Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design
1 October–10 December 2021

Surveillance has become an inescapable part of daily life. Our phones record our every movement, call, and contact; cameras record our passage along the street; online sites record our interests and habits in order to engage in “better product placement.” Collected data streams to fusion centers, and while predictive policing targets specific communities for more intensive monitoring, Siri and Alexa listen in. Through social media we surveil each other and ourselves. Connected to the economy and mass surveillance, from the high-tech to the low-tech and the mundane everyday, how are artists looking back at, contesting, and revealing the systems that monitor our daily lives? Monitor: Surveillance, Data, and the New Panoptic, an exhibition scheduled for the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design (ICA at MECA&D) this fall, explores the ways in which our lives are being influenced and determined by visible and invisible actions of “watching over,” reflecting on the prevalence of surveillance in contemporary contexts as well as its historical antecedents.

Because many surveillance processes are structured to be invisible, we often find out about them retrospectively, through data breaches, investigations or leaks. In mid-July of this year, reports from multiple national and international news media organizations revealed that tens of thousands of phone numbers globally were targeted, and in some cases hacked, by Pegasus, a spyware product of the billion-dollar Israeli surveillance company NSO Group. In a well publicized leak in 2013, former computer intelligence consultant for the CIA and NSA, Edward Snowden, revealed numerous global surveillance programs, prompting a conversation about national security and individual privacy. No citizen is free of monitoring; documents published in 2020 from the Blue Leaks trove revealed the extent to which the FBI monitored protests that arose after George Floyd’s murder, collecting and recording data throughout the country.

In his book, Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision, Brendan McQuade, Professor of Criminology at University of Southern Maine who will join us for a panel at ICA at MECA&D this fall, uncovers the extensive network of American interagency intelligence centers called “fusion centers” that serve as collection facilities for this data. These centers were established post 9-11 to prevent terrorism, but have been criticized for failing on this account. As McQuade notes, these data collection centers in particular reveal a broader shift away from mass incarceration, toward a more surveillance and police-intensive system of social regulation, enabling decarceration without fully addressing the underlying social problems at the root of mass incarceration.

Who is seeing and who is being seen? As an inquiry, this is particularly well-suited to investigation by visual artists. The works in Monitor: Surveillance, Data, and the New Panoptic reveal, challenge, upend, or complicate the power balances inherent in these dynamics. The artists take up questions raised by increasingly networked and pervasive globalized systems of monitoring in numerous ways, reflecting on historical trajectories as much as contemporary revelations, in order to provide us with perceptual and historical tools for assessing our current technological morass.

Long known for his work that explores the legacies of surveillance technology, Trevor Paglen has systematically made visible our national project of surveilling citizens. In the exhibition, his photograph of the NSA’s Utah Data Center, captured under construction in 2012 near the desert town of Bluffdale, UT, reveals this critical infrastructure under the cover of night. Designed to store and process the yottabytes of information captured in the NSA’s digital dragnet, it reminds us of the enormity of these collection processes and how they are so often occluded from our vision.

A number of works in the exhibition trace the history of surveillance of black Americans since the earliest days of our country. Sculptural work by Kapwani Kiwanga traces the pervasive impact of power asymmetries by placing historic narratives in dialogue with contemporary realities. Her research-driven works often turn systems of power back on themselves, and parse broader histories. By following the lineage of surveillance and positioning it in relation to blackness in America, from its roots in slavery to the role that technology performs today, Kiwanga’s works address the history of forced visibility, strategic concealment, and networks of resistance.[1] Margaret Laurena Kemp and Abram Stern’s collaborative video project explores the possibility of “unburning” surveillance metadata taken from the 2015 Baltimore uprisings after the death of Freddie Gray. In doing so they reinhabit the data with agency and power, while asking questions about the indelible mark of surveillance.

Poitras Santos 1 C Gregory Rivera LasCarpetas copy

Christopher Gregory-Rivera, Las Carpetas, photograph, 2021.

Other works in the exhibition explore the archive in ways that rewrite or retell our collective histories, and give us greater context for current surveillance activities. Through a 20-page printed tabloid, Ann Messner regards the history of library surveillance as a besieged history of free and open access to knowledge in the US. Her work reveals that the history of a public library cannot be separated from the struggles for civil and human rights, of class and labor struggles, for religious and secular intellectual freedom and the right to enquire and question.[2] Messner reflects on the library as a living archive subject to all manner of challenges over time. Her work will be distributed throughout the state via the Maine State Library. Similarly, through photographic still-lives, archival appropriation, and investigation, Christopher Gregory-Rivera examines the bureaucratic residue of a 40-year-long secret surveillance program of the Puerto Rican people begun in the 1930s. Gregory-Rivera provides a counterhistory to the way many understand this period of time. Rescuing, displaying, and photographing the contents of the surveillance files allows us to question what forces have control over what and how we remember our past.[3]

Other works remind us that technology itself is not an untouchable abstraction; as a human invention, it hosts our respective weaknesses. Yazan Khalili’s video installation confronts the nuances of contemporary facial surveillance technology[4] by considering a mask of Medusa in a museum. His work reflects how this technology relies on images, histories, codes, decisions, regulations, and glitches that, however complex, are mired in bias and insufficient data.[5] Investigating the poetic potential of gaps and failures within this technology, Khalili offers potential forms of resistance to this pervasive gaze. The artist collective Orphan Drift explores the boundaries of machine and human vision, asking viewers to think in radically new ways. In contrast to Khalili’s work, their installation invites our speculative imagination in order to consider Artificial Intelligence (AI) from the position of a cephalopod. Inspired by embodied cognitive science and radical anthropology, their multiple channel installations suggest possibilities in expanding and inhabiting other systems of perception and proprioception. Their imagining into the octopus’s distributed consciousness is underpinned by a desire to resist the evolution of AI as a surveilling and predictive modelling tool; rather to embrace a plastic, opportunistic, fluid, protean otherness embodied by the octopus.[6]

PoitrasSantos 2 Yazan Khalili Medusa copy

Yazan Khalili, Medusa, installation, 2020 (photo: KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin).

The exhibition Monitor: Surveillance, Data, and the New Panoptic reveals surveillance histories and a surveilled present, challenging us to be active watchers in the world. In becoming more alert to the gazes that monitor our lives, we are empowered to look back at them, and to question and change them.

Monitor: Surveillance, Data, and the New Panoptic will be on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design from 1 October–10 December 2021.

ARTISTS: Christoper Gregory-Rivera, Margaret Laurena Kemp + Abram Stern, Kapwani Kiwanga, Yazan Khalili, Ann Messner, Orphan Drift, Trevor Paglen.

Funded in part by a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, and with additional generous support provided by Jeremy Moser and Laura Kittle, the exhibition Monitor: Surveillance, Data, and the New Panoptic is planned for the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design from 1 October–10 December 2021. The exhibition is organized by Julie Poitras Santos, Director of Exhibitions, ICA at MECA&D, in conversation with Sophie Hamacher, Assistant Professor of Academic Studies at Maine College of Art & Design, and Brendan McQuade, Assistant Professor of Criminology at University of Southern Maine, and will be accompanied by visiting artist talks, a panel discussion, and a film series organized by Sophie Hamacher. Please visit the ICA website for more information.

Monitor: Surveillance, Data, and the New Panoptic is part of Freedom & Captivity, a statewide, coalition-based public humanities initiative to explore and promote abolitionist visions and organizing in Maine during fall 2021.

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[1] Kapwani Kiwanga, artist statement, 2020.

[2] Ann Messner, artist statement, 2021.

[3] Christopher Gregory-Rivera, artist Statement, 2021.

[4] In June 2021, Maine passed LD 1585, a bill that enacts the strongest facial recognition law in the country.

[5] Yazan Khalili, artist Statement, 2021.

[6] Orphan Drift, artist Statement, 2021.

Image at top: Orphan Drift, If AI were Cephalopod, four-channel video installation (HD), 2019 (photo: Laboratoria Art & Science, Moscow).