Stealth: The blur of privacy, the illusion of control
Stealth is a group show from artists critiquing surveillance culture – in particular, the contemporary concept of digital surveillance. Curator Antonio Roberts has worked with a range of artists from the UK and elsewhere to present a show which mixes installations, software, social, and other media. We spoke with artists Henry Driver, Joseph Delappe, and Ryan Hughes along with Antonio about their work and the context in which it sits.
Please introduce the work which you are exhibiting at Stealth.
HD: Drone demonstrates the uncanny ability of simulations to mimic reality. An innocent flight simulator descends into a violent military drone simulator. Created using imagery from US Army YouTube uploads, simulated representations from popular video games and imagery created by myself.
Drone asks the viewer to define the difference between simulation and reality and the issues that arise when the two are so closely entwined. Is it correct for footage of missile and drone attacks to be so readily available, uploaded to YouTube by the US Army like a blogger updating their feed? This combined with the overt militarism displayed within many video games today provokes pressing questions regarding our depiction and consumption of military conflict.
JD: The project Me and My Predator is a performative sculpture, essentially I’ve created a device that attaches a 1/72nd scale model of a Predator Drone to your head so it looks as if the drone is following you around. A 1/72nd scale plastic model of a Predator Drone is suspended on a carbon fiber rod connected to a custom made aluminum c-clamp/head band attached to my head. The Personal Drone System is designed for insecurity and comfort - to simulate using analog technologies what it might be like to live under droned skies.
RH: We've been Re-Distributed is a work I made in 2011 for ARTicle Gallery at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design. It was a large solo show comprising videos (as in actual VHS), magazines, a specially composed email for the galleries mailing list, a series of modular structures and the 3 digital prints which have been included in Stealth at Vivid Projects.
These various components of the work were all made up of found material with a particular focus on You've been Framed, YouTube, and Rude Tube. I was interested in how the public have, for the past 2 decades or so, been compelled to "publish" their home/amateur movies. I was interested in the rise of the prosumer and was interested in how technology in both domestic and industry settings was being used and developed for and/or in response to this.
Is the public as unconcerned about privacy and surveillance as mainstream media purports people to be - that such topics, bar global stories such as Snowden - are essentially ignored?
AR: I think the public is concerned with privacy and surveillance but it comes in different levels. For example, I think there is a general awareness that phones, apps and websites are collecting personally identifiable information about us. However, what I think is generally unknown is the amount of data that is stored on us and how it is being used. I worry that it won't be until this data is used against us that we will begin to care and speak out against it. Until then, it seems a lot of people are happy to hand over personal information for the sake of convenience (store loyalty cards, free stuff, vouchers, free apps etc).
JD: Most of my work deals with weaponized drones and their use abroad by the US military and intelligence services. In the United States, while there is some concern over the use of drones in the “war on terror”, most polls seem to show the majority of the US public supports the use of these weapons. This does not necessarily translate to an understanding of just what the use of these weapons actually accomplishes (from civilian casualties to the ongoing creation of new enemies, etc). I’d suggest the use of drones in warfare and the emerging surveillance state are two sides of the same coin.
Conversely, given that issues surrounding privacy and surveillance can be discussed at a global level through the Internet, are these topics actually digital art's "Trojan horse" - ie they will help the public to understand the power and resonance that digital can bring as commentary on contemporary society?
JD: In my piece, I am attempting to use humor to create a visual situation - the device is meant to be worn in public environments. I hope that this work, and my attempts to share the project as I did using the instructables.com website - be sure and read the comments - that I am able to foster dialogue and perhaps critical thought in regard to the use of such killing machines by our government. There are dozens of weaponized drones flying somewhere over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia or other targets at any given moment - this work symbolically simulates such in the immediate. There is as well an aspect of self surveillance in the work - I am partially responding to our obsessive use of personal technologies such as smartphones.
AR: I wouldn't call it digital art's "Trojan horse" but there definitely are opportunities for digital art to bring about a change. I'm a big fan of work that does more than just comment on the current situation and instead pushes some boundaries and reveleas some, at times, quite uncomfortable information. Although not in the exhibition itself, I'm fond of Kyle McDonald's piece People staring at computers. Firstly, it shows how easily computers can be compromised, and secondly it reveals that there is always an eye watching us at our computers.
HD: I would not say that people ignore these issues, but are more often unaware of precisely what is happening. Of course, the Snowden story is as you say a global story, but there are many other pressing issues regarding privacy and surveillance, of which I don’t believe people fully grasp the true extent. Take, for example, how much of your information or browsing history is harvested and sold. We do not fully understand the level of privacy or surveillance within the digital realm or who owns are information. The definition between national security, advertising and privacy is blurred.
Drone, Henry Driver, 2014
Conversely, given that issues surrounding privacy and surveillance can be discussed at a global level through the Internet, are these topics actually digital art's "Trojan horse" – they will help the public to understand the power and resonance that digital can bring as commentary on contemporary society?
HD: As we further progress into the digital age issues and questions arise and one of the most powerful ways to deal and present these, is through art and using the digital as a medium. Technology progresses at such an unstoppable rate and it is easy to only view the positives, yet with every new development we must also question. As demonstrated in my video, although I am sure the use of military drones saves soldiers' lives, this new means of warfare must also be dissected. The distancing from the battlefield, although providing protection to soldiers, perhaps increases the deaths of innocents or the disassociation with the taking of lives, turning people into targets to taken be out like that of a video game.
Does Noam Chomsky's view, that the mass media "are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion" still ring true? More so than ever?
JD: Yes. ;-)
AR: Yes and yes. The leaking of government documents detailing hacking and spying have brought to our attention how much goes on behind closed doors. Of course, it's hard to say whether this amount of spying has always happened, but I definitely think it will happen more and that we need to be more aware of it.
RH: It is important for cultural producers (artists, musicians, designers, etc...) to find ways, which might well be subversive, of working within this to begin discussions and engage with the public around privacy and surveillance. For example, I didn't get the permission of YouTube to make screenshots of its website. I think the public will be well aware of that fact, and I certainly didn't hide the fact that the work is screenshots, so they will quite instantly understand that I have taken something from the internet that wasn't mine. They will also understand quite how simple this was for me to do. If I am capable of doing this with household technology. the public can quite easily imagine what power structures such as Google, Facebook or the government are capable of.
Is the desire to "become invisible" a false economy? Have we ever been invisible?
HD: Now it is possible to be visible to anyone in the world. However, with this increase in visibility also comes a certain “drowning” within it. With this access and ability provided to anyone with an internet connection. there is the possibility to be drowned out in a mass of information.
JD: I don’t see any desire to become invisible in our culture; in fact, the opposite. When actual personal drones are available to follow and document our every move, these will be embraced and become essential. I suspect these will become commonplace rather soon.
AR: I think we've been blissfully ignorant. As I suggested earlier, I don't think we will truly understand how much we're being surveilled until this information is being presented back to us in a negative way and used against us.
Because we now live a multitude of personalities - as ourselves at home, as artists, as Twitter users, as pseudonyms - are we ironically more in control than ever, because we are more "attuned" to manage this range of personalities and what they can/can't do, and when we can switch them on or off?
HD: We have a control to create information regarding ourselves, to post and distribute this across the web. Yet in distributing it, we then, in many ways, lose all control.
Are we moving to an age where surveillance is neutered - whether through network interception, civil disorder and the call for rights, or even the public availability of drones?
AR: Unfortunately not. You lose control the moment you give your data over to a website. Facebook could be very valuable to the government as it's a place where people are willingly detailing their every movement and thought. Sure, this data might be encrypted and there are switches for you to control the visibility of that data, but as long as it exists somewhere then all it takes is a court order to force them to hand it over.
JD: I’d suggest we are moving into a universal panoptic state where the illusion of control over sharing, access and personal documentation will become irrelevant in the face of corporate and governmental surveillance and control.
HD: With digital culture I believe we are now a society of information, constantly consuming it. Surveillance is a means to gain information and with digital means increasing our ability to gain and distribute. I do not think surveillance will be neutered, but embraced, restricted and manipulated.
Stealth runs at Vivid Projects, Birmingham until 11/07/14.