In times of great technological change, constant interaction on social media and omnipresent portable devices, millions of people are both the unconscious victims and perpetrators of intrusive surveillance practices. By simply using Google Maps, downloading apps, or sharing information with friends on Facebook or Twitter, we risk our privacy.
A new photography exhibition in Berlin reflects upon these modern vulnerabilities and the different forms of surveillance throughout history. “Watched! Surveillance Art & Photography,” organized by the c/o Berlin Foundation and hosted by the America Haus, assumes a particular meaning given its location.
Berlin was rife with spies and surveillance conducted by the secret police of two authoritarian regimes during the 20th century: the Nazi regime’s Gestapo, and the German Democratic Republic’s Ministry of State Security, or Stasi.
Given these historical precedents, the recent debates and sensitivities when it comes to spying, public surveillance and data collection in Germany come as no surprise, especially after the 2013 revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency was even tapping Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.
Other work, like that of Ai Weiwei, offer original solutions on how to react to surveillance.
The artwork focuses on the inevitability of modern surveillance, which many of the artists have experienced themselves. Take American artist Jill Magid, who in 2004 spent 31 days strolling through the streets of Liverpool wearing a bright red trench coat to be filmed by City Watch, the largest system of the U.K.’s video surveillance apparatus in England. Her work lays bare the absurd and pervasive control of the public sphere by authorities that assume the role of Big Brother, both friend and enemy at the same time.
Other work, like that of Ai Weiwei, offer original solutions on how to react to surveillance. In 2012 the famous Chinese artist and dissident was released from prison and put in a sort of “probation under surveillance,” with cameras all around his house. He reacted by installing additional cameras inside his bedroom, office and garden. The move outraged the Chinese authorities, which forced him to turn them off to stop this form of “control over their control.”
A similar trick was used by Hasan Elahi, a man arrested at Detroit airport in 2002 on charges of having taken part in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and placed under surveillance despite insufficient proof of his guilt. The artist’s contribution to the exhibition features a series of pictures taken while going to the toilet, entering buildings, eating or teaching. He regularly posts such photos on his website as a form of protest against the hostile American authorities.
These are just some examples of the modern excesses of surveillance, but the exhibition’s theme has its roots in the distant past, as highlighted by the book by Michalis Valaouris, “The Field Has Eyes, The Wood has Ears.” The work takes its name from a woodcut that dates back to 1546, showing a man walking through a forest in which eyes shoot up from the ground and ears grow on trees. Despite the rather obscure meaning of the picture, the man looks afraid, an emotion that is substantiated by the presence of a rabbit, an ancient symbol of fear.
According to the curators, the artists “probe the need for safety and security, which is frequently used as an argument for increasing surveillance while often ignoring the problems of discriminatory controls and criminalization that follow,” inviting the viewer to question his role in this practice.
This article originally appeared in Handelsblatt’s sister publication, Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel.