Beyond Big Brother: Are we paranoid enough about the reality of modern surveillance?
It’s a Friday night and Berlin’s CO Gallery is packed. Sipping flutes of opening-night champagne, visitors look thoughtfully up at Hasan Elahi’s work Tracking Transience, a colour-coded wall with hundreds of photos, all taken from the artist’s phone camera roll. In 2002, Elahi was arrested by the FBI at Detroit airport, having been mistakenly placed on a terror watchlist.
His response to their surveillance? What he calls ‘sousveillance’. Eladi has recorded his movements for the past 15 years on his website, snippets of which make up the hundreds of photos of hamburgers, unmade beds and car parks displayed in front of the Berlin art crowd tonight. His work is part of Watched! Surveillance Art and Photography, a group show exploring photography’s various strategies for commenting on surveillance culture as it continues to engulf more areas of our lives.
Beyond the information we know we’re sharing publicly via social media, our data is given away during most of our interactions with technology, from downloading apps on our phone, to simply using a web browser or a bank account. “These things make life nicer,” says CO curator Ann-Christin Bertrand, touring the gallery with me a week after the opening. “Surveillance is no longer Big Brother watching you, it’s all around us and we all constantly participate in it. We are the producer and the consumer of surveillance at the same time.”
‘Sousveillance’ is one strategy behind the exhibited artists’ works. If people are collecting data on your every move, why not collect it yourself? Paolo Cirio’s portraits also reflect methods of surveillance back onto those who watch others. The artist finds unofficial, personal photos on social media of US intelligence officials and stencils them in a triangular Warhol style onto a white canvas. The subjects of the portraits spend their days investigating others, but now it’s us who are staring into their overexposed faces.
In both Elahi and Cirio’s work this notion is taken to an absurd level. As we look at the accumulation of images that appear to reveal everything, we realise how little information we are actually gleaning from them. Of course, much of this information only makes sense when it’s added to vast swathes of data from other people, and can create profiles to forecast a person’s behaviour. This “big data” strategy gives a new, predictive meaning to surveillance, simply by comparing your data to millions of others.
One lingering problem with those concerned about the amount of personal information companies and governments hold is that, in many ways, the issue appears to be abstract. Data seems like an intangible force, and yet this information has to be held physically somehow. Some of the photography at the Berlin CO gallery tackles this. For example, Trevor Paglen’s work Nsa-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Marseille, France (2015) shows a beautiful French seascape in a calm, hazy dusk. On the right hand side of the diptych is a map, annotated with files from the Snowden leaks. Closer inspection reveals that this landscape is the place where underwater cables connect from all over the world, and where the NSA taps vast swathes of data as it rushes through. On the surface, all is calm: underneath, subterfuge. Invisible, but still material.
As the opening evening progresses, I watch other guests surveying these documents that Edward Snowden risked everything to publish. The words sit mutely behind glass, while thoughtful visitors ponder the art works carefully. Our anxiety about surveillance reached a kind of cultural peak in the immediate aftermath of this data that Snowden leaked – a period in which most of the works in this exhibition were made (2013-15). And yet, nothing has changed. In fact, the effects of our proliferating data seem to be growing, with recent terrorist attacks in Europe causing enough of a security concern for governments to expand the scope of their data collection in the name of public safety.
This is always the playoff: security versus freedom. Meanwhile, the data-donating population became complacent, trusting the security forces were in ‘safe hands’. ‘Sure, they might have my data,’ people seem to think to themselves. ‘But what will they really do with it?’ In 2017, with Donald Trump’s attacks on civil liberties, it’s harder than ever to trust our leaders. How could future governments or corporations use the data we give today?
CO Berlin is just metres from Breitscheidplatz, the site of the 2016 attack where a hijacked lorry ploughed into a Christmas market and killed 12 people, injuring many more. The initial suspect of the attack was a 23-year-old asylum seeker, who was deemed to be behaving suspiciously in the high intensity moments after the lorry hit. Esther Hovers’ series of works False Positives shows a range of collective behaviours all deemed to be deviant, that would set off alarm bells in intelligent surveillance systems. A man crosses a street at an odd angle, a cluster of three people splits in the middle of a road. “This is really the problem of surveillance,” Ann-Christin says thoughtfully as we conclude our tour of the show. “It may increase our security but it also reduces our freedom to act in certain ways. It’s also about the way of looking…” Indeed, I think, would the wrongly accused suspect of the Breitscheidplatz attack have been picked out for his “erratic” movement through the crowd if he didn’t have brown skin?
It raises the question of how free public spaces are, and how this freedom is conceived of. Viktoria Binschtok’s work arranges images taken from Google Street View next to her own, analogue photographs of the same place, instead focusing on details like a worn carpet, a damaged pool table, or a dropped flip-flop. “I offer the viewer two possibilities: it’s all photography,” she says to me, over the noise of the opening night crowd gazing at her diptychs. In other words, there are different ways of seeing the same place. There is more to a location than just what the Google car, in its remarkable similarity to an undercover surveillance vehicle, can see.
"Surveillance is all around us and we all constantly participate in it. We are the producer and the consumer of surveillance at the same time" – CO's Christin Bertrand
There are still some spaces that are undisturbed by Google’s Street View cameras, such as the countryside. “For us, the forest is a very romantic location, and a symbol of protection and peace,” says Florian Mehnhart, whose artwork Forest Protocols (2012) comprises recordings of people’s private conversations there, in order to criticise complacency around data privacy. As we chat, we watch visitors placing headphones over their ears to listen in on country-wanderers’ personal conversations. People were angry about his violation of this untouched space, but to Florian, this communicated his point about data protection. “Sure, I had problems with the authorities,” he says with a shrug. “But we have a law about freedom of the arts, which is why I’m allowed to do it.”
This is one aspect of art’s power – it is protected by law. Another part of its power is its unique capacity to make us feel things that we previously only understood rationally. Listening to Florian talk, I imagine that the future belongs not just to huge tech corporations, but to artists too, who can make people feel something, realising the politics inherent in their everyday interactions.
And yet, something nags. As I exit the opening, I nearly bump into the event photographer, who is snapping a pair of party guests. They each have a wine glass in one hand, smartphone in the other, thumbing away on these GPS-tracking surveillance devices that nevertheless allow them to chat to all their friends in an instant. They are carefree, unconcerned, enjoying their evening and the attention of being photographed at a glamorous art event.
“Perhaps not,” I think.
Photography: All images © David von Becker
Watched! Surveillance Art and Photography runs at CO Berlin until 23 April