On Watch Essay

02/10/2012 - 03/31/2012

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On Watch
Raechell Smith

Any visual art exhibition is about looking, but one focused on the topic of surveillance is about watching and, of course, being watched.

On Watch gathers work by artists and citizens whose experiences and investigations explore the present-day culture of surveillance. Their works reflect a range of recent situations in regions that are both at peace and war, examining from perspectives near and far the social, economic, and political realities of places like Gaza, the Gulf War region, the United States, Kenya, and Haiti.

Surveillance is a fundamental and ancient human activity, but globalization and new technologies have radically altered how we observe the actions of others, how we gather, archive and transmit information, and how that knowledge is put to use.

The sites of surveillance are varied – ranging from the strategic monitoring of territories, landscapes, and borders, to the safeguarding of public space and populations, from the protection of private property and the body to individual rights of privacy, and finally extending out to penetrate the invisible networks of digital space.

In the service of security, military, economic, identification, statistical, journalistic, or entertainment purposes, the motivations fueling surveillance are equally varied, continuing to shift as behaviors adapt to new realities and methods for observing and gathering knowledge evolve.

From the elevated architecture of an observation tower to a discrete hand-held device used to capture and instantaneously send images around the globe, the technologies and strategies linked to surveillance, both historically and in the 21st century, serve ends both good and ill. It happens overtly and covertly from the ground, in the air, on the streets; it’s captured in archives, generated by GPS, and transmitted through social media networks.

Architecture designed specifically for surveillance, the observation tower has a profound psychological impact on the subject, whose movements are restricted and whose behaviors are controlled.

Along the conflicted border between Israel and Palestine, the ominous presence of Israeli watchtowers were an invitation to Gaza-born artist Taysir Batniji to document and index the war architecture that so devastatingly affected the living conditions of Palestinian civilians before, during, and after the 2008-2009 War in Gaza. In appearance, his Watchtowers (West Bank), from 2008, a grid of black and white architectural archetypes, resemble the images of European buildings and water towers created by Bernd and Hilla Becher. At close range, however, Batniji’s images are revealed to be blurry, imprecise imposters.

While the Becher’s images are studies in aesthetic control, Batniji’s Watchtowers are more a reflection of their tenuous context. Batniji, lacking the authorization to return to Palestine himself, hired a local photographer to shoot the images to his specifications, while also assuming the risk of being seen from above.

As border patrol, these structures are placed strategically to restrict the movement of people and goods between two territories. As a constant reminder of oppressive authority, these towers sit as powerful symbols of occupation and intimidation, visual markers of a long-lasting conflict between nations leaving a legacy of division and the reality of lives disrupted.

Aerial surveillance gives the advantage of an elevated perspective to better understand the unique characteristics of a terrain. Often, advancements in surveillance technologies occur through military research, developing new methods that deliver a distinct, strategic advantage over an enemy, target, or subject.

This past century, for example, has witnessed a swift succession of innovations in both flight and photography. What was once achieved by an airplane and camera is now the purview of satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with advanced imaging technology. The Predator drone, another type of UAV, is also controlled by an operator in a remote location carrying weaponry used increasingly to target specific locations, such as the remote province of Waziristan, situated between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Consider the distance and super-human point of view of aerial surveillance, featuring landscape as a geographic portrait of a place whose population is either invisible or without supreme relevance. During the first Gulf War, images of desert warfare were broadcast without great discretion and with very little lapse of time. This, in combination with the dehumanized perspective so unfamiliar at the time to most viewers, made these images profoundly disturbing, creating a visual narrative that extracted people and culture from the landscape.

The artist Jananne Al-Ani was troubled by these images and set out to explore historic representations and present perceptions of the desert of the Middle East, especially that of Iraq, the country of her birth and her home until the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980.

Al-Ani searched documents and archives for historic aerial imagery used for military and archaeological research. What she discovered was a haunting grace in many aerial reconnaissance photographs depicting the Western Front near the end of World War I. These images inspired a series called “The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land without a People,” wherein Al-Ani explores the myths of the desert landscape through images of the Middle East.

Shadow Sites I captures both a strange beauty and a sense of history, recalling those early reconnaissance photographs. Filmed in Jordan, the small crew mounted a Super 16 mm camera to the aircraft’s wing to record, from directly above, a land which lies in a historically rich but politically contested zone, east of Israel and bordered by Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

The video reads as a steady pan across the surface of the landscape, creating a sensation of floating above the desert and registering details of the land’s use and occupation in times past and present – roads, signs of agricultural production, the tracings of trenches dug into the land by Ottoman troops under German orders, and the remnants of archaeological sites and past civilizations.

Military and government security concerns about the real and speculative threat of terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens and on U.S. soil, dating back at least to the American Embassy bombings in Beirut in 1983 and including the bombings of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the World Trade Center and Pentagon buildings in 2001, have increased and penetrated daily life in significant ways that are, perhaps, equal parts comforting and alarming.

One result is the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras, or closed circuit televisions (CCTV). They are so familiar that we readily accept them, by now, in places like airports, banks, art museums, retail stores, and government buildings. Their invasive creep into public spaces, however, like city sidewalks, public parks, and traffic intersections has sparked recent debate and alarm about the systematic erosion of individual privacy rights.

If an artist was to document contemporary, American street life in the city of New York and capture something of the post-September 11 era’s psyche in a dramatic cinematic construction, then it might look something like Nicolas Provost’s film Plot Points.

Provost’s work plays with film genres, the codes of cinema, and the boundaries between fact and fiction. In Plot Point, a compelling, suspenseful narrative is constructed with footage he shot with a hidden camera, yielding thousands of images and hours of footage. Through masterful edits and the overlay of an absorbing soundtrack, Provost has created a believable dramatization of mundane, everyday urban experiences.

While Provost has used his own camera to capture street footage in Times Square and weave it into an imaginative, award-winning film, the footage recorded by millions of surveillance devices installed around the globe lead to a different type of narrative altogether.

There are concerted efforts to gather information on the identification of entities, to understand the overlapping of networks, and to monitor the increasingly complex financial transactions of the global economy. We understand it to be crucial now, of course, but this investigative, pre-WikiLeak activity was deep artistic research for the artist Mark Lombardi, who paid close attention to select news items and began archiving the names, locations, and minute details of various corporate and governmental scandals in the mid-1990s, starting with the Savings and Loan crisis.

In “Narrative Structures,” a series of drawings created between 1994 and 2000, Lombardi creates a visual architecture to hold vast networks of information. These narratives sift through and spin out hard-to-believe tales of corruption, corporate crime, links between governments and organized crime, and unsuspected nodes of white collar financing for terrorist activities, illegal drug trafficking, and border bending arms deals. Lombardi died in 2000, before law enforcement experts on terrorist activities sought the information visualized in his drawings for their own investigations about suspected terrorist cells and their possible links to September 11 events.

Lombardi’s diagrammatic drawings are able to clarify, distill, and connect complex, disjoined facts, leading the viewer steadily from one fact to the next. Even today, these works could easily act as informative, clear illustrations to accompany the work of any number of best-selling crime writers, but Lombardi’s facts are far from fiction.

While it may be difficult to discern who is trustworthy and what activities are, in fact, suspicious, the Internet provides unprecedented access to information and previously unimagined methods for archiving and disseminating that information. Everyday citizens, on a daily basis and around the globe, volunteer details about their identity that are tracked, analyzed, and pushed onto a dense, fast-moving highway of knowledge used for a wide variety of purposes.

Personal identification is a crucial component of civilized society and its methods, too, are affected by innovations in technology. An individual’s identity can be registered, as another means of surveillance, in the shape of a birth certificate, a passport, an identity card, a number tattooed on the skin, a credit card, fingerprints and DNA, the embedding of a microchip, or a profile on Facebook (which includes a thumbnail portrait that can now be recognized with facial recognition). This information currently exists for and about all of us, informing and misinforming those who wish to know who we are, what we buy, how we live, what we do, and where we go.

For an individual with a strange history of visiting unusual places, an unusual name, and dark skin, the business of being identified can be an unpleasant and even dangerous experience as new media artist and university professor Hasan Elahi discovered.

Elahi was wrongly identified as a suspected terrorist while returning to the U.S. from an international trip in 2002, a period when security alerts were high and suspicious characters lurked everywhere, especially in the minds of TSA authorities and others. He was detained, interrogated by members of the FBI and forced to take numerous polygraph tests over the next seven months, and then dismissed without much explanation and with no guarantee of rightful identification in the future.

Generating evidential proof of his own innocence as a form of performative protest, Elahi put his technological savvy to extreme use in the ongoing project Tracking Transcience, registering in real-time more information than even a curious FBI agent would want to know, including bank transactions, meals consumed, his constant whereabouts determined by GPS, flight numbers, travel destinations, arrival times, urinals visited, and images to accompany it all. Forwarded directly to an agent in Florida for some time following his ordeal, Elahi’s detailed personal history now automatically uploads, even today, to www.trackingtranscience.com.   

The 7-channel video installation, Calibration, is comprised of thousands of images that document Elahi’s exact whereabouts over a span of four years. Each day of the week registers on a corresponding monitor in a striped pattern that emulates a once familiar TV-test pattern used to calibrate and correct the flow of digital information.

An ability to network, stay connected, and navigate are all made possible, easier and faster with social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, mobile devices like camera phones, laptop computers, and satellite-based global positioning (GPS) technologies, such as Google Map, used for navigating and mapping.

Forms of citizen surveillance and sousveillance can reverse the situation and place the tools and technologies of watching into the hands of the population to bear witness and, in some circumstances, shape present and future events. Just such events occurring over the past year, the 2011 Arab Spring particularly, have been fueled by technologies into a season of global participation, activism, and protest but the seeds for useful strategies integrating technology and human rights had already been planted.

Ushahidi, in Swahili, means testimony. Ushahidi is also the name that was given to a coordinated initiative to marshal technology and human resources in response to post-election violence that broke out after the 2007 Presidential election in Kenya, where 1,200 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

Developed by a small group of young, innovative technology experts from across Africa, Ushahidi was created as a fast-responding crowdmapping platform to gather and transmit vital information about conditions on the ground, as reported by eyewitnesses and participants, via SMS messages, email, web postings, Twitter and Facebook.

Since then, Ushahidi has grown into a sophisticated, open-source information ecosystem, deployed to monitor and aid in response efforts to help nations and communities in crisis and in transition. In the hours after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti, individual reports of destruction, injury, and critical need were geographically plotted on Ushahidi’s Haiti Crisis Map by volunteers in makeshift situation rooms around the world. When international crisis response teams arrived, it was this resource that provided the most reliable, up-to-date information to guide their efforts and resources.

In the years since, thousands of live maps using the Ushahidi platform have been deployed for surveillance of elections, political and social protests, population migrations, and natural disasters in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gaza, India, Egypt, Libya, and the Gulf Coast, among others.

Patrick Meier is Ushahidi’s Director of Crisis Mapping and an internationally recognized expert on the intersection of new technologies and human rights. In his view, technology can only provide about 10% of a solution to global problems, but these new solutions, reliant both on civic participation and effective systems of transmission, are building more resilient communities; communities that are also, perhaps, more empowered. With such awareness in mind, it’s impossible to not imagine so many different outcomes that could have been.

Surveillance is, and has always been, a tool that increases knowledge, but also warrants close attention. Please be on watch, you are being watched and the results will shape the future.