Smile. Chances are you’re on camera. ‘Now You See Me: Visualising the Surveillance State’ provides an incisive exploration of the ubiquity of surveillance technologies; referencing strategies of observation and power from the 18th century and illustrating their intensified application in our modern world. Underpinning the exhibition, curated by Ashley Lumb with assistance by Kate Matthews, is a structuring dichotomy of visibility and invisibility, with the influence of the Panopticon – an architectural fixture designed by Jeremey Bentham in 1785 for use in prisons – looming large over the history of modern surveillance.
Quoting the philosopher Michel Foucault, Jane E. Brown elucidates the Panopticon’s psychological efficacy: while the prisoner is seen, “he does not see; he is an object of information.” Uncertain whether they are being watched, the inmate monitors their own behaviour. Brown links this system of control to the implementation of CCTV in the latter half of the 20th century, with the text accompanying ‘Riot? Kings Lynn, Norfolk’ (2019) detailing that town’s singular status as the first to have CCTV installed for public observation. Her brooding images evoke unease over its totalitarian history and contemporary scope. In one photograph, the view of a single camera aligns with the injunction to “STOP” written on a Parisian pathway, stressing the technology’s authoritarian function. The final image meanwhile depicts a house appropriated by the Gestapo during World War II; referencing Germany’s use of surveillance (“listening devices”) to identify dissenters in occupied Czechoslovakia.
Opposite, Marcus DeSieno’s impressionistic landscapes build on this sense of pervasive observation. Photographing screenshots of live camera feeds from almost every continent, which are then developed using 19th century salt paper processing, these eerily beautiful black and white images depict uninhabited, barren locales. While most individuals would consider themselves “off grid” in such isolated areas, DeSieno’s appropriation of CCTV images convey a fallacious notion of privacy. Using coordinates rather than place names, these geographically anonymous images highlight the totalising encroachment of surveillance in our highly networked age. They are nowhere in particular because they are everywhere.
Where DeSieno and Brown illustrate the enigmatic nature of surveillance, Lewis Bush locates and represents “forms of invisible power that operate in the world”. Aesthetically striking, six geometrically abstract images from his ‘Shadows of the State’ (2018) series stretch across one white wall, alternating between HD satellite images of suspected numbers stations – relics of the Cold War – and radio spectrograms of their coded broadcasts. Rendering this covert system visible, Bush posits his intention to hold the “arbitrary and untransparent” nature of power to account. Similarly, Aaron Claringbold’s cropped transparencies of protestors in Melbourne layered on a handmade lightbox present a dynamic evocation of public resistance to the state, while Eliza Hutchison re-photographs a media image of Sean Spicer giving his first conference as Press Secretary. Angrily denying reports that President Trump’s inauguration was poorly attended – despite supporting photographic and statistical evidence – the visually skewed ‘White Columum’ (2017) reveals the subjective distortions latent in the media, particularly in a world of post-truth politics.
Taryn Simon’s photobook ‘Contraband’ (2009) provokes the question, posed by Hans Ulrich Obrist: “What threatens authority and security in today’s world?” The answer seems to be a combination of the exotic, edible, counterfeit and aphrodisiac. Displayed in a vitrine are a selection of prints highlighting the strange array of items confiscated by US Customs and the US Postal Service. Illustrating a large demand for designer goods and sex aids are Simon’s inventory of detained deer tongues, fake designer gloves and stimulants. While Noelle Mason focuses on prohibited people rather than prohibited goods, their treatment by the state is fairly similar. Her two cyanotypes, re-processed X-rays from the US/Mexico border, seek to invest humanity back into the representation of migrants. The aesthetic of ‘Backscatter Blueprint (Vientre de la bestia)’ (2018) bestows a fleshy physicality to the subjects’ bodies, while visualising an intimate tangle of arms and legs and highly emotive gestures.
‘I Like America and America Likes Me’ (2018) plays on loop in the adjacent room, Mason’s filmic comment on the perceptual effect of thermal, digital and sonic imaging techniques. A camera tracks a row of migrants through the dark landscape at the US border, their blurry silhouettes intercut with coyote hunts. Mason expresses the latent violence of these mediating technologies as the crosshairs of a rifle from this latter footage rest on their prey. David Spriggs’s animation ‘The Visible Spectrum’ (2015) punctuates the static photography in the long hall. It provides a neon contrast to Mason’s monochrome meditation; a four-minute, hypnotic video of individuals on a semi-truck, envisioned using a mixture of thermal, MRI and CT scan imagery.
Conceptually varied and visually bold, ‘Now You See Me’ provides a multi-media challenge to the mechanisms of state power, employing both analogue photographic processes and modern imaging techniques to visualise the intentionally obscured. It’s an urgent reminder of the erosion between private and public spheres, brought to public attention by figures like Edward Snowden when he leaked the existence of the NSA’s PRISM programme in 2013. Exploring the (mis)use of surveillance and given its extensive scope in our modern world, where one CCTV camera exists per eleven people in Britain, this fascinating exhibition illustrates the importance of rendering hidden systems of public control discernible.