Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Voyeuristic Tendencies

Cognitive dissonance is an interesting mental phenomenon. It is the ability for the human brain to hold and resolve two seemingly-conflicting opinions simultaneously. Intriguingly, one must approach the field of surveillance art in much the same way. Mass-surveillance is a controversial strategy of law enforcement, with proponents noting its ability to solve crimes, and detractors concerned by the rescinding of personal privacy liberties. Artists working in the field of surveillance art must resolve these two conflicting arguments in their works, which often critique the mass use of CCTV cameras by using surveillance itself. The privacy issues that surveillance artists raise are real, and are worthy of the public’s attention. In order for otherwise-disinterested people to become attentive of these concerns, artists often must violate their own hesitations towards the technique using the recontextualizing of the surveillance image to their advantage, without patronizing viewers who may not be familiar with the approach.

The act of surveillance began with the literal eyes of the law, but it was with the invention of the camera that radically transformed it. The camera itself, in both still photos and moving pictures, changed the role not only of surveillance, but of the image, as Van Alphen explains:

For it is primarily since the invention of photography and film that the image has developed a specific, epistemological function. Until that moment, paintings and drawings had more typically functioned as instructive models, as idealizing models, or as objects of wonder. Photographic and filmic images, in contrast, quickly came to function as epistemological tools to get to know reality. (49)

The ability to capture reality in the moment was a feature sought after by law enforcement, due to the perception of its infallibility (hence the saying of a photo being worth a thousand words). Photographic and video evidence is among the highest-regarded evidence in a Western court of law, due to its reliability and perceived lack of falsifiability.1 With the technological advances of smaller, lighter, cheaper, and higher-quality cameras, surveillance has become ubiquitous to the point of being referred to as “mass surveillance”. The United Kingdom is widely-regarded to be the most surveilled developed nation, with between 2 million (Gerrard 12) and 4.2 million (Wood 19) CCTV cameras in use. British lawmakers described the general intent of the program:

National security, public safety, the prevention and detection of crime, and the control of borders are among the most powerful forces behind the use of a wide range of surveillance techniques and the collection and analysis of large quantities of personal data. (House of Lords 16)

In addition to general public safety, these are the common reasons given to the use of mass surveillance. These oft-cited reasons are absolutely sound. Surveillance cameras have been used to solve cases that would have otherwise gone cold (Lee, “Caught”), even if they do not necessarily deter crime in the first place (Lee, “Study”). But despite their financial blessing of the system for the stated reasons, the same lawmakers are not unaware of the privacy implications and concerns of it:

… the shift towards mass surveillance technology has the potential to affect large sections of the public, and to render privacy, and the personal autonomy that flows from it, vulnerable. (House of Lords 26)

The House report recommends that potential privacy implications are assessed prior to any new surveillance systems are installed. However, this warning has not had a noticeable impact on the state of surveillance in the UK. A recent story from the BBC indicates that over 100,000 high definition cameras will be installed in the country by the end of 2012.

Though the United States has not adapted the CCTV camera as aggressively as the United Kingdom, privacy concerns have been raised by the American Civil Liberties Union, citing a lack of correlation between violent crime statistics and camera presence (Kravets). However, this hasn’t stopped American law enforcement agencies from using both hardware and software in their own attempt at mass surveillance:

For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe’s Toyota Tercel almost weekly. They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend’s house and near a coffee shop he likes. In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway. […]

Mr. Katz-Lacabe isn’t charged with, or suspected of, any crime. Local police are tracking his vehicle automatically, using cameras mounted on a patrol car that record every nearby vehicle — license plate, time and location. (Angwin, Valentino-DeVries)

Automatic face and character detection has been made possible in the past several years due to higher-resolution cameras coupled with more sophisticated algorithms.

It’s important to clarify that there is no evidence of any sort of conspiracy or Orwellian leanings by governments. Such a claim is ridiculous and unfounded. As noted above, these technologies have a demonstrably positive effect when solving crimes. They are a largely-impartial, high-quality witness. But, again, they do not have a deterring effect (or, at least, there is no correlation between camera presence and crimes committed). And, due to their nature of constantly recording an image, the presence of surveillance cameras draws serious concerns over the privacy of a space.

What is mentioned above all should fall under the definition of “surveillance”. Intriguingly, however, the definition of the word isn’t what one might expect, given its current context:

surveillance (səˈveɪl(ə)ns). n. close observation, especially of a suspected spy or criminal.

The act of surveillance has acquired new meaning since this definition was published in the Oxford English Dictionary. What was once a word used exclusively for law enforcement in a targeted, deliberate manner has now become a catch-all term for the act of observing and recording people in public or semi-private spaces. Technological advances in small closed-circuit cameras have allowed an average person access to recording equipment that was once reserved for professionals.

Surveillance art is a relatively recent genre of art, largely brought on by the ever-encroaching presence of cameras as they became more compact, capable of recording film, and use colour films. The possibilities of these unique characteristics were seen by artists, and since the latter group became more invested in self-reflexivity with the rise of modernity, it comes as no surprise that they would be interested in exploring qualities of surveillance in creative ways.

In 1996, Amy Alexander created the Multi-Cultural Recycler, a piece of net art that can also be viewed as surveillance art. Using two (sometimes three) randomly-selected webcams, the Recycler combines and alters them with a short Perl script so as to distort near-real-time reality. Alexander’s exploitation of the instant, worldwide broadcast quality of webcams highlights the lack of privacy experienced by those on the viewed side of the camera, as she explains:

The user establishes him/herself as part of web culture, but also subjects him/herself to constant surveilance. Thus, issues of voyeurism and spectatorship, previously reserved for media such as cinema and television which involve substantial gatekeeping, now are applicable to those members of the general public who voluntarily become the objects of the websurfer’s gaze.

While the frequent mentioning of privacy concerns surrounding the constant gaze of a camera is beginning to become repetitive, the difference in this case is that those issues are presented as an integral part of an artwork. These concerns are the driving force behind surveillance art as a genre; they are, indeed, what artists practicing in the genre intend to highlight with their work. Yet, in a cruel twist of cognitive dissonance, these artists must exploit the privacy issues they are vehemently against. It isn’t contradictory, however — the recontextualizing of controversial issues does not imply endorsement, and is frequently used as a demonstration thereof. There is an inherent incommensurability to the consideration of controversial issues within and without an artwork due to those issues’ context in the work itself.

Surveillance cameras can also be used for more creative pursuits. Google’s Street View option in their maps services, for example, uses nine cameras mounted in a globe on the roof of a car to capture panoramic images as the vehicle drives around a city. Software stitches the images together, allowing users to see storefronts and unfamiliar neighbourhoods before they arrive. Based on the most interesting images he finds, artist John Rafman created 9 Eyes, a weblog with interesting, invasive, and beautiful Street View imagery. Some of the images — such as the covered cadaver laying in the middle of a South American road (Rafman 2) — can be read as a commentary on the ability for the Street View cameras to see more in a given instant than any human could, thereby gathering more information.

Images weren’t the only information Google’s cars were collecting during their perusals of neighbourhoods and avenues. In 2011, the Federal Communications Commission found that the cars also collected private banking data, usernames and passwords, email addresses, and other information due to a WiFi snooping bug (Pfanner). A 2012 followup investigation by British and French authorities found that Google had not deleted the data as ordered in the original settlement (Pfanner). The data has apparently since been deleted, but it’s interesting to note the conflation of the personal liberty concerns raised by Rafman, working with the very medium found to have privacy issues of its own.

Other artists have focused their entire practices on privacy in the digital world. For an entire year beginning June 30 2009, Kyle McDonald automatically tweeted every 140 characters he typed on his keyboard using a custom keylogger in an attempt to explore the boundaries between private and public, and the intentional versus the implied. It wasn’t McDonald’s first foray into art that reflected his concerns about his privacy, but due to the breadth of information still available today (at the keytweeter Twitter handle), it stands out as an important artwork for the artist.

In 2011, McDonald took a time-lapse video using his webcam, and realized that his own expression while using his computer was static. He wondered if others viewed their computers the same way or, indeed, if their computers viewed their users in a similarly static manner. In order to get a wide variety of users for People Staring at Computers, McDonald installed a simple application on the demo computers in various New York-area Apple Stores. The software would snap a photo when it detected a face, and upload it to a private server for McDonald to catalogue.

However, since the interior of a retailer is private property, McDonald required permission from both Apple and the customers to capture images within the stores, and received a visit from the Secret Service. While the charges were dropped, McDonald was unable to continue capturing faces for the production his artwork. The images he was able to recover have since been exhibited worldwide. (McDonald “Art, Apple”). Despite the intent of the work as an exhibit of how computers see our faces, it could arguably be described as a work of surveillance art. The computers’ fixed viewpoint is similar to that of a CCTV camera, and the faces it constantly captured are as much under surveillance as they are under the security cameras in the store.

The privacy concerns raised by artists working in surveillance art are very serious. In the presence of thousands of cameras, we lose a basic liberty of privacy; this is even in spite of a space being public, as the images are not ephemeral, but recorded permanently. Due to the proliferation of CCTV cameras deployed across developed nations and, increasingly, in developing nations, our right to personal privacy is being corroded. News articles citing statistics are intriguing, but artists creating captivating works of surveillance art are able to bring to the forefront a more frightening reality. Ironically, in order to make the public aware of those privacy issues, the artists tend to violate their own privacy principles. The dissonance of these conflicting approaches is often resolved in ways even more deeply concerning than the artist intended, or could have hoped for.



  1. A topic which, due to the focus of this essay, will not be discussed, but is worth keeping in mind. ↩︎