Addie Wagenknecht, Asymmetric Love Number 2, (2012)

Art, Activism, and CCTV

Notes from a talk at the Digital Media Conference in Boston 10/26/2013

Aram Bartholl’s 2010 project and a “dead drop” for MI6 agents in Moscow discovered in 2006

Dead Drops, a project by Aram Bartholl, involved five USB sticks embedded in public spaces around New York City for open exchange of files. It takes its name from tradecraft. Spies exchange documents and objects at a “dead drop,” like this rock discovered in Moscow several years ago, which MI6 agents used to upload information. Another recent project has a name referencing military deception: CV Dazzle by Adam Harvey. These makeup patterns and hairstyles were conceived as a way to hide from face recognition software. Some coloring or fringe to obscure your nose bridge will prevent a machine from recognizing your face. But to human eyes, this style makes you more visible. Dazzle camouflage, often painted on ships in World War I, works similarly. These patterns do not “camouflage” in the way we typically think of that term. But speed, movement, and direction are obscured so an enemy might misfire when it gets in position to take a shot.

Picasso claimed he and other cubists invented dazzle. It was actually the work of Norman Wilkinson, working in a naval camp unit at Royal Academy of Arts. Art has a long history of engaging with politics and technological change. Ellsworth Kelly was part of the Ghost Army that built inflatable jeeps, jets, and tanks to deceive German troops. Artists were recruited out of art school for this unit. They would mount speakers on decoys blasting recordings of real vehicles — to give the appearance of tens of thousands of men on the ground, when it fact it might be only a thousand of them.Whether or not the unit was successful is debatable, but the creation of the unit reveals how a government values artistic vision enough to annex it. In addition to Kelly, fashion designer Bill Blass was involved in the unit, among architects and theater set designers, and other creative people.

Inflatable tank created by the Ghost Army

During the Cold War, as the writer Frances Stonor Saunders discovered in her research, the CIA pumped funding into arts organizations with a less than obvious goal in mind. The work of Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko, among other Abstract Expressionist painters, was hated by a great majority of Americans. But no one could deny the freeing brushstrokes, the rich color, and “expression” was in seductive contrast to the rigid conformity and conventions of Soviet art. CIA covered their tracks, so these artists were unaware the exhibitions they took part in, the magazines that hyped their work, and museums which acquired it, were part of this “long leash.” Donald Jameson, a former case officer for International Organizations Division told Saunders, “Most of [the artists funded] were people who had very little respect for the government, in particular, and certainly none for the CIA. If you had to use people who considered themselves one way or another to be closer to Moscow than to Washington, well, so much the better perhaps.” The work served as an advertisement for the West. That overseas, absent central planning, you could speak freely, you could create without censoring barriers, and even make a living doing so.

As Saunders writes, “look where this art ended up: in the marble halls of banks, in airports, in city halls, boardrooms and great galleries.” Whatever the artist meant to express, the art is now very valuable. These paintings sell at auctions for millions. And that’s the other wrinkle when it comes to art-making. It may prove impossible, as a working artist, to unlace your vision from the ideologies of rich collectors and commissioning bodies that enable the creation of a piece. An art boom has a positive correlation with income disparity and the rise of high net worth individuals. In her essay for last year’s Whitney Biennial, “1% C’est Moi,” Andrea Fraser addresses how an economy “good for the art world has been disastrous for the rest of the world” with great honesty. Fraser, to her credit, has directly confronted this anxiety in her work. Her most famous piece is a provocation: in a videotaped performance, she had sex with a private collector who paid $20,000 for the performance and work (five copies of a DVD were made, three in private collections).

Creativity generates tactics. Art can be a weapon. It is valuable enough to society that forces of power have worked to subvert it. There is no question then that it is valuable for political dissent. Much is written about role of art and design in activist movements like ACT-UP and Occupy, but even very simple visuals and performances help make a point. Here is an image I took at recent conference about drones in NYC. People protesting outside brought along a model predator drone, which, when you think of how many people have no idea what a drone looks like, is effective. And I love how activists lately are dressing up like CCTV cameras or carrying mock cardboard versions. We’ve seen a lot of street art like satirical posters related to drones (here and here). Posters that say things like “ATTENTION: Drone Activity in Progress,” or “ATTENTION: Local Statutes Enforced by Drones,” or “ATTENTION: Authorized Drone Strike Zone, 8am-8pm, Including Sunday.” And Jilly Balistic recently posted images of predator drones in the subways.

Artists are uniquely capable of drawing attention to an issue, by creating a discourse within a community and breaking down ideas for closer examination. Now let’s look at some recent art pieces and performances relating to mass surveillance. Several of Jill Magid’s projects are relevant here, but her 2003 project “System Azure” is of particular interest. She reached out to Dutch police to bedazzle their CCTV cameras. At first they rejected her proposal, which she submitted as an artist. Later, she approached them as a contractor — a “security ornamentation professional” — and soon enough she was climbing up a ladder with a glue gun in hand to affix rhinestones to the cameras around the precinct. When the police cut funding for the project, she responded with a campaign of posters to “Bring Back the Glam Cams.” What is particularly clever about this project is that Magid drew attention to surveillance profiteering, a topic that is largely ignored by the press. Contractors, like Magid pretended to be, have a financial incentive to spy.

In 2007 Manu Luksch released the short film Faceless, which depicts a dystopia where people have black blobs instead of faces. Along with the film, she wrote a “Manifesto for CCTV Filmmakers,” which states things like there shall be no other cameras but the CCTV cameras in operation and references the UK Data Protection Act of 1998. In 2008, she mapped the CCTV cameras around Whitehall in London, both by observation and intercepting the signal of one of the cameras to determine its range. Maps were handed to people who entered the area covered by the camera.

The next artist to discuss might seem like an unusual choice to bring up — but prohibition of cameras for personal use is another form of control. I spent three weeks at the Manning court martial over the summer, and one of those weeks I was joined by the artist Molly Crabapple. We have become so used to recording our memories in video and photographs, the capacity to store an image as a memory seems to require an atrophied part of the brain. So it was startlingly for me to have this significant experience undocumented. I could record the parking lots and building exteriors, but not the courtroom itself where I sometimes sat for eight hours in a day. This was not a problem for Molly, with her paper and pens. She captured the details that might have been lost — the size of the room, the particular expression in Chelsea Manning’s face. She has twice gone to Guantanamo Bay to draw the prisoners, prisons, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s pre-trial hearings, and many things the outside world wouldn’t otherwise have the ability see. I particularly like this image of the guards with smily faces to anonymize —their faces are redacted information. Also notice the clearance stamp signed by a security officer in early sketches she sent to Vice before her story was published. Even drawings may be censored.

Addie Wagenknecht is another artist who is responding to surveillance in her work. A recent piece called brbxoxo searches webcam sites for performers who have left the room. She created a chandelier-like sculpture out of CCTV cameras. This year, in a performance called “Anonymity,” she and a thousand other participants walked past CCTV cameras with black bars to hide eyes. There is already some irony in how shielding our eyes is meant, in images, to preserve our privacy. Wagenknecht has said in interviews that the work is inspired by laws prohibiting masks in public spaces and how, on a large scale, like Pirate Bay and Tor, anonymity has power.