Thoughts on Keeping an Eye on Surveillance @ The Performance Art Institute

ATTN: Reader ~ This post is LONG overdue.

Please let me know if you have any questions about the show.

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surveillance |sərˈvāləns| noun: close observation, esp. of a suspected spy or criminal: he found himself put under surveillance by military intelligence

ORIGIN early 19th cent.: from French, from sur- ‘over’ + veiller ‘watch’ (from Latin vigilare ‘keep watch’ ).

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Recently, I met someone whose relative works for the FBI.  This relative belongs to the surveillance division. Obviously, fascination grew and I started imagining scenarios of espionage and intrigue. My friend continued, “Well, I’m told it’s actually very boring work until something happens, which is quite rare.” [Insert fail horn]. Really? Then again, if you think about it, isn’t that why anyone watches anything…to wait for something to happen? Rolling dice and calculating the probability of landing on even numbers (i.e., Gambler’s fallacy and yes, I actually had to do this in grade school for math class) seems so much more interesting until artists were asked to explore the idea of surveillance in this post 9/11 world. On the eve of September 11, 2011, at The Performance Art Institute, the Bay Area art community gathered together to view works in the group exhibition, Keeping an Eye on Surveillance, curated by Hanna Regev. Below are my reflections of artists that captivated my attention.

** For this post, I selected five artists from the show. For a full listing of artists, please click here.**

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A view of the crowd at the opening of Keeping an Eye on Surveillance at The Performance Art Institute

Jim Campbell

Campbell’s beautifully executed piece, Church on 5th Avenue, illustrates transient actions of everyday life into arresting LED sculptures forcing the viewer to concentrate on the subject versus the act of surveillance. Squinting my eyes, I was able to see discernible articulations of the body. Almost magically, a city scape with people walking and cars whizzing by appeared. The multitude of technologies at work in Campbell’s art speaks to both his experience and interpretations of the post modern world. Elegance and precision are trademarks in his evolving art practice. One of the main reasons Campbell’s work remains emblematic of our time is his desire to show humanity as best described in his sentiment below,

“…the biggest challenge for working with technology and art is to transcend the medium. To not have the technology become what the work is. To go beyond that and have some sort of humanist side to the work”.

Artist, Jim Campbell's use of industrial materials to create one of the most elegant displays of a such a complex topic

Title and materials: Church on 5th Avenue (2001), 29 x 22 x 7 inches. Custom electronics, 768 LEDs, treated Plexiglas. A matrix of 32 x 24 (768) pixels made out of red LEDs displays a pedestrian and auto traffic scene in NY from an off-street perspective. There is a sheet of diffusing plexiglas angled in front of the grid. As the pedestrians move from left to right the figures gradually go from a discrete representation to a continuous one (or metaphorically from a digital representation to an analog one). ~ Source of detailed description is from Artist’s website

Tim Roseborough

My survey of artist Tim Roseborough's survey of the subject

Title and materials: The Spectacular Seat (2011), Multi-media installation

One of the more psychologically engaging pieces of the evening was Tim Roseborough’s The Spectacular Seat, which involved a real-time feed displaying the interior of a men’s restroom. Oddly enough, men (and some women) were told beforehand about the live feed but most didn’t seem to mind and proceeded to use the restroom. The knowledge of being watched affected the piece dramatically. The act of knowing changed the idea of surveillance to spectacle, hence the àpropos name of the Spectacular Seat. Since the pseudonym of Art Research Group was used to cast the original surveillance subject, Roseborough’s transparent approach at acquiring this initial data gave way to lively discussion during the opening. From the use of the internet and social networking to create this work, a strong sense of inquiry ensued at the opening.

Scott Kildall

An exhibition visitor viewing the surveillance footage from Scott Kildall's piece, Double Reflection

Title and materials: Double Reflection (2008), Video Sculpture with Single-Channel Video

Artist, Scott Kildall, set up his piece, Double Reflection, in Dolores Park to capture footage of curious onlookers on a sunny afternoon in San Francisco for the show.  With Double Reflection, the curiosity itself becomes the act. It took on a performative aspect because it was relatively conspicuous but a bit enigmatic. Many people didn’t know what to make of this large sculpture that appeared to be a mirror yet shaped similarly to a periscope. The question of whether it was an object of surveillance played more of role in the exhibition versus out in the public space. To learn more about the piece, please click here.

Justin Hoover

Justin Hoover's piece, Giving you my Eyes

Title and materials: Giving You my Eyes (2011), Multi-media installation

Hoover’s, Giving You my Eyes, gave the surveyor (in this case, his assistant) his sense of sight. Since this puts a completely different spin on the idea of watching, it begs the question, is this surveillance? What does it say about the way we watch, observe, and act when the person that needs to see is unable to do so? What is the participant’s role in the act of surveillance if Hoover were to give his Eyes to you? I’m hoping to gain access to this performance piece at some point.

Jennifer Locke

Locke's, Minicam II involves participants with minicams recording the other while a third camera records the two from above

Title and materials: Minicam II (2006), Video

From a seemingly never-ending multitude of camera angles, Minicam II shows two (clothed) men wrestling (reminiscent of Oliver Reed and Alan Bates nude wrestling scene in the film adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Women in Love) with minicams taped to their chests. The multitude of angles makes the act intimate because the grunting, panting, and sweating were audible and visible. Circling back around to where we started, surveillance is about waiting for things to happen and more often than not, it’s a monotonous and wearisome task to vigilantly watch, well, nothing. Locke’s piece contrasts this view. We continue to stare and watch (closely) and waiting but is it surveillance? How does it redefine the act of observation? Yes, dear friend, I would like you to answer the question. Tell me what you think…wishing you were there (and, if you were, I invite you to engage with me).

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Author: Dorothy R. Santos

Dorothy R. Santos is a writer, editor, curator, and educator whose research areas and interests include new media and digital art, activism, artificial intelligence, networked culture, and biotechnology. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, she holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisco, and received her Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts. She is currently the managing editor for Hyphen magazine. Her work appears in art21, Art Practical, Daily Serving, Rhizome, Hyperallergic, and Public Art Dialogue. She has lectured and spoken at the De Young museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Stanford University, School of Visual Arts, and more. Her essay “Materiality to Machines: Manufacturing the Organic and Hypotheses for Future Imaginings,” has been published to The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture in 2016. She serves as executive staff for the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism, board member for the SOMArts Cultural Center, and teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the Digital Art and New Media department.

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