In a state of surveillance, every move is art

Critic's Corner//Art

Exhibition scrutinizes interest in observation, claim to our likenesses

Art Column

August 30, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

In an era of terrorist threat, we've grown used to the idea of being watched. In airports and train stations, in offices, schools and stores, even on city streets, cameras constantly record our images and track our movements. Ubiquitous, officially sanctioned surveillance has become a fixture of the age.

So it's not surprising, perhaps, that artists have taken an interest in surveillance photography as a distinct visual language, with its own set of formal and pictorial conventions that reflect the technology's function as an instrument of social control.

The popularity of reality TV shows, for example, which often mimic the grainy, blurry images recorded by the surveillance camera's unblinking eye, attests to a widespread fascination with the issues of power and authority that this technology represents, as well as with notions of social transgression.

These themes are explored by the three young artists in Their Eyes Are Watching You, a lively exhibition of photography, video and performance art curated by Jackie Milad at Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery.

All these artists seem interested in forging a new relationship to a technology that most people either accept grudgingly as a necessary part of the putative war on terror or fear as a dangerous encroachment on hard-won civil liberties.

New York-based installation and performance artist clyde forth, who is also a dancer, creates videos and film stills from performances that are designed to be observed by surveillance cameras in various public places -- hotel lobbies, banks, university lecture halls, etc.

Part of the performance consists of her off-camera efforts to retrieve her own image from the authorities who control access to the technology. She contacts security management, describes her project and requests the tapes of her performance.

So far, she has never succeeded in getting any organization to voluntarily make available its tapes of her. All the images in the exhibition are either surreptitiously made shots of the corporate monitors that recorded her performance, or photographs made by an assistant. A video display at the exhibition shows her talking with security managers and filling out paperwork.

During her performances, forth wears brilliant costumes whose bright colors and flowing lines set her apart from the banal humdrum of the site.

One video, for instance, shows her sheathed in an elaborate scarlet gown with a 15-foot trail outside the wall of a large but anonymous concrete office tower. Another image depicts her wearing a diaphanous white gown with long, winglike sleeves standing in what looks like an abandoned rock quarry -- hardly the sort of place one might expect terrorists to attack.

Such images inevitably raise the question of what exactly is being surveyed and for what purpose. They also make you wonder why the authorities whose cameras capture the artist's image are so reluctant to cooperate in her project.

Forth's practice invites some nice questions regarding the proprietary interest we have in our own likenesses and how they are disposed of.

For example, does an artist who gives a performance in a public place that is under surveillance forfeit all intellectual property rights to the work, or does ownership of the image remain with the artist?

Conversely, can surveillance system operators do whatever they wish with the images they capture -- including sell them as artworks -- or are they bound by the same rules that apply to pirated CDs and videos?

These sorts of question could keep legions of lawyers employed, and maybe critics, too. Forth will address some of them at an artist talk and workshop during the exhibition.

Rick Delaney's big blow-ups of stills from 8 mm home movies, by contrast, may have the pixilated, low-resolution look of surveillance photos, but, in fact, they just document his family's typically middle-class obsession with observing and recording each other's images, literally from cradle to grave.

Delaney's charmingly innocent film stills, and a separate video loop of home-movie clips and autobiographical remembrances on display in an adjoining room, offer hope that the habit of surveillance, so often a handmaiden for coercion, may also spring from more benign motives of familial love and affection.

Heather Borz's video project scrutinizing the facial expressions and body language of subjects participating in a research study of people's subjective experience of time wasn't installed when I visited.

There will be an artist talk in the school's Meyerhoff Arts Center on Sept. 13 at 1 p.m. Forth will present a live performance in the gallery Sept. 14 at 6 p.m.

"Their Eyes Are Watching You" runs through Oct. 22 in the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson. Call 410-337-6333.

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