Subversion in the shadows: making art about darkness, privacy and the data exhaust
Darkness and fear have long had a twisted relationship. Light enables us to perceive the world around us — in a literal sense, it makes observation possible — producing the inverse implication, that the absence of light harbours uncertainty of the unknown and, within this, potential danger. Here, light equals visibility; darkness conceals, and what we can’t observe, we can’t anticipate.
In the digital landscape, light and dark are embedded in both language and functionality. Digital communications are enabled through a network of deep-sea fibre optic cables sending light signals down thin strands of plastic and glass to be deciphered into electrical signals at the other end. What has become known as the Dark Web is a space that shields identity, protecting anonymity through encryption, techniques of onion routing and multiple network nodes. The metaphoric absence of light makes it shady, suspicious, and a place where the unobservable is an assumed threat. But in darkness, is there not also privacy, an experiential difference that comes from not being watched and, contrasting the former assumptions, safety?
Two years ago I built the first version of Watchtower (2017), an audio-visual installation flipping the binary of darkness and light to challenge the prevailing justifications for surveillance and how this relates to our participation in digital communication networks. Here, light is instead linked with conformity and social control, a sinister panoptic presence disguised with the allure of safety and protection. Bearing similarity to Foucault’s much-quoted writings on Bentham’s Panopticon model, the threat emerges from quests for total visibility as a method of coercion and narrowing behaviour.
The feeling of being watched online is enough to shape actions and limit user access to information that is part of democratic decision-making. As University of Oxford researcher Jonathan Penney showed in ‘Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use’, there was a 20% decline in Wikipedia page views to content that people thought would draw suspicion to them online following Snowden’s publicity in 2013. In 2014, Alex Marthews (Digital Fourth) and Catherine E. Tucker (MIT) found people were changing their Google search behaviour, again not searching for terms that they perceived would alert any unwanted attention from the authorities.
The physical lighthouse structure of Watchtower projects a beam of drone footage with a soundtrack that moves through distorted sounds to clean, unwavering tones limited in movement and conforming to aesthetic norms. Rhythmically, the soundscape gradually moves towards beat-based music, the clearer 4/4 emphasis correlating with a reduction in distortion and light triggered by the sounds of digital communication devices.
The unpredictability and historic undesirability of noise flattens out, the tumultuous and dynamic shots of the ocean give way to a monotonous line of uniformity, shining a spotlight on the implications of such power structures.
Before the revelations about Cambridge Analytica broke, Watchtower looked at how digital communication is intricately bound to online surveillance, shaping behaviour, asserting social control and discouraging dissent. For artists, the freedom to be creative, subversive and spontaneous holds special value, so Watchtower emerged from the belief that the arts can stand as a direct challenge against efforts to manufacture behaviour and have an important role to play in standing up for these virtues.
It was March 2018 that connections between surveillance and online activity were gaining traction in the mainstream, with an eruption of high-profile data scandals that have since shaped public perception of social media. The Guardian, Observer and Channel 4 News published simultaneous reports on the extent of the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal, headed up by whistle-blower Christopher Wylie. As well as massively increasing public awareness of how their social media use was being manipulated, the investigations revealed social networks were at the core of how this sought-after data was being produced. Interactions between friends, social bonds, affiliations, reactions to shared content and so on, enabled the creation of detailed psychographic profiles that advertisers or anyone with buying power could use to wield influence.
Surveillance in any form is designed to mould behaviour and this was no exception, but the key here was more data, more personal information, more visibility put users at greater risk of emotional manipulation.
The campaign #DeleteFacebook quickly gained momentum with Pew Research Centre reporting nearly half of 18–29 year olds had removed the Messenger app from their phones and 74% of users of all ages have either taken a break from the social media platform, changed their privacy settings or deleted their profile since the data compromise. In December, privacy concerns flared up again when Facebook exposed 6.8m people’s private photos; pictures that were only uploaded but never publicly posted. The same month, the New York Times revealed the company gave Netflix and Spotify permission to read, write and delete users’ private communications, and in January a bug meant that users’ laptop and phone microphones and cameras could be accessed via FaceTime calls that went unanswered.
Also in the last two years, the popularity of voice activation technologies (digital assistants like Alexa, Cortana and Google Home) has gone through the roof, and whereas a conversation in hushed tones may have once held some power in undecipherability, Amazon’s latest research grants Alexa the ability to comprehend whispering voices. Shifting attention towards GPS and behaviour indicated by movement, an investigation by Associated Press revealed that Google records your whereabouts even when your location history is disabled (in direct contradiction to Google’s assertion that “With location history off, the places you go are no longer stored”).
A new piece of literature currently doing the rounds is Shoshana Zuboff’s publication The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Released early 2019, she puts forth a convincing argument for behavioural manipulation, prediction and ‘a new collective order based on total certainty’ being at the heart of the issue. Aesthetically, unpredictability, distortion and noise are to be controlled then eradicated.
One Silicon Valley data scientist quoted in Zuboff’s book is quoted saying:
“The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behaviour at scale… We can test how actionable our cues are for them and how profitable certain behaviours are for us”.
And whereas previous behavioural modification techniques were reserved for those suspected of wrong-doing — Zuboff references psychologist BF Skinner’s influence on manufacturing conformity and undermining autonomous decision-making — the target is now entire populations, a blanket net of data gathering.
Surveillance enabled by the masses of data we give away for the convenience of participating on platforms and social networks chained to our day-to-day lives, grants tech companies the apparatus of control. It’s the ability to shape and predict behaviour from the observation and visibility of digital activity that holds the most power and profit. Yet unlike previous surveillance systems, the tools of observation are concealed. It is far from transparent how our data is used to control our actions.
On 7 March 2019, Watchtower will be presented at CCA Glasgow, extended into a 15-minute film and surround sound experience for Cryptic Nights. Using the movement of sound in the space, it looks at how perspective has shifted within surveillance methods, from an external spotlight on specific activities, to a gaze that we internalise and reproduce. We participate in surveillance via our digital interactions and communications activities. It rethinks what danger and vulnerability mean in this context, and whether perhaps the biggest threat lies within a lullaby of light where apparent safety and ‘a tyranny of convenience’ presides over darkness and privacy.
Kin (b.1989) is an artist from Newcastle Upon Tyne, maintaining a multi-pseudonymous practice under the collective Cultura Plasmic INC. Her installation Watchtower (2017) — first created in Stockton at The Auxiliary with support from Arts Council England, UK premiere at Scarborough’s Coastival festival, international premiere at European Convention Center Luxembourg — was further developed at Cove Park during the Cryptic Winter Residency 2018 and will be on view at CCA Glasgow on Thursday 7 March 2019. www.cell-less.com
Cryptic Nights: Watchtower and Silent Chaos
Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow
Thursday 7 March
8pm | £10/£7
Box office: 0141 352 4900