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State of Surveillance

No longer a topic of concern solely associated with authoritarian regimes, government surveillance has become a global phenomenon. A survey of 800 writers in 50 countries revealed that writers living in democratic countries are as concerned about government surveillance as those living in non-democracies. Across the Causeway in Malaysia, you may count Wei-Ling Gallery as another concerned party. In response to the pervasiveness of surveillance culture, the gallery’s timely group exhibition Seen, on show until 1 July, presents a body of work that includes photography, mixed-media installations and paintings by seven international artists and three local, Malaysian artists. 

Turkish artist Ahmet Ögüt with his work, This area is under 23 hour video and audio surveillance, 2009. Image courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery.

The humorous Turkish artist Ahmet Ögüt’s warning sign by the entrance of the gallery is a more literal interpretation than most. Declaring the gallery to be under round-the-clock surveillance, save for a glaringly missing hour, the sign recalled George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and the creepy integration of surveillance tools in daily life. Oddly enough, I was actually quite pleased to see the notice as someone who works in a gallery and tires of reminding visitors to be mindful of gallery etiquette. 

Inside the gallery, an installation view of Seen. Image courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery.

Inside the gallery, the first work to capture my attention was H.H. Lim’s Target, a piece composed of intricate imagery printed onto a mirror. Foregrounding the work is a silhouette of a person with a target centred on his heart, while the background imagery consists of historical figures, religious and scientific symbols, newspaper headlines and a jumble of texts in different languages. Evocative elements include Leonardo da Vinci’s proportionally perfect Vitruvian Man from five centuries ago, and the notoriously sensationalistic British tabloid The Sun’s logo. An amalgam of religious symbols including the Islamic star and crescent emblem, the star of David for Judaism and the Christian cross sit by the silhouette’s knee.

H.H Lim’s work featured dense imagery and the occasional distraction as other visitors came into view

Time and space are compressed across different cultures and historical periods in this complex backdrop, while the dense imagery and headlines allude to universal themes of terror, religious and political extremism that have become both causes and consequences of global surveillance culture. Peeking out from the bottom of the mirror, the partially obscured headline “the next 9/11” adds to this sense of foreboding. I thought H.H. Lim’s work was especially multi-layered as my eyes kept darting between the images and the reflective surface underneath. In the process, I found myself unintentionally observing and surveying the space behind me and the people captured in the reflection. Looking at someone observing this work, it was also not easy to tell if a person was trying to make sense of the imagery or discreetly observing other people in the room through the small gaps of exposed mirror.

In light of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal that saw Mark Zuckerberg’s company abet the Trump victory in the 2016 US Presidential Elections, and himself squirming in Congress, the topic of surveillance and data privacy couldn’t be more relevant. In today’s age, H.H Lim’s targeted silhouette is reminiscent of the everyday Facebook user who has been reduced to data to be mined and harvested by social media platforms and big companies for profit.

Hacktivist and cultural critic Paolo Cirio’s Obscurity is a series of mugshot images that were intentionally blurred by the artist and arranged in a pyramidal order. These images were derived from websites that “blackmail” the subjects of the mugshots by asking for payments in exchange for the removal of the photographs, bringing to light the unethical exploitation of mugshots. As part of the artwork, Cirio also invites audiences to decide if the individuals in the mugshots should have their criminal records remaining or removed from the mugshot websites. 

Paolo Cirio, Obscurity, 2016.

In doing so, the artist has imbued our voyeuristic gaze with responsibility, so much so that as we perceive the mugshot images as “artworks” (in a gallery no less!), we are also made aware of the repercussions of our judgements on these photos. What will happen when we advocate for the removal of others while the rest of the photos remain? How does our ostensibly innocuous act of looking affect the lives of others, and what stereotypes are we reinforcing as we play god?

Both Viktoria Binschtok’s Suspicious Minds and Ken Feinstein’s mixed media installation It’s not a vicious cycle, it’s a downward spiral similarly explore the ethics of looking.

It’s not a vicious cycle, it’s a downward spiral comprises of images from military drones and security camera footage from the November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. Both face each other in a dialogue, with each element only being able to be partially glimpsed at from the side as the images are embedded in the wall. The inaccessibility of the work further contributes to this detachment that I found so intriguing. Our horrific attraction towards spectacle, violence and devastation from afar while wrapped in a cocoon of safety suggests a problematic but mere human desire to seek what they fear – with the intervention of time and space of course. 

As the American writer and political activist Susan Sontag moralises in her seminal text Regarding the Pain of Others,

“It is felt that there is something morally wrong with the abstract of reality offered by photography; that one has no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power; that we pay too high a human (or moral) price for those hitherto admired qualities of vision.”  

Ken Feinstein, It’s not a vicious cycle, it’s a downward spiral, 2018. Image courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery.
Feinstein’s installation consists of screens that face each other such that either footage isn’t easily accessible (or photogenic). Image courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery.

Viktoria Binschtok’s Suspicious Minds shifts the focus from our traditional understanding of surveillance by spotlighting the “watchers” lurking in the periphery who have been unintentionally caught in the public eye, rather than the prominent “watched” individuals. In all three appropriated photographs, the composition is remarkably similar such that the motif of the hand recurs. In biblical terms, the right hand refers to the omnipresence of God, who casts his ever-watchful and intrusive eye on everyone. Blurring the distinction between the private and the public, Binschtok’s trio of images is a strong statement about the infiltration of private spheres as anonymous figures are transformed into objects for public consumption. 

From Left to Right: Body #12, Body #123, Body #125, 2009.

Our daily reality is probably best exemplified by James Bridle’s series of photographs. A selection from his series of 989 photographs, Every CCTV Camera (London) documents the CCTV cameras that dot the perimeter of London’s Congestion Charge Zone, a portion of central London which requires motorists to pay in order to drive into. While “surveilling” the surveillance, Bridle was stopped by a security guard for taking photos of CCTV cameras, leading to the involvement of police officers at the scene.

James Bridle, Every CCTV Camera (London), 2017. Image courtesy of Wei-Ling Gallery.

Delving into the post-privacy era, Bridle’s work unveils the constant and unforgiving presence of drones and CCTV cameras. An act of returning the surveillance gaze and flipping the dynamic, Every CCTV Camera (London) brings to mind Ai Weiwei’s Surveillance Camera, a marble replica of a CCTV camera, similar to the one placed by the authorities outside his studio, as a protest against the watchful surveillance of the Chinese government. While activist artists like Bridle and Ai have gained international, positive recognition for their protest without serious repercussions, the same cannot be said for other activists who are in exile for their dissidence. Ai himself has also gained his fame in part due to his persistent use of his art as a weapon to ridicule the authorities when declared as enemy of the state. It is thus worth questioning that if not for the activists, who then can we rely on to keep Big Brother in check? And how effective can art be as a conduit of change? 

Ai’s austere marble sculpture. At one point, the artist had 15 surveillance cameras within a 100-metre stretch of road outside his home. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

While overwhelming present in Bridle’s work, I personally think CCTV cameras are a mere formality. They do not frighten me as much as the front-facing cameras on our laptops and phones. We spend so much time on our devices, how do we know they are not looking back at us? How do we know we’ve not been seen?

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