The Institute for Applied Autonomy is an anonymous activist group who utilize advanced technology to engage the public in pertinent conversations. iSee, a project from 2004 in New York City, attempted to do just that. iSee gave New Yorkers a tool to avoid CCTV cameras in the city and by doing so, began a larger conversation about surveillance. Ultimately, IAA posed little threat to the steady infiltration of surveillance around the globe. However, iSee continues to be a significant touchstone in the evolving conversations around dissent and surveillance, and is indicative of the controversial work IAA is known for. 

Since it’s inception in 1988, IAA has functioned as an anonymous group of activists, artists and engineers who push to make the public more aware through work such as iSee. In an interview for We Make Money not Art, IAA eloquently described their work as such, 

We’re generally interested in the intersection between technology, public policy and social control, and with building systems that facilitate freedom of speech and public acts of dissent.

This interest in facilitating dissent challenges the status quo and addresses the steady yet subtle increase of social injustice within our society. 

When it was made in 2004, iSee brought to light the influx of surveillance in New York City, and controversially gave New Yorkers a way to avoid it. As said by The Influencers, iSee was a

iSee is a web-based and wireless application based on a real time updated database that allows any user to program urban routes with the smallest exposition to surveillance cameras in New York.
— The Influencers

 When accessing iSee on the web, users could input the starting and ending point of their travel within the city. Users were then given a simplified version of a map of the city that showed streets, the placement of CCTV cameras, and an outlined route that would allow the user to travel relatively unseen. By unveiling this information to the public, iSee did more than create a resource for camera-shy New Yorkers; it also became the catalyst for a conversation about the implications of surveillance, a conversation that is still taking place today.

Surveillance has only continued to grow, and it’s presence in our lives is largely seen as permanent. In fact, it is now impossible to travel in New York City without ending up on camera at some point, rendering iSee obsolete. While this is troubling, all hope is not lost, as artists are still challenging surveillance in new ways. Two Artists in particular have taken on this important duty. Heather Dewey-Hagborg, an artist who works in the sci-fi realm of bio-technology, does this by unveiling the future of bio-surveillance, and Leonardo Selvaggio, an artist who delves into identity and technology, does this by fighting surveillance with the proliferation of his own face.

Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an unsettling exploration of the possibilities for DNA sequencing. In order to create her work, Dewey-Hagorg extracted human DNA from trash and produced 3D-printed, disembodied heads based on the DNA. Like iSee, Stranger Visions attempted to start a larger conversation about surveillance, however Dewey-Hagborg’s bio-surveillance niche takes her work into a futuristic realm. Unlike iSee, Stranger Visions was set in a gallery as opposed to the web-based application of iSee, exposing viewers to the series of 3D-printed heads. Because of the presence of the work in a gallery, and due to the science-fiction quality of the work, Stranger Visions likely had a greater impact on it’s audience than iSee. Most importantly, both works address how surveillance can track an individual in unprecedented ways in New York City. Like Dewey-Hagborg, Leonardo Selvaggio also utilizes 3D-printing as he fights surveillance. However, instead of printing strangers, Selvaggio prints himself.

Leonardo Selvaggio encourages avoidance of surveillance with his work, Urme Surveillance. The work allows individuals to purchase a 3D printed mask of Leonardo Selvaggio’s own face. By wearing this mask individuals become indeterminate, disabling the ability of surveillance cameras to differentiate the identities of those surveilled. Like iSee, Urme Surveillance offers a solution to being watched, however in providing a purchasable object, Urme Surveillance is not available to everyone, whereas iSee was widely accessible as a web-based application. While this objectively makes iSee a more successful work, this difference between the two works shows the increased measures that now have to be taken in order to avoid surveillance. 

Many of the CCTV cameras in New York that were identified by iSee were put into place after September 11th, 2001, when a major terrorist attack devastated the city. While these cameras, in part, attempted to protect the public, their widespread presence was indicative of an over-reaching government, and have since been abused by other interests. According to James Vlahos from Popular Mechanics in 2009, there were an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras across the United States, capturing four billion hours of footage a week. Furthermore, Vlahos brings up the fact that as surveillance get’s more widespread, it gains the ability to be abused. 

Surveillance has become pervasive. It is also more enduring. As companies develop powerful archiving and search tools, your life will be accessible for years to come in rich multimedia records. The information about you may be collected for reasonable purposes—but as its life span increases, so too does the chance that it may fall into unscrupulous hands.
— James Vlahos

Indeed, it seems that the fight against surveillance is long from being over. 

From looking at the progression from iSee to more contemporary works like Stranger Visions and Urme Surveillance, it becomes clear that the battle over surveillance has largely been won by those surveilling. While iSee attempted to begin a conversation about the presence of surveillance in the lives of New Yorkers in 2004, it failed to make any major change and, in fact, world-wide surveillance has only increased. Cameras continue to pervade our public spaces in increasing numbers, and the true impact has only just begun to be felt.








Circles Mirror

Circles Mirror

Realtime Stories

Realtime Stories