional life mask. The artists have organized the portraits according to the subject’s occupation, echoing the work of photographer August Sander from the first half of the twentieth century.

Drones are remote-controlled planes that can be used for surveillance, violent attacks, rescue operations and scientific research. Today most drones are used by military powers for reconnaissance missions and attacks. Ruben Pater’s Drone Survival Guide [12] allows people on the ground to identify various kinds of drones, while also offering ways of protecting themselves from being seen by the drones. In his project A Study Into 21st Century Drone Acoustics, designer Ruben Pater (Drone Survival Guide) [13] and composer Gonçalo F. Cardoso (Discrepant) join hands to focus on the auditive aspects of drones. What engines do drones have, and what do they sound like? Side A features recordings of 17 drone types, ranging from small consumer drones to large military drones, as contemporary bird songs. The B side presents a soundscape by Gonçalo F. Cardoso, inspired by the abusive and destructive power of drone technology.

No Man’s Land by Mishka Henner [14] presents photographs of isolated women in the margins of southern European environments captured solely by Google Street View cameras. Locations were identified by the artist from various sources including forums used by men searching for sex workers and from research reports on sex work across Europe. This method of online intelligence-gathering results in an unsettling reflection on surveillance, voyeurism and the contemporary landscape.

The instructional video How Not to be Seen by Hito Steyerl [15] offers five lessons in how not to be seen in a world full of images and surveillance under the headings: “How to Make Something Invisible for a Camera,” “How to be Invisible in Plain Sight”, “How to Become Invisible by Becoming a Picture”, “How to be Invisible by Disappearing”, and “How to Become Invisible by Merging into a World Made of Pictures”. The solutions include mimicking both low-tech and digital strategies such as camouflage, concealment, and masking or going low-res in order to appear smaller than a pixel on screen.

Ann-Sofie Sidén, Sticky Floors (Lunch to last Call), 2014 © Ann-Sofie Sidén, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm. Used here by kind permission from C/O Berlin. All rights reserved.
Ann-Sofie Sidén, Sticky Floors (Lunch to last Call), 2014 © Ann-Sofie Sidén, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm. Used here by kind permission from C/O Berlin. All rights reserved.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, the US government did not release any images of the event. The White House decided to show only a few carefully selected pictures, including the now-famous Situation Room photograph. Willem Popelier has taken a picture of the Situation Room and zoomed in on a pixelated document lying on the table in front of Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State. [16] Once enlarged, the obscured document fills the entire frame, and the artist addresses the question of what information is made visible and what remains out of the public’s view.

Intelligent surveillance camera systems are algorithm-based cameras that are able to detect deviant behaviour. Prolonged pausing, groups of people suddenly splitting up, a woman coming to stop exactly at the corner of the street, a man running through a slow-moving crowd—all of these can be classified as deviant behaviour within the context of public space. In her work False Positives, Esther Hovers asks what is constituting deviance and what is considered normal. [17] Public security is a growing concern, not only throughout Europe. To the eye of the camera every person is a possible suspect, every person a possible perpetrator. Will intelligent surveillance help us to safeguard our need for security?

Which No One Will Ever See [18] is a series of works that originate from the lives of two fictional characters: Harry Caul from Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation (1974) and the photographer Thomas in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). Meriç Algün Ringborg’s elaborate installation includes key objects from each film, such as a camera as Thomas uses in Blow-Up or a transparent raincoat as Harry Caul is wearing in The Conversation. Shifting the narratives, for instance by inserting a female voice, the work explores the meaning of viewing positions in surveillance acts.

Christian Karl—a bit ordinary, hardly impressive. The names he designed for himself were more beautiful, more resonant: Christopher Crowe, Clark Rockefeller. He created his own reality, and everyone fell for it. With each new name he left his previous life behind, as though it had never existed. Almost without a trace. Sara Lena Maierhofer’s work Dear Clark [19] is a visual case study of the figure of a con artist. Using a variety of approaches, the artist attempts to depict the con man as a phenomenon using her own photographs and documents, as well as ones taken from other sources. Seven chapters explore his behaviour, appearance, and development. The figure under investigation here is the con man Clark Rockefeller, born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in Bavaria, Germany. He lived under various identities in the United States for 30 years before he was finally arrested by the FBI in 2008. The artist traces his footsteps, visiting people and places in America that played a role in his many different lives and spying on him. To capture the essence of the con artist, she had to beat him at his own game and become a con artist herself. Maierhofer’s research turns into a complex game of surveillance in which the voyeuristic gaze is used as an artistic tool, and fact and fiction become indistinguishable.

Sticky Floors (Lunch to Last Call) takes place in a pub in a small town in Ireland. [20] Ann-So Sidén supplemented the pub’s already existing surveillance cameras with additional ones to cover a wide range of angles. The film is set from early morning to late night inside the de ned spaces of the pub that are nevertheless difficult to overview. The film material has been edited to create a both ordinary and intensified story filled with cinematic and art historical references.

Julian Röder, High Performance Camera - MX 15 and Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave Radar, 2013, from Mission and Task 2012-13 © Julian Röder. Used here by kind permission from C/O Berlin. All rights reserved.
Julian Röder, High Performance Camera - MX 15 and Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave Radar, 2013, from Mission and Task 2012-13 © Julian Röder. Used here by kind permission from C/O Berlin. All rights reserved.

Screenings to the Exhibition

With unparalelled speed and efficiency, digital revolution turned surveillance to an everyday global phenomenon. It can no longer be seen from a distance as an element of anti-utopian literature or a feature of oppressive dictatorships affecting “the life of others”—daily exposure of private lives of citizens in all regimes is a part of today’s societal reality. Both governments and corporations collect and retain information on our daily communications, and the increasingly imposing terms and conditions of this new social contract is an unavoidable 21st century reality. What are the immediate and far-reaching effects of living in a culture of surveillance? And what tools—both today and in the past—are available for the citizens to challenge and reflect on this new social contract?

At a time when governments and corporations around the world expand their efforts to track our communications and activities, this selection of reflexive documentary and experimental films heightens the viewers’ critical awareness about the multiplicity of the forms and means of surveillance. The film program opens with the Oscar-awarded Citizenfour, which follows the re- cent NSA surveillance revelations, from first contact with whistleblower Edward Snowden in early 2013, to his secret interviews and the ensuing global fallout. The themes of the films range from addressing the long-term effects of the socialist-era secret police intervention with private life and creative work of individuals (Engelbecken, I Love You All), to surveillance in the US maximum-security prisons (Prison Images), during a covert drone war in Pakistan (Drone), and even in the imaginary world of the future where the total control equals full elimination of individual personality (Faceless). Creatively redeploying CCTV and other found footage, the films in the selection demonstrate not only the terrifying extent of technological control, but the ways of creative resistance. The screening series is presented by Verzio International Documentary Human Rights Film Festival (Hungary) in conjunction with the C/O Berlin exhibition Watched! Surveillance, Art & Photography. Verzio is the only human rights documentary film festival in Hungary, organized annually since 2004. Verzio’s mission is to use the power of creative documentaries to promote open society, democratic values, rule-of-law, and critical thinking. Organized by Oksana Sarkisova,Verzio Festival Director and Surveillance Film Program Curator, and Eniko Gyuresko,Surveillance Film Program Coordinator.

Saturday, February 18, 20:30
Citizenfour (USA/DE, 2014, 112 min, OmU, Directed by Laura Poitras)
With unprecedented access, this gripping, behind-the-scenes chronicle follows director Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in their remarkable encounters with whistle-blower Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room as he hands over classified documents that provide evidence of mass indiscriminate and illegal invasions of privacy by the National Security Agency (NSA). The film places viewers in the hotel room with Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden as they attempt to manage the media storm raging outside and are forced to make decisions that will affect their own lives and the lives of those around them. Citizenfour is a detailed eyewitness account of these discussions and also shows the far-reaching consequences of Snowden’s revelations. What is the connection between freedom and privacy? What happens to democracy when national governments control all of our data? The film received an Academy Award in 2015 for Best Documentary.

Thursday, February 23, 20:30
Drone (NO, 2014, 79 min, OmU, Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei)
Drone charts the process and steps of the CIA’s covert drone war in Pakistan. It explores what it is like to live under the constant threat of these pilotless, yet powerful aircraft in the remote regions of Pakistan, but also explores the consequences felt by the pilots, the moral stance adopted by the engineers behind the drones and the arguments of politicians who fight to justify their use. From the recruitment of young pilots at gaming conventions, to the people willing to stand up against the violations of civil liberties, the film raises questions about the biggest military revolution of our age, and offers insights into the nature of drone warfare. A look at the erasure of the empathetic, accountable human in 21st century warfare.

Thursday, March 9, 20:30
Faceless (AUT/UK, 2007, 50 min, OmU, Directed by Manu Luksch)
In a society under the reformed “Real-Time” Calendar, without history and future, everybody is faceless. A woman panics when she wakes up one day with a face. She slowly finds out more about the lost power and history of the human face and begins the search for its future. The film interrogates the culture of surveillance by redeploying authentic CCTV images recorded in London, the most surveilled city on Earth. Faceless was produced under the rules of the Manifesto for CCTV Filmmakers, stating that additional cameras are not permitted at filming locations. The UK Data Protection Act and EU directives give individuals the right to access personal data held in computer ling systems but protects the privacy of third parties. In CCTV recordings, this is done by erasing the faces of other people in the images, creating a “faceless” world.

Thursday, March 16, 20:30
Engelbecken (DE, 2014, 80 min, OmU . Directed by Gamma Bak, Steffen Reck)
Completed 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this film is a striking historical document taking us back to the time when the directors Gamma Bak (West Berlin) and Steffen Reck (East Berlin) had a cross-border relationship. The film brings together personal archival materials, amateur films and recordings of theatrical performances of the East Berlin avant-garde theatre group Zinnober of which Steffen Reck was a founding member, and secret police les on the protagonists and their circle of friends. Engelbecken reflects the mixed emotions felt when facing a troubled past and explores the lasting feelings of guilt and sense of betrayal resulting from being forced into exile.

Thursday, March 23, 20:30
I Love You All (DE / FR, 2004, 88 min, OmU, Directed by Eyal Sivan)
In February 1990, a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Ministry for State Security of the GDR is dismantled. This marks the end of the “Stasi,” the East German secret police, of which protagonist and storyteller Mr. B. was an officer. Relieved of his duties and purpose, he delivers a detailed account of twenty years of his life and work within this institution. I Love You All is built around his personal testimony, supported by never before seen archive footage from the Stasi, revealing their reach into the everyday lives of the East Germans, and not least their own staff. A film about surveillance, blind faith, and eventual disillusion.

Thursday, April 6, 20:30
Prison Images (DE / FR, 2000, 60 min, OmU . Directed by Harun Farocki)
Images from prisons, quotes from Robert Bresson and Jean Genet as well as documentaries from the Nazi period exist in dialogue with footage from surveillance cameras of maximum-security prisons in the United States. Prison Images offers a look at the new control technologies, at personal identification devices, electronic ankle bracelets and other tracking devices. Cinema has always been attracted to prisons and today’s prisons are full of video surveillance cameras. These images are unedited and monotonous; as neither time nor space is compressed, they are particularly well-suited to conveying the state of inactivity into which prisoners are placed as a punitive measure. What kinds of images have been produced by the surveillance cameras and training videos for prison personnel? In Farocki’s film, the penal institution becomes an anthropological laboratory, in which life and death are rehearsed in front of the camera’s unblinking eye.

Further Information

The exhibition has been organized in cooperation with the Hasselblad Foundation, Valand Academy, Kunsthal Aarhus, and C/O Berlin. It was curated by Louise Wolthers and Dragana Vujanovic (Hasselblad Foundation), Niclas Östlind (Valand Academy), and Ann-Christin Bertrand (C/O Berlin). It is part of a research project launched by the Hasselblad Foundation on surveillance, art, and photography in Europe since the turn of the millennium. The accompanying book, published by Walther König bookstore-publisher, contains artworks by 40 artists as well as essays by numerous scholars and was selected by Time Magazine in November as one of the “Best Photobooks of 2016.” [21] The exhibition in Berlin has been made possible through a generous grant from Hauptstadtkulturfond (Berlin Capital Cultural Fund).

As part of their inter-institutional cooperation, C/O Berlin and the Museum for Photography present three thematically related exhibitions on the topic of surveillance and photography that started in February 2017 with artists representing diverse current and historic artistic positions. Since June 2016, C/O Berlin has been hosting discussions on the topic of surveillance with experts from a variety of disciplines.

 

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