Digitally Mediated Surveillance

Cyber-surveillance in Everyday Life: An International Workshop. University of Toronto, May 12-15 2011. Hosted by the New Transparency project.


Photo Credit: Flickr/CosmovisionDIGITALLY mediated surveillance (DMS) is an umbrella term that includes a myriad of social data mining practices and monitoring techniques. The tracking of our purchase habits by credit card companies, Facebook's deliberately opaque privacy settings and the web of CCTV networks discretely filming our movements are familiar examples of how our daily navigation of the urban environment and online networks exposes our interactions and private data to unwanted scrutiny. DMS was the subject of a recent Toronto workshop that brought together a roster of international scholars to discuss how to increase awareness of ubiquitous personal security vulnerabilities, and promote accountability and transparency by their corporate and governmental instigators.

In addition to the academic proceedings, the workshop organizers saw fit to collaborate with the art and technology hub InterAccess to host Cyber-surveillance in Everyday Life, a group show featuring a range of artistic examinations of these ubiquitous monitoring techniques to add another facet to this much-needed public dialogue. The works featured within the exhibit deploy photography culled from across the web and playfully explore online protocols to highlight the tension between our access to and disclosure of both sensitive and banal data. In contextualizing the work, curators Alex Snukal and Rosie Spooner describe the digital realm as "amplifying the panoptic nature of surveillance" and fostering an environment where DMS "interacts with other aspects of digital culture, such as endless copying and the 'free' circulation of images and information." The following is a brief summary and response to the various pieces in the show.

David Bouchard, Bruno Lessard and Pierre Tremblay's Meta Incognita - variations transforms an archive of images from a webcam in the tiny hamlet of Kimmirut (on Baffin Island) into a stroboscopic video. Adopting the language of a multi-view CCTV display, the piece transforms stills from this remote site into a rapid-fire meditation on architecture and landscape. The time-lapse animation scrubs through day and night footage while related environmental data flashes onscreen; at times the image reflects horizontally and vertically to form a mandala of time, light and permutational signal processing. Embedding this curious window to the tundra in an urban gallery is an act of time-space compression that calls into question the distance to the subject outpost as well as the viewers' experience of this ephemeral terrain.

Standing in stark contrast to the fixed location of Tremblay, Lessard and Bouchard's hyper-documented site, Jon Rafman's The Nine Eyes of Google Street View and Derek Dunlop's A Lover's Geography further explore distance and the mediated gaze through the careful arrangement of images collected online. Rafman has selected eight pieces from his well-known screen capture series that catalogues unlikely and haunting scenes  archived within Google's Street View service. Forlorn figures stare out into bleak landscapes, a moose sprints down a highway and a parked van burns in the foreground of a residential neighbourhood -- dreamlike scenes from a vast utilitarian archive. Conversely, Dunlop’s A Lover's Geography cultivates an equally ambiguous narrative about interiority based on a 7x3 grid of low-resolution photographs of domestic settings. These tightly cropped snapshots of couches, beds and seating offer a voyeuristic glance into the intimate spatiality oftheir missing occupants. Situating Rafman's and Dunlop’s works side by side creates a palpable tension as the viewer is confronted with two measured approaches to organizing experience, living space clinically scanned while the roadway is recontextualized as a suite of absurdist storyboards.

The final two works in Cyber-surveillance in Everyday Life are less explicitly image-driven and instead explore performance and digital protocols. Kristen Atkins’ Portrayal Portal problematizes the notion of "personal" computing through the deadpan installation of her laptop within the open gallery space. Sittingly idly on a podium, the device is connected to another workstation and the artist broadcasts her activities remotely to any visitors who may be inspecting the work.  This is about as banal as you’d expect; during my visit, Atkins was checking her email, working on a blog post and rifling through music videos on YouTube. Tomer Diamant & Matthew Hannam’s Comment Like – Code of Quick Response is an elaborate visual pun executed through an anamorphic, sculptural QR Code that only reads from a specific vantage point within the InterAccess space. The 3D hyperlink coyly directs the viewer to a title card on a public Facebook page – the piece only provides context by pulling the viewer away from the gallery and does so under the watchful eye of Mark Zuckerberg. While each of these projects might be dismissed as one liners, the playful engagement with presence and perception adds another dimension to the show.

One is hard-pressed to identify a takeaway point from this group show beyond acknowledging the fact that DMS tactics and aesthetics can be readily redeployed within artistic production. Ultimately this body of work is best read as a provocation, critically interrogating how these representational and monitoring systems inflect public discourse and compromise personal (informational) space. Workshop co-organizer Kate Milberry astutely points out that the technological developments driving DMS engender a widespread “lackadaisical” approach to personal privacy. If the public defaults to the attitude endorsed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt --“if you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place” -- Milberry fears a slide into complacency where “state and corporate encroachments and the exploitation of personal data becomes inconsequential." 


Greg J. Smith writes Some Assembly Required, his monthly column at Current Intelligence. He is a Toronto based designer with interests in media theory and digital culture, managing editor of the digital arts publication Vague Terrain, and blogs at Serial Consign.