Artist Interview: Rose Butler, Creator of ‘Come and Go’

In January, Surveillance & Society awarded its first biennial Surveillance Studies Network Arts Fund Prize, which recognizes and publicly supports artwork centered on critical readings of surveillance. Because we had an exceptionally strong body of submissions, we chose to recognize three honorable mentions in addition to our winner. All of our artists will have an opportunity to showcase their work at the SSN Conference from June 7 to 9, 2018 in Aarhus, Denmark.

In advance of the conference, we spoke to each of the artists we recognized about their work, the place of surveillance in their artistic practice, and their engagement with the wider field of surveillance studies. Today, we’re happy to present the first of these, a short conversation with Rose Butler, a England-based artist, about her video submission “Come and Go,” which received an honorable mention. This interview was conducted by Will Partin, an editorial assistant at Surveillance & Society.

Still from Rose Butler’s “Come and Go”

S&S: Thanks for speaking with us. Could you start by describing some of the inspirations for “Come and Go”?

RB: A lot of my work is informed by my interest in the gap between film stills as a kind of space/non-space, or a site of transition or of limbo. I initially was thinking about the transition between analog and digital, and what that means to us in terms of our sense of space and place — that feeling of ephemerality of something that’s invisible and not quite tangible.

When I was making this work, I had a residency in Berlin. Like many tourists, I went to see the “death strip” — the former patrolled zone in the border between East and West — as a decommissioned space. I was thinking of it as a gap, or a site of stasis. So I was making work about this site at the same time that I was developing this piece, which was more about film and the transition between analog and digital film.

“Come and Go” references an early film shot in the 1890s by Edison called the Serpentine Dance (or butterfly dance). It was a subject that was filmed a lot at the time, a slightly risque, avant garde dance that had a lot of kinetic movement. There was no sound and the camera was static, so the movement of the dancer and elaborate dresses was very important and lent itself to movement around the frame of the camera. It was then hand tinted and the films and performances played an important part in early spectacle.

I was thinking about what a contemporary version of this would look like. Originally, it was a proposal for the Museum of Photography in Bradford; UK. I started thinking about slow motion, and how we’re actually putting in hundreds of more frames to make these incredibly detailed films. And then I started thinking about the contemporary point of view, drawing from Hito Steyerl’s writing, where she describes the contemporary point of view of the camera as one from above. If you think of gaming technologies, Google Earth, drone imagery or satellite photos — the contemporary point of view isn’t grounded anymore. And this fed back into an interest in militarized zones as a site of stasis, and the use of drone technologies that get deployed both inside and outside of combat zones. Without going into too much detail about my research, I decided that I’d film this dance in slow motion from a static point of view, from above at 500 frames per second. So, each dance phrase could only be 20 seconds because that made six minutes worth of slow motion HD footage. I worked with choreographer Alexander Whitley and dancer Natalie Allen on a series of different dance phrases.

That was my starting point. Then I worked with a programmer — Matt Jarvis — who helped me make the interactive elements. There’s a gaming camera on the floor, which detects the viewer — so there’s this notion of surveillance in this “active” zone. As you walk into the active zone the footage ramps into real time. So it changes from this beautifully seductive, mesmeric slow motion dance with a piece of silk, something quite abstract, into quite a vigorous dance phrase. As you walk towards the wall with the screen where Come and Go is projected, the footage gets gradually slower, then stops, as you advance further it plays backwards. The left-side screen is danced backwards, while the right side is danced forwards. Each screen reverses playback alternately. So It’s a continuous loop, it never progresses, is released from that space or reaches an end point.

S&S: I’m interested in how the work decenters human subjectivity, both in terms of its temporal manipulations, as well as this “non-human” way of seeing.

RB: Point of view is really important in the work. At the moment, I am researching hidden cameras at the Stasi Archive; Berlin, from buttonhole cameras to briefcase cameras, that reveal something about the person behind the camera, rather than its subject. So this power shift — the work is trying to reverse that shift from the person on the ground, back up to the person behind the camera. A lot of my research is looking for that balance, or fixed point, or tipping point where it flips perhaps between privacy and security.

For eight months last year, I watched the Investigatory Powers Act, a UK digital surveillance bill, pass through the Houses of Parliament. I watched it being debated through parliament as it became law. It’s still a very contentious bill because it standardizes the digital surveillance capabilities for state agencies and does not offer adequate safeguarding protections. Liberty have recently challenged it in the High Court and we are waiting for the judgement. So I think it’s about this tension between what’s acceptable, what’s really about security, and what’s actually just about power.

A lot of the debate was about getting technology up to date and having legislation that protects us to cope with these new, threatening technologies. But as the Stasi archive reveals and articulate very well, this has nothing to do with technology — it’s about the ability to carry out digital surveillance and the authorization of its use. The technology that the Stasi were using now seems dated, but it was up to date in its time and the information it could collect was incredibly detailed, intensive and invasive. Digital data is much more sophisticated, but this debate is about the authorization of its use, and the legislation that isn’t in place to protect us.

There’s an interesting thing about this loss of coordinates, this loss of a human centered point-of-view, one of the things that grounds us. I was thinking about that in terms of incarceration, or prisoners who have been broken down so much that they lose their temporal coordinates, their sense of night and day, and their identity — their personal coordinates. There’s something about that, these spaces that you might see as a kind of black hole where we’re not able to make any informed choices. So it is a loss of agency in that sense.

S&S: What’s the immediate political context for this work?

RB: I was making “Come and Go” at the height of the refugee crisis. I spent a short amount of time going over to Calais to film the new UK-funded, border wall there to reinforce the port, which is called the anti-migrant wall but is really an anti-refugee wall. I was thinking about flows of migration and I was also reading James Bridle’s text about how technologies developed by the military are put to other uses. So technologies developed for use on the Mexican border to identify drug runners were then also used to identify ‘suspicious travellers’, namely refugees at Bucharest airport. The politics embedded within the technology itself, isn’t necessarily going to work in the same way for one population that is considered a threat to another that is fleeing humanitarian crisis and it raises questions about what is considered a ‘threat’ . So, certainly, migration flows were a concern for me at a time. And, obviously, Brexit. I was in parliament on the day of the first sitting after the European Referendum vote, there was this absolute sense of shock in the Houses of Parliament. No one expected it to happen. And then I watched the fallout in the context of the Investigatory Powers Act, Brexit provided a political mandate for tightening borders whilst the Investigatory Powers Act created legislation to enable and support it. The IPA defined Theresa May as Home Secretary, a few weeks after Brexit she became our Prime Minister.

S&S: What’s the relationship of dance to surveillance?

RB: No one’s ever asked me that! I think the reference, the Serpentine Dance, is recognizable as very early dance for analog film. As I worked out a contemporary version that would be filmed from above, I discussed this with the choreographer in terms of drone technology, spaces of limbo, entanglement, entrapment or mechanical flight. When I was doing test shots for different cameras, I was also trying out different weights of material, of silk, and then we had this sari I had lying around, which was much heavier. But the connotations were too confined, it just closed the work in a way I didn’t want it to. But the actual costume of the Serpentine Dance is incredibly complex, and I thought, well, I don’t need to replicate that. So the length of the white silk is the same length as a sari. But there’s also this play in the dance with you as the viewer. You take part in the movement of the dance, when you try to detect it (or not), there’s a move and counter-move. So there’s a flip from you watching the dance to suddenly being this active agent where you’re performing in the space of the installation. It’s performative. Other people are in the room. Sometimes they want to take part, sometimes they don’t.

What role does Interactivity play in “Come and Go”?

Like other artists, for my doctoral research, I was reading Gregoire Chamayou’s Theory of the Drone, and I was looking at the work of an artist collective called Not a Bug Splat. So, like that work, I was interested in the reversal of the shot, this switch from subject to object. They’re reversing that gaze back up at the drone operator. So I was considering interactivity in that sense. I was thinking about being detected, about surveillance drones — and I was thinking about loops. Those were an important part of it. I was thinking about the filmic loop, and this again draws on Hito Steryl’s writing in her new book Duty Free Art. I was thinking of the filmic gap as this space of stasis, civil war, immutable — something that cancels itself out. So the loop for me, especially in the case of the surveillance drone, becomes this site of constant combat, but also this … well, people on the ground can’t see it. They can’t see the combat on the ground. So there’s no way to engage in combat, so there’s no way to reach resolution. So it’s this constant combat.

I was also thinking about surveillance drones detecting pattern recognition, so what might trigger some kind of alert, that somebody’s day to day routine has changed out of their ordinary one. But if we think about surveillance, if we’ve ever filmed ourselves, or we know that someone is watching us, that changes behavior. And that creates a kind of subjective loop. Once you know you’re being watched, that you’re under surveillance, it changes our behavior.

This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

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If you wish to read more about the Surveillance Studies Network Arts Prize, you may do so here.

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