An introduction to surveillance art

Post Author: Quinn Moreland

As a rapidly evolving technology race defines the world around us, it’s apt that so many artists have taken up issues of surveillance, privacy, paranoia, politics, data, and power. How do we think about our new role as pieces of trackable and analytical data; do we think about this at all? Surveillance art contends that we must consider the implications caused by our actions, the pre-existing but increasing distance between governments and citizens, and the often quite-problematic systems that surround us.

In 1972, the BBC and art critic John Berger released a four-part television series titled Ways of Seeing. The program, which was later turned into a book, explored how we have come to attach meaning to visual symbols and aesthetics. On the first page of the book, Berger states that “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” This is one way to think of surveillance art: as an attempt to use new medias and technologies to make sure that what we don’t know, or what we are kept from seeing, is made visible.

With one exception, the artists in this piece each explicitly explore the role of surveillance in our daily lives. They use technology to create a vocabulary that links viewers with what is seemingly invisible or off-limits.

Arne Svenson

Arne Svenson, The Neighbors, 2013

Perhaps the most well-known piece of surveillance photography is Arne Svenson’s The Neighbors, a controversial piece of work taken in 2013. Unlike the other artists in this piece, Svenson did not intend to make work that questioned privacy, ethics, or the increasingly complex ways that technology affects our lives. Svenson’s inclusion in this piece on surveillance art, however, is crucial: The Neighbors brought issues of surveillance and privacy into the mainstream, to audiences who might not otherwise read about these issues in the visual arts.

Having been inspired by Rear Window—which he felt a “certain camaraderie” with—Svenson pointed a CT-501 500-mm. Nikon telephoto lens (most typically used for birdwatching or paparazzi purposes) towards the floor-to-ceiling windows of the apartment building across the street. The artist’s Tribeca neighbors became his subjects, and their mundane daily activities were elevated to art. The photos are soft and painterly, almost Vermeer-esque in their depictions of domestic scenes, their careful lighting, and a deliberate use of (literal) framing. Little narrative context is offered, allowing the viewer to focus solely on the actions of the figure in the frame.  

Although their identities are obscured by their physical position or by architecture, when the photos went on display at Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea and in advertisements for the exhibition, the unwitting subjects began to notice.

In May 2013, Matthew and Martha G. Foster, whose family was featured in the series, filed a complaint in the New York Supreme Court against Svenson, claiming that the photos were taken without consent and thus violated their privacy. Furthermore, the photographs were used for commercial purposes as ads for the show and were on sale online. In August 2013, the Supreme Court ruled Svenson not guilty on the grounds that the photos were protected under the First Amendment.

In September that year, the plaintiffs appealed, saying that they were “frightened and angered by defendant’s utter disregard for their privacy and the privacy of their children.” The case was once again dismissed in 2015 by Judge Dianne T. Renwick who admitted that the photos are “disturbing” and “intrusive,” and acknowledged that an amendment of privacy laws must occur.

Theater of Drones

Martha Rosler, Theater of Drones, 2013

Martha Rosler is best known for her video Semiotics of the Kitchen, a 1975 feminist cooking parody in which she uses an alphabetized display of cooking utensils to critique the traditional female role. A testament to her unwavering commitment to interrogations of the everyday, her recent 2013 piece Theater of Drones is composed of ten eye-level banners that show the increased focus by the U.S. government on drone research and development and the consequences of drone warfare in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The piece was created by invitation for the 2013 Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia. Charlottesville is the first city in the U.S. to draft legislation banning the local use of drones and is home to anti-war and anti-drone activism.

After explaining that our government’s actions are creating enemies on the ground and that it is impossible for us to know the “the true number of civilian casualties, including women and children,” which probably “far exceeds the number acknowledged by the U.S,” Rosler asks, “Is this who we wish to become?” To answer her question, Rosler offers information about the Pentagon’s increased drone funding (700% over the next decade), maps showing active drone sights, and graphs of drone strikes and civilian deaths. A timeline runs along the bottom of several banners showing the most amateur drones to the most extreme and advanced aircrafts.

“We are a nation of laws,” Rosler writes in one banner. “Not only is surveillance deeply troubling, but secret military doctrines and practices abroad now may include assassination of anyone, including American citizens. Suspending due process of law, silencing public debate, bypassing Congressional oversight – all these mark a basic shift in who were are as a people.”

One of the final banners features a large picture of a Predator drone equipped with a missile along with a terrifying quote from Gordon Johnson of the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command: “They don’t get hungry. They are not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.”

“Welcome to the brave new world of round-the-clock surveillance and the death of privacy!”

Hasan Elahi, Tracking Transience, 2002-present

Hasan Elahi, Tracking Transience, 2002-present

In 2002, American artist Hasan Elahi was detained at the Detroit airport under suspicion of storing explosives in a Florida locker before fleeing the country. Though he was eventually declared innocent, Elahi was questioned for six months and underwent a series of polygraph exams. After the ordeal ended, Elahi installed a primitive tracking device into his phone and began meticulously documenting his daily life down to the foods he eats and the toilets he uses. As the artist explained in a New York Times piece, his logic was something along the lines of: “You want to watch me? Fine. But I can watch myself better than you can, and I can get a level of detail that you will never have.” He notes that though the resulting images may seem empty and could be of anywhere, they are not; “they are extremely specific records of my exact travels to particular places.”

Now, Elahi wears a GPS device that tracks his movements on his website’s live Google map. The website’s interface is “deliberately user-unfriendly,” and it certainly is as the homepage inexplicably shifts from a satellite image to a grid of food, grocery stores, airports, and any number of everyday destinations or indulgences, complete with a date and time. The website provides Elahi’s financial data, communication records, and travel logs, and provides information from his banks and phone companies to verify this information.

By willingly giving the U.S. government the information they want, Elahi subverts them. “In an era in which everything is archived and tracked, the best way to maintain privacy may be to give it up,” says Elahi. “Information agencies operate in an industry that values data. Restricted access to information is what makes it valuable. If I cut out the middleman and flood the market with my information, the intelligence the F.B.I. has on me will be of no value. Making my private information public devalues the currency of the information the intelligence gatherers have collected.”

Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center #2, Groom Lake, NV, Distance ~26 Miles.

Trevor Paglen

In 2014, Frieze asked a number of artists and scholars to reflect on the question “Algorithms, Big Data, and surveillance: what’s the response, and responsibility, of art?” Trevor Paglen responded that because visual languages are changing, we may no longer rely on conventional visual theory or art practices. “Robot-eyes, seeing-algorithms and image-machines are the rule, and seeing with the meat-eyes of our human bodies is increasingly the exception,” Paglen explains, and in order to keep up, we must learn to think more like machines. Paglen’s work does exactly that as he uses technology to bridge the gap between human capabilities and our evolving world.

Code Names of the Surveillance State

Code Names of the Surveillance State is a video installation of over 4,000 National Security Agency (NSA) and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) surveillance program code names. The names are projected onto public buildings and within galleries as endlessly scrolling columns.

Code Names

Code Names is a wall installation and ever-growing list of words, phrases, and terms that designate classified military programs. The total number of secret projects is overwhelming, especially in some installations where the viewer is physically surrounded by the names.

The Black Sites

Using commercial satellite imagery, a compass, testimonies from former inmates, and a map drawn by a former prisoner, Paglen was able to discover the location of two C.I.A. Black Sites, secret prisons used for torture.

Limit Telephotography

As Paglen explains, “Limit-telephotography involves photographing landscapes that cannot be seen with the unaided eye.” This technology utilizes high-powered telescopes with focal ranges between 1300mm and 7000mm, allowing hidden aspects of landscape to be seen. Pagan uses limit-telephotography to document classified American military bases and installations. “In some ways, however, it is easier to photograph the depths of the solar system than it is to photograph the recesses of the military industrial complex.”


James Bridle's Dronestagram

James Bridle

Bridle coined the term “The New Aesthetic,” which, to put it very simply, refers to the increased use of digital technology and the internet in art and “an eruption of the digital into the physical.” The New Aesthetic calls for our reliance on technology to be acknowledged with a sense of wonder. By embracing new technologies, their deeper, systematic innerworkings may be revealed, and thus, utilized. Bridle claims that because the internet’s language is learnable, it is accessible, meaning that once one learns code, one can explore, exploit, and avoid the system. Another key example is the glitch, which “allows for a glimpse into a system that’s produced the image concerned.” Bridle wants to apply this logic to other structures — technological, legislative, and political — that are often made invisible by their complexity. The problem then becomes how do you make them visible?

Dronestagram, 2012

Using records from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which currently reports on Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, Bridle locates the strike site on Google maps satellite view and then posts the image to Instagram. Dronestagram allows us to see the otherwise invisible consequences of “invisible, distancing technologies, and a technologically-disengaged media and society.”

Citizen Ex

Citizen Ex is an extension for web browsers that makes “visible the physical infrastructure that underlies the internet, mapping to location of websites, and visualizing the user’s “algorithmic citizenship.” As Bridle explains, “Algorithmic citizenship is a citizenship that is not bound by physical space, not based on where you were born or who your parents are, but is based very specifically on your behavior, which is mostly how we are judged online.” Citizen Ex makes users aware that their actions are traceable and calculable, and shows that our ideas of citizenship are rapidly changing and becoming less stable.