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Marie Sester Interview: Access, Transparency and Visibility in “Exposure”, by Eduardo Navas

Still from second video sequence.

Image and text source: gallery.calit2.net

The following is an interview published for the exhibition “Exposure” A Video Installation, Pre-9/11, at gallery@calit2.net, on view from April 10 to June 6, 2008. In this interview Sester’s views on Surveillance expose how elements of appropriation vital to Remix are at play in culture publicly, and which since 2001, have redefined privacy for the average person. This interview was originally published in conjunction with the text “Exposure” Pre-9/11.

Marie Sester is an artist born in France, currently living in Los Angeles. She was trained as an architect, but soon after receiving her degree realized that her real interest was in understanding the role of architecture as discourse in culture and politics. She found art an ideal space to develop her interdisciplinary projects. Sester sees her art practice as an ongoing process partly defined by a person’s desire to visualize certain things, while making others invisible. Throughout the 1990s, Sester explored how surveillance redefined our understanding of reality. In the following interview Marie Sester generously shares the story behind her three-channel installation, “Exposure,” explaining how her role as an artist allowed her access to information which she could not obtain today due to the security measures put in place after 9/11.

[Eduardo Navas]: You explain that you are interested in the concepts of transparency, visibility and access. Can you explain how these came to shape your project “Exposure” and your interest in surveillance?

[Marie Sester]: The situation that became a reality in the U.S. after 9/11 had been developing in Europe for some time. Bombing attacks were part of my reality in France, hijacking planes and taking passengers as hostages was something we lived with day to day. This was often done to ask for money, or demand for political prisoners to be released. Such unfortunate events were not part of U.S. reality.

Terrorism was already present in Europe. There were many individuals from small groups using what today we call terrorist strategies; it was at this time that surveillance devices were introduced. I was intrigued by this shift, which was a bit disturbing. As surveillance technology started to be introduced at the airport, it became normal to have one’s luggage X-ray scanned. It became common to find scanners at the airport, as well as government buildings like City Hall. The unexpected beauty of surveillance technology fascinated me.

Suddenly, there was a new form of presence and reality defined by these new devices. And I wanted to work with the images they produced. I had already been working with pre-made objects and images for some time. At that time I forged and assembled the notions of transparency, visibility and access and they are still the basis of my work.

[EN]: You found this imagery beautiful, but at the same time, this imagery was very pervasive, were you ambivalent to it?

[MS]: Yes, I found it ambivalent. This is how the notion of access came to develop eventually in my work. In the Nineties, we began to live with a whole combination of pre-requisites, especially when computers became common. All of a sudden one is expected to log in in one way or another, to get access to information, or to an actual place–but this is nothing new. The mythic city of Jerusalem, for example, had 12 gates, which were well guarded, and in ancient cities as long as we can remember, one had to show or pay a right of entry. So the same thing happens with the digital world, the cyber world. It’s another way of also keeping track of access, in this case more often to information. This is the function of cookies in the browser, and in the end it’s an issue of knowledge and possibility.

Then I reflected on access as a concept and realized that its opposite would be exclusion, which also became very present. Exclusion divided the world in parts. Before we had the wealthy and the poor, and now access divides people in classes. With all this in mind I looked at the X-rays of luggage at the airport, and also thought about our bodies in medical progress, and my work began to take shape.

This is what I call the politics of seeing. For example, in ancient China, the emperor would have privileged access to the highest mountain close to his city to prove that he had the power to oversee and rule. So today we have improved technology to see deeper, to see through objects and bodies. Seeing is a way to attain information. It gives unquestionable power, and today computer infiltration plays an important role. With all this in mind I developed my approach to transparency, which for me comes ultimately from architecture.

[EN]: When contemplating “Exposure” one wonders very quickly how you got access to X-ray imagery of trucks. How did you move from the luggage at the airport to X-ray of passing trucks?

[MS]: It came by chance. I did not know I would be working with such large vehicles. The trucks were being scanned at the airport, by a research lab which was experimenting with the technology at that time in France. During 95 and 96, at some point, I wanted to see the images of scanned luggage, and I said, “how can I get such images?” I wrote a letter to the airport director and asked him if it was possible to record scanned images at the airport. It took me one year, but finally I got a letter signed by the director that allowed me to record images at Orly airport.

I went to the airport with this letter and an expert in recording, who used a high-end camera. He hooked it up on one of the scanners and we started recording, but after three minutes and three seconds I had a hand on my shoulder. A security person told me, “You have to stop.” And I said, “I have a letter.” And he read it and he said, “It is not signed by us. Anyone who has luggage on this plane can sue you. Take your tape and come with me.” Then he took me upstairs for three hours with several policemen. I kept the tape under my arm and we discussed what I was doing there. Eventually they thought that I was just an artist who wanted some images. And they said, to go away and not tell anybody about what I had done. So I kept the images.

However, I was not satisfied. I became more interested and wanted to show the luggage metaphorically, to stand in for a person. I decided to use my own luggage to avoid any problems, because the only thing I would need to do is get the right to use the scanner. During this process, I became close to one of the people working for a company that provided the scanning machines to the airport. This private company was based in Paris, and the director was young and he was open to questioning what he was doing. He opened the doors of his lab to me and started to show me images of trucks and other vehicles like tanks and boats.

This was very efficient technology;, a truck of 17 tons would be scanned from both sides and the top in four minutes. The first scans were black and white and the second scans were in color, because they show information differently. People were trained to read the different scans, and I attended training sessions to learn how to read the images.

I got these images of the trucks from this person. I started to use them with the project “Four Engines”. I had engines instead of luggage; eventually, I decided to use them for “Exposure”.

[EN]: That explains the trucks, but why a house in the East Bay Hills of San Francisco? How does the house come into play?

[MS]: When I moved to the U.S. I wanted to explore other ways of scanning. And I met a researcher from Cyra Technologies, Inc. who was also teaching at Berkeley, and was doing research with laser scanning technology. Among a few possibilities I chose this house because to me it was a typical American house. I gave instructions to render a scan moving around the house, as well as through the foliage and through the walls. You can do a lot with a laser scan: the stronger the beam the deeper it goes into the material it encounters. It’s the same thing with X-rays. This is another reason why it’s so incredibly fascinating as a form of representation.

Think for a second: here is this thick concrete material around us, and now we have the technology to see through it. In the future, perhaps even with Google Earth, we could go into people’s houses. I don’t want to put that idea out there, but I think it’s possible. It would be scary. In the end, the gathering of scanned images is a reflection on our obsession with control and hyper vigilance.

[EN]: You are combining two moments in time, the material from Paris and Silicon Valley. So what happens today, seven years later?

[MS]: For me it makes sense to show “Exposure” today, thinking about 9/11, especially because when I listen to people in the U. S. it’s like surveillance just appeared (which is not the case). It was always here, only today the technology is more pronounced. Politically, today the states are using it much more. It has become a kind of obsession, and an actual part of corporations.

[EN]: Since you have traveled so much, do you think that the U.S. implementation of surveillance has changed how surveillance is understood globally?

[MS]: Yes, other countries are obliged to adopt similar strategies everywhere, because the ideology is promoted through entertainment, news, and propaganda. The U.S. says, “We need surveillance.” And the message is so powerful. It stands for personal power, but also a country’s power and it is a way to cope with the ideology of terrorism. The paradox is that the more that one resists the terrorists, the more they find a reason to exist. At some level it cannot be avoided because it is inscribed in the current structure, our technology and even in human nature.

People are influenced by this, of course. Online it started with Jennycam, and now we have the show Big Brother, and there is Flicker, Facebook, and Youtube supporting this ideology of self- exposure and self-promoting, along with surveillance and control. People think that this technology gives them a certain visibility, but at a certain price.

[EN]: In your artist statement you also argue that surveillance depends is a “two-way action”: 1) it retrieves information and 2) it outputs propaganda. Is there anything positive that can be found in surveillance? Can it produce anything else but propaganda, is there a grey area?

[MS]: I should clarify that I’m not passing judgment. I’m questioning, and I’m fascinated by this technology, in part because I find it beautiful. Even before I began with this work, I was intrigued by surveillance images because I found them so loaded and questionable, but I don’t wish to give a personal statement/opinion. Nobody cares about what I think. What I’m interested in is to find and stay on the edge, between playful and scary. Each person who experiences my work has to question herself. “Exposure” works on this level. But to answer your question precisely, what is fascinating is invisible: it’s incredible how advanced this can be, how human beings can get access to things that they can’t see with the naked eye, and then we can use the material and manipulate it. What I’m concerned with is in having autonomy when using this information, and ask what is the value of information?

[EN]: In relation to this relationship of architecture and network society, how do you see the concept of exposure functioning in the future.

[MS]: I became invested in the three notions, transparency, visibility and access, which you mentioned in the beginning of this interview when I was exploring architecture. In architecture it is about the whole environment, not just the building but the signs and its surroundings — even circulating traffic in the street is part of architecture. From my point of view, our understanding (i.e. notion) of transparency comes from architecture. A shift took place in the 19nineteenth century (1851) with the Crystal Palace, which was made with steel and glass. This building started the process.

I consider that the way of being transparent has many possibilities: a house made out of concrete–no color no paint, nothing on the wall, with no decoration is a specific form of transparency. Center Pompidou, where they put everything outside is also a manifestation of transparency. And then you have the Glass House by Philip Johnson. And today’s latest, is in New York, where there are new apartment buildings, with walls made of glass. This was done on purpose; tenants who live there know that people will drive up and down a highway, and can look into the apartments.

[EN]: The building you are referring to is the Richard Meier Apartments beside the West Side Highway in Manhattan. By contrast, would you, then, say that with his Glass House, Johnson was exploring this idea of transparency, or exposure, as a way to reflect on certain shifts in culture?

[MS]: Since the Crystal Palace, there has been this transition towards transparency and exposure, on to Johnson, a tendency at play with Flicker and Facebook. I believe this started with architecture and then it moved on to biology and other areas in culture. Today, architecture is found so often as discourse, even in second life.

[EN]: It’s interesting that you mention Second Life, because it’s a reflection of our world. One could argue that what you describe started in the 19th century is today solidified as part of network culture. Now you can log on and view a mirror version of anything in the world as a virtual replica in Second Life.

[MS]: Now, military and entertainment work together (combining their efforts). They used to be counter-balancing each other, i.e. one was violence, aggression and power skills; the other was play, creativity and beauty when it was at its best. My concern is with monitoring, how far it will go, to engage us and encourage us to spend our time in networks like Facebook or Second Life, building a world reflecting our world, including war games. World of Warcraft, is another example that has various business deals behind it.

What all this adds up to is that architects today try to make something interactive. Buildings start to become more like machines. Buildings and streets become communication tools and the city is turning into the most intelligent output of the human brain.

[EN]: Let’s relate your interest in architecture to “Exposure.” In your artist statement you reflect that today “what had disappeared is not the visible, but the invisible, in other words, all that is considered incorrect.” How do you find network culture and architecture, as you have discussed them so far, linked to visibility and invisibility?

[MS]: I’ll answer with a few examples. The Greeks did not have a name for the color blue. They thought of it as part of the color green. Now let’s think about a landscape; it exists when some of the criteria we define as part of a landscape are at play. Another example: if the whole world were wet we would not have a concept of wet. All this is to show that we define and see cultural values according to pre-existing definitions. This is how ideology develops.

What we define as invisible, then, is what has no right to exist. We remove it. Today, we have tools to see everything, and we define what we want to see. When desired, we penetrate through multiple layers with the purpose of seeing more and more. Yet like the Greeks, if we don’t value certain things, we simply don’t see them, or we think of them as part of another element (for example, green as part of blue). If an element has no function, or is not desirable, it has to disappear. This is what “Exposure” in the end explores on various levels.

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