In 2013, while hiking in Florida’s Everglades, Marcus DeSieno came across park rangers who were nailing a camera to a tree. They told DeSieno that, though the camera wouldn’t work properly at night, it was meant to inhibit trespassing. This encounter, coupled with news of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, inspired a recent photography project by DeSieno, which began in 2015 and focuses on the far-reaching, pervasive nature of surveillance in the modern world.
“It was a real strange, profound moment for me that this camera was acting as a signifier of power or dominance just by its existence, not its functionality,” DeSieno told Hyperallergic.
No Man’s Land: Views from a Surveillance State, a new monograph from Daylight Books, comprises disquieting images of landscapes that DeSieno pulled from CCTV feeds around the world — every continent except Antarctica. The artist noted that his process was, at first, relatively straightforward: he consulted wikiHow guides for hacking surveillance cameras, and soon he was able to tap into those devices on a global scale. Many were not password protected, he said.
DeSieno accessed tens of thousands of cameras and photographed screenshots on his computer with a large format camera. He then employed a 19th-century photography process, creating salt paper negatives from these photographs. By turning those negatives to positives, DeSieno imbued the images with a profound sense of foreboding and timelessness.
The photos are colorless, grainy, and sometimes inscrutable: tangled and twisted branches are set against a monotone sky, a lone grave marker emerges from the ground in an empty clearing, blank hills roll into oblivion. This anonymity of place figures into the artist’s interest in 19th-century landscape photography and tonalist painting, particularly the ways in which those mediums relate to the American West and Manifest Destiny.
“[There was an] inherent desire to show that we could consume that landscape,” DeSieno said, adding that he hoped the work would have a “psychological effect” on viewers.
The conceptual underpinnings of No Man’s Land lend the project a techno-dystopian edge, stripping the landscape genre of its typical palatability. Notwithstanding a list of latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, the distorted, almost supernatural images are unrelenting in their obscurations.
“It was really about being a curator or archivist of this larger surveillance apparatus,” DeSieno explained. “What I want my viewers to be thinking about is why is this camera here, far removed from human presence.”
According to DeSieno, viewers are oftentimes surprised that such sparsely populated, rural areas are surveilled by these devices. “That’s one of the biggest conversations I have when people look at the work,” he said. “I wanted to try to find another way of showing this large part of our digital culture that remains largely invisible to us that would surprise people, or that would open their minds to how expansive it is.”
While the publication of No Man’s Land marks the conclusion of this particular photography series, DeSieno’s engagement with surveillance is far from over. As part of another project, the artist has been traveling to the NSA data center in Utah. Unfortunately, that’s all DeSieno was willing to share about his forthcoming work.
“My artist practice is really about thinking about how photography has changed how we see and perceive the world — how we see the world as a whole,” DeSieno said. “I’m still using surveillance cameras as a medium and finding new ways to construct imagery or come up with different parameters.”
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.