The dA-Zed guide to Surveillance

Drones in the sky, whistleblowers in jail: how art is responding to Big Brother's watch

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In light of recent events such as Bradley Manning's thirty-five year prison sentence for alleged espionage, the UK’s secret Middle East internet surveillance base revealed in Edward Snowden's leaks, and the uncconscionable nine-hour detainment of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald's partner at Heathrow airport for carrying "sensitive" documents— the question is no longer, are we living in a Surveillance State but, what are we going to do about it? Here are twenty-six of our most creative countersurveillance responses.

A IS FOR ADAM HARVEY

At the forefront of anti-stealthware fashion, Harvey’s ‘Anti-Drone’ garments are designed with a metallized fabric that protects against thermal imaging surveillance, while his CV Dazzle offers camouflage from facial detection. For phone privacy lovers, Harvey’s OFF Pocket—an accessory blocking all mobile phone tracking—is a must.

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B IS FOR BETTS

Using CCTV stills, traffic cams, and photographs as his sources, William Betts’s unsettling, blurry paintings look like low-res, pixelated digital images of endless mechanical snooping. His work even includes details like a time and date stamp. With smartphones in every pocket and CCTVs on every street corner, Betts addresses this ubiquitous technological watch and our complacency to it.

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C IS FOR CLARK STOECKLEY 

Drawing in real time from inside the courtroom, cartoonist and WikiLeaks activist Clark Stoeckley captured first-hand The United States vs. Pfc. Bradley Manning, one of the most important and secretive trials in American history. While US prosecutors sought to lock Private Manning away for the rest of his life, he insisted that his release of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs was an act of conscience. Stoeckley’s vivid sketches provide both a vital record and a uniquely compelling read.

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D IS FOR DETAINEE

Known for sketching Bradley Manning while he was being read his trial sentence, Molly Crabapple was the third artist ever allowed into Guantanamo Bay to draw. The only journalist who has ever really seen the inner workings of “Gitmo” is Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Hajj, imprisoned for interrogation about his TV station from 2002-2008.

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E IS FOR EYEBORG

Filmmaker Robert Spence, a.k.a. the “Eyeborg,” has adapted a miniature camera into his prosthetic eye. Fully integrating cybernetic technology into his body, Spence has come full circle with the concept of Surveillance Art: ‘“Originally the whole idea was to do a documentary about surveillance. I thought I would become a sort of super hero…In Toronto there are 12,000 cameras. But the strange thing I discovered was that people were more concerned about me and my secret camera eye because they feel that is a worse invasion of their privacy.”

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F IS FOR FAROCKI

Harun Farocki’s documentary, I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts draws connections between the role of surveillance in everyday consumer culture and in prison life, highlighting the 1989 fatal shooting of an unarmed prisoner by a guard in a maximum-security penitentiary—caught on camera. In his trilogy Eye/Machine I-III, Farocki collects images from military and industrial surveillance devices to explore the increasingly complex relationship between human beings and machines.

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G IS FOR GPS

What would you do if you were accused of being a terrorist and interrogated by the FBI? University professor and “new media” artist Hasan Elahi’s answer was to turn his trauma into art. After being placed on a government watch list, a GPS device in his pocket reports his real-time physical location on a map and his website reveals over 20,000 images documenting nearly every waking hour of his life for the past three years. Elahi sees this work as a form of protest and activism against the surveillance state: “The best way to protect your privacy is to give it away.”

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H IS FOR ART HACK DAY

An internet-based non-profit, Art Hack Day bridges the gap between art, technology, and entrepreneurship with grassroots hackathons, demonstrating the expressive potential and power of radical collaboration in art. Fun former projects include “Vine Bombing,” which used a museum wall as a Green Screen to separate visitors to the exhibit and enabled them to “hang out”—through superimposition—on other people’s vines. 

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I IS FOR INFRARED

In his 2001 Mapping the Studio, Artist Bruce Nauman recorded his New Mexico atelier at night using an infrared video camera. Over several months, he positioned the camera to show different areas of the studio, documenting the objects in the room as they had been left that day. Nauman later used the footage to make a seven-screen video installation which puts the viewer into the position of a spy or voyeur invading his private working space.

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J IS FOR JULY

Performance artist, actor, and director Miranda July lets us spy on celebrity e-mails (think Kirsten Dunst and Lena Dunham) through her project, “We Think Alone.” Sharing emails ranging from the mundane to the profound, July insists, “"Our inner life is not actually the same thing as our life on the computer." Word.

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K IS FOR KILL

Providing a drone’s eye-view of the killing fields of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, artist James Bridle’s Dronestagrams reveal how, while “we use military technologies like GPS and Kinect for work and play...they continue to be used militarily to maim and kill, ever further away and ever less visibly.” Applying Instagram to comment on high-tech killing machines, Bridle’s filtered images capture the area of documented drone strikes, accompanied by a brief description of the damage incurred—and most notably, the number of casualties.

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L IS FOR LOOK

Shot entirely from surveillance footage, Adam Rifkin’s award-winning drama Look (2007) questions the effect constant surveillance has on our everyday lives. On any given day, the average American is captured approximately 200 times on camera, mostly without their knowledge. Rifkin describes the film as about "the things we people do when we don't think we're being watched."

M IS FOR MARGIELA

Maison Martin Margiela’s face masks explore the phenomenon of being “faceless” in a social media-dominated society of inescapable recognisability. A bit of a tease, Margiela’s masks simultaneously engage the viewer and provide the possibility of an unobserved life. Faces do not disappear, but are manipulated—or embellished—beyond recognition, with feathers or crystals. Or in Kanye West's case, diamonds.

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N IS FOR NOSY

Artist Christian Moeller’s 2006 project, Nosy, includes a street-level robotic camera which records and displays the interaction of the surrounding urban environment, including pedestrians, cars, and a nearby train in Osaki City, Japan. The real-time video is displayed in bitmap graphics and projected for all to see onto three towers covered with white LED glass panels.

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O IS FOR OMER FAST

“Its like playing a video game for four years.” Creating a sensation at the 2011 Venezia Biennale, in Fast’s video installation 5,000 Feet Is the Best, a former US drone operator in Afghanistan and Pakistan reveals why 5,000 feet is the optimum flying height for a combat drone to execute someone. At that altitude, he can still make out a person's shoes and facial hair, and watch a cigarette flare like a beacon. 

P IS FOR PROFILING

London designer and engineer Benjamin Males’s Target Project aims to raise questions about our experience and relationship with surveillance technologies and CCTV. The Racial Targeting System is a fully portable real-time image-processing platform that has the ability to automatically find and follow faces, then analyze and store their race data. Its Males’s personal reaction to research on the Police’s use of stop and search powers since 2000 and the use of face recognition software. Open source image processing code is used to find faces in the video-stream from the camera and then analyze the ‘hue’ of the skin.

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Q IS FOR QUINTILLION

A quintillion is a US numeric measuring unit used to express the mind-boggling data storage requirements of the NSA's global harvesting of metadata. Where does all the data actually go? Debunking the “ethereal” myth of Ethernet cables, Simon Norfolk’s Data Centres photographic series reveals the ugly, endless rows of the web's biggest players's computer servers sitting in huge, chilled rooms the size of football fields.

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R IS FOR RAP

Surveillance rap is alive and kickin.’ In his “Sirens,” Dizzee Rascal raps: "Took me to the station/ Annotate 8:30/For a fight that I had recently/Say they got me on CCTV/And a pussyole boy's told on me." Less gangsta but no less condemning, Juice Rap News with Robert Foster provides enlightening, rhyme-filled social critique with “Big Brother is WWWatching You-featuring George Orwell” and “I HAVE A DRONE-Barack Obama vs Mitt Romney.”

S IS FOR SCP

Staging plays in very public places like subway stations, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and Union Square, Surveillance Camera Players’s primary purpose is to create a public spectacle in order to get people to question the role surveillance plays in their lives. Performed in silence, the actual recordings of these performances remain inaccessible.  The SCP has spawned sister groups all over the world, proving that the issue of surveillance is one which transcends nationalities and cultures.

T IS FOR TREVOR PAGLEN

Paglen trains his camera on off-limits military installations such as Area 51, Predator and Reaper drones, a secret prison prison in Afghanistan, and of buildings connected with the top-secret “black world.” Many of his photos, taken with telephoto lenses, are distorted or unclear; Paglen welcomes distortion, as his aim is not to so much to expose and edify as to confound and unsettle.

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U IS FOR UX

Deemed by some to be dangerous outlaws, thieves, even terrorists, Parisian artist collective UX (for “Urban eXperiment”) paradoxically pushes the boundaries of the new by carrying out shocking acts of cultural preservation and repair. Like computer hackers who crack digital networks, members of UX carry out clandestine missions throughout Paris’ supposedly secure underground tunnels and rooms. Their greatest feat to date involves breaking into the Pantheon, where they built their own secret workshop in a storeroom—which they wired for electricity and Internet access—and painstakingly managed to restore a 19th-century clock, which had not chimed since the 1960s. 

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V IS FOR VIEW

In a first-ever artistic intervention, Robin Hewett and Ben Kinsley’s Street With A View in 2008 invited both the Google Inc. Street View team and residents of Pittsburgh’s Northside to collaborate on a series of staged scenes along Sampsonia Way, ranging from a parade and marathon, to a seventeenth century sword fight. Street View technicians captured 360-degree photographs of the streets in action and successfully integrated the images into the Street View mapping platform. 

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W IS FOR WIKILEAKS

Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks details the creation of Julian Assange's controversial website, which facilitated the largest security breach in U.S. history. The founding of Wikileaks in 2006 is followed by coverage of Bradley Manning's communications with Adrian Lamo, uploads to Wikileaks of the Iraq and Afghanistan war documents, exposure to the FBI by Lamo, and the accusations of sexual assault made against Assange.

X IS FOR STATION X

Also known as “Station X,” the historical sights and sounds of a pre-renovated Bletchley Park—or Churchhill’s Secret Intelligence and Computers Headquarters—were documented by installation artist Maya Ramsay, sound artist Caroline Devine, photographer Rachael Marshall and film-maker Luke Williams. The result is a multi-sensory interpretation of buildings whose remnants still tell the story of the Government Code and Cypher School that broke the German Enigma codes.

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Y IS FOR YOKOMIZO 

Careful attention and almost care for the subject of surveillance distinguishes Shizuka Yokomizo’s Stranger no 1 (1998) and Stranger no 2 (1999) from other voyeur-inspired photography. To create the series, the artist wrote to her subjects anonymously, proposing that each individual turn on his or her lights, open the blinds, and present him or herself to be photographed at a stated date and time. Yokomizo’s use of participatory surveillance recalls our unprecedented tolerance and active solicitation of the eyes of others: our fear of being seen replaced by the greater fear of becoming invisible.

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Z IS FOR JAY-Z

Considered a protest against the NSA surveillance scandal involving Edward Snowden, an Android app for Jay-Z's new Magna Carta Holy Grail album was cloned by hackers and used to send anti-government messages. A fake app was similarly programmed to change on July 4th to a picture of U.S. President Barack Obama wearing headphones, accompanied by slogans like, “Yes we scan,” “We are watching you,” and “Obey us.” Gulp.

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