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September 4, 2016 | by  | in Features |
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The Art of Surveillance

Art has forever been a process of observing, interpreting, and expressing. The artist may follow a meticulous process, or be subconsciously compelled down the path. Having a strong ability to observe and interpret is what produces art that has lasting effects on societies and movements. As Robert Rauschenberg said, “the artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.” An artist’s role in society was not merely to produce something with expression but to also record the important events of a time. Paintings depicting the plague or great battles served as reminders and lessons. This process of observation and reflection is important in all industries and situations as humans learn by observing and imitating, or improving upon. As our civilisations grew, we undertook this surveillance of the world around us together. It provided security and the ability to be more comfortable. The studies of sociology and psychology furthered our understanding of people by intensely monitoring individuals and groups. And now all this surveillance is used in order to provide us greater and greater ‘convenience’. For instance, you might install an app that tracks your fitness: you provide the data of where you walk, what you eat, your weight etc., and then this app can help you decide what to eat in order to stay healthy. And these sorts of things are great, who wouldn’t want to become more healthy? But they often aren’t isolating the data just to you, this data is gathered and re-distributed, and just as it can prompt you to be more healthy, it can be used as a form of control.

The idea of ‘convenience’ vs. ‘control’ is an important spectrum from which to understand surveillance and it applies in much larger examples than apps. The most obvious situation of this is being a citizen of a country. We are provided all of the conveniences of being a citizen such as healthcare, education, identification etc., and we are under certain amounts of surveillance and control from the information that the government holds on us. Getting this balance right is important for governments, as ideally a government’s primary focus should be the wellbeing and security of its people. However some governments use surveillance for far more control than is arguably needed.

Within China there are strict rules in regards to what information its citizens can access or distribute, and the government has huge surveillance capabilities to monitor citizens in order to exercise control. China’s situation is why the work of artist Ai Weiwei is so relevant and engaging. Ai Weiwei, well known for his work on the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing, has been very politically active in China since a young age. Much of his upbringing was in a labour camp post Mao’s Anti-Rightist movement. His father, the poet Ai Qing, had been one of the many artists and intellectuals persecuted for being involved with groups opposing Kuomintang or Chinese Nationalist Party ideals. Ai Weiwei, being the son of an outspoken poet, and growing up after a time of aggressive suppression, was shaped into an artist critical of surveillance and aware of national issues.

After years of posting his thoughts, critiques, and musings on politics to his Sina Weibo blog he eventually struck a major nerve which got it shut down, and himself thrust into the government’s eye. It was after the 2008 Sichuan Earthquakes when he became motivated to investigate the affected areas. The reporting from governments had been very incomplete, and appeared to be hiding shady building standards in public buildings and schools in particular. He began what is known as the Citizens’ Investigation, which consisted of Ai Weiwei and around 100 volunteers who would visit the affected areas and record the names of students killed or missing. The result of this investigation was a list of 5192 students, with their names, ages, region, school, grade. This has been displayed in galleries around the world, plain black text in tables on white paper. The sheer magnitude of this list is overwhelming, with it covering many walls.

This citizen led investigation turned the situation of surveillance on its head for China, for such a long time it had been a one way street, with citizens accepting the surveillance they were under. Now that citizens were grouping together to investigate the official government’s word the control had shifted. And so the use of surveillance and police power by the government increased in response, the volunteers were targeted by police and 25 volunteers involved in field work were arrested or detained multiple times. Ai Weiwei is not not the sort of person to shy away from encounters with law enforcement; his prominent blog, Twitter account, and a camera symbols of resistance that challenge and antagonise government officials. His steadfast use of these tools have made for some heated encounters, with one resulting in hospital time for a concussion after a raid on his hotel in the middle of the night. This politically motivated art eventually came to a crisis point in 2011 when Ai suddenly disappeared. For 81 days his whereabouts were unknown. When he did reappear he was under government arrest, and had had all of his travel documents removed, effectively isolating him. He couldn’t and didn’t talk about it, which is a big deal considering how outspoken he had been in the past about government corruption. But this didn’t stop him expressing himself in a determined, peaceful way.

Outside his apartment complex there was a bicycle with a basket, right in view of his gate. And each day he would go outside and place a fresh bouquet of flowers in the basket and take a photo. This became a beautiful somber collection of around 600 photos of the arrangement. This silent persistent protest spoke all the words he could not, the language was one of love, beauty, and strength in the face of the enormous pressing force of surveillance and control.

Ai Weiwei is difficult for the Chinese government to contain as he would play by the rules, but push them as far as he could. They could they labelled him a troublemaker and disturber of the peace, but could never make him out to be evil. This language is an important tool in maintaining control and legitimizing surveillance. The war on terror, or describing protests as riots, are such examples. In order to legitimize the level of surveillance, we as a society need to feel under threat and in a compromised enough position that we would give up our civil liberties. Ai Weiwei continues to be a vocal supporter for accountability in governments and encourage engagement in politics by citizens. His latest plan for work labelled The Red Line came about after Ai received an invitation to the Yinchuan Museum Biennale, which contained a large red scribble depicting where he could place his art. He intended to replicate it in his grand playful style as a “rumination on the idea of censorship.” His invitation was later rescinded due to Ai’s “prestige overshadowing his work,” which is the predictable language Ai has come to expect from government officials, on his Twitter he posted that “art is used merely as a decoration for political agendas in certain societies.”


Fatima Al Qadiri has a voice that sharply challenges the language of control. Having come from Kuwait and being based in New York, her unique perspective on control is refreshing to the narrative that the West is a far more civilised and advanced society. “I attended my first large scale protest in the states in 1999, I have never seen more cops in my entire life. There were cops on horses, on bicycles, on bikes, in cars and helicopters. I had a very rude awakening; the illusion of American democracy was destroyed almost instantly.”

She discusses the government’s curbing of protest and the language that is used to assist this in the media. The opening lyrics of her latest album Brute are, “you are no longer peacefully assembled.” This statement is a great example of a threat using innocuous words. This language is maintained throughout government interactions with challenges to their power; Al Qadiri compares some of the language used in Kuwait such as “collateral damage” and “casualty” with the Black Lives Matter’s movement in America where “protesters” become “thugs” and they are “rioting.” This dehumanizes the person and makes it their responsibility to prove their innocence and the validity of their protest or even life. Al Qadiri also discusses the paradox of modern protest methods which involve using social media platforms to get ideas and information out there, “social media functions as both rallying cry and a means of surveillance.”

There is a sound general knowledge of what can be done with surveillance to control people, but there is a more insidious effect that isn’t immediately apparent. A paper was published earlier this year that studied what actions one does or does not take depending on whether they know they are under surveillance. Elizabeth Stoycheff describes the result as the “spiral of silence.” There were two groups, one of which had been told they were under surveillance, while the other were not told. Their online activity was then monitored and some fake posts were made regarding contentious political issues such as military deployment. The group that was told they were under surveillance were reliably less likely to express their opinions. One of the greatest things about the internet early on was the ability to express your views or thoughts to a very wide audience. This is how many successful protest campaigns thrived. But as people become more aware of their surveillance they will self-censor and repress opinions to fit in with the ‘majority view’. This is increasingly problematic for minority groups as this spiral of silence encourages only a mainstream view of the world, and if that doesn’t include a place for them then there are less people to be allies to their cause, and more complicity in their oppression.

Because of the invisible way that modern surveillance works we increasingly need people to be outspoken, to call out and challenge these ideas. We need for these issues to be out in the open and spoken about. Otherwise the control will continue and grow, and our ability to express will be subdued more and more. Fatima and Ai Weiwei are important figures demonstrating that we have the ability to react to the apparent status quo. Their work encourages discussion and reflection. Their work is a display of strength and peace and is a silent support for anyone out there who needs some strength to stand out and express themselves.


There are also many more surveillance inspired artists out there, challenging and informing. Here are a few to check out:

Surveillance by Vito Acconci (1969)

Every day for a month Vito Acconci would choose a stranger at random and follow them taking photos and making a written account.

Web 2.0 Suicide Machine by Walter Langelaar (2009)

Walter produced a service that would purge your online presence from all your social media hooks, over 50,000 people took part.

Cached Landscapes by Florian Freier (2015)

A grid of aerial photos from Germany is algorithmically chosen based on how much surveillance it is under, producing a grid of surveillance hotspots.

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