Surveillance art: Genre and political action

Cherine Fahd, The Sleepers, 2005-08 (series detail), 2008, Lamda photograph. Courtesy the artist. 

The genre of surveillance art is multidisciplinary but it usually coheres around lens-based and sometimes performance practices. The genre arrived on the critical agenda in the 1970s and 1980s with the attention given to Foucault’s political analyses of the gaze in Discipline and Punish and The Birth of the Clinic (translated into English in 1979 and 1973). In Foucault’s terms: “Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance”.[1] This new regime toppled the scopic regimes of Western ocular centricism because it implicated everyone in the disciplinary process. Subsequently a generation or more of literature concerned with the gaze and power spawned a plethora of artwork which homed in on the disciplinary aspects of the gaze.

As Sandra S. Phillips argues, these practices are often characterised by distance, abstraction and ambiguity.[2]In the Australian context, Jane Burton creates mysterious and illusive scenes by photographing houses from the street, as if looking into people’s lives surreptitiously; we envisage a stalker or a predator (I did it for you, 2005). Paul Batt photographs unsuspecting customers at his local service station through a telephoto lens. He remains safely ensconced in his apartment across the street. The people at the gas station are captured unawares (Service Station Portraits, 2006). Similarly Cherine Fahd photographs people in Paris cooling off under sprinklers installed along the river Seine during the heatwave of 2003. The telephoto lens enables her to capture the pleasure and near ecstasy of these people in a series titled The Chosen.

Paul Batt from the series Service Station Portraits, 2006; Type C print. Courtesy the artist and Shifted Gallery.

Burton’s photo-series are clearly performative in that she makes them up: they are imagined theatricals that rely on a photographic mise-en-scène created by the photographer to deliver us into a particular conceptual space. Fahd and Batt operate more like predators and voyeurs and it is this aspect that makes the photographs compelling in the art world and the art market. They are photographs of what we shouldn’t really be looking at: they are invasions of privacy; these people have been caught on film without knowing it.

In these instances the artists play to the desires of the spectator, they deliver what is usually unseen: private moments where the subject has not posed for the camera. These are the pictures we secretly desire of ourselves: we long to see how we appear to the other when we are not conscious of the gaze. It is as if this mode of photography is capturing a truth that has been denied to us and it is this aspect that seduces us the most.

This may appear to be some distance away from Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon yet it is related. Foucault writes about surveillance and the ‘eye of God’. In photographic history this eye of God becomes the camera and it is not a beneficent god. In many respects this interpretation is not new in the history of Western photography. Susan Sontag wrote On Photography in 1973 and famously analysed the work of Diane Arbus, saying:

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder–a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.[3]

Arbus herself said: “I am creeping forward on my belly like they do in war movies . . . God knows, when the troops start advancing on you, you do approach that stricken feeling where you perfectly well can get killed.”[4]

Catherine Bell, Mum’s the Word, video still (series detail), 2010. Courtesy the artist, 2010.

Australian artist Catherine Bell used a spy camera to photograph black American nannies caring for white babies in Central Park West during the summer of 2010. The series Mum’s the Word includes undercover video footage taken in the park and in the subway. Bell says she knew this was unethical but in her imagination she was playing out a fantasy of surveillance; perhaps she was employed to spy on the nannies by the parents, the immigration department or a child kidnapping syndicate.

Her practice would certainly have appeared suspicious to the authorities. In fact, at the time, the New York Mayor’s Office was involved with passing an amendment to a controversial bill which restricted filming in the vicinity of New York, including the city’s parks. Bell describes this as “stealth art” where the public is used in involuntary ways. There is a feeling of excitement as Bell describes her secretive practice; it is as if she films the nannies to fulfil her own desire as an artist–to experience the trepidation and the risk of being caught.

This predatory shooting by photographers has had seriously bad press in the realms of photojournalism and yet contemporary artist-photographers embracing similar means have more recently been celebrated; especially, it seems, when they invade the privacy of others. This is predicated on Foucault’s society of surveillance, although I doubt he intended it to be used in this way, or envisioned its extensions into such realms. Foucault, I am sure, meant his analysis to compel us to take note of the political implications of such a structure.

Foucault asserts that power comes from below, and argues that we comply with the civil and corporate disciplinary structures via the surveillance machine. We regulate our own behaviours because, like the prisoner in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison, we know we are being monitored and so we conform. And yet, our contemporary society, despite warnings from George Orwell, Michel Foucault and a cast of others, has, ironically embraced surveillance in a bizarrely Warholian sense. This is most apparent in social media where millions of people regularly upload their most intimate moments via webcam on to YouTube hoping that their video images will become “viral” and catapult them into the fifteen minutes of fame promised by Warhol. Foucault was right on one level–we certainly do comply with mechanisms of power–we happily embrace the mechanisms devised to control us and turn them into a kind of freefall celebration.

It is certainly possible to establish an aesthetics of surveillance and it may be possible to categorise this in terms of political complacency and political activism. When the surveillance theme first entered critical theory and started to be recognised as a trope that could easily be mined for artistic output, the overriding aspect was political. This is most apparent in post-colonial studies where ethnographic archives were revisited by indigenous and non-indigenous artists across the world. Fiona Foley, Alan Cruickshank, Linda Sproul, Warren Neidich, Destiny Deacon and Darren Siwes, amongst many others, have addressed the historical archive and the ways in which it has put indigenous subjects under the control of a hegemonic Western gaze.

This work seeks to act up against the prevailing society of surveillance in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and to insert a voice of resistance by re-performing the archive for the contemporary camera. The re-analysis of the archive is also apparent in gender studies. Anne Ferran’s work at the Ross Female Factory in Tasmania effectively revisits this prison workhouse to reconstruct the horrible narrative of oppression and incarceration which was experienced by the women. Concentrating on the absence of the women and refiguring traces of history, Ferran constructs a political-poetics which draws attention to the disappeared.

All these works encounter the sociological, anthropological and/or ethnographic archive as the gaze of power is re-analysed by the artists. Here we see a political intent on the part of the artist–a compulsion to act up against the “eye of power”, to demonstrate an acting otherwise: a refusal to be compliant as artists seek out those instances that have been forgotten, those in which people have disappeared into history without a trace. These artists seek to redress the historical record.

I am suggesting that there is a popularisation of the surveillance mode and there is also a politicisation. There’s a cool, distant, abstract, surveillance genre which delivers the unseen of our secret desires: sometimes this is titillating and sexy. Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows, 1993-94, is a series of photographs taken from one of her friends’ apartments which looked across to a Wall Street men’s club. Alpern recorded the sex, drug and money deals in a series of grainy black and white images that mimic the genre of pornography.

Added to these are images of political sites seen from a distance, these appear mundane, ordinary and, although political in origin, have little to commend them as art without thorough contextualisation usually through written texts. These are mostly images that begin life outside the art world: war images, CIA photos, and, in Australia, recently released pictures from ASIO files of surveillance showing Aboriginal activist Gary Foley and other political trouble-makers entering Melbourne’s Trades Hall over a period of decades. These are images from the archives of the State rather than images made as art but they find their way into the art world as examples of the surveillance genre; giving credibility perhaps to artists’ explorations of similar themes.

Activist artists have been engaging with the power structure of surveillance mechanism for many years. The Surveillance Camera Players was established in New York in 1996. It brings together an informal group of people who are opposed to the use of surveillance cameras in public space. In the tradition of the Situationist International and agitprop theatre they have performed numerous plays for camera, including George Orwell’s 1984 and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Their work was quickly disseminated via YouTube and gave rise to similar groups emerging in Europe and Australia.

Denis Beaubois, In the Event of Amnesia the City will Recall ... Part 1, performance Sydney 1996-97, video still. © Denis Beaubois. Courtesy Denis Beaubois.

These activist art groups create protest actions for CCTV cameras in major cities throughout the world. The Australian-based video artist, Denis Beaubois, performed In the Event of Amnesia the City will Recall . . . around twelve sites in Sydney in 1996. In this work, the artist stood before CCTV cameras over a period of three days and then asked, via written cards, if the monitors would share the video footage with him. The cards gave affirmative and negative options: “Move the camera up and down to agree” or “move the camera from side to side to disagree”.[5]

Although the action was performed in the street and some people stopped to watch, the artist says the primary audience for these works are the surveillance cameras and those people who monitor them: the unseen watchdogs who are trained to detect deviant behaviours. Beaubois says this audience “is extremely discerning, and ultimately by assessing and reacting to the event it also adopts the role of performer” but the camera in Amnesia appears to be totally automated and has no agency of its own to engage with the artist.

Members of the Surveillance Camera Players adapted Beaubois’ performance in a busy street and held up hand-written boards to the camera saying: “I have amnesia. You are watching me. All day everywhere I go. Maybe you can help. Who am I? What’s my name?”. This version was re-made by Vincent Warren who uses the same text on smaller cards in the stairwell of an unidentified building. The soundtrack on YouTube is of the security guards commenting on “this crazy guy”.[6]One assumes that the commentary is scripted by the artist but the point is germane: we hear the would-be voices of authority who are slightly amused by the “art action” but complicit with the surveillance system, for them it’s just another ineffectual job.

Foucault was enormously influential as a critical theorist, not least because he managed to politicise Jacques Lacan’s thesis on the gaze, but his position is often ironically conflated in art and popular culture. As we live through this surveillance society, it becomes apparent that we not only comply with the law, delivered by camera, but we often embrace this new power via art, social networking sites and real time TV which in some instances simply packages the panopticon as an entertainment device.


  1. ^ Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books New York, 1979, p. 217.
  2. ^ Sandra S. Phillips ‘Surveillance’, in Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera (exhib cat) Tate Publishing, London: 2010, p. 143.
  3. ^ Susan Sontag On Photography, Penguin, 1977, p. 15.
  4. ^ Ibid p. 39.
  5. ^ the event of Amnesia.html (accessed 6 June 2011).
  6. ^ (accessed 6 June 2011).

Professor of Art History at Monash University and author of Look: Contemporay Australian Photography Dr Anne Marsh reviews art about surveillance that is often lens-based and/or performative from Jane Burton to Catherine Bell, Paul Batt to Denis Beaubois.