The artistic reflection on our contemporary surveillance society

26 Mar ’17 by Sara Other
The exhibition Watched! Surveillance Art & Photography examines the complexities of modern surveillance with a focus on photography and visual media.

How do we live in a surveillance society? A very acute question in our digital age. And the concept of surveillance itself, either as a means to gather information or as a way to induce self-correcting behavior, is changing. The current exhibition at the c/o Berlin, Watched! Surveillance, Art & Photography , drives that point home.

I have a strong passion for dystopian literature, the trope of the apocalypse and science-fiction, so I guess you can say the discourse on surveillance is something that I find obscenely fascinating. During my studies (I fear my best academic years are gone now, but I do wonder why the hell I remember the stuff I learned now and not back then when I needed it) I wrote a paper on surveillance in the digital age – from intelligence agencies to self-tracking devices, how does surveillance change? Have – and if so, how? – the contemporary practices of self-surveillance changed the immanent threat of surveillance at all?

The artistic approach to surveillance

The subject definitely warrants an artistic approach, and the c/o gallery at Amerika Haus gladly delivers. The playful and interactive exhibition puts our understanding of surveillance, and our permanently data-sharing selves, into many different perspectives (but mostly in photography and video).

A few decades ago, ubiquitous video surveillance, self-quantifying ourselves, live streaming our lives and selling our own data for virtual points in games – all of that voluntarily – would have seemed like the apocalypse for our privacy; a dystopia of unknown magnitudes. Today: normalcy. We let algorithms decide which music we should listen to, we go straight from A to B using a perfect map, we adapt in an instant to our peers ratings and reviews. Of course, this has consequences for the many ways in which social structures are shaped.

My personal interest lies not within the range of technologies per se, but I am very fascinated by how our physical and very practical movements are influenced. Would you have gone there if you hadn’t read about it online just a few seconds ago? Is our spatiality, or our perception of spatiality, compromised by many different (virtual) rooms we can only construct in virtuality? How does affect urban structures – a city like Berlin?

Surveillance, Art & Photography

One of the pieces in the exhibition shows pictures and diagrams of irregular movements in public space. An algorithm detects whether something (or someone) strange happens on a square in Brussels. A lone man, lost luggage – anything out of the ordinary triggers a terror warning.

And what to do with all of the collected data? Can we filter out the details through the noise? Is Big Data even useful at all? Hasan Elahi, who was trailed and interrogated by the FBI for 6 months, puts the notion to the test: he’s composed thousands and thousands of pictures into one gigantic mosaic of his location, the food on his plate, where he went to the toilet and so on. You can actually watch his stream update on Tracking Transcience.

With work from around 20 international artists, the exhibition combines emerging practices by Julian Röder, Viktoria Binschtok, and Esther Hovers, with the work of internationally-recognised names such as Hito Steyerl, Trevor Paglen, Jill Magid, Hasan Elahi, Paolo Cirio, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, James Bridle, and Ai Weiwei. The artists appropriate a variety of technologies – from facial recognition to photography – to demonstrate the complexities of the relationship between the need for security and the threat of surveillance to the individual sovereignty – which ultimately leads to criminialization and an abuse of powerful control mechanisms.

How can we live in a society like this? Watched! Surveillance invites the viewers to reflect on the contemporary challenges of new technologies and new cultural mentalities.

C/O Berlin Foundation, Amerika Haus . Hardenbergstraße 22–24, 10623 Berlin