Cybernetics and the post-surveillance age

As data mining and cyber tracking become second nature, artist Suzanne Treister hits back with her own breed of surveillance art

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NSASEXBOMB
“NSA SEX BOMB” from POST-SURVEILLANCE ARTCourtesy of the artist and Annely Juda Fine Art London and P.P.O.W., New York

“Up until the [Edward] Snowden revelations, I was generally considered a conspiracy theorist, which was irritating,” explains Suzanne Treister, an artist whose work is heavily rooted in cybernetics, surveillance and an age where our governments are constantly setting up more ways to mine our data and trace our digital footprint. “One day I woke up and felt like, ‘Well, now we’re in a post-surveillance society, business as usual, but hardly anyone seems to really be bothered that much about it,” and so, Treister coined the term ‘Post-Surveillance Art’, using her work to create an awareness of the exponential issues that we happily trade in for the urge to constantly ‘upload our lives’ onto the www.

Whether it’s a step into paranoid territory or a foretelling of an imminent and not-so-distant future, Treister’s work is hard to ignore with its bold, bright colours, computerised graphics and loaded wording. Tonight Treister will speak specifically about her projects HEXEN 2.0 and Post-Surveillance Art at 21st Century, an ongoing programme of events taking place at the Chisenhale Gallery in London. Ahead of the evening, we go deep into the web of cybernetics and talk living in a post-surveillance world.

Was there a particular moment which set off your interest in surveillance and cybernetics?

Suzanne Treister: With HEXEN 2.0 I wanted to make a project that described a big picture for people, to make diagrams of particular interconnected histories; the history of the internet and computers, histories of the counterculture and of anti-technology movements and their various current manifestations as post-leftism, transhumanism, technogaianism and anarcho-primitivism, into a kind of visual discussion as to possible futures in terms of technology and society. The project began in 2009 when I got interested in the ideas of cybernetics, ideas that came to a head at the Macy Conferences that took place in New York between 1946-53. The conferences were an attempt by a varied group of key scientists, also from fields like anthropology, to develop a unified theory of the human mind, in order to control it, the idea being to prevent another WW2.

Cybernetics as a theory of feedback and control seemed to them to provide the solution, and it seemed to me that it also was an important link in a chain that has led us up to the current threat of a control society, and that one could in fact increasingly view the internet/www as one giant cybernetic feedback loop of communication and control. It was clear to me when I first heard about Facebook for example, that all this data would be a free gift to the NSA (U.S. National Security Agency) allowing intelligence agencies to cross reference the personal information of millions of citizens.

“It was clear to me when I first heard about Facebook for example, that all this data would be a free gift to the NSA allowing intelligence agencies to cross reference the personal information of millions of citizens” – Suzanne Treister

Could you describe your style a bit more, I know you're particularly interested in virtual imagery and 80s video game imagery. What programs/materials do you use to make your work?

Suzanne Treister: In the late 80s and early 90s I used to make work about video games, first as paintings, then on an Amiga computer. But by 2000 I was disillusioned with the internet which had become governmentalised and corporatised, and returned to traditional media like drawing to make work about technology (and other things too). But with the recent Post-Surveillance Art works I decided to make them on the computer again, in Photoshop, as a kind of double-edged return to the machine world.

What do mean by Post-Surveillance art? Could you explain a little for the readers?

Suzanne Treister: To elaborate, for the texts on the Post-Surveillance Art posters I made up phrases like; ONE WORLD DATA IN FUCKING LOVE; NSA ON DRUGS; TELEPATHIC NETWORK PARTY (TNP); THE POETICS OF SURVEILLANCE; PRIVACY SUCKS, alongside others to somehow describe a state where we are constantly uploading our lives and complicit with government/corporate data collection. Sharing everything including our sex lives and our dreams, where algorithms are flowing through our bodies and our appliances up to satellites in outer space and back, collecting data to be used wherever, whenever and by whoever... to perhaps describe a sublime poetics of control.

Clearly many people are subsumed into retro mania, others are leaving their laptops for the allotment, whilst many still queue up overnight for the latest gizmo launched by Apple. The technogaianists would have us believe that technology will save the planet, but in any case the sun will kill it in 2.8 billion years. And if you look at it another way, the sun is a technology of its own. And science may soon prove that we are all really holograms beamed from another planet.

Suzanne Treister will be speaking about her work tonight at the Chisenhale Gallery, for more information click here.

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