Margaret Keller – Opticon: Surveillance Series
April 1 -28, 2021
Frequent use of digital technology like cell phones and computers plays such a seductive, pervasive role in my life (and nearly everyone’s), especially during this pandemic. Embracing the latest news, message, app, or software, I capture, link and distribute what interests me. Also constant, but less obvious in our lives, are networks of digital surveillance that invade our privacy with virtually every online activity. In tandem, surveillance by digital cameras has proliferated, providing an endless loop of doubtful examination and ultimately revealing critical threats to freedom, civil liberty and identity privacy. On average, one surveillance camera operates per every eleven citizens, as we are recorded about 75 times per day. Among the targets of relentless surveillance are our email, phone calls, texting, online activities like personal finances, photographs, social media and business communications, political preferences, and location/movement tracking services.
My art looks back at these government, corporate, and personal cameras, especially at the vast insertion of surveillance cameras into the natural worl and focuses on the secretive relationship between subject and spectator.
In 2020, the federal government overturned the FCC regulation that banned internet service providers from selling our private information without our permission.* Beyond individual concerns about privacy, security, and personal data, surveillance is a civil rights issue for all, but especially affects marginalized communities. In St. Louis, where I live, government/police surveillance with no oversight is an ongoing issue, threatening the civil liberties of all, but especially those of people of color, immigrant and refugee communities, and local activists. Surveillance focuses tracking, profiling, and policing disproportionately on black and immigrant populations. Discriminatory treatment–through biometrics, CCTV, online activities, and telecommunications, racializes surveillance using markers of identity–namely race, class, sexuality, and gender. “Today’s seeing eye is white.”***
In July, a member of the St. Louis Board of Alderman made a resolution for the city to contract for limitless aerial ‘spy plane’ surveillance, meaning drones. The Missouri ACLU websites states that when mass surveillance systems are deployed by local police, they are frequently used to target communities of color. “While the nation is discussing the demilitarization of police, St. Louis is considering turning wartime specific technology on its own citizens. This is a threat to liberty. This summer Americans have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and demand change. During the protest surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, officials in Baltimore quietly and secretly turned to the very surveillance technology now before the (St. Louis) Board of Aldermen to track protestors…”** Consideration of the bill allowing aerial surveillance is currently before the Board of Aldermen again in 2021, as the organization Privacy Watch STL works for transparency, oversight, and accountability for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police’s use of surveillance technology. Meanwhile, none exists.
While the word surveillance means to watch over, the panopticonembodies this concept as an all (pan) seeing (opticon) social discipline. Both a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, it is brought to life in the form of a central observation tower centered within a circle of prison cells. Panopticon architecture allows observation of occupants without their knowledge. At any one moment, prisoners will never know whether or not they are being watched by the panoptic all-seeing eye-in-the-sky. <i>Opticon</i> is inspired by these historic traces, along with the ongoing use, of the panopticon as a means of surveillance by disciplinarian societies.
My hope is to increase awareness of the scope and the dangers of this watching over, currently active as a massive government/corporate intrusion into our personal and civic lives.
* NPR, March 28, 2017
**The River Front Times, Luz María Henríquez, 7/13/2020
***Theory, Culture and Society 1998 15:67: page 69, “Surveilling the City: Whiteness, the Black Man and Democratic Totalitarianism”, John Fiske.
The following is from the essay “The Anatomy of Surveillance-Margaret Keller’s Surveillance Series” by Joe Kohlburn
Gallery 210 Catalog/Margaret Keller/Surveillance Series, University of Missouri-St. Louis, pp. 5, 10-12 , 2017, https://issuu.com/margaretkellerstudio/docs/catalog_gallery_210_10_5_17
“In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” Foucault outlines the means by which states exercise control through disciplinary and punitive mechanisms. Among the epistemological excavations in which Foucault engages, is the history of a late 18th century prison design by philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. The prison, called the Panopticon, consists of a tower surrounded by a ring of prison cells, built out like the axle and rim of a wheel . From the central tower, the prison guard can project a light into any of the surrounding cells. The inmates themselves are unable to judge with any certainty at whom the guard is actually looking. The guard could scrutinize the prisoner, or he could simply take a nap.
The effect, Foucault argues, is the same. The inmates are controlled not by actual surveillance, but by the internalized threat of being watched. The goal of the panopticon is to impose a built-in surveillor on the psyche, an efficient and existential dread. Each inmate carried the disembodied surveillor in his psyche, adding psychological chains to those around his wrists or ankles. Each action within the panopticon is governed by this persistent paranoia. Post Snowden, it’s easy to empathize with these prisoners, who might have been arrested for something as harmless as an unpaid debt. We presumably are innocent in the meantime. Foucault conceptualized the panopticon as a metaphor for state disciplinary power. Contemporary government surveillance has the added dimension of a Phillip K. Dick short story in which we are being punished for theoretical crimes we have not yet even contemplated.
Eli Parser’s notion of the filter bubble (see seminal book The Filter Bubble, 2011, and obligatory accompanying TED talk) points to the means by which our prejudices, predilections, and interests are leveraged by social media companies and others to organize our social interactions. Algorithmic considerations involve not what is true or what is urgent, necessarily, but first and foremost what it is we want to read. In this way, conservative readers will encounter almost exclusively conservative information, and progressive readers will be confined to the other end of the spectrum unless either group makes specific efforts to reach beyond. This echo chamber is geared to meet the human need to be ‘right’ above all else, and is a primary cause of our present social, political, and intellectual alienation from one another. One wonders if indeed corporate surveillance of this type produces social problems at a faster rate than any system of closed-circuit cameras or NSA programs. Several analogs to Keller’s “Proliferate” come to mind: The smartphone, or the internet of things through which we gradually and willingly construct the environment for unknown forces to watch us. The average person’s complicity in this network of surveillance is clear, willing or otherwise. “If you wish to keep a secret you must,” as George Orwell wrote in his prescient fiction 1984, “also hide it from yourself.” The filter bubble is a comfortable cloister for our thoughts, and as such, an erosion of the intellectual commons in which ideas are debated, challenged, and refined. This coupled with creeping erosion of our legal privacy rights constitutes a new paradigm in which we are isolated by choice, and sorted into groups with similar viewpoints, to be more easily controlled.
The anatomy of surveillance is material, it is digital, it manifests in paranoia, a feeling of discomfort, and perhaps as yet obscured psychic wounds. If we take as given the presence and necessity of this anatomy, we are acquiescing to the erosion of our identities and civil liberties. Keller’s work interrogates the nature of our political and social locus within this body of surveillance. Her aesthetic framework suggests the resilience and ubiquity of efforts to invade our privacy. She compels us to object to the juxtaposition of vines and wires, leaves and lenses, as though it is somehow benign or natural. Keller asks us to separate in our minds what grows wild and what is planted by those with the worst of intentions.”
Commercial Drone Market Analysis By Product (Fixed Wing, Rotary Blade, Nano, Hybrid), By Application (Agriculture, Energy, Government, Media & Entertainment) And Segment Forecasts To 2022. San Francisco: Grand View Research, 2017. http://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/global-Commercial-drones-market (accessed June 21, 2017).
Federal Trade Commission. “VIZIO to Pay $2.2 Million to FTC, State of New Jersey to Settle Charges It Collected Viewing Histories on 11 Million Smart Televisions without Users’ Consent, 2017.”https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2017/02/vizio-pay-
22-million- ftc-state-new-jersey-settle-charges-it (accessed June 20, 2017).
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan.
New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Keller, Margaret. Email correspondence and artist statement. May 31, 2017.
Parser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We
Read and How We Think. London: Penguin Books, 2011.)
Over fifty galleries, museums and collections in Chicago, Atlanta, California, Ohio, Colorado, Missouri, Maryland, Wisconsin, Arkansas, New York, Berlin, Boston, and Beijing, among others, have exhibited Margaret Keller’s work. Recently, her solo exhibition Leaning on Nature was featured at The Mitchell Museum and Botanica absentia, a memorial to future lost species, was at The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. She also focuses on the critical aspects of contemporary art, with reviews published in Art in America, delicious line, All the Art, the New Art Examiner, and Temporary Art Review, and has curated over fifty exhibitions at The Meramec Contemporary Art Gallery.