Surveillance.02 / Curator’s Statement, March 2015
East Wing gallery, Dubai, UAE
Surveillance.02 comprises the work of interdisciplinary artists whose practices incorporate camera, satellite, and drone to question corporate and state surveillance, and energy production. These artists are grappling with the human side of the global war on terror, exposing humanity’s permanent wounding of the environment, and engaging with state systems of power and control. At the center of the tensions and anxieties they pursue are the major tangles of convenience and privacy, individual and type, freedom and security.
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin’s Shtik Fleisch Mit Tzvei Eigen (Yiddish insult meaning “piece of meat with two eyes”) is a rhyming portrait series created by co-opting a four-lens, facial recognition camera developed for public security and border control in Russia. Broomberg & Chanarin are probing the evasive mask this type of photographing gives to people. They categorized their sitters according to the social types that August Sander identified in his survey of German society in the 1900s—including “the philosopher” and “the woman of the soil.” Shtik grafts our current preoccupation with data profiling onto Sander’s classic project, demonstrating how elemental it is. Aesthetically, the multiple takes in Shtik are modeled on Helmar Lerski’s non-heroic portraits, which sought to undermine the proposition that photography could reveal anything innate or relevant about a person based on her/his position in society.
Broomberg & Chanarin convey the architecture of the face and its unknowability. Their piece acknowledges the classification mania germane to all societies, and also mocks the idea, driving state and corporate data profiling, that individuals can be “known.”
Massimo Berruti’s Hidden Wounds is an ongoing portrait series of people in North Waziristan who have been affected by drone strike events; some have been injured, others have lost family members. Their trauma ripples outward in rings of collateral damage: phobias induced by the violence of the attacks and consumption of drugs to balance the strikes' destabilizing aftermath. Access to North Waziristan is forbidden for journalists, so for victims afraid of being discovered by secret services, Berruti photographs in the places he uses for accommodation.
The narrative of Berruti’s somber, intimate pictures lends a quiet charge to the men. In such close encounters, tenderness collapses the distance we typically feel in regard to the drone war—the men are imaginable individuals. Pervading the images is a sense of both modesty and outrage. All subjects are brave enough to risk being traced by the authorities, to show up. Implicit in their posing is the admission, “I am hurt.”
Another kind of woundedness appears in Land Marks, by Jenny Odell. Comprising satellite photos of mining, excavation, plutonium production, waste storage, and fracking sites, Odell erases "the ground" or the natural settings around these sites. In Athabasca Oil Sands, she has taken out the boreal forest that surrounds the tailings ponds and excavated areas of the mine. What’s left are just the interlaced parts: excavated ground, trails, roads, cars, buildings, waste ponds.
Odell’s aim is to reveal everything by removing everything else. In this way, she isolates the structure and makes it more legible as a system. The resulting faint etchings are each a topographical ode to systems, a clearly-traced, sprawling circuitry of byways, bulbed and squared-off cul-de-sacs, and delicate threads akin either to neural ganglia in the brain, or architectural blueprints. One comes away with the impression that deep intelligence and colossal waste have been mapped.
Like Odell, Tomas van Houtryve looks at earth from above, via the pixelated video feed of a drone. Appropriating the tradition of aerial photography in war, to make Blue Sky Days, he attached his camera to a drone, and then flew his contraption over America’s heartland. The beauty of his photographs arises from the formal regularity of what’s in the frame. Yet, bound up with the exhilaration of this bird’s eye view is an eerie, ominous power. As van Houtryve flew his drone, he found scenes that echoed jarringly with Yemeni and Pakistani situations attacked by U.S. hellfire missile drone strikes. Thus, his images also contain the moment before total destruction. The picture of the wedding, with the flower girl looking up at Tomas’s camera, recalls the 2013 Yemeni wedding convoy hit by four U.S. drone missiles that killed 12+ people. The shift in context is how Tomas illuminates what it feels like to be a target.
Making its premiere here, Edmund Clark’s video installation Virtue Unmann’d plays on traditions of virtue and sacrifice in war in both the British aerial bombardment of Pakistan in 1937, and contemporary battlefields (the tribal areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan) that are now experiencing U.S. drone strikes. Virtue is the result of Clark’s collaborating with Pakistani artists and Waziris directly affected by drone strikes. His soundtrack is voiceovers in Pashto, Latin, and British English, of Horace’s war poem valorizing young men who die for their country. Watching the footage of young Waziri boys idling in a field juxtaposed with footage of Reaper drones, Horace’s ancient words come alive with foreboding. Clark has closed a circle; the power dynamics, once between the British and Waziris, are now between America and Waziris. Most important, he has manifested visual imagery for a war that has so little imagery—there are no boots on the ground in Waziristan, no body bags are brought home to disturb the media. The death and destruction is as vaporous as a Latin ode.
Finally, the pockets of beauty and absurdity that abound in surveillance art come to the fore with Yann Mingard’s Deposit, a five-year documentation of organic and digital data storage that mixes photography, literature, science, and art. Mingard focuses on “banks” that, under governmental and/or private surveillance, house human and animal DNA samples, agricultural seeds, and vast amounts of digital data generated by our traveling the pathways of the Internet. Mingard explicitly styles his images to underscore the secrecy and defensiveness that undergirds these enterprises, as well as the legal, philosophical, and scientific problems that riddle their operations. Darkened bunkers and caves; half lit, claustrophobic spaces; unmarked doors that look ancient, abandoned, and impossible to open; vials of blood or sperm against black backgrounds. His images embody our blindness as we witness Earth’s sixth massive wave of plant and animal extinctions in the past half-billion years.
Deposit is a photographic compendium organized with an index (on display in the East Wing library here) that possesses a natural poetry. Index entries and captioning such as Frozen Ark, Genesis, Apocalypse, and Armageddon, indicate how Christian doomsday themes have been encoded into our drive to conserve and preserve, our intense connection with the end.
We want viewers to come away from this show able to appreciate the beauty, elegance and weirdness of its imagery, and the persistent curiosity underlying the artists’ practice. The people making this art place themselves quietly but directly on the chessboard of geopolitics, national security, the Internet’s intrusive dominance, our global war on terror, Google’s all-seeing nine eyes, the fluid notion of privacy. We draw energy from their boldness because they are trying to draw coherence out of what is morally frictionless, invisible, and distant. If there is joy in this exhibit, it stems from their scrutiny of systems of power and control, whatever the brand, face, or flag attached.
- Anna Van Lenten & Liza Faktor