Unlisted Station, n° 2.

Surveillance, groupshow at The New Gallery, Calgary.

October 16 – November 14, 2015

Surveillance features works by: Sterling Crispin, Derek Curry & Jennifer Gradecki, Maggie

Flynn, Mathieu Lambert, Jillian Mayer, and Genevieve Robertson & Jay White. This group exhibition

focuses on the effect surveillance has on privacy and personal independence. Surveillance has been an

increasingly omnipresent force in North American culture. A social expectancy and understanding that we

will be watched in some capacity has formed. Physically and digitally, a person’s actions are monitored, and the question of whether or not that is harmful to one’s existence arises. The exhibiting artists will present works which explore the social and political mechanisms and structures that create surveillance states.

Interrupt, intercept, investigate, interrogate.

 

Surveillance and security have become twinned discourses in Canada, where one is rarely discussed without invoking the necessity and urgency of the other. National security is often used as the de facto rationale for the widespread collection of personal data from law-abiding citizens, and as mass surveillance technology grows increasingly sophisticated and refined, fear mongering around public security has increased in tandem.

 

With the rapid introduction and passing of Bill C-51 in Canadian Parliament, and its signing into law as the Anti-Terrorism Act in June, 2015, the Canadian government and related agencies now have much broader powers to collect and share the personal data of citizens across government departments with little oversight, to interpret what constitutes terrorist propaganda based on vague and indeterminate language, and to make suspicion-based, preventative arrests without warrants. What this amounts to is a demand that the body of the state be secured in the name of the body of the individual. But to who is this security of body directed, and whose bodies will be the focus of protection? The bill has been widely criticized for the ways that it could be unevenly and punitively applied to those visible to the state as non-white, as Indigenous, as activists, as protesters, or those who are deemed threatening by their participation in specific cultures or religions. Artists of all kinds, whose work depends on the production of a specific form of visibility through the presentation of their work, have reason for similar concern.

 

The irony of our contemporary condition is that the type of sweeping, mass surveillance engaged in by governments and corporations occurs at a level that is necessarily invisible to the public, even though surveillance of any type is predicated on making visible, or exposing, its subjects. This marks a shift from earlier regimes that relied upon our visual awareness of the tools used for policing, for example through deterrent devices like the CCTV camera or watchtower. Behavior in public space was, and continues to be, modified by the knowledge that with every use of an ATM or stroll through a public square or visit to a civic building, we can see the cameras looking back at us and are simultaneously made visible to them. This is the classic model of the panopticon, famously designed by Jeremy Bentham and theorized by Michel Foucault: we see the apparatus and we know its potential to see us, which transforms us into its obedient subjects. The panoptic model of surveillance is built on this mutual visibility. But the contemporary model of surveillance is structured almost entirely upon the opaque realm of data and computer coding hidden within our devices. Information replaces the watchful eye as the central metaphor for power and control in this algorithmic model. To lose control of the wealth of personal information that shapes contemporary subjectivity–the preferences, habits, searches, posts and tastes that form our digital selves–amounts to a kind of exposure that leaves us both extremely visible and vulnerable.

 

In a discourse about the rights to be made visible and the rights to maintain invisibility, aesthetic practices have much to contribute. Art is so often about revealing society’s frayed social consciousness, about finding a visual language to describe its unseen edges, or to point to the places where it breaks down and disappears completely. For the artists in this exhibition, the urgency of interrogating surveillance and security culture is expressed in works that examine the role of activism, identity politics, social media, personal surveillance, predictive behaviour and non-visual modes of communication. These projects together express the right to be visible on one’s own terms, a right to interrupt and interrogate the underlying power structures that frame mass surveillance as a necessity. As theorist Jasbir Puar has pointed out, “the temporality of surveilling is not just reactive, but also preemptive and increasingly, predictive.”[1] The artists gathered here interrupt this temporality with interventions that offer moments of counter-resistance within the very networks–digital networks, activist networks, social networks–that are implicated in surveillance regimes. However minor such interventions may be, to find resistance within these networks is to acknowledge and respond to one of the most ethical challenges of our time.

 

— Jayne Wilkinson

 

[1] Jasbir Puar and Lewis West, “Jasbir Puar: Regimes of Surveillance,” interview, Cosmologics: A

Magazine of Science, Religion and Culture. Accessed October 9,

2015. http://cosmologicsmagazine.com/jasbir-puar-regimes-of-surveillance/

Peruvian Walnut, Brass, additional electronics, 3x4x6".

On shortwave radio bands exist mysterious frequencies where, on a regular schedule, lists of numbers are read out that form incomprehensible coded messages (1). Even though most of these so-called Number Stations stopped broadcasting around 1990, when the Cold War ended, a couple of them are still operating on a daily basis without any known purpose. Some governments have admitted that the use of such stations is for counter intelligence purposes (2). Believed to be encrypted messages intended for spies or secret agents on the field, these stations have been making radio enthusiasts speculate for decades.

 

In the era of hyper-tech espionage, encrypted emails and mind boggling cryptography, this method of transmitting sensitive information may seem obsolete. It is instead, still very efficient because of the one-time cipher used in the encryption process and the impossibility to track neither the source nor the target.

 

When we tune our radio to these specific AM frequencies we can hear, during most of the day, the modulations of radio waves producing ambient, drone-like, almost relaxing sound. Suddenly this pleasant sound stops to make way for a chilling voice, "Three, five, nine eight; seven, two, four, one, six, one six, three ; eight, two, one, seven ; […] zero, zero, zero (marking the end of the transmission). When the voice stops, one only hears silence as if the voice has vanished in space.

 

(1) Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine (16 April 2014). “The spooky world of the ‘numbers stations’”. BBC News.

(2) The Säkerhetspolisen (Swedish Security Service) has released new info from their archives on their involvement with numbers stations. This is another rare instance of a government agency confirming their use of them. The Counter Intelligence section of their site published a recording of the numbers station identified as S10 - The Czech Lady. http://www.sakerhetspolisen.se/ovrigt/pressrum/aktuellt/aktuellt/2015-01-23-lyssna-pa-ett-hemligt-telegram.html (Swedish only)