Now You See Me: Visualising the Surveillance State

PhotoAccess, Canberra, Australia

Curated by Ashley Lumb, Assistant Curator: Kate Matthews

7 November – 14 December

Artists: Jane Brown, Lewis Bush, Aaron Claringbold, Marcus DeSieno, Eliza Hutchison, Noelle Mason, Taryn Simon, David Spriggs

Now You See Me: Visualising the Surveillance State presents the work of eight international artists, whose practice aids to expose the usually obscured mechanisms of state control through a mix of photographic, textual, sculptural and filmic approaches. Exploring the inextricability of public and private spheres, the works embody the inherent tension of a system of surveillance whose purpose is the restriction of personal freedoms to maintain a specific status quo. Its omnipresence in our lives was demonstrated in 2013 by Edward Snowden, whose leaked reports revealed – among other things – court-approved access to American’s Google and Yahoo accounts, while the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 highlighted public ignorance to the socio-political manipulations of our online data.

Artists Jane Brown and Lewis Bush interrogate the history of state programmes of public surveillance. Brown’s work looks to the origins of CCTV in 1942 – then used to observe the launch of V-2 rockets in Peenemünde, Germany – while, in a sly reversal, Bush reveals the locations of Cold War numbers stations as well as their broadcasts, employing high-resolution satellite imagery and radio spectrograms. 

Although the Cold War ended in 1991, the monitoring of the public by the state has only increased, with four to six million CCTV cameras active in the UK – roughly one for every eleven people. Marcus Desieno’s impressionistic photographs illustrate the fallacious notion of privacy, especially in our highly networked age. Gaining untroubled access to CCTV feeds around the globe, he photographed their isolated landscapes from his computer screen, with these images of unpopulated mountains or barren deserts evidencing the modern impossibility of escaping observation. This technology is a powerful tool of social control: thinking ourselves watched, we monitor our own behaviour.

Noelle Mason and David Spriggs present video works that, although taking different aesthetical approaches, both convey the ‘othering’ effect of imaging technologies. Mason’s high-contrast, seven-minute video I Like America cuts between grainy footage of undocumented migrants at the US/Mexico border with footage of coyotes. Moving warily through the open landscape, these animals fall silently to the ground after the cross-hairs of night vision goggles have settled on them. This human/animal juxtaposition viscerally demonstrates the dehumanising effect of surveillance aesthetics, with the camera becoming the hunter and the objects of its gaze, prey.

Two of Mason’s cyanotypes are also included: uncannily exposing the featureless silhouettes of migrants amid the bowels of cargo transportation. Spriggs’ digital video evokes a similar scenario – a group of individuals imaged inside the cross-section of a Mercedes Benz truck. Hypnotically abstract, he visualises that which only technology can make visible to the human eye. Appearing to combine thermal imaging, CT and MRI scanning technology, electric blue light outlines the truck’s geometry against a pitch-black background. Inside, molten forms shimmer red and yellow like human lava lamps. Where Mason’s work is visually stark, Spriggs’ is kaleidoscopic; but both imply how surveillance technologies shape our perception of those imaged.

Taryn Simon’s photographs detail the plethora of items the US Customs and Postal Service detain daily – a collection of items from the exotic and aphrodisiac (Deer’s tongues) to the seemingly ordinary – while Eliza Hutchinson’s work emphasises psychological forms of control: her warped re-presentations of media images conveying latent perceptive distortions. A defiant counterpoint is provided by Aaron Claringbold, whose installation highlights overt instances of individual resistance to state control. His handmade lightbox supports a transparent book of images of protesters in Melbourne, cropped to focus on gestures and emotions (of hope, of fear) constitutive of protest in the public sphere.

Vividly illustrating the entanglement of the personal and the political through the singular visions of these eight photographers, Now You See Me: Visualising the Surveillance State offers a vibrant variety of work, implicitly challenging networks of obscurity and the veiled power of state control.

Jane E Brown, Untitled from the series A Black Crow Flew, 2019, hand printed silver gelatin print on fibre based paper, 34 cm x 34 cm

Jane Brown

“He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication,” wrote French philosopher Michel Foucault of the Bentham Panopticon. Surveillance as a means of social control is at the heart of the photographic series A Black Crow Flew. The series conveys a sense of disquiet and speaks directly to the invention of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) and the use of surveillance by totalitarian regimes. The title, A Black Crow Flew, references a legendary WWII radio broadcast that followed the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. When popular Czech broadcaster, František Kocourek, knew the Gestapo would censor his protests, spoke cryptically of a black crow flying over his occupied city. Kocourek was eventually arrested and died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. By looking to history the work intends to hold a mirror to contemporary society where state, corporate and mutual surveillance is all-pervasive, be it via data-mining, protection from terror or the self-censorship and groupthink that pervades social media.

Lewis Bush, Untitled, from Shadows of the State, 2017, inkjet print, 64 cm x 89 cm

Lewis Bush

The Cold War ended in 1991, but its echoes continue to this day. One example of this are numbers stations, mysterious shortwave radio broadcasts of coded messages believed to be intended for undercover agents. Shadows of the State adapts open source research and satellite image interpretation techniques in order to investigate these mysterious broadcasts and to locate the likely transmitter sites of thirty of these stations. These are then mapped using high-resolution satellite imagery and the signals themselves are made visible in the form of radio spectrograms alongside recordings and extensive information about each station. Shadows of the State is partly about the possibility of turning the practices and technologies of espionage back against their users, and in doing so bringing some light and accountability to a world which exists in stark contrast to these things. But it is also about the difficulties of exploring a topic where certainty is almost impossible to come by, and where paranoia, conspiracy and misinformation collide constantly with objective fact.

Aaron Claringbold, Untitled (Excerpt from Lightroom catalogue 6), 2016, 24 pp BW Artist Book – Giclée printing on glassine and spray adhesive, hemp string, reclaimed Victorian Ash, laser engraved opal acrylic, LED lighting componentry, 85 x 73 x 52 cm

Aaron Claringbold

This work is a custom made lightbox with a perspex surface that has metadata and image code laser engraved onto it. The lightbox supports a transparent artist book, bound into the table’s structure, and features a grid of cropped images that overlay and bleed into each other when viewed, resisting singular readings of the content and functioning sculpturally in terms of its bodily engagement.  The images themselves are taken from publicly accessible archives and originally depicted observations of and from protests in Melbourne. These have been cropped to focus on specific elements that attempt to communicate a range of interacting ideas (such as anxiety, fear, deferral to the young, hope, support, solidarity and the building of community) that Claringbold considers as the constitutive elements of ‘protest’ in the public space. ‘Surveillance’, as it is understood in our time,  has informed the literal and conceptual development of this work and is embedded in its physicality and in the reading of the work.

Marcus DeSieno, 48.294685, -113.241478.jpg from No Man’s Land – Views from a Surveillance State, 2018, inkjet print, 81 cm x 101 cm

Marcus DeSieno

In 2013, while hiking in Florida’s Everglades National Park, Marcus DeSieno encountered park rangers installing a camera into a tree. The rangers told DeSieno that, while the cameras were ineffective at night, their purpose was meant to instigate fear, “act as a symbol of power”, and discourage trespassers. Intrigued to find out which other remote places are recorded by surveillance cameras,  DeSieno embarked on a project in 2015 where he hacked into the live feed of tens of thousands of cameras on every continent except Antarctica, often with the generic username of ‘user’  and the password ‘1234’. DeSieno photographed screenshots on his computer and then employed a 19th-century photographic process to create salted paper negatives which he then turned into positives. DeSieno says “It was really about being a curator or archivist of this larger surveillance apparatus. What I want my viewers to be thinking about is why is this camera here, far removed from human presence.”  No Man’s Land focuses on the far-reaching effects surveillance has on our everyday lives and reminds us that we are never truly alone.

Eliza Hutchison, White Column from Balancing the Bandwagon, 2017, inkjet print, 90 cm x 132 cm

Eliza Hutchison

In her most recent series Balancing the Bandwagon, Eliza Hutchison re-photographs and reformulates the media image to explore the political zeitgeist. Extracting from the torrent of media images she re-applies photography’s indexical potential to unpack the referent image. Present and semiconscious, they ricochet between personal response and collective significance. By rephotographing and representing the media image, Hutchison mines it for its implicit yet undisclosed content. Here, she makes visible the turbulence of the psychological response and the seduction and duplicity of the media and its aesthetics. In White Column Hutchison has re-photographed an image of Sean Spicer speaking to the media and making false claims on the size of the crowd at the 2017 presidential inauguration.

Noelle Mason, Backscatter Blueprint (Vientre de la bestia) from the series X-Ray Vision vs Invisibility, 2018, Cyanotype, 38 cm x 55 cm

Noelle Mason

X-Ray Vision vs. Invisibility is a body of work about the phenomenological effects of vision technologies on the perception of undocumented immigrants. This project remediates images of the border into hand made objects to expose how new vision technologies (backscatter, x-ray, sonic, thermal and digital imaging) recycle Cartesian modes of viewing both land and body and in so doing reinforce a neocolonial social and political relationship with Mexico. In this work, Mason appropriates intrusive X-Ray photos taken by Border Control and prints them as cyanotypes, combining modern vision technologies with early photographic processes. Mason says this about the impact she wants her photos to have, “I want them to have an emotional reaction to the work that is non-binary. These images are usually editorialized in a way that creates a narrative that confirms a political point of view. Surveillance imagery can be really dehumanizing, and I hope that by changing the medium, the work becomes an advocation for the humanity of the people being transported. I am also interested in the historical nature of surveillance imagery, and how these new vision technologies continue to reinforce a colonial worldview.”

Noelle Mason, I Like America and America Likes Me, 2018, video

Noelle Mason

I like America uses appropriated video to reveal the way fetishized surveillance aesthetics are used to objectify and dehumanize undocumented immigrants crossing the US/Mexico border and the violence, which this type of mediation can promote.  Images taken from border patrol cameras and vigilante Minutemen are interwoven with footage from coyote hunts. The coyote, which is indigenous to the U.S. and Mexico, has played an important roll in native America folklore and has been considered an invading threat to livestock by farmers and ranchers.  The coyote, like humans, are social, territorial and highly adaptable, they are one of the few challengers to human control over the North American plains, even adapting to suburban areas.  Because of this, the coyote has been aggressively hunted across the United States.  Coyote is also the nickname given to human smugglers who guide groups of individuals across the US/Mexico border. I like America draws an aesthetic comparison between the coyote hunters and the emboldened Border Patrol and vigilante groups who use vision technologies to patrol the 2000 miles of US/Mexico often recording their hunts and trading the footage on-line.

Taryn Simon, Contraband, 2009, book: text by Hans Ulrich Obrist, 496 pp., 1090 ills. softcover

Taryn Simon

In Contraband, Taryn Simon’s photographs chronicle contradictory aspects of the American identity while exposing the veiled mechanisms of society. This work expands on her earlier series, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), that explored the covert intersection between private and public. In Contraband, 1,075 photographs were taken at both the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Federal Inspection Site and the U.S. Postal Service International Mail Facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York. From November 16, 2009, through November 20th, 2009, Taryn Simon remained on site and continuously photographed items detained or seized from passengers and express mail entering the United States from abroad. The list of items include: pork, syringes, Botox, GBL date rape drug, heroin, imitation Lipitor, Ketamine tranquilizers, Lidocaine, Lorazepam, locust tree seed, ginger root, deer tongues, cow urine, Cohiba cigars, Egyptian cigarettes. The book, which is on display at this exhibition, is an inventory of the illegal and the prohibited, but it’s also an attestation to the inventiveness of those trying to bring banned items into America and of those who try and prevent the illegal transportation of goods across international borders.

David Spriggs, The Visible Spectrum, 2015,  video

David Spriggs

The title of Spriggs’ first projection artwork, The Visible Spectrum, refers to the electromagnetic waves that can be seen by the human eye, particularly in contrast to the spectrum that can be identified through the use of technology. This work was originally part of a group exhibition ‘PRISM’ which references both the optical device that separates light into the spectrum of colour and the National Security Agency surveillance program. Sprigg’s video recalls issues of border controls, illegal substances and immigration, as well as the debate over national security and civil liberties. The animation presents an imagined X-ray view of a semi-truck, in a way that is not possible through existing technology that depicts images on a single plane. The electromagnetic spectrum depicts people inside the trailer in a manner similar to MRI’s and thermal imaging. In this work, technology and the human body are placed in contrast to one another. Probing the limits of human vision, this work asks the viewer to consider that which is visible vs. invisible.

About the Artists

Jane Brown–  Jane is an Australian artist who lives and works in Melbourne. Jane’s exquisitely composed landscapes and interiors are characterised by atmospheres of seduction and melancholy. Recent solo exhibitions include: Sporting Country, Arts West, University of Melbourne (2018); Sporting Country, Stills Gallery, Sydney (2017); Black Ships, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne (2016). Recent group exhibitions include: Unconscious Places: Photography and History, Grace Cossington Smith Gallery, New South Wales (2018); The Festival of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2017); An Unorthodox Flow of Images, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne (2017).

Lewis Bush – Lewis Bush is a British photographer, writer, curator, and educator who lives and works in London and is soon to be a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics Media and Communications department. Recent exhibitions include: Burning with Pleasure Photofusion, London (2017);  Uncensored Books Belgrade, Serbia (2017);  International Conference of Photography and Theory Nicosia, Cyprus (2017); Regeneration, Carmel by the Green, London (2016). Recent curated exhibitions include It’s Gonna be Great (2017), Images of Power (2016), Very Now (2016), Incomplete Images (2016), Magna Errata (2015).

Aaron Claringbold – Aaron Claringbold is an Australian artist who lives and works in Melbourne. Aaron is interested in the ways that working with images lends itself to the suggestion and potential of connections, and through the structures of showing and making art, valorises, and can reify these. Recent exhibitions include: I can see for Miles, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne (2018);  Australian Photobook of the Year Award, Wyndham Art Gallery (2017);  CLIP Award, Perth Centre for Photography (2017);  The Photobook Exhibition, Athens Photo Festival, Greece (2017).

Marcus DeSieno – Marcus DeSieno is an American artist that is interested in how the advancement of visual technology continually changes and mediates our understanding of the world. He received his MFA in Studio Art from the University of South Florida and is currently the Assistant Professor of Photography at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. DeSieno’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at the Aperture Foundation, Center for Fine Art Photography, Candela Gallery, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Rayko Photo Center, Center for Photography at Woodstock and was named a selection for Photolucida’s Critical Mass 50 and an Emerging Talent by Lensculture.

Eliza Hutchison – Eliza Hutchison is an Australian artist who lives and works in Melbourne. In a career stretching back to the 1990s, Eliza has worked to slice, shred, fold, mirror and sculpt photographic images, materials and surfaces to both activate and complicate the photograph’s chain of command. Recent solo exhibitions include: Ocean Snow,  the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne (2019) The difference between the eternal and the infinite, as part of The National, AGNSW (2019); Victorian Parliament Residency, (2019) as part of Photo 2020; Balancing the Bandwagon, Murray White Room, Melbourne (2017).

Noelle Mason – Noelle Mason is an American artist who is based in Tampa, Florida. Mason manipulates appropriated images, objects, and contexts to investigate and expose the subtle seductiveness of power facilitated by systems of visual control. Noelle received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her recent exhibitions include Artspace, Raleigh, NC;  Satellite, Miami Beach, FL;  Candela, Richmond, VA; Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, FL; Slocumb Gallery, Jackson City, TN;  University of Central Florida Art Gallery, Orlando, FL;  Mana Contemporary, Chicago, IL;  Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Tampa, FL.

Taryn Simon – Taryn Simon is an American artist who lives and works in New York. Simon’s work combines photography, text, graphic design and involves extensive research, in projects guided by an interest in systems of categorization and classification.  Recent solo museum exhibitions include Kunstmuseum Luzern, Switzerland (2018); George Eastman Museum, New York (2016); Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague (2016); Jeu de Paume, Paris (2015); Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2013); Helsinki Art Museum, Finland (2012); Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow (2012); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2012); Tate Modern, London (2011), and the Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva (2011).

David Spriggs – David Spriggs is a Canadian artist who is based in Vancouver. In his work, he explores phenomena, space-time and movement, colour, visual systems and surveillance, the strategies and symbols of power, and the thresholds of form and perception. David received his MFA from Concordia University in Montreal and has had recent exhibitions at museums such as Powerlong Museum in Shanghai; Messums, Wiltshire, UK; Arsenal Montreal, Canada; Prague Biennial 5, Czech Republic;  Louis Vuitton Gallery, Macau; and the Sharjah Biennal 9, UAE.

About the curators    

Curator – Ashley Lumb is an American curator currently working at the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan. A graduate of the MA History of Photography program from the University of St. Andrews, she has worked at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Arc One Gallery in Melbourne, the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, the Macleay Museum in Sydney, the British Museum, and Autograph ABP in London.  Ashley founded the curatorial collective Hemera as well as the New York Photography Diary and London Photography Diary and since 2013 has curated 25 exhibitions both individually and with Hemera.

Assistant Curator – Kate Matthews is an emerging curator and artist based in Canberra, Australia. Matthews is currently undertaking a Bachelor of Visual Art/Bachelor of Art at the Australian National University School of Art & Design and will graduate in early 2020. Matthews has worked extensively in the Canberra arts sector volunteering and interning at the National Gallery of Australia, Craft ACT: Craft + Design Centre and Belconnen Arts Centre. Matthews regularly exhibits her work in Canberra and across the surrounding region and is a tutor and mentor at PhotoAccess.
Sponsors: We would like to thank the following people and institutions for their generous support, without which this exhibition wouldn’t be possible: The FramersBayphotoMagnet, The National Library of Australia, Shout at CancerTyrvee Gallery, Silvi GlatteurHatje CantzCommand