We have arrived now at a point when surveillance and data-sharing are assumed as normal. We are consistently willing to open up more of our private lives to public view, especially on social media. We follow friends and complete strangers on Facebook, upload photos and videos, comment and post our feelings online. Even the most mundane details of our lives are documented. Our entire existence is photographed and recorded to the extent that we often aren’t even aware of the surveillance systems around us: they are seemingly everywhere yet nowhere at the same time. This normalization of vigilance culture is blurring the boundaries between the private and public realm. As governments and corporations around the world continue to expand their efforts to track the communications, data and activities of millions of citizens, not only are we allowing our right to privacy to be threatened but the door to discrimination is being further opened.
Since February 2017, the Museum of Photography and C/O Berlin have come together to present separate but correlated exhibitions that investigate how contemporary art can contribute to increasing our awareness and understanding of modern surveillance society. The exhibitions present examples of facial recognition, video surveillance, Google street view and virtual animation aimed at encouraging the public’s examination of the complexities of modern surveillance, with a focus on photography and visual media. C/O Berlin’s exhibition titled ‘Watched! Surveillance, art and photography’ concentrates on the recent developments of surveillance technology and presents various projects ranging from photography and video to installation work. ‘Watching you, watching me’ presented by the Museum of Photography took a more historical approach to surveillance, providing present and archival artistic positions on the subject. Although the exhibitions take different approaches to surveillance, they complement each other by explaining the historical relevance of surveillance and its continuous progression.
‘Watching You, Watching Me’ takes the viewer back to the early modern era, where the concept of the controlling gaze dominated over people’s lives. The phrase “Gott sieht alles” and the motive of the divine eye was a symbol of observation and vigilance within Europe since the 16th century. Surveillance is not only a current topic but also a historical phenomenon that has, with time, transformed itself within religious, political, conceptual and physical forms. The title of the exhibition is based on an anonymous quote from 1546: “beware, you are seen and heard”. The phrase highlights the domination and fear imposed by the ever-seeing eye of the time period. Prints, photos, books and optical apparatus are presented, taking the viewer through the Age of Enlightenment to modern topics concerning the state and law. Each of the ten artists presented by the Museum of Photography uniquely explore how photography can be an instrument of surveillance and also a tool to expose and challenge mass observation.
Recent advancements in technology mean that the average citizen has a higher intrusion in their daily lives, although they are most likely to be unaware of it. An important example of this is drone technology, which is becoming more frequent in discreetly collecting images. Tomas Van Houtryve‘s project ‘American Sky’ (2014) exhibits a collection of drone photographs gathered by the artist during 2013 and 2014 in the U.S. The photographs reveal normal occurrences, people in the park, children in a school yard and aerial images of a wedding. Each photograph contains a description of the image but is also accompanied by an alternative fact about U.S. drone strikes in other countries, such as Pakistan and Yemen. The project aims to draw attention to the changing nature of the American sky. Houtryve states. alongside the stills: “Most Americans have been seen by drones at this point, even if they have never looked up and noticed”. His work plays with the idea that governments have no conscience and that they are increasingly violating our private lives. Most people would feel uneasy at being photographed by the government, but the fact that the majority of us are unaware that these acts are taking place, shows how much we have come desensitized by these technological developments.
The lack of distinction between public and private was an issue that resurfaced throughout the exhibition. Simon Manner‘s images from the secret Stasi archives show pictures of the Stasi agents involved in spying on the everyday activities that took place within a city. Photos are shown that were originally taken during a seminar where Stasi personnel were taught how to don different disguises, to be inconspicuous and how to move about in society as discreetly as possible. The Stasi were, at this point, monitoring every move of all suspected defectors, who were even photographed when posting letters and collecting mail. Polaroids of secret house searches being carried out on uninformed inhabitants serve as a reminder of violations, which at this time and place in history were commonplace. This series of works is particularly relevant to the city of Berlin: the photographs of the Stasi agents represent an era where society was heavily monitored and where citizens were very much aware that their every move was being watched. Stasi presence may not be an issue in today’s city life, but institutions are still finding new and innovative ways of invading private lives.
In comparison with the Museum of Photography, the ‘Watched! Surveillance, Art & Photography’ exhibition at the C/O Berlin focussed on the advancements and the current progression of surveillance rather than the historical development. Shockingly, many new technologies don’t require the subject’s co-operation or permission to collect and establish data on them. One example of the extremities of this was ‘Spirit is a bone’ (2013) by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. The artists have organized the portraits according to the subject’s occupation, echoing the work of photographer August Sander. They have used this new technology to re-enact his highly regarded book ‘People of the Twentieth Century’. The series of portraits are mixed-media, presented on glass panels, and are based on the facial recognition abilities of newly developed Russian engineering software. The system is able to capture citizens’ faces using 4 different cameras. Without the individuals permission or awareness, the system can use these photos to create a digital 3D life-mask of the individual.
Hasan Elahi is one of only two artists who feature in both exhibitions. Unlike the Stasi images or the American Sky project where citizens were unaware of themselves being photographed, Elahi’s project is essentially self-documentation. His piece ‘Thousand Little Brothers’ (2014) is exhibited in the Museum of Photography and was created after an erroneous tip linked the artist to terrorist activities. After a six-month-long FBI investigation, Elahi began to voluntarily monitor himself by photographing trivial details of his daily actions and sending hundreds of them per week to the FBI. At the C/O Berlin, he exhibits a similar auto-biographical piece titled ‘Prism V2’. The images are constructed in such a way that they form the thirteen stripes of the American flag. His work was one of the few projects that demonstrated a way of resisting current security measures, offering a way of taking back control.
The techniques and methods shown in both exhibitions demonstrate the ways that the digitalization of supervision are being used to restrain and repress. With these efforts made by institutions and governments all over the world, there comes a significant lack of privacy that is slowly taking away our basic rights, often halting freedom of speech and expression in the process. These projects raise important and provocative questions about the role of surveillance today and the preservation of our basic freedoms and rights, from an artistic perspective. They explore how photography and art can be both an instrument of surveillance itself and a tool that exposes and challenges the negative impacts.
As a continuation of the exhibition, C/O Berlin will be presenting a series of films, documentaries and talks that complement the topic of surveillance. More info can be found here.