The Auxiliary’s Artist-in-Residence part 2: who’s watching?

When Foucault wrote his seminal analysis of the Panopticon in 1975, the idea was that the prisoners could be observed from a central pillar in the institution yet they themselves could not see the watcher. A guard could be focusing on one prisoner and another inmate on the opposite side of the building would be none the wiser. The way they did this was through incorporating light and darkness into the design of the space – the person being watched was in constant light ensuring visibility whereas the person doing the watching lay in the shadows. In theory, this was designed to keep them on edge, constantly self-aware, by using the threat of total visibility as a method to enforce social control. Does this structure of power still apply in 2017, when surveillance has shifted to online spaces? What role do we have to play in our own surveillance when we upload our data to social media channels, and how does this shift the gaze?

The logic of total visibility may be the same (we know that our data could be tracked, our phone calls tapped, our private messages read, etc if the spotlight was to shine on us) but something has changed in terms of who is collecting the data. Yes, we may still be vulnerable to total visibility and yes, we don’t always know who’s watching, but increasingly we are willing participants in our own surveillance, handing over our data in exchange for access to convenient social media tools, and monitoring our peers using these same tools. The existence of organisations like Serco, GCHQ, NSA still guarantees a top-down approach and unequal power relations, however we have an undeniable role in producing online profiles that reveal the places we visit, our likes and tastes, our political beliefs, the people we associate with, our consumer habits and visual documentation of ourselves as we age.

This was the thinking behind this small-scale sculpture. The idiom ‘living in a goldfish bowl’ conjures up images of living in a space in which everyone can see in – you have no privacy because the walls are transparent. But, as in the forms of surveillance I’ve been talking about, the eyes are no longer always on the outside looking in. If we have a new role in partaking in the watching, the eyes have shifted within the bowl and are looking upon themselves. We are our own biggest gatherers of data and information.

Take a listen to the sound that is made when the eyes all shift the direction of their gaze as I move the object:

Returning to the Panopticon and the use of light to assert control via visibility, I am in the process of constructing an installation featuring a lighthouse as its centrepiece – a poetic reference to the lineage of surveillance.

The installation will premiere at Coastival in Scarborough, a seaside town in North Yorkshire. What I didn’t know before beginning my design of the installation is that Scarborough is one of the few places GCHQ has a listening base (in 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowdon revealed that GCHQ had been indiscriminately gathering mass online and telephone data via the Tempora programme).

Some photos of Panopticon-inspired buildings. Note the similarity to lighthouses.

Some photos of Panopticon-inspired buildings. Note the similarity to lighthouses.

The Auxiliary’s Artist-in-Residence part 1: Surveillance, light and darkness

12 January 2016

What comes to mind when you think about surveillance? During my research, discussions frequently focus on CCTV in public spaces, usually outside, in the physical realm. In the last few years, phone hacking has hit the headlines with voicemails being hacked without the knowledge of the phone’s owner. In these cases, surveillance is an act done by an assumedly higher power to another; it’s a way of asserting control through a one-way relationship of gathering data without consent. It seems that we are usually passive subjects in these instances, our images are captured on CCTV by us merely walking into shot of a camera (estimates of this range between 70 and 300 times a day). Are we ever complicit, active subjects in our own surveillance? Can we partake in self-surveillance and if so, what are the mechanisms at play here? How does the emergence of online spaces shape how and where surveillance takes place?

I’ve just started an Artist-in-Residence programme at the Auxiliary in Stockton and these are the kinds of questions that I’ll be asking whilst I’m here. It seemed very clear from the start that although I’ll be using surveillance technologies in my work, I don’t want to focus on the tools that enable it but rather the psychological, social and cultural impact of surveillance – hidden, pervasive and disguised.

In thinking about what kind of tropes I could use to explore surveillance, I’ve found myself drawn to the relationship between light and darkness. Postcolonial studies draw attention to Mancichean Allegory, a strand of religious thought from 3rd Century AD which rests upon a binary of good and evil, light and dark. Colonialism uses a similar model with its discourses using white/light as synonymous with modernity, civilisation and progress. There’s a skit on Dead Prez’ mixtape (Turn off the Radio, volume 4) that comes to mind, ‘Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms… [Black is] always something degrading, low and sinister. Look at the word white, it’s always something pure’. Foucault (1980:153) describes the reasoning behind surveillance as ‘the fear of darkened spaces’ whereas Koskela (2000) talks about surveillance in terms of visibility and light. The logic of colonialism and surveillance don’t seem too far apart, both seek to impose social, political and cultural control and both have the objective of asserting power at their core. Light – with its ability to seek out all corners of a room, persisting until it is forced to stop in contact with a barrier and imposing a form of control upon a space via visibility – feels to me an apt way to communicate the pervasiveness (and invasiveness) of surveillance.

Other themes that are interesting me at the moment are concealment and the politics of visibility and invisibility but I’ll save a post about that for a later date. If you have any readings, films or audio to recommend then send them my way via the contact form.

So far I’ve drafted a storyboard for a film with soundscape, and over the next few weeks I’ll be working on a narrative to accompany this. This will be played within an installation that will be premiered at Coastival festival in Scarborough on 18-19 February.