Just as Orwell eerily predicted, video surveillance is now an inescapable part of public life, with cameras in both public and private spaces all over the world, as well as constant GPS tracking and NSA surveillance of individuals. New media artist and researcher Addie Wagenknecht has created a work of art titled Asymmetric Love that highlights our current ubiquitous state of surveillance and what it means to accept, ignore, or fear the constant encroachment of our private lives.
“The series is about ubiquitous objects in our environment and a shift in contemporary context, the playful and subversive quality of surveillance and data culture in our everyday environments,” explains Wagenknecht. “The work plays with the underlying notion of how culture is produced and distributed—how they have been affected by our disenchantment and simultaneous obsession [with] digital culture.” Wagenknech, Addie interviewed by Dorans, Kerry. Asymmetric Love - Bitform Gallery, 2013.
Examining Wagenknech's notion of our "simultaneous obsession with digital culture" raises some important notions regarding our direct involvement with propagating the very surveillance that we try so hard to avoid. Participatory culture is a ubiquitous part of our lives, and because of our constant stream of digital data, online personas, and web-based social interactions, it is nearly impossible for a person to "get off the grid." If a company wants to obtain your information and surveil your life, there is little you can do to stop it. But what about the blatant forms of surveillance that we often typically ignore? London for example, is the most surveilled city in the world with approximately "one camera for every eleven people."
Our avoidance of acknowledging the invasive surveillance that we all live under is prevalent by our lack of action and conversation regarding what should be private and what should be public. Wagenknech designed the piece in the style of an aesthetically pleasing chandelier that more or less blends into any contemporary environment, but his blending of technology and modern industrial design isn't unintentional.
"Asymmetric Love is about duality of function. It is a reflection of our current digital infrastructure, as the knowledge and ability to monitor others is defining the hieratic of power. Asymmetric Love was intended to mimic an iconic baroque chandelier. It attempts to be perceived as something familiar in memory by the audience so that the details of the CCTV cameras recording them is overlooked. In that regard the surveillance is not perceived as a direct threat, which becomes the biggest threat of all." Wagenknech, Addie. Asymmetric Love, 2013.
This work elicits a vital conversation we should be having regarding the global state of surveillance. How conscious are we about the constant stream of personal data being gathered from our physical and online identities? How much do we ignore the cameras that surround us in the physical and digital environments in which we constantly interact with? Should we let what freedom we have be constrained by attempting to avoid surveillance? Or should we take on the burden of constantly worrying about those who are watching us? Some may answer these questions by saying "I have nothing to hide!" or "I'm careful with my personal info"... but neither reaches the point. As Wagengnech highlights, it not just the fact of us overlooking the cameras, but our unbridled trust in corporations and government that elicits and encourages our continuous surviellance.
“The net has made it possible to share and express culture in ways that were never possible before,” Wagenknecht explains. “In that sense, Pirate Bay is one of the most successful works of our time. I am a generation that grew up between two paradoxes: the anonymity of 20 years ago and the intense surveillance that has shifted the paradigm of online culture to where we are now. We trust corporations more than each other..." Wagenknech, Addie interviewed by Dorans, Kerry. Asymmetric Love - Bitform Gallery, 2013.
On the other side of this, there is very much a fight against our constant state of surveillance - due to people like Edward Snowden; but If the government and large corporations continue to strip away our private lives for the sake of data, and we continue to ignore the issue, we will soon have no right to privacy at all. Asymmetric love shines a much needed spotlight on societies constant balking to the fact that we are always being watched.
Another work of art that is relevant to the ubiquity of government surveillance is a collaboration project by artists Ai Weiwei and Jacob Appelbaum titled Panda to Panda. The project consists of a series of cute and cuddly stuffed panda bears that are stuffed with shredded NSA documents that were released from Wikileaks, and backup memory cards of those same shredded documents. The bears were then mailed to galleries and museums around the world.
"The project’s title, “Panda to Panda,” is the synthesis of two terms created by dissident cultures. The slang term for the secret police in China is “panda,” which is a censorship-evading Mandarin homonym: “national security” sounds like “national treasure,” a.k.a. the panda. “Panda to Panda” also refers to peer-to-peer communication (P2P), a method of decentralized networking and a philosophy of egalitarian human interaction on the Internet." Poitras, Laura The Art of Dissent. NY Times. June 9, 2015.
The project was not as much about surveillance as it was secrets, which again begs the question - Why should the government be able to pry into our private lives and refuse transparency themselves? The idea behind the project is to highlight the abuse of state power and raise awareness to the invasive and one-way state of surveillance we all live under.
Another project that came to mind while reviewing Asymmetric Love was a project titled Covert Operations And Classified Landscapes by artist, geographer and counter-surviellance researcher Trevor Paglen.
Paglen is famous for flipping the switch on our government surveillance programs and turning the camera on them. He secretly takes photos of secret government bases and other hidden locations from over thirty miles away. This exposition of government secrecy highlights the contradictory nature regarding our governments surveilling us, but not wanting to be surveilled themselves. Why doesn't the government share our willingness for transparency? Should we feel guilty for prying into government secretes? If so, why don't they feel guilty for invading our private lives? These are all conversations that we should be having, and thanks to projects like this, surveillance itself is now being surveilled.