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Little Sister's Watching, Too: Surveillance Art and the Ethics of Looking

The show features 14 works from artists, like Trevor Paglen and James Bridle, that explore the intersections of surveillance agencies and operations with civic rights and privacy.

“What are the ethics that are attached to looking?” This is the question at hand in the works of Little Sister (is watching you, too), an exhibition at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in New York. It is also the question that Christiane Paul, the show’s curator, asks The Creators Project as she explains how the exhibition’s featured artists and their projects explore the intersections of surveillance agencies and operations with civic rights and privacy. 

“It’s important to me that it’s not a surveillance exhibition, per sé,” Paul clarifies. “It has a fairly narrow focus in that it includes projects that are looking at the apparatus of government agencies, at the systems of control and the people in charge of them, and also specifically issues of data filtering and how intelligence is being gathered." Said projects include aerial photographs from Trevor Paglen, an installation and audio documentary by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, a downloadable browser extension designed by James Bridle, and 11 other works from Paolo CirioR. Luke DuBoisNancy Peterson and a team at the University of Toronto (Andrew Clement, Colin McCann, Antonio Gamba, Jonathan Obar, David Madison, and Dawn Walker), and YoHa and Matthew Fuller. "I think we have such a polarized discussion between safety and privacy and we always fall into that language but if you look at the specifics of what is going on, there are so many grey zones,” the curator continues, calling the 14 works comprising the show a “choreography,” each chosen and poised to reveal the next shade of grey.  

Nancy Paterson, CHmaps (precursor to IXmaps), 2007, website, Flash.

“For example, the works by Trevor Paglen (who is one of the artists that is included in almost every surveillance show) and Paolo Cirio: both of them are deceptively simple in a direct way and look at the system of control,” Paul continues. Paglen’s photographs are nighttime shots of governmental security agencies, taken directly after Edward Snowden’s great reveal. “He received permission to fly over with a helicopter at night and take these aerial photographs” and each image is available for free download on WikiLeaks. As Paul explains, “While it’s a fairly simple act—what seems like just a look at the building—it is also very interesting and very subtle in that we are looking at these gigantic complexes (that are financed by our tax money) and the visibility of that physical structure and the invisibility of the operations that are conducted within these structures somehow becomes very prominent.” Cirio, on the other hand, takes Facebook photos of security and intelligence officials, like Keith Alexander or David Patraeus, and transforms them into pop portraits using HD stencil techniques. “They exist both as paintings [and as] posters in public space,” Paul says. “I think [they] bring to the fore very subtle issues of who is looking at whom and who is making decisions.” 

Trevor Paglen, aerial photograph of the National Security Agency (open source digital image), commissioned by Creative Time Reports, 2013.

Paolo Cirio, “Keith Alexander,” Overexposed series, 2015, acrylic paint on photographic paper.

YoHa and Matthew Fuller’s Endless War is inspired by the Afghan War logs and diaries on WikiLeaks, while James Bridle’s Citizen Ex browser extension allows users to navigate their new “algorithmic citizenship" (i.e. their compromised online privacy due the the NSA’s use of browsing data). And then there is Abu Hamdan’s project: a “speculative fiction” called A Convention of Tiny Movements, a fact-based projection of the future of surveillance. “Researchers at MIT have recently realized that, through visual imagery, they can reconstruct voices and what is being said from the reflections of objects. So, a bag of potato crisps becomes a visual microphone,” Paul explains. “In [Abu Hamdan’s] piece, you see an image of a shelf in the supermarket and in color are the objects that can already be used as visual microphones and in black and white are the ones that will in future years.” 

Confronted with this bizarre but justified vision, Paul asks, “What does that mean for the future if intelligence offices or agencies are spying on us through bags of potato chips in the super market? It seems ridiculous and it is (although based on very real research) a fiction at this point, but where do we draw the line?” 

James Bridle, Citizen Ex, 2015, browser extension.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, A Convention of Tiny Movements, 2015. Components: Shudder the Thought, 9 minutes, audio, vibration speaker, tissue box; Spinneys Supermarket, Achrafieh Beirut, August 2017, photograph. 

Little Sister (is watching you, too) is at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery until the 30th of January and is free and open to the public. Learn more about the show here

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