Artists to my mind are the real architects of change,
and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact
(William S. Burroughs)
A large-scale model of a CCTV camera made from recycled cardboard peers through the window of the Seventeen Gallery out onto Belmont Street in Aberdeen, alive with passers by. This is the main piece of Under New Moons, We Stand Strong (2016), the project conceived and designed by Teresa Dillon to prompt reflections on solidarity, literacy and symbolism within digital civic governance.
If one gets close enough, it is evident that the eye of this camera is blind for there is no actual watching and recording apparatus inside. Still, the sensation of being watched remains. Bird spikes are mounted on top of the camera. The first thing one notices is the scale of the model: for the first time, what is an almost impalpable and invisible presence (surveillance technologies tend to be increasingly difficult to spot in the urban space) gets amplified, taking a physical presence that invites us to explore our personal relationship with surveillance and the multiple technologies that embody it.
The enlarged cardboard CCTV camera not only reminds passers-by of surveillance, its visual presence, eye to eye and the size of an other, functions to interpellate the viewer as an active gazer. Instead of us being the object of its gaze, the large-scale model allows us to look at the CCTV camera up-front. The exchange of gazes between the two subjects, the surveillance apparatus and ourselves, occurs on an equal level: we occupy a position that is not anymore subservient to the mechanical all-seeing-eye. In the act of looking at the CCTV cardboard model, we can also recognise our own complicit capacity to become overseers.
Teresa Dillon’s installation invites us to become aware of the change occurred in contemporary social and technological developments in the relationship between surveillance and society. This change is subtler than it might appear at first. The Panopticon, Bentham’s prison architecture, was discussed by Foucault in his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) as an exemplar, among others examined in the book, of the mechanisms of social control that become permanent and interiorised. The prisoners, in fact, have no need to be actually watched, they know that they might be being watched. The condition of being potentially under surveillance transforms the dynamics of the gaze, causing an interiorisation of the watchtower’s gaze, in such a way that the prisoner becomes her own overseer.
Surveillance studies have pointed out how the Foucauldian metaphor of the Panopticon fails to describe the multi-faceted contemporary figurations of surveillance. It is not anymore a matter of keeping the prisoners in a certain space, but much more of keeping them away. The movement from the Panopticon to the Banopticon, for example, exemplifies the attempt to use profiling techniques to determine who should be placed under surveillance for security purposes. The Banopticon can be described as the attempt to keep away certain social groups (asylum seekers, migrants, suspected terrorists) in the context of global security and border control. This ban, interestingly, is not exercised exclusively upon certain groups or in extraordinary circumstances, but also upon those individuals who do not have the resources (for example credit cards and smartphones) to promptly respond to the enticement of consumer spaces such as shopping malls.
We need to take responsibility for the way in which we exercise the power to look. This was the sense of the two talks arranged as part of Urban Knights, a program of events conceived to provoke and promote practical approaches to urban governance and city living by bringing together people who are actively producing alternatives to our given city infrastructures, norms and perceptions. Programmed during the opening of Under New Moons, We Stand Strong, the first talk saw Keith Spiller, a lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University, discussing state surveillance and individual rights in the context of his practical experiences of accessing CCTV data in London. Heather Morgan, a Research Fellow at the Health Services Research Unit, University of Aberdeen, presented her on-going research on sousveillance (in the context of health self-monitoring wearable technologies). In the middle of our smart cities, caught up in the illusion of being in control of smart technologies we are actually constructing our own prison.
Dillon’s interventions successfully unfold what the two talks left implicit at theoretical level, that is the passage from Foucauldian surveillance to “surveillant assemblage”. Deleuze’s and Guattari’s concept of surveillant assemblage makes visible processes in which information is first abstracted from human bodies in data flows and then reassembled as “data doubles” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). Thus, a new type of body is formed, whose flesh is pure information transcending corporeality. The body is an assemblage, comprised of component parts and processes that need to be observed. Moving away from a hierarchical top-down gaze, in a rhizomatic-fashion, surveillance expands in multiple fractured forms.
Going back to Dillon’s installation, on the gallery wall there is a digital print portraying a snowy owl in mid-air flight. This is a special edition print related to an episode on January 3rd, 2016 in Quebec, where a CCTV camera captured a stunning image of a snowy owl in mid-air flight. Four days later the images were tweeted by Quebec’s Transport Minister and went viral, turning the snowy owl into an “Internet star”. In Greek mythology the owl represents or accompanies Athena, the goddess of wisdom – and military strategy. Curiously, the next generation of surveillance technologies developed by the United States military bears the names of Greek mythological creatures. Argus Panoptes, which recalls the all-seeing giant monster with a hundred eyes, is a monitoring system that allows the constant surveillance of a city. Gorgon Stare, an array of nine cameras attached to an aerial drone, takes the name of the monstrous feminine creature whose appearance would turn anyone who laid eyes upon it to stone.
The owl is a highly metaphorical and yet ambiguous presence in the exhibition. On the one hand, the owl symbolises knowledge, wisdom and perspicacity. With its appearance, “flying only with the falling of the dusk” to paraphrase and transpose the famous passage from Hegel where the owl incarnates the appearance of philosophical critique and appraisal, the owl of Minerva (the Roman goddess identified with Athena) makes explicit the ideas and beliefs that drove an era but could not be fully articulated until it was over. Therefore, the owl is revealing something to us about our own epoch – it is our task to decipher the content of the message.
On the other hand, the owl is also the physical medium through which collaborative interspecies strategies of resistant actions to surveillance can be organised. Dillon’s techno-civic intervention, as the artist herself calls her work, is ideally connected to another artistic project, Pigeonblog, made by Beatriz da Costa, artist, academic and activist, member of the Critical Art Ensemble and graduate student of philosopher and science and technology scholar Donna Haraway. Pigeonblog was a grassroots initiative designed to collect and spread information about air quality to the public. Pigeons were equipped with small air pollution sensing devices capable of gathering data on pollution levels. The data could be then visualised and accessed by means of Internet (da Costa and Kavita 2008). Da Costa’s Pigeonblog was inspired by a photograph depicting a technology developed in Germany during wartime but then never implemented: a small camera, carried by a pigeon and set on a timer, was designed to take pictures at regular intervals of time as pigeons flew over specific regions of interest – possibly military targets. Pigeons were participating agents in this early surveillance technology system. Da Costa resuscitated that idea to create a surveillant assemblage formed by a living animal and technology but with civilian and activist goals.
By means of this mythological creature, the owl, Teresa Dillon asks us to learn to look at those technologies of surveillance, to re-adjust our gaze in order to be ready to face them upfront. The role played by mythology is evident not only in the installation but in the procession that accompanied the exhibition on Saturday May 7th. The public were invited to gather together and take part in a “forensic anthropological walk”, as the artist labelled it, throughout the city of Aberdeen, with participants holding hand-held models of two-dimensional CCTV cameras. Stopping in front of the CCTV cameras encountered in Castle Square during the walk, the artist revisited the world history of CCTVs, starting from the first documented use of surveillance cameras in Germany in 1942 for the documentation of Test Stand VII, the V-2 rocket testing facility, through the introduction of CCTVs in the urban landscape in the US in 1968, and more recent examples of surveillance technologies in the UK.
Dillon blends story-telling techniques with an emotional urban cartography created by means of walking together. Namely, the walk cannot be described in the guise of a city tour: the performative element transformed the walk into a procession, a collective rite, consumed on the Aberdeen beach where the paper cameras were set alight by participants. The history of surveillance technologies is in fact interwoven with mythological, symbolic and ritual elements, from the owl to the closing ceremony on the beach. Like in Cities of the Red Night, written by Beat Generation novelist William S. Burroughs, Dillon’s multiple interventions combines history with rituals and performance to evoke magical elements, doomsday scenarios and our phobias about the powers that control and enslave us.
The different interventions conceived and designed by the artist (the artwork itself, the performance, the walking tour through the city, the talks that accompanied the opening of the exhibition) can be read as artistic enactments of the cut-up and fold-in literary technique used to re-arrange and combine the pieces of a text to form new narratives. The technique can be traced back to the Dadaists of the 1920s. It was then popularised by Burroughs in the 1960s as a radical and creative method of socio-political subversion. It is evident that the cut-up and fold-in technique can be applied to contexts other than literature as Dillon demonstrates. It helps overcoming conventional associations (in this case, surveillance as a merely technological apparatus) to create new ones (the literacy infrastructure of surveillance), transforming the reader/player/visitor from a passive consumer of other people’s ideas into the architect of her own knowledge and action.
Under New Moons, We Stand Strong allows citizens to become not only more aware of the technological power infrastructure at work in our cities but also to learn how to read it, confront it, possibly resist it. The beach, at the outskirt of the urban space, a liminal site, nowadays often associated with the refugees crisis, becomes a space of freedom and catharsis. To set the cardboard cameras alight is, simultaneously, an act imbued with mythology – Prometheus’ gift of fire, the first techne, to humankind for their survival – and a collective gesture of transformation and renewal. Having freed ourselves from the idols, from all-seeing eyes, we can stay up-front, together, as a community, to face the darkness of our time.
Seventeen, Art Centre, 17 Belmont St, AB10 1JR, Aberdeen
Supported by Scotland’s Festival of Architecture, Peacock Arts Centre & Aberdeen City Council
Date: Thurs 5 – Sat 28 May 2016
Location: Seventeen, 17 Belmont St, AB10 1JR, Aberdeen
Opening: Thurs, 5 May, 6pm with special edition of Urban Knights
Procession: Sat 7 May, 8pm from Seventeen, 17 Belmont St, AB10 1JR, Aberdeen
Model & assistance: Jana Barthel
Commissioned by: Festival of Architecture, Scotland, 2016; Peacock
Visual Arts, Aberdeen & Seventeen Gallery, Aberdeen
Featured image: Ein Identity-Workshop mit dem britischen Künstler Heath Bunting. Vertiefung Mediale Künste, Sihlquai 131, 8005 Zürich. Dienstag,
Whether Bunting is climbing trees, skateboarding, canoeing or working with technology he approaches it all with the same critical attention. He hacks around systems, physical or digital. Right from when he built his first computer at the age of 14, his life has been an experimental research project. His practice consists of a dry sense of humour and an edgy, minimal-raw aesthetic, mixed with a hyper-awareness of his own artistic persona and agency in the world, whilst engaging with complex political systems, institutions and social contexts.
Even though the subjects he explores are likely to be the most topical or important issues of the day, it always includes playfulness and an element of the prankster in his work. His work regularly highlights issues around infringements on privacy or restriction of individual freedom, as well as contexts concerning the mutation of identity, our values and corporate ownership of our cultural/national ‘ID’s’, as well as our DNA and investigations into Bio-technologies. In an age where we are submersed in frameworks and protocols designed by a neo-liberal elite for a generic consumer class, Bunting’s work is well placed as observation and practical research into the ‘depths’ of legal and illegal territories in our contemporary, networked cultures.
“our identity is constructed as human beings that can possess one or more natural persons and control one or more artificial persons. The higher up in the class system the better the access to status variety.”(Bunting)
The Status Project, is a study of the construction of our ‘official identities’ and creates what Bunting describes as “…an expert system for identity mutation”. His research explores how information the public supplies in their interaction with organisations and institutions is logged. The project draws on his direct encounters with specific database collection processes and the information he was obliged to supply as a public citizen to access specific services; this includes data collected from the Internet and information found on governmental databases. This data is then used to map and illustrate how we behave, relate, choose things, travel and move around in social spaces. The project surveys individuals locally, nationally and internationally, producing maps of “influence and personal portraits for both comprehension and social mobility”.
The use of data in contemporary life has made individuals an accessible resource for commercial and political interests. We are a rich source of data-mining material. Data mining is a process that potentially commodifies our interactions. Its historical roots lie with the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and 20th Century statistical analysis. These two methods of formulating data have grown ever closer together, backed by corporations and government-initiated military funding. Social networks such as platforms like Facebook and Internet networked institutions such as Google and the US military are all obsessed with our behaviours online. A good example is the NSA’s recent rebirth in turning most of its surveillance apparatus to spy on the US and its citizens. They have built a supercomputer tracing through billions of people’s emails, phone calls, and online activities in other countries outside of the US. The UK government is currently going through the political process of trying to implement similar spying protocols and systems to watch what UK citizens are up to.
“Google suffers from data obesity and is indifferent to calls for careful preservation. It would be naive to demand cultural awareness. The prime objective of this cynical enterprise is to monitor user behaviour in order to sell traffic data and profiles to interested third parties.”  (Lovink)
Bunting is a Hacktivist Artist, acting (playing) out the role of a spy collecting and observing data content. Hacktivist Artists work with technology to explore how to develop their critical and imaginative practice in ways beyond the frameworks of the art establishment and its traditions. The established art arena is gradually catching up with this kind of artwork. However, one could be forgiven for thinking that many art critics and galleries are still caught in the 20th Century.
Two other artists also working on people’s data are Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev. They have collaborated on exploring alternative identities as the mysterious group, Men in Grey. They detect online users’ vulnerabilities by tapping into and intervening in wireless network traffic – observing, tracing and copying user online activities. It is then redisplayed online on their website for others to view or transferred onto a visual screen on the side of a briefcase as an intervention in cybercafes for all to view. Although, no one knows other than themselves if the data is hacked and then redisplayed on these briefcases, as proposed in their video featuring one of their interventions. One thing is for sure – they have touched upon issues concerning our fears about personal data being seen by other people who we’d prefer were not viewing it.
The Status Project also taps into questions concerning technology, hierarchy and power. We are entwined in a complex game where the sacrifice of our information is part of connecting with others across digital networks. This raises the issue of our ‘human’ status being aligned ‘to and as’ objects of measurement. Through travel ports, our vehicles, passports, ID cards, library cards, mobile phones, alongside information about our health. We have mutated into networked (information-carrying) beings. Bunting’s own position on this matter is that “Technology is becoming more advanced and the administration of this technology is becoming more sophisticated, and soon, every car in the street will be considered and treated as persons, with human rights. This is not a conspiracy to enslave human beings, and it is a result of having to develop usable administration systems for complex relationships. Slaves were not liberated because their owners felt sorry for them; slaves were given more rights as a way to manage them more productively in a more technologically advanced society.”
In the UK, in 2006 a research document called ‘A Report on the Surveillance Society For the Information Commissioner’ was published. Produced by a group of academics called the Surveillance Studies Network. This report was presented to the 28th International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners’ Conference in London, hosted by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The publication begins by saying “Conventionally, to speak of surveillance society is to invoke something sinister, smacking of dictators and totalitarianism […] the surveillance society is better thought of as the outcome of modern organizational practices, businesses, government and the military than as a covert conspiracy. Surveillance may be viewed as progress towards efficient administration, in Max Weber’s view, a benefit for the development of Western capitalism and the modern nation-state.”
We are not only under surveillance by entities we do not trust, we are also tracing each other online. Recently, in a show called ‘Being Social' at Furtherfield’s new gallery, artist Liz Sterry showed her installation piece, ‘Kay’s Blog’. Sterry had “collated not only one form of online social engagements but all she could find about a Canadian blogger called Kay. Using everything from photographs to things Kay has mentioned in videos, blogs and posts on social networks, Sterry has recreated Kay’s bedroom in the gallery.” (Scott)
“”There were times when I felt quite creepy,” says Liz, 28, as she shows me lists of Kay’s Facebook friends and a Google Streetview of her apartment block while a playlist of her favourite songs plays in the background.”
Yet, as this ever-creeping surveillance culture grows and attaches its all seeing eyes onto us all. Whether we are referring to domestic interactions, organizational or deliberate, this is not the main issue. Neo-liberalism has developed so much now, we are all part of the Netopticon. English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late Eighteenth Century designed the Panopticon. It allowed officers in institutions, particularly in prisons, to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates without them knowing whether or not they are being watched. In the end it was not built, but the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his publication Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, in 1975 said that we are not only monitored in prisons, but in all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories. This process has evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon. The up-dated version of Panopticon, can now be thought of as the Netopticon – where individuals are complicit in feeding their own forms of collective co-surveillance, as well as being traced by corporations, governments and spammers.
“What your data body says about you is more real than what you say about yourself. The data body is the body by which you are judged in society, and the body which dictates your status in the world. What we are witnessing at this point in time is the triumph of representation over being. The electronic file has conquered self-aware consciousness.”  (Critical Art Ensemble)
So far, for the project he has created a functioning, sketch database of the UK system with over 10,000 entries – made over 50 maps of sub-sections of the system to aid sense of place and potential for social mobility. Bunting says he is also researching how to convert his identity generating software into a bot recognised under UK law as a person “covered by the human rights act i.e. right to life and liberty; freedom of expression; peaceful enjoyment of property. I am very close to achieving this.”
This bring us to another part of the project what I call ‘Identity Kits’, and Bunting calls ‘Synthetic off-the-shelf (OTS) British natural person’. These kits consist of various items, personal business cards, library cards, a national railcard, t-mobile top-up card, national lottery card and much more. They take a few months to compile each of them because they are actual items that everybody uses in their everyday lives, involving evidence of identity. There is also a charge for the package of 500.00 GBP, which is cheap for a new identity.
Bunting stresses that these UK identities are lawful and that there is no need for any official consulting or permission from an authority to use or make them. Through this he intends to illustrate a precise codification of class in the UK system. Currently, he defines three classes of identitiy: human being, person and corporate. What class of individual you are places you into categories of evaluation, this process allows others to judge your status, worth and value, within a hierarchy, which is clearly represented in the status maps.
This work touches on issues around our everyday status as a critique, but also as an investigative hack, and plays around with the quagmire of inequality currently in the UK. Inequality is built, constructed into the fabric our societies as an accepted default, through tradition, social or mechanistic, holding in place societal divisions. If there was a status project made in other countries reflecting their own status, worth and value of citizens there would be clear links defining where the connections and divisions lie, between each culture. In fact, another project worth mentioning here is ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’.  The authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have done their own ‘extensive’, detailed research in highlighting through many different graphs, mapping out inequality around ther globe.
“We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why.”  (Hanley)
Bunting’s work expresses a discipline conscious of agency, autonomy and enactments for self and collective empowerment. Hacking different routes around what at first is seen as too big to deal with, lessens its power and awe. Like Burbank in the ‘The Truman Show’, what we have been told is not real. Bunting knows this instinctively, and is on a quest to upturn each stone to see what lies beneath. But at the same time these facilities created to crack the social, and data orientated codes, are shared. He then leaves the paths he has discovered wide open for others pass through, as we all struggle to survive the ever creeping strangle-hold, of the Netopticon.
This article was written for and will be published as part of Heath Bunting’s presentation in Athens ‘Workshop How to Build a New Legal Identity’, May 5th 2012.
During the workshop, Heath Bunting will introduce us to techniques and strategies on how to form new identities. The distribution of the workshop How to Build a New Legal Identity across Europe aims at exploring the characteristics of identity in each country.
Artist’s Talk: May 4, 2012 @ 19.00
Workshop How to Build a New Legal Identity: May 5, 2012 @ 12.00
Frown Tails, 6 Paramythias str, Keramikos, Athens
Organised by: Katerina Gkoutziouli and Frown Tails