University of the West of England. BA Art & Social Context “Surveillance” by Richard Proffitt.
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Surveillance: Artists' Approaches

Contextualised Practice: Evaluation Report. Module: A842S3

by Richard Proffitt September 1997.
Updated in May-July 2015


  • Krzyszof Wodiczko
  • Ivan Unwin
  • Andrew Charmical
  • Susan Trangmar
  • Pavel Büchler
  • Pat Naldi & Wendy Kirkup
  • I have gathered a small amount of documentation of artwork produced by various artists on the subject of surveillance. Each of the artists chose different aspects of the subject to influence their work. Whilst the work that I’ve looked at has been quite diverse, the intention of the artists to scrutinise and intercept the mechanisms of surveillance is the same. There is adesire to corrupt the power and authority that are interwoven in the surveillance systems – and the institutions that operate these systems.

    Constructivism was an artistic and architectural philosophy that originated in Russia beginning in 1919 and was a rejection of the idea of autonomous art. The movement was in favour of art as a practice for social purposes.

    Beginning with the Polish born artist Krzyszof WodiczkoKrzyszof Wodiczko
    (born April 16, 1943) is an artist renowned for his large-scale slide and video projections on architectural facades and monuments.Wikipedia
    , we find a sensibility influenced by living within a totalitarian state. Wodiczko, by 1970, came to the conclusion that the artist in society best served his fellow citizens by seeking ‘not to contribute to the further organisation of the ‘rhythms of life’ but to interrupt, interfere and intervene with the already highly organised ‘rhythms of life’ This comment was intended as a reversal of the quotation given by the influential Polish ConstructivistConstructivism was an artistic and architectural philosophy that originated in Russia beginning in 1919 and was a rejection of the idea of autonomous art in favour of art for social purposes. Wikipedia Władysław StrzemińskiWładysław Strzemiński
    (1893 – 1952) was a Polish avant-garde painter. He formulated his theory of Unism (Unizm in Polish). He is an author of a book titled "The theory of vision."Wikipedia
    , who claimed that the aim of the arts was to organise the ‘rhythms of life’.

    Wodiczko began creating a series of works that commented on the government control of the airways, on the isolation of the artist and on surveillance.

    ‘Corridor’ (1972) is an important piece in terms of its reflection of the panoptic experience. Corridor is constructed from a passageway partially bisected by a wall and equipped with four mirrors that allow one to continually view one’s own reflection from behind. Thereby trapping the viewer in a form of perpetual self-surveilllance.

    Focussing on the power relationship involved in ‘Corridor’ we have the familiar psycho-political situation; In the video ‘Bunker for Mr Capitol MP’ by Ivan Unwin, the audience is removed from the self-surveillance viewpoint and given the privileged gaze of the surveyors. The video provides an unfolding narrative; the character in Unwin’s piece is a dignitary who is moving through a series of tasks necessary for his survival in a nuclear bunker. To emphasise the reversal of the privileged gazeGaze is a term popularized by psychologist Jacques Lacan. The psychological effect, is that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realizing that he or she is a visible object.Wikipedia, the artist constructed a set of elevated chairs in which to watch the video. I think that the point being made here is an important one: that the surveillance situation not only imprisons the surveyed - but also entraps the surveyor; who is caught in a fear of his subject as well as a compulsion to voyeurism.Voyeurism is the sexual interest in or practice of spying on people engaged in intimate behaviors, such as undressing, sexual activity, or other actions usually considered to be of a private nature Wikipedia

    Unwin’s work and that of six other artists appeared at an exhibition at the Icon gallery in Birmingham in 1989, titled ‘Searchlight’ the exhibition specifically addressed issues relating to surveillance. There are three other artists who took part in the show that influenced my own understanding and working processes. They are; Andrew Charmical, who created an installation called, ‘The Cinema’ (1989); Susan Trangmar’sSusan Trangmar Artworks arise from specific landscape, architectural and social contexts and explore differing cultural productions and representations of space and ‘Lines of Fire’ (1988-89) and Pavel Büchler’sProfessor Pavel Büchler is an artist, teacher and occasional writer who describes his practice as “making nothing happen”.
    Manchester School of Art
    ‘Untitled Portraits’ (1988).

    Charmichal’s ‘The Cinema’ uses a mixture of wire mesh and wooded sash windows with cast aluminium television cases to produce a kind of hollow building. He said that he wanted to make a film from the mechanics, without subject other that the means. I liked this approach and similarly felt that the mechanisms themselves should be allowed to speak for themselves in some way - in order to release themselves from being mere tools of surveillance.

    In Susan Tragmar’s ‘Lines of Flight (Part One)’ images of crowds are projected on the wall, floor and ceiling. These are taken from mass-circulation magazines and are ‘stranded’ without caption, dialogue or reference. Reminiscent of the types of images created under a spotlight or high powered searchlight (‘night-sun’ surveillance technology for example) the work seems to mimic the way surveillance dislocates the subject. The subjects are devoid of previous meaning or context and seem uncertain and suspicious. Subject becomes suspect when represented in this way.

    Similarly, Pavel Büchler’s ‘Untitled Portraits’ treat the subject to an almost forensic scrutiny. 25 portraits have been singled out from a press cutting of an unknown crowd and enlarged to a point where the image of the photograph breaks up. Clearly, when an inquisitive look focusses so closely, insignificant detail becomes loaded with meaning, whilst the true context becomes blurred and obscured.

    The works mentioned above were presented in a gallery context and are therefore, restricted to the problematic relationships that this space can assume. The following piece that I’d like to look at was sited in the commercial district of Newcastle Upon Tyne. Entitled ‘Search’, this video performance by Pat NaldiPat Naldi has a preoccupation with the geopolitical concerns of mapping, addressing notions of site, space, vision, landscape, identity, and the development of modern technologies. and Wendy KirkupWendy Kirkup studied at Brighton Polytechnic and Newcastle Polytechnic. She was Associate Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle. Locus+ is a more recent response to surveillance, influenced by the increasingly more visible CCTV networks. The work was broadcast on Tyne Tees Television in 1993.

    Surveillance has been an issue with which Naldi and Kirkup have approached artistically before. It was the knowledge that Northumbrian Police were installing a CCTV system that provoked the development of ‘Search’. The work consisted of a synchronised walk by the two artists that was recorded by the police’s CCTV system. The enactment of a detective story provided the narrative; one artist donned a trench coat (archetypal detective wear) and searches for clues. As privileged viewers, we play out our desire to know through the detective who initiates a ‘chase’ of the quarry (the other artist).

    “Search” by Pat Naldi & Wendy Kirkup. 1993.


    As their documentation explains: In the closing stages of the video, the protagonists reveal themselves to be women, and to stare questioningly at the viewer (us). The viewer/audience is again give the ‘active’ viewpoint and a scrutinising gaze - in opposition to the ‘passive’ and surveyed subject; this is the unequal distribution of knowledge apparent in all surveillance systems. The radical turn-around of the end sequence where the detective is seen to be female provides a discord with the traditional popular cultural images as detective being male. The artists intended here to echo the reality that a disproportionate amount of male officers are promoted to the status of detective within the police service.

    Also worth noting is the fact that it is mainly men who operate CCTV systems - another extension of the patriarchal gaze. The fact that the male is met with the returning female gaze in the last scene challenges the ideological values within the spectator scenario.

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