Disrupting the System

Trevor Paglen’s They Watch The Moon is an eerie image of distant towers, dishes and yellow lights. Included in Trace Recordings: Surveillance and Identity in the 21st Century at UTS Gallery, the image is cast with the greenish hue of a night vision scope, and depicts an NSA listening station sited in the heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 34,000 square kilometre stretch of Virginia and Maryland where all radio and wireless transmissions are banned.

This blackout is enforced so that radio telescopes can study distant galaxies or, in the case of the NSA listening station, monitor transmissions from Earth that bounce off the moon. Paglen’s 2010 image is imbued with the aesthetic of contemporary surveillance, technology that is familiar but which also remains ambiguous and unsettling.

Curated by Holly Williams and Chris Gaul, Trace Recordings investigates how artists use surveillance technology and what this might reveal about contemporary life. While Paglen’s photograph might be the most conventional work of art in the show – a framed photograph that hangs on a wall – its theme of watching, listening and being seen fits perfectly within this tightly curated show.  Paglen has photographed secret US military installations using available technology to investigate the watchers, while other featured artists use surveillance technology to make art.

The human figure, and the face, is of prime interest to police, security agencies and the military; their cameras and computers scanning crowds in public spaces looking for persons of interest, while using facial recognition software to match members of the crowd to their wanted lists. Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle Workshop [2013] demonstrates just how easy it is to defeat this technology – all it takes is some carefully applied makeup and a security camera literally cannot see you. Benjamin Gaulon’s work 2.4Ghz [2013] is a portable monitor with an aerial that taps into the unsecured cameras of nearby CCTV systems in shops, offices and classrooms, putting the viewer into the role of a watcher. Paolo Cirio’s Street Ghosts [2012] takes the images of people captured by Google Street View and then, after printing them at life size, pastes them up at the locations where they were originally caught.

The rather odd aspect of these works is just how familiar their technological aesthetics feel. While the conceptual framing of the projects is impressive they are not all that remarkable: we know the vibe and feel of watching and being watched – it’s the stuff of contemporary thrillers, from the Bourne films to Homeland. And although the scope and scale of the NSA’s worldwide surveillance is truly incredible, it would be even stranger to imagine that it wasn’t taking place.

The more interesting works in Trace Recordings are those that add something personal to the work, such as Mahwish Chishty’s gouache, gold leaf and tea stain paintings on paper of US military drones. Like the recently reviewed work of Richard Goodwin, Chishty’s paintings seek to disempower the threat of the drone by personalising it.

Shinsenungback Kimyonghun’s Memory [2013] mixes the experience of looking with being seen: a simple framed digital screen is mounted on a wall and with a tiny camera mounted in its frame the artist’s software combines all the faces it captures and then averages them out into a composite portrait. On my visit to the gallery, the face staring back at me was androgynous and of vaguely eastern European appearance. And although I didn’t recognise myself, the face seemed eerily familiar.

By far the most disturbing work in the show is Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Stranger Visions [2012]. The artist collected DNA samples from discarded cigarette butts, chewing gum and stay hairs found in public spaces. From these samples genetic data was gathered that identified the race, sex and other intimate details, then using a 3D printer the artist created death mask like portraits of the sample subjects. Who can say whether these faces hanging from the wall accurately reproduce the faces of those people who were innocently having a cigarette or chewing gum? But the traces left behind provide enough information to create a likely profile.

As you move closer to the masks their features become less defined, more pixelated and indistinct, with their eyes taking on the same deadness as you find in a computer-generated face. The rather disturbing conclusion drawn from this work, and the whole exhibition, is that as much as we might value our individuality, we are at some fundamental level just averaged out data in vast field of undifferentiated commonalities. The only upside is that, in the right hands, there might be some hope of disrupting the system.

Published as Artists use surveillance technology to explore extent we are monitored, Guardian Australia, November 2013.

©Andrew Frost, 2013

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