maintaining privacy in the digital// hiding in plain sight

Issues of surveillance and privacy have been a popular topic in contemporary art. Critiquing the realities of data tracking, facial recognition software and the perpetual collection and storage of data has prompted the curatorial rationale for several recent several exhibitions including a photography exhibition in 2016 at the Hasselbad Foundation in Gothenberg called Watched! Surveillance, Art and Photography. The lack of restrictions that come with creative representations can lead to powerful forms of critique, particularly when it comes to privacy and surveillance. This not only brings awareness to these issues, but also provides a collective imagery or response to the ongoing surveillance we are subject to in our everyday lives. Contemporary art is therefore an important avenue by which citizens might develop a critical understanding of these issues.

One of the more well-known ‘surveillance art’ series is that of Hasan M. Elahi, who after being stopped and interrogated by the FBI at a US airport in 2002, responded by turning his art practice into a form of self-surveillance, or sousveillance, where every aspect of his life – from what he was eating to the places he visited – was photographed and documented. The result was over 70,000 photos, which he later uploaded to his website. In post-production, Elahi categorises and organises the photographs to create large scale tapestries printed onto vinyl:

Hasan M. Elahi 2015, Thousand Little Brothers v3, pigment on vinyl, 2 meters x 7.3 meters, as installed at Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh

Upon closer inspection the individual photographs become clearer, providing an intricate visual diary of one man’s life rendered in digital prints. In the sequence below the artist has photographed all the food he has eaten at altitude:

Hasan M. Elahi 2007, Altitude v3, c-print, 100 cm x 75 cm

As Alahi explains, providing too much information leads to ‘obscurity, unintelligibility, and bewilderment’ enabling him to hide in plain sight. Over-disclosure also adds to the cost and trouble of searching, deterring authorities and systems of surveillance. But also at play in these works is a resistance to the tools of surveillance that is aided by the ‘white cube’ of the gallery or festival setting. In this context, the ‘artefacts’ that result from surveillance culture are decoupled from the discourses of terrorism, safety and security and are therefore rendered benign and banal.

Surveillance culture is also explored by American artist Adam Harvey. Harvey’s ‘CV Dazzle’ series (2010 – present) derives its name from the ‘Dazzle’ or ‘Razzle Dazzle’ ships of World War I, which were painted with geometric, intersecting shapes in contrasting colours. The aim was not to conceal the ship, but to make it difficult for enemies to estimate the speed, range and direction of the vessel. Harvey’s work is a resistance to face recognition technology, using hair and make up as camouflage. In a similar way to the ‘Dazzle’ ships the aim is not to conceal, but ‘break apart the continuity of the face’, so as to confuse the symmetry and tonal contours of the face that the facial recognition algorithms rely on to identify individuals. What makes Harvey’s approach distinctive is that the ‘CV Dazzle’ series is not presented through the lens of the everyday, but as avant garde fashion, modelled by attractive individuals and captured through studio photography.

Adam Harvey 2010, Look No. 5 (a), (b) and (c), for New York Times Op-Art

Seen together these works are a comment on the changing nature of privacy, as personal data is shown to be networked and correlated across digital platforms and technologies. In this way, maintaining privacy is not only a matter of personal strategy, but also a collective negotiation. Each of these works takes surveillance culture as a starting point, yet quickly move the viewer beyond this, to explore creative and critical strategies of resistance. In this way, the works are instructional and aesthetically arresting. Alahi uses the strategy of stenography, or hiding in plain sight, achieved through massive over-disclosure of personal information. While Harvey opts for camouflage and deception as a way of protecting personal privacy. Each of these strategies is a type of ‘obfuscation’ or ‘the deliberate addition of ambiguous, confusing or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection’ (Brunton & Nissenbaum 2015, p.1). The aim of obfuscation is to ‘buy time’ and hide in the crowd of signals as participation in contemporary society also means being subject to pervasive digital surveillance.

Brunton, F., & Nissenbaum, H. (2015). Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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