Art, Activism, and CCTV

Art, Activism, and CCTV
Oct 26, 2013

CCTV Cufflinks from Shapeways

Notes from a talk I gave at the Digital Media Conference in Boston. What follows is somewhat of a mishmash of about five different essays I’ve been meaning to write about power structures explored in tech art. An abridged, easier to read version is on Medium



Dead Drops, a project by Aram Bartholl, involved five USB sticks embedded in public spaces around New York City for public exchange of files. It takes its name from tradecraft. Spies exchange files and objects at a “dead drop,” like this rock, discovered several years ago, which MI6 agents used to upload information in Moscow. Another recent project has a name referencing military deception: CV Dazzle by Adam Harvey. These makeup patterns were conceived as a way to hide from face recognition software. Some coloring to obscure the nose bridge means a machine will not recognize your face as a human face. But on the street, you are even more visible to another human being’s eyes. Dazzle camouflage, often painted on ships in World War I, works similarly. These patterns do not “camouflage” in the way we typically think of that term. But speed, movement, and direction are obscured so an enemy might misfire when it gets in position to take a shot.

Picasso claimed he and other cubists invented dazzle. It was directly the work of Norman Wilkinson, working in a naval camp unit at Royal Academy of Arts. Art has a long history of direct engagement with politics and technological change. Ellsworth Kelly was part of the Ghost Army that built inflatable jeeps, jets, and tanks to deceive German troops. Artists were actually recruited out of art school for this unit. They would mount speakers on decoys blasting recordings of these vehicles — to give the appearance of tens of thousands of men on the ground, when it fact it might be only a thousand of them. It was mixed success but reveals how a government might harness artistic vision. In addition to Kelly, fashion designer Bill Blass was involved in the unit, among architects and theater set designers, and other creative people.

Ghost Army inflatable tank

During the Cold War, as the writer Frances Stonor Saunders discovered in her research, the CIA pumped funding into arts organizations with a less than obvious goal in mind. The work of Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko, among other ab-ex painters, was hated by a great majority of Americans — “my kid could paint that” and such. But no one could deny the freeing brushstrokes, the rich color, and “expression” was in seductive contrast to the rigid conformity and conventions of Soviet art. CIA covered their tracks, as they do, so there was no way for these artists to know that the traveling exhibitons they took part in, the magazines that hyped their work, and museums which acquired it, were all somehow part of this “long leash.” Donald Jameson, a former case officer for International Organisations Division told Saunders, “Most of [the artists funded] were people who had very little respect for the government, in particular, and certainly none for the CIA. If you had to use people who considered themselves one way or another to be closer to Moscow than to Washington, well, so much the better perhaps.” The work served as an advertisement for the West. That overseas, absent central planning, you could speak freely, you could create without censoring barriers, and even make a living doing so.

As Saunders writes, “look where this art ended up: in the marble halls of banks, in airports, in city halls, boardrooms and great galleries.” Whatever the artist meant to express, the art is now very valuable. These paintings sell at auctions for millions. And that’s the other wrinkle when it comes to art-making. It may prove impossible, as a working artist, to unlace your vision from the ideologies of rich collectors and commissioning bodies that enable the creation of a piece. Not to mention that an art boom has a positive correlation with income disparity and the rise of high net worth individuals. Andrea Fraser, in her essay for last year’s Whitney Biennial, “1% C’est Moi,” with great honesty, addresses how an economy “good for the art world has been disastrous for the rest of the world.”

If our only choice is to participate in this economy or abandon the art field entirely, at least we can stop rationalizing that participation in the name of critical or political art practices or– adding insult to injury– social justice Any claim that we represent a progressive social force while our activities are directly subsidized by the engines of inequality can only contribute to the justification of that inequality – the (not so) new legitimation function of art museums. The only “alternative” today is to recognize our participation in that economy and confront it in a direct and immediate way in all of our institutions, including museums, and galleries, and publications.

Fraser, to her credit, has directly confronted this anxiety in her work. Her most famous piece is a provocation: in a videotaped performance, she had sex with a private collector who paid $20,000 for the performance and work (5 copies of a DVD were made, 3 in private collections.)

Creativity generates tactics. Art can be a weapon. It is valuable enough to society that forces of power have worked to subvert it. There is no question then that it is valuable for political dissent.

I began with Bartholl and Harvey’s projects because both are very good at highlighting the tactics of their political references rather than simply annexing the aesthetics. There is a tendency by some artists to affix political subject matter to their work as a way to latch on perceived authenticity and intellectual rigor. But to say someone’s work inspired by the all too short life of Trayvon Martin is lacking something, that is not to dismiss the importance of Trayvon Martin’s death. Using politics as a vessel for aesthetics rather than a point of interrogation is a particularly unseeming gesture when the artist is commissioned a fee or sees this work acquired by a collector.

The power of aesthetics comes from less direct referencing, symbolism, and messaging. JG Ballard once said, “Can art be a vehicle for political change? Yes, I assume that a large part of Blair’s appeal (like Kennedy’s) is aesthetic, just as a large part of the Nazi appeal lay in its triumph of the will aesthetic. I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic. A Buick radiator grille is as much a political statement as a Rolls Royce radiator grille, one enshrining a machine aesthetic driven by a populist optimism, the other enshrining a hierarchical and exclusive social order. The ocean liner art deco of the 1930s, used to sell everything from beach holidays to vacuum cleaners, may have helped the 1945 British electorate to vote out the Tories.”

Occupy had that elegant ballerina on a bull, and the heartbreaking “We are the 99%” tumblr. Solidarity in Poland, with its bold graphic images, and subversive messages (evoking “Warsaw 1944,” which to the Russians sounds like a nod to the Red Army, but alludes to Polish rebellion.) Look at ACT-UP staging “die-ins” at the heart of the AIDS crisis (and this month), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg with their contributions to the arts. The black power raised fist —in paintings, on a podium at the 1968 Olympics —think of what that conveys in a very simple gesture. Voina in Russia makes work that keeps me up at night. It took me several hours to decompress after watching a video they filmed of a mock hanging of two queer young men and a guest worker from Central Asia in a Moscow supermarket — a mock favor to a government that hates them. I think of the Guerrilla Girls wheatpasting Lower Manhattan with posters advocating diversity in the arts, in messages that carry over to all industries biased against women and people of color (that is to say, all industries.) These examples are powerful because they help us form memories. Powerful messages can be conveyed in visuals.


Even very simple visuals make a point. Here is an image I took at recent conference about drones in NYC. People protesting outside brought along a model predator drone, which, when you think of how many people have no idea what a drone looks like, is a powerful statement. And I love how activists lately are dressing up like CCTV cameras or carrying mock cardboard versions. We’ve seen a lot of street art like satirical posters related to drones (here and here.) Posters that say things like “ATTENTION: Drone Activity in Progress,” or “ATTENTION: Local Statutes Enforced by Drones,” or “ATTENTION: Authorized Drone Strike Zone, 8am-8pm, Including Sunday.” And Jilly Balistic has posted of predator drones in the subways.


Artists are uniquely capable of drawing attention to an issue, by creating a discourse within a community and breaking down ideas for closer examination. Now let’s look at some recent art pieces and performances relating to mass surveillance. Several of Jill Magid’s projects are relevant here, but her 2003 project “System Azure” is of particular interest. She reached out to Dutch police to bedazzle their CCTV cameras. At first they rejected her proposal, which she submitted as an artist. Later, she approached them as a contractor, a “security ornamentation professional,” and soon enough she was climbing up a ladder with a glue-gun in hand to affix rhinestones to the cameras around the precinct. She had a full scheme in mind — with colors and patterns purported to carry meaning and symbolism (green for ‘justice’, red for ‘full of love’, blue for ‘strictness’, and white for ‘integrity.’) When the police cut funding for the project, she responded with a campaign of posters to “Bring Back the Glam Cams.” An unrealized commission that came from that campaign would have resulted in CCTV cameras by another precinct that would have worked to “transform the meaning of red in the red light district.”

Part of the reason I like the project so much is that here is an example of surveillance profiteering, a topic that is largely ignored. Private companies are building the devices that track us. We know about things like war profiteering and the private companies that lead to mandatory minimums and other horrific abuses of power, but the financial incentive to spy isn’t as often addressed in the media.

In 2007 Manu Luksch released the short film FACELESS, which depicts a dystopia where everyone wakes up without faces but black anonymizing blobs instead. Along with the film she wrote a “Manifesto for CCTV Filmmakers,” which states things like there shall be no other cameras but the CCTV cameras in operation and references the UK Data Protection Act of 1998. In 2008, she mapped the CCTV cameras around Whitehall, London, both by observation and intercepting the signal of one of the cameras to determine it’s range. Maps were handed to people who entered the area covered by the camera.

Next artist to discuss might seem like an unusual choice to bring up —but absence of cameras is another form of control. I spent three weeks at the Manning court martial over the summer, and one of those weeks I was joined by the artist Molly Crabapple. We have become so used to recording our memories in video and photographs, the capacity to store an image as a memory seems to require an atrophied part of the brain. So it was startlingly for me to have this significant experience undocumented. I could record the parking lots and building exteriors, but not the courtroom itself where I sometimes sat for eight hours in a day. This was not a problem for Molly, with her paper and pens. She captured the details that might have been lost — the size of the room, the particular expression in Chelsea’s face. She has twice gone to Guantanamo Bay to draw the prisoners, prisons, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial, and many things we wouldn’t otherwise see. I particularly like this image of the guards with smily faces to anonymize — redacted information. Also notice the clearance stamp signed by a security officer in early sketches she sent to Vice before her story was published. Even drawings may be censored.

Addie Wagenknecht is another artist who has explored surveillance extensively in her work. A recent piece called brbxoxo searches webcam sites for performers who have left the room. She’s build a chandelier out of CCTV cameras. This year, in a performance called “Anonymity,” she and a thousand other participants walked past CCTV cameras with black bars to hide eyes. There is already some irony in how shielding our eyes is meant, in images, to preserve our privacy. She has said in interviews that the work is inspired by laws prohibiting masks in public spaces and how, on a large scale, like Pirate Bay and Tor, anonymity has power.