This experiment in ethical looking has taken me from witnessing other people to viewing corporate, state and global institutions–trading visual places with the entities that watch us, that act on our behalf, control us, or all three. Outside of “Exposed,” entire art exhibitions center on surveillance themes: a fellow tour guide told me about a show that exposes Cold War spying on its citizens by the East German government. On this side of the Cold War, the FBI’s files on U.S. citizens still make the news, while museums have looked at responses to old and new surveillance. Self-surveillance as an art project can work as a personal act of conceptual resistance.
Making institutions themselves visible seems point up our vulnerability as subjects and also our responsibility as viewers. Last time I wrote about Trevor Paglen’s photograph of a chemical weapons plant and Simon Norfolk’s image of Echelon transmitters. Several years ago, the Walker Art Center exhibit “Event Horizon” featured a photograph from Paul Shambroom’s “Security Series” that documents sites in the U.S. made and used for terrorist attack training. “Exposed” also includes such a mock village for military training:
Its emptiness reminds me of a stage set, its drama surely a coming street battle. But once the battle is lost and won, what happens to the village? What if this scene is afterwards and the little people in the foreground are responding to an electrical glitch that left the houses dark and the streets and minarets lit? What if someone offstage is planning schools and hospitals? Or more chillingly, what if the schools and hospitals are part of the takeover plan? Trying to imagine more than the bloodless soldier training the caption dictates frees me to think about warfare’s aims and consequences, about the democratic control of communities, state power and the care of humans.
I want to try on alternate readings for other images in the exhibition–the street and social reform photographs, the celebrity and voyeuristic images, the “surveillance style” photographs, the consciously posing subjects, the unaware and helpless subjects. I want to bring the latent stories in the images to life, and give voice to the people visually represented.
For this project in creative and hopefully ethical looking, I need your help: many different imaginations are better than one. So, Thursday, August 25 I’m hosting an Open Field event to re-imagine the stories within “Exposed’s” images and re-think our relationship with the people in them. Please check out this upcoming Game of Words on the Open Field website and put it on your calendar.