Text: “Exposure” Pre-9/11
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This text was written for the exhibition “Exposure” A Video installation About Surveillance Pre-9/11 by Marie Sester. Sester’s work exposes how elements of appropriation vital to Remix are at play in surveillance, an area of culture which since 2001 has played a pivotal role in redefining privacy for the average person.
The awareness of a work of art’s historical context is closely linked to aesthetics. While viewers could, first and foremost, approach a work with the sole aim of exploring its formal qualities, at some point they must acknowledge when, how and why the work was produced, which means that the work’s history becomes an inherent part of its meaning. “Exposure,” a three-channel video installation by Marie Sester, on view at gallery@calit2 from April 10 to June 6, 2008, is a prime example of this development.
The work consists of images of x-rayed vehicles juxtaposed with architecture. Sester’s investment in exploring the aesthetics of x-ray surveillance became an obsession that initially led her to embark on the pursuit of detailed images of airport luggage, which she considered extensions of the human body. Her research eventually resulted in the x-ray images of trucks taken at Orly Airport in Paris, juxtaposed with a house located in the East Bay Hills of Northern California, now part of “Exposure.”
The installation was first exhibited as part of the exhibition “Blind Vision: Video and Limits of Perception” at the San Jose Museum of Art from August 4 through November 14, 2001. Coincidentally, the tragic events of 9/11 took place while the exhibition was on view, and the meaning of “Exposure” changed at that moment, when the concept of surveillance became directly linked to terrorist preemption. Surveillance in the past did not have such specific overtones.
Balloon observation, for instance, became a major form of surveillance in France after the French Revolution. It was used for reconnaissance in 1794 by the French army against Austrian troops in “The Battle of Fleurus” to learn about the Austrian army’s position; France won the battle. During the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), as another example, wiretapping was used by the Confederate and Union armies alike to obtain information about each other. During War World I (1914-1918), aerial photography played a major role in obtaining information about the opponent’s position: a clear evolution of balloon observation. The latency of photo-film processing, however, led to the development of more efficient surveillance technology like the radar, which the British used during War World II (1937-1945). During the Vietnam War (1959-1975), the United States used covert electronic sensors and computer technology in Operation Igloo White as a way to detect People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) soldiers in the jungle; while it was deemed a success at the time, the effectiveness of this 5-year operation has been questioned. (See Paul Edwards’s book The Closed World.) Since the early days of modernity, then, technological innovation in audio and visual recording including the photograph and the telephone, even when not developed primarily for surveillance or reconnaissance purposes, has been used to learn about and gain control of a situation, most crucially, in times of war.
During the Cold War, surveillance became part of everyday life. How this took shape in the United States and other parts of the world was quite different. Prior to 9/11, surveillance in the United States was in part understood as an element of a somewhat comfortable reality in which the average U.S. citizen did not need to worry constantly about bombings and plane hijackings–tragic activities that, as artist Marie Sester reflects, had become facts of life in Europe and the Middle East in the decades that followed WWII. When 9/11 happened, however, the U.S. began to feel the pervasive threat of terrorism for the first time. In this sense, “Exposure” serves as a window to look back at the drastic adoption of digital media to make surveillance a routine part of U.S. citizens’ lives since 2001, as well as how its implementation as terrorist preemption has become part of other countries’ definition of privacy. “Exposure” is, in its own way, part of a turning point in history towards a state of constant transparency, where citizens have to assume that there is some permanent trace left behind in just about every daily activity they perform. This is certainly true of people who use the Internet.
Constructivists, Dadaists, and Surrealists beginning around the 1920s deliberately used mechanical reproduction to respond to the swift changes of their time; and Neo-dadaists and Pop-artists reflected on the rise of media culture after the 1950s. During and after the 1950’s critically minded artists like John Cage, Nam June Paik and Laurie Anderson, among many others, some still active today, also reflected on the implications of media. The Situationists in France during the 1960s, actively questioned how culture was being shaped by media devices; their activities linked activism and art. It was in part with movements like these, in which we could include Fluxus to some degree, as well as artists invested in performance and conceptual art, and others who questioned stereotypes of women and various ethnic groups, that a more conscious reflection on media and control became entertained more extensively in the arts. Artists, then, were among the first to explore technologies often used for surveillance; yet, they framed their activities as direct reflections on media at large–not surveillance. Interest by artists in surveillance grew as we entered the 1990’s; this is the period when Marie Sester started to develop work about the politics of overseeing.
Mary Sester’s attraction to x-ray imagery was in part motivated by aesthetics. She found the images beautiful. During the 1990s in France, as she explains, x-ray technology was used widely in airports and government buildings for security reasons. In “Exposure”, gallery visitors view vivid images of smuggled items, such as marijuana and a luxury car. The end result is three projected, larger-than-life sequences of highly detailed images. In the third sequence, for instance, Sester elegantly juxtaposes an x-rayed truck with a house, which eventually overtakes the entire screen. The house, located in northern California’s East Bay Hills, was chosen because it represents the “stereotypical” U.S. home. The building was scanned with laser technology, which was being developed in Berkeley. The juxtaposition of an exposed private space and privately-owned commercial vehicles thus shows how technology can deliberately be used for surveillance, treating all forms with an egalitarian structural approach, while unexpectedly allowing Sester to expand the language of abstraction in art practice: the images are beautiful as forms, yet violent because they deconstruct the pervasive nature of x-ray and laser technology when used as forms of control. This is possible because “Exposure” has a certain critical distance expected of work that enters the white cube, which allows it to cite ocurrences of the real world with no need for immediate feedback to such reality.
“Exposure” marks a shift from when surveillance had multiple justifications to make the world safer for citizens according to each country’s needs, to a more specific purpose: to fight the war against terror, globally. This shift has come at a price of personal expression for artists as well as other citizens. Sester reflects that today it would be very difficult for her to have access to images like the ones included in “Exposure” because of the heightened level of control that entities have placed on their surveillance technologies–entities that had cooperated more openly with Sester just a few short years ago. “Exposure” prior to 9/11 could have had multiple readings of surveillance, but today the work must be reconsidered and reinterpreted in light of the pronounced influence of 9/11 politics.
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