My project of looking ethically seems moot when “Surveillance” photographers switch the subject from human beings to institutions. Images of a machine or building unencumbered by memories hardly inspires concern, respect, or reciprocity. And the power of the intrusive camera is compromised by the relative power of institutions that can ward off prying eyes, confiscate memory chips, or make arrests.
Take top secret military sites, for example. A chemical and biological weapons testing complex is no poor immigrant blinking in the light of a magnesium flash:
The Dugway Proving Ground has so much control over its image that you can barely see it. When I clicked on its Google-listed web site to learn more about the place, I was stopped at the virtual perimeter by a blaring error message complete with my ICP address. Making public what an institution wants to keep private takes stronger eyes than mine.
To get his image, photographer Trevor Paglen resorted to astronomy instruments to peer across the thick atmosphere separating him from the site. Even so, he hadn’t a long enough lens to make this invisible thing knowable, or to strip it naked for our scrutiny.
Instead, the indefinite image suggests a sublime landscape–transcendent as a painted heaven or wilderness empire. All this photographic document of distance can do, as long as its caption remains attached, is to make the military plant dimly present. Is this enough information to dispel our ignorance? To convince us to agree or disagree with these activities done on our watch? Or is the whole thing just too far away to worry about?
Simon Norfolk’s also-ghostly transmission towers from his series on the Ascension Islands are the instruments of a global dataveillance program. They are also the objects of his concern about democratic controls on such projects. The image alone, severed from its series, is an enigmatic play of wispy gray on gray. It left me wondering about the fragility of technology rather than worrying alongside its author about the effect of shadowy global organizations on democracy and world peace.
Thomas Demand’s video loop of an ordinary surveillance camera seems a more obvious cautionary image: we are all suspects now it seems to say, monitored by machines whose capability to control people is a matter for their manufacturers to crow about. Instead of ignoring this brave new phenomenon, perhaps we should fight back: map those CCTVs, zap them, find out where to look and how to hide.
I did look, at least for an image of Demand’s “Camera” to post as the touchstone for these questions about privacy, visual control, accountability and security, It turned out the camera image was originally shown with another piece of the artist’s, “Embassy,” which re-creates a nondescript Nigerian embassy office, where the early 2001 theft of some stationery seems to have changed the world.
That context changed the way I saw “Camera,” as though the image had been recaptioned. Instead of an all-seeing Cyclops, the fake camera became a blind witness to a future history it was helpless to prevent. Yawing compulsively on its cardboard wall, it seemed neutered, its soundtrack more annoying in the gallery than alarming. What can any camera see? What can it expose? Who owns it? Who watches its images? Who has the patience to watch?
The issues these images raise seem more political than ethical, unless the two are bound up with one another. Do we retreat into the delights of voyeurism and let power take care of its own business? As viewers, do we accept the mystery of hard-to-photograph state and corporate institutions? Do we try to see through the distances that separate us from them? If we look at photographs that do help us see our society’s well-protected institutions, are we responsible for this knowledge? Can we responsibly look away?
Postscript: The August 8 screening at the Summer Music and Films program, (“I’ve Got My Eyes on You”) is “1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.” Our surveillance society has also been anticipated by an abundance of surveillance sci fi novels, documented by countless photographs, and has engendered the academic discipline of Surveillance Studies. Countless web sites describe this environment, capitalize on it, advocate resistance or seek to understand it.