Surveillance video as art?

Artists create 'art' using software and CCTV to spot faces on the streets


"I came to these works in an innocent way simply because I wanted to use the sensor technology," says Moeller. "But in these political times, the acceptance of what you might call the transparent citizen has become stunningly high." Ultimately, however, Moeller aims to delight, not instruct. "I'm most excited by that moment when somebody responds to my work and says, 'Oh, look at how smart, how nasty, how tricky this is.' "

Like Mojo, ACCESS Spotlight System follows people with a robotically operated beam of light. Created by Los Angeles-based artist Marie Sester to explore "the edges between scary and playful," the people-tracking museum installation, touring internationally since 2001, intrigues San Francisco MoMA curator Rudolf Frieling.

"A straightforward critique of institutional surveillance practices is not enough anymore," says Frieling, who plans a 2008 exhibition including surveillance-themed work, tentatively titled "Toward Participation in Art." Compared to the closed-circuit video experiments popular in the 1970s, media artists today operate in a more complicated societal context, he says.

"The historical framework, from Orwell's 1984 to YouTube 2007, represents a major shift in our culture. Artists like Marie Sester cleverly address this ambiguous ground, where the public response has changed from 'Big Brother is taking over' to the sense now that 'It's OK, it's part of my security.' "

Some artists question the cost of that security. After Hasan Elah mistakenly wound up on the FBI's terrorist watch list in 2002, the Bangladeshi-born Rutgers professor created TrackingTransience.net, an impudent exercise in self-surveillance in which he documents his own whereabouts via 20,000 time-stamped digital photos. Canadian artist Steve Mann and his cohorts dress themselves in camcorder-embedded T-shirts, bustiers and backpacks, then parade through stores to challenge the assumption that security cameras need only point in one direction -- at the customers.

By contrast, performance artist Jill Miller chose to play the heavy for her recent "Collectors" show at San Francisco's 2nd Floor Projects gallery. After training with a private investigator, she spent six months secretly photographing five Bay Area art collectors as they went about their daily business. The exhibition includes FBI-style flow charts diagraming each collector's "Residence," "Family and Friends" and "Activities." Miller also published "Them" a tabloid parody crammed with photographs of her unwitting subjects. "I started this project just wanting to observe the anthropological side of things," she says, "but when I looked over all these shots I realized, I'm really just making another OK! magazine. There's this sense of privacy we want to protect, yet at the same time, how many of those celebrity magazines are out there? To me that's an interesting contradiction."

Miller adds that "Collectors" was "meant to provoke," but as it turned out, none of her subjects complained. In fact, one collector purchased a flip book featuring pictures Miller had taken of his home.

While surveillance-themed artistic activity has surged in the United States since 9/11, European creative types have been crafting works in this vein since the '80s. Current practitioners include architect/designer Jason Bruges. Early in 2007 he rigged London Bridge with motion sensors that transmitted signals from pedestrians' mobile phones to generate a continuously mutating matrix of colored lights on the nearby Tower Bridge.

Speaking from London, the world's most heavily surveilled city, Bruges says, "Real-time tracking and information gathering will only get more sophisticated. I think it's very important to subvert these technologies and use them in a playful way so people become less scared and more comfortable with this technology that already surrounds them."

But how comfortable should citizens feel in the face of increasingly punctilious tracking systems? Thomas Y. Levin, author of "CTRL [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother" (MIT Press) and curator of Princeton University's 2001 exhibition "Anxious Omniscience: Surveillance and Contemporary Cultural Practice," notes, "You have to ask yourself when you're looking at this art: What kind of intervention is it making? Is it teaching people something they don't know? Is this stuff making people sensitive to a dimension of the surveillance economy that they might not have been aware of? Does the work empower us to take up different positions or ask new questions?"