Living and dying under surveillance: Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes

Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio
Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio

A person walks alone through the night in a city street. Without warning they teeter sideways, slipping noiselessly into a body of water. There is neither slow close-up, nor the dramatic fight against death Hollywood Cinema has led me to expect. The water soon closes over and settles. The pause that follows the quieting scene gives way to the horror of realising that I have just watched someone die.

Every image in Dragonfly Eyes is taken from authentic surveillance footage. It took two years for artist Xu Bing (working from Beijing and New York) and his team to review 11,000 hours of live-streamed footage and montage 3,000 images into an 80-minute fictional narrative. Set across China this bizarre romance follows disaffected lovers Ke Fan and Qing Ting who lose and find each other amidst a sea of low paid jobs, temporary homes and changing faces. Individual differences are blurred as involuntary actors in disparate locations are written into these singular protagonists.

The work continually acknowledges its source in unscripted surveillance footage while simultaneously crafting uncanny connections. Filmed with little guidance from human hands, machine eyes record everyday tides of human movement. A woman falls from a bridge into a wide river. It is unclear from the actions of her tiny blurred body whether she fell or jumped. The footage is rewound and re-watched. This piece of CCTV is central to the story in which the character of Qing Ting is imposed on the body. A group of male security guards playing in character attempt to decipher what has happened by repeatedly watching the ambiguous (potential) death scene.

Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio
Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio

These guards become an important filmic device. The progression of the story is directly related to their curiosity and empathy; they investigate Qing Ting’s death, working back and forth through her strange story. Another woman walks home alone through a different city—recorded on a muted surveillance camera—this time in Melbourne during 2012. She is distinguished from the others by her big black coat and her confident stride. The cameras catch glimpses of her movements through shop windows from behind frocks and mannequins.

Later, an online audience trails behind her. Thousands of people watch her on YouTube through which this footage is constructed as a seamless continuity put together by a news channel.[1] It introduces Melbourne journalist Jill Meagher, her killer and then cuts between them as they draw closer to each other through the night. In Jill Meagher’s case surveillance footage enabled the rapid capture of serial rapist Adrian Ernest Bayley, making this amongst the few sexual violence cases successfully prosecuted in Australia that year.[2] It is also a case where imaging of violence against women led to significant public outcry that included vigils and social media protests. Following Jill Meagher through Melbourne streets via the online footage I became an empathetic watcher, and along with many others continued her walk through the Australian cities in later protests.

To observe acts of care through surveillance complicates assumptions about the roles and power relations between the subject being watched and those watching. The British sociologist David Lyon acknowledges that behavioural control is a key motivator of surveillance, but also observes acts of protecting and caring for that subject as a concurrent potentiality.[3] Importantly, he also questions the extent to which, whether caring or controlling, the surveillance eye is predominantly the continuation of a white male gaze. Surveillance evolves alongside the societies it watches. The influence of global capitalism on surveillance has led to corporations rather than nation states driving progress.

Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio
Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio
Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio
Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio

Breaking from an Orwellian image of anonymous power, surveillance is now oriented to shorter‑term goals that fit with the aims of efficiency in the assessment of markets and workforces.[4] Where Bentham’s Panopticon and Foucault’s panopticism were a response to architectural and visible surveillance structures, surveillance is now less perceptible but intrinsic to our reliance on data. CCTV is now so ubiquitous as to be virtually unnoticeable and dataveillance embedded in daily processes, such as checking social media, paying for lunch and using a GPS device. While exponentially increasing, surveillance is also more widely dispersed exacerbating the potential for co-option by the many unseen monitoring hands and eyes of actively participating users.

In Xu Bing’s creative misuse of surveillance his close attention to the ethics of using found images gives agency to those watched. He explains that he and his team spent as much time editing the film as they did attempting to identify and contact the key people appearing in it.[5] In most cases permission to use the found footage was readily granted. Xu Bing recorded the care and investment in the process of seeking consent, with that process itself set to become a film. In an interview he explains that “they [those in China] are more open to the surveillance camera, they hope to get in touch with this world through this way, to share their lives with the world outside their own spaces.”[6] The complicity of the unsuspecting actors, even granted after the fact, leads me to reframe those appearing in Dragonfly Eyes as actively engaged performers. Here surveillance is used as a platform for online celebrity.

Many instances abound in contemporary art production. Sophie Calle famously exploited her visibility in The Detective (1981) where she hired a private eye to follow her for a day. More recently Hito Steyerl’s, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File (2013) explores the power of invisibility by teaching ludicrous tactics for avoiding surveillance, including dressing to become smaller or equal to one pixel at it’s (then) current scale within satellite imaging.

Australian artists fascinated by the potential of surveillance include Emil Goh, known for use of short interstitial moving images as a more-light-hearted retake of Vito Acconci’s following pieces, and the sympathetically candid images of mothers and daughters sleeping on trains. Elvis Richardson’s use of found archives has commonality with Xu Bing, particularly in works of found serial images like Slideshowland. She also worked directly with online live-streamed surveillance footage when she sought communication with a local artist union in Beloozerski in Russia through The Invisible Hand (2014). Mark Valenzuela and Alycia Bennett, working between Manila and Adelaide, recently presented a performance Buy 1 Take 1 where security guards frisk gallery goers to prompt consideration of modes of individual resistance to systems of power.

Elvis Richardson, The Invisible Hand
Elvis Richardson, The Invisible Hand, 2014, digital print on rag paper. Courtesy of Hugo Michell Gallery and galerie pompom
Alicia Bennett and Mark Valenzuela, Buy 1 Take 1
Alycia Bennett and Mark Valenzuela, Buy 1 Take 1, 2017. Installation view, Artinformal. Photo courtesy the artists

Encountering questions of violence, women and public space, Anita & Beyond at the Penrith Regional Gallery (2003) commissioned artists to respond to the rape and murder of 26-year-old Anita Cobby. Also in this realm, Patrick Pound’s Crime Scenes (2011) included an image of a woman lying face down on a tennis court. The image, further contextualised by its inclusion in a series of photographic prints playfully titled People who look dead but (probably) aren't, Pound brings to the ambiguity of these images a veneer of more casual intention; but referenced in the context of gendered violence the tired tennis player activates another media memory—that of the live televised stabbing of Monica Seles in 1993. Seles survived the attack but reported that she rarely left her house in the two years following the incident.

Patrick Pound, People who look dead but (probably aren't)
Patrick Pound, People who look dead but (probably) aren't (detail), 2011, Giclee print. Courtesy the artist

By the end of Dragonfly Eyes, Qing Ting’s death is claimed as a suicide. Following her latest career failure, she comes to a clear impasse. Here, life in China is imaged as a place where economic precocity is gendered and takes the form of temporary, low-paying and insecure jobs for tribes of young women. Qing Ting is hired for looking benign and fired when she gets into an argument or asserts herself. To break from this bind she comes to the conclusion that a person needs to change their mind or appearance. Fantastically, by undergoing plastic surgery to change her face she is able to direct her gaze to the camera and channel the flow of human eyes to her advantage. As the singing live-stream star Xiao Xiao she has some control over her image through its monetisation. But her career is at the whim of requests from men who pay to watch her. Xu Bing claims a feminist positioning for his film, critical of a culture where beauty is a key goal for women, contributing to their disempowerment.[7]

The lasting impression of this endurance work of film editing as art is that it montages an unfathomable excess of human violence. The eyes of a dragonfly have 30,000 photoreceptors and in mosaic arrangement, combined with the bulge of the eyes, gives this delicate all-seeing insect a 360-degree visual field. The implication is that surveillance, like the dragonfly, is a wide-view, real-life witness. Qing Ting’s name notably means dragonfly in Mandarin. This final detail leaves me wondering that the message here is not that security cameras see too much, but that women do.

Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio
Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio
Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio
Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, 81 min, sound and colour. © Xu Bing Studio

In tragic parallel, lists of women who stepped onto Australia’s public streets and died include (but are not limited to) Jill Meagher, Anita Cobby, Masa Vukotic, Patricia Schmidt, Deborah Westmacott, Renata Wolanin, Heather Turner, Emma Pawelski and most recently Eurydice Dixon. In Eurydice’s case the release of CCTV images led to a teenager confessing to the crime. While surveillance images have been important in finding and convicting perpetrators of gendered violence, the statistics on successful prosecution are still so low as to suggest that ours is a culture in which the safety of women is not a priority. While cases like Meagher and Dixon have prompted review of CCTV in cities and raised public awareness, the crushing majority of gendered violence acts happen without witness, in homes with known perpetrators.[8] Increasing surveillance in public spaces does little to meet the greater challenge of redressing fundamental power imbalances.

Footnotes

  1. ^ See https://www.news.com.au/national/victoria/shadowed-by-a-killer-jill-meaghers-final-walk/news-story/ebe461b014086b7a31c6c8d47d5ee0cf.
  2. ^ See the Australian Law reform Commission reports on attrition in sexual assault cases: https://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/26.%20Reporting%2C%20Prosecution%20and%20Pre-trial%20Processes/attrition-sexual-assault-cases.
  3. ^ David Lyon, Theorizing Surveillance: The Panopticon and Beyond, Routledge, 2006
  4. ^ See Masa Galič, Tjerk Timan & Bert-Japp Koops, “Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond: An Overview of Surveillance Theories from the Panopticon to Participation,” Philosophy & Technology, May, 2016.
  5. ^ As discussed in the interview with Anthony Huang for Musée Magazine: http://museemagazine.com/features/2017/10/17/dragonfly-eyes-an-interview-with-xu-bing accessed 10/07/2018.
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ From notes supplied by Luise Guest in her interview with Xu Bing for White Rabbit Gallery, June 2017.
  8. ^ Information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS): http://www.abs.gov.au.  

Sasha Grbich teaches installation and video at the Adelaide Central School of Art where she also coordinates the BVA and honours degree. She was recently awarded a Samstag Scholarship and is commencing studies at Maumaus, Lisbon in 2019.

Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes (2016–17) was on exhibition as part of The Sleeper Wakes at White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, 9 March – 29 July 2018.

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