Surveillance State of the Arts


The US government surveillance revelations of the past weeks have moved many Clyde Fitch Report writers to action. Since we’re “the nexus of arts and politics,” several among us have approached the political topic through the lens of artworks in various disciplines, including classic literature, graphic novels and super hero movies. I am adding visual art to that list. This is an utterly incomplete survey of just a handful of ways artists have examined, challenged, subverted or participated in issues of surveillance.

Illinois State Pen Panopticon
A Panopticon: The Illinois State Penitentiary / via

Artists, art historians, curators and others in the art world have long engaged with the 18th-century concept of the Panopticon. Originally, the Panopticon was a theoretical model for a prison designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, but the emphasis on visuality in the idea has made it attractive and relevant to the visual arts. The basic plan, broadly characterized, is a circular structure with all the cells facing toward the center. At the center, the guard post allows the guards to see out, but not to be seen from the cells. The prisoners know the guards can see into the cells at any time, but never know when they’re actually being watched; thus, each prisoner internalizes the sense that he is always being watched. As an abstract concept, the Panopticon is brutally effective at maintaining social control through surveillance.

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What PRISM and the other related surveillance programs show us, of course, is that the threat and exercise of power in the Panopticon does not require physical architecture (Michel Foucault famously writes about this). If there’s always someone watching — or if it’s logical to assume that someone always could be watching — then the surveilled change their behavior, and even their thinking, under the weight of the implicit-until-it-potentially-becomes-explicit government control. How many people have quit googling porn and stopped calling their drug dealers all on their own since we found out about PRISM?

Some more politically-minded artists make work directly about this kind of governmental power. But the reason the Panopticon remains so compelling to artists is that they can apply its lessons to other kinds of looking and other modes of power. Artists concerned with methods of social control or with the power dynamics of seeing vs. being seen or with the relationship between what is private and what is public all benefit from understanding Bentham’s ideas. These artists’ facility with these concepts makes the various ways they have thought about surveillance useful for the rest of us to understand some of what’s at stake.

Drone Sign
Spotted in the gallery district of Chelsea
Photo by the author

In early 2012, an anonymous artist, who is also an Iraq War veteran with experience working with the army’s drones, installed some very real-looking fake parking signs around New York City advising motorists: “Attention / Local Statutes Enforced by Drone” or “Attention / Authorized Drone Strike Zone / 8AM – 8PM / Including Sunday.” The signs highlight a more material — and potentially lethal — mode of surveillance than the NSA’s digital communications dragnet. Their arch irony makes an effective point about being watched and controlled by the threat of remote cameras — or worse — in the sky, invisible from the ground.

Artist and University of Maryland art professor Hasan Elahi has produced an impressive and ongoing work of surveillance art visible at After being detained and questioned repeatedly by the FBI in 2002 on suspicion of something that had nothing to do with him, he began to document his actions and whereabouts — exhaustively — on a publicly available Web site. Now, curious federal agents can track him easily in real time via GPS-tagged photos of airports, waiting rooms, hotel rooms, bathrooms, meals, receipts and on and on, so they can stay on top of his banal, if well-traveled, life (as of this writing, he’s waiting at a gate at the Seattle airport). You can watch Elahi charmingly discuss the project in his 2011 TED talk here. Or you can read the version of the story he wrote for The New York Times here.

Shifting away from these directly political examples, there are artists who take up the idea of surveillance more obliquely, but still speak to the brave new world of Total Information Awareness 2.0.

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Andrea Fraser Untitled
Andrea Fraser, Untitled

Andrea Fraser’s 2003 video Untitled shows the artist having sex with an anonymous art collector in a room at New York’s Royalton Hotel. If the video’s central themes concern art collecting and its artistic, bodily and financial transactions, the way it is shot, from a single, static camera mounted at a high angle — never acknowledged in the stills I’ve seen — also evokes the intrusiveness as well as the aesthetic of surveillance cameras. Of course, the event was staged for Fraser’s camera; the whole encounter was reportedly negotiated in detail beforehand. Still, the aesthetics create an insistent sense of illicit invasion of privacy. Moreover, they raise questions about Fraser’s and her partner’s power dynamics in relation to the camera and to subsequent viewers of the video, who, I can only imagine, must feel like they’re watching a secret surveillance tape. The explicit sexuality of the video further heightens the sense of privacy manqué under the gaze of the discrete, but unblinking, camera.

Celebrity-stalking paparazzi create another form of surveillance, and British photographer Alison Jackson subverts this paparazzi culture. She takes what look like candid, long-range spy photos of often-very-convincing celebrity look-alikes (Elton John, Mick Jagger, Madonna, etc.). She also stages similar photos of political figure look-alikes, including the British royal family, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, etc. Jackson has a TED talk, too, and it’s great.

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Jackson uses several strategies to make her images look like genuine spy photos: they are often grainy or out of focus, framing devices like windows or doorways create distance and separation from the subjects, and the subjects are always (self) absorbed in their activities, never acknowledging that a picture is being taken. Since all her photos are staged with actors pretending to be the famous people they resemble, Jackson’s conceit results in scenes of shocking intimacy (“Elton John” getting a colonic, “Queen Elizabeth” on the toilet, “Jack Nicholson” carousing with multiple naked young women) and pointed humor (“W.” with a Rubik’s Cube, “Wills” and “Kate” with silly Christmas sweaters…and underwear). Like Fraser, Jackson uses nudity and sexuality (and, ahem, colonics) to make the images read as more intimate and more authentic, to bolster the feeling that we’re not supposed to be seeing these private worlds. Her photos are so sly and her look-alikes so spot-on that she regularly must attach clear statements that the images are fake. The cover of her 2007 book Alison Jackson: Confidential has the phrase “What you see in this book is not ‘real'” running across the top, just above not-Madonna’s head.

Jackson - Bin Laden & Saddam combinedIn some of her images, Jackson demonstrates that she understands how consequential this kind of surveillance can be, even as she undermines it. She has two photos showing “Osama Bin Laden” and “Saddam Hussein” together. Remember, this is a meeting that never happened, but represents a wholly fictitious connection that was used as fraudulent evidence to invade Iraq. In one image, the pair is at work over a large photo of the UK Houses of Parliament, implicitly — chillingly — planning their next attack. In the other, the men are at play, raising their cocktails over a backgammon board and attended by beautiful women. Taken from the same high angle — roughly the same angle as Fraser’s video — Jackson uses her strategies for creating surveillance shots with verisimilitude. The right side of the work photo looks damaged (or maybe just over-exposed) and the play photo is significantly blurry. Each looks like it was snapped by a spy peeking out of a vent or some other secret perch high up and unnoticed.

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Jackson’s body of work suggests one additional, profound problem with spying and the various possible uses for the collected information and images: very convincing surveillance data can be faked. Out of the context of Jackson’s work and without any persistent connection to her authorship, an image as fraught as, especially, the Saddam and Bin Laden at work photo seems like just about exactly what the NSA must have been desperate to find for over a decade. Alas, not that this kind of photographic “proof” was even necessary to launch the invasion of Iraq.

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As the news about the government’s mass surveillance and endless data collection continues to develop, it can seem remote and abstract; polls showing what I see as insufficient anger and a surfeit of acquiescence bear this out. None of these artists makes work directly related to the new things we know about being spied on, but the questions on which they do focus and the diversity of approaches they take to addressing issues of surveillance and power remain vital. The ways they and other artists investigate and present these themes can help make unethical and illegal surveillance register more broadly as the acute problem that it is.

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