Surveillance art exhibit explores role of observation

BY ELIZABETH MCMAHON ’13
Senior Staff Writer

From Jan. 30 until April 7, the Phillips Museum of Art is hosting a special exhibit, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers. This exhibit consists of digital art and is on the lower level of the Phillips Museum as well as some other places on campus. On Feb. 9 at 3:30 p.m. the Museum held a reception for this special exhibit.

On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers was developed by James Coupe, a former F&M Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, and is based on the 1986 novella The Assignment by Friedrich Durrenmatt. It uses surveillance cameras to record a narrative of people’s behavior and then the footage is put together in a multi-channel film.

The Assignment is an experimental thriller about a psychiatrist whose wife was raped and killed. The psychiatrist hires a woman to reconstruct the crime and make it into a film. This woman soon encounters a world where everyone is being watched. The book speaks to the dangers of technology in an advanced society and how they might affect everyday life.

The reception for the exhibit took place in the Rothman Gallery. Before making it to the food and the talk by Coupe, each attendee was expected to make his or her way through the exhibit itself.

The exhibit begins with the waiting room, where everyone is handed a sheet of paper explaining the exhibit and asked to wait until the countdown is finished before being buzzed into the room. The waiting room plays around with the idea of waiting to be seen and the knowledge that one is already being seen by people inside the exhibit. The countdown is set to be different each time so the buzzer of the door goes off at different intervals.

After the attendee leaves the waiting room he or she enters the exhibit itself. The walls are all a neutral color, giving it the appearance of a construction site rather than an exhibit. There are six other rooms which make up the exhibit, all of which are open to walk through. There are also cameras in the hallway spaces that are visible to the viewer. There is no marked path, so the participant in the exhibit is able to choose which room they want to go in if they want to go in one at all. The hallway is, in a way, more comfortable than the rooms themselves since, although there are cameras, there are no screens which actively show footage.

The psychologist’s office is the first room one encounters in the exhibit. In the room there is a table with several chairs around it along with pieces of paper. There is also a voiceover in the room explaining the Asch conformity test to a group of students. There is a circular camera in the middle of the room which gives a full view of all the people sitting at the table. There are also screens on the wall.

The next room is the director’s office. This is an actual office, in which the director of The Phillips Museum, Eliza Reilly, works. There is also a circular camera in this room along with screens on one of the walls. The room is very much a normal office space, and there is almost a sense of invasion when entering the area.

The next room is the control room. Inside this room there is another circular camera in the middle of the room along with three walls of video. Behind the control room is the screening room where there are chairs lined up in rows. There is also a countdown above the door of this room which is similar to the one found in the waiting room.

Opposite the screening room there is the classroom. This again is just a normal classroom that was always there. There is a big table in the middle of the room with chairs all around it. There are also posters in the back and a bookcase with art pieces in it on one of the walls.

The last room is the chapel. In this room there are benches for seats just like one would find in an actual chapel. There is also a podium at the front and on one of the screens there is the image of Susan Minasian, College chaplain, giving a sermon.

All the rooms in the exhibit have two things in common: a circular camera which captures everything happening in the room and screens creating the narrative element of the exhibit. The cameras are five individual cameras put in a circle so each one simultaneously captures a different image of the room.

The images on the screen vary by room. They all consist of several screens, each showing images from different times. The screens use an algorithm specific to each room to portray images of the people currently in the room, people who were recently in the room, and various other images taken from different cameras throughout the exhibit and throughout campus.

The exhibit took around two years to complete and Coupe used the help of students along with inspiration from The Assignment. He mainly explores the question of whether people really want to be seen or if being seen is an invasion of one’s privacy.

During his talk Coupe spoke about the social media in today’s world and how members of society put things out there they want the world to see. The current technology makes people both active observers of other people and, at the same time, the subjects of the observances. Most people have cell phones and use them to take videos; this is, in fact, a form of surveillance.

Coupe was excited for the opportunity to work at a liberal arts college where departments are more than willing to work together. Psychology students were recorded for the voiceover in the psychiatrists office and Minasian was recorded giving a sermon in the chapel. Each room has a different setting and feel to it.

In his talk, Coupe discussed the project itself and talked about the intended meaning of each different room. He also talked about future projects and how this is one of four surveillance projects coming out this year. He thanked DXARTS at the University of Washington, without whom the project would not have been possible. And at the end he also answered various questions from the audience, including questions about ethics, social media, and meaning.

The talk was very well attended, so much so that there was not enough room for everyone to sit down. After the talk, food was provided outside the exhibit, which gave attendees an opportunity to talk with Coupe and each other about what they had experienced.

This exhibit is very interactive and will be open in the basement of the Phillips Museum until April 7. This gives students plenty of opportunities to venture down to experience the exhibit for themselves, and form their own opinions about the art of observation.

Questions? Email Elizabeth at emcmahon@fandm.edu.

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