Big Brother is watching you / The exhibition aiming to tackle surveillance and censorship

By: Janelle Retka - Posted on: June 19, 2018 | Culture & Life

Surveillance and censorship are becoming part and parcel of daily life around the world, and yet many citizens seem content to turn a blind eye to it. A new exhibition at Wei-Ling Gallery in Kuala Lumpur called Seen is addressing that issue. Curator Line Dalile brings together ten leading international and Malaysian artists, hoping that through documentary, photography and conceptual practice, the artwork can open people’s eyes to the modern threats encroaching on our privacy

An image from inside the gallery shows a series of photographs of surveillance cameras

The exhibit is meant to be one of the first in Southeast Asia to focus on surveillance, censorship and invisibility. What is the significance of this and its timing for you as the curator?
In times when political uncertainty and suspicion are heightened, notions of freedom, privacy and democratic rights re-emerge as points of discussion among artists and activists. I think it was of paramount importance to curate an exhibition that navigates and mirrors current anxieties regarding the state of surveillance, especially with the recent Facebook data scandal that alerted citizens worldwide to how a breach of trust between products and consumers and, likewise, government and individuals, is not at all unlikely; perhaps it is even more common than previously thought.

The aim of the exhibition is to explore how a growing number of artists and activists have interrogated, questioned or criticised contemporary practices of surveillance. From the overtly political, through the cynical, to the playful, a range of approaches were employed by artists, some of which have ‘referred’ to surveillance in their works; others have ‘appropriated’ and ‘recontextualised’ images and technologies of surveillance. Many of the artists are exhibiting their works for the first time in Malaysia and in Southeast Asia. Their works deal with issues of social visibility and invisibility, and some specifically question contemporary visibility regimes and their impact on urban space.

What do you expect visitors to walk away with?
I think as citizens we have succumbed to an ambivalent state in which we are willing to forget and look past the risks of surveillance technologies. In a way, we have been conditioned to consume the benefits of surveillance without full awareness of the risks that follow. With personalised advertising and constant connectivity comes massive data breaches and consolidation of personal information in the hands of corporate interests. What I hope this exhibition can help do is combat this ‘amnesia’ and the common tendency to forget and exist passively. I hope visitors walk away with a renewed sense of awareness and a deeper understanding of how much we are being shaped by surveillance policies and technologies. I also want visitors to realise that they can become active participants in the discourse surrounding surveillance by opposing policies that violate their personal data, and instead support and call for policies that protect their rights to privacy.

Are there any pieces and/or artists that stand out, and why?
Obscurity” by Paolo Cirio is particularly interesting in its approach. It is a hybrid art and social justice project that deploys strategies orientated to problem-solving as a form of internet social-art practice. The project targets American mugshot websites that collect and expose photos of people who have been arrested, irrespective of their type of offence. The owners of these websites are often anonymous and profit from this by placing reputation management adverts [on the site] or by charging a removal fee.

To combat this alarming issue, Cirio cloned the mugshot websites, scrambled the data profiles of the listed individuals, and obfuscated their identities. The algorithm employed by Cirio also boosts the ranking of the cloned websites in order to interfere with the activity of the original ones, thereby sabotaging their function.

This work particularly stands out because it culminates in an internet artwork that has a social function and can impact a problematic group of people, affected communities and push for new laws that promote transparency.

Heather Dewey Hagborg is another artist who is interested in art as research and critical practice. “Stranger Visions” is a fascinating, if slightly disconcerting, interdisciplinary experimentation that examines the potential for a culture of biological surveillance. “Stranger Visions” is the result of a line of questioning and experimentation that culminates in 3D printed portraits based on DNA samples taken from objects found on the streets of Brooklyn. What the work alerts us to is how individuals can be ‘surveilled’ even if they are physically absent.

Other works exhibited make the visitors aware of their own bodily and psychological relation to the distortions of normative space caused by surveillance technologies.

For example, in “It’s not a viscous cycle, it’s downward spiral”, the visitor peeks through a gap in the wall where military drone and security camera footage of the Paris terrorist attack are being projected. The viewer is positioned as a surveillor, mimicking the movements of a Peeping Tom as he tries to tilt his head left and right in order to access the work and get a glimpse of the footage. Similarly, the reflective surface of H.H Lim’s “Target” allows the viewer to simultaneously view the work while also surveilling the space behind him.

What is next for you as a curator?
I see curating as a field where I can engage with social practise and activism. For me, every exhibition I curate has to respond, in one way or another, to various anxieties and preoccupations, or attempt to navigate questions that I have.

For this year, I hope to realise a few more exhibitions that follow a similar path, in that their themes and content navigate, interrogate and mirror current social and political uncertainties.

Seen will be showing from 3 May to 1 July 2018 at Wei-Ling Contemporary. For more information, see their website.