Hypermedia: Critical Issues in Contemporary Media Art is a column written by artist Artie Vierkant for Hyperallergic. Each article discusses an existing or emerging theme in practices at the intersection of electronic media and the arts, drawing from the contemporary and the historic, the pervasive and the obscure.

A woman stands in a crowded square with her eyes closed.

Slowly we see her move forward, talking under her breath to an unseen participant. Her eyes remain closed. Occasionally she makes an abrupt course adjustment, narrowly avoiding one of the swath of unnamed individuals moving directly in her way. Passersby turn to watch the spectacle, the woman moving through the crowd and muttering to herself, denying sight of her eyes.

Jill Magid, still from

Jill Magid, still from Evidence Locker series (2004)

The woman is artist Jill Magid and the city is Liverpool. The situation described above is a performance from her 2004 Evidence Locker series, in which the artist developed a friendly relationship with the security staff monitoring all of Liverpool’s closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems and instructed the operators on the manner in which she was to be filmed moving throughout the city.

In this particular moment, Magid had called the officer whom she knew to be on duty at the time, closed her eyes, and instructed him to verbally guide her through the crowded square. She placed her ultimate trust in the hands of her omnipotent participant, actively engaging with top-down systems of surveillance.

Magid says of this work that she “seek[s] the potential softness and intimacy of the[se] technologies, the fallacy of their omniscient point of view, the ways in which they hold memory (yet often cease to remember).” Her work thus creates playful interventions into information technologies designed as control mechanisms, dealing explicitly with subverting the traditional power structures of surveillance.

But as the tools of surveillance become more and more democratized there is a significant body of emerging work focused directly on the related idea of “sousveillance,” sometimes also termed the “participatory panopticon.”

Sousveillance (French for “undersight” as surveillance implies “oversight”) is a term attributed to Steve Mann (an individual whose work in “Wearable Computing” also garnered him the rather dubious title of “world’s first cyborg”). It refers to the ability of individuals in information age societies to set up civilian or private-run methods of surveillance — often decentralized networks and often with the potential for acting as witness for social or political injustices and spreading the information quickly at a global scale.


Josh On, They Rule (2004)

This isn’t your average Neighborhood Watch. Take TheyRule.net, an interactive artwork and sousveillance network created by Josh On in 2002. They Rule creates a platform for visualizing the connections between individuals in positions of power in some of the biggest corporations in the world. Depending on the map you select (10 richest people, Bush family and oil companies, media outlets and the companies they’re owned by or affiliated with, &c.) They Rule offers a visual display of major companies and the people who sit on their boards of directors. Most importantly the framework highlights which individuals have ties to multiple companies by placing representative icons between the associated firms and drawing a line through the individual, creating a literal link.

These were especially urgent issues to deal with in George W. Bush’s America. In 2002, for instance, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its “Total Information Awareness” program, a tentative mass indexing of civilian information (credit, medical, shopping trends, &c.) for federal intelligence use. Even under the Patriot Act this wasn’t considered admissible: the program lost funding in 2003, but not before provoking a significant work of sousveillance art: the Open Government Information Awareness Project (OGIA), a platform created in 2003 by MIT Media Lab graduate student Ryan McKinley. OGIA allowed any individual on the internet to invert the process of information collection that DARPA had proposed by providing an editable database of personal information on corporate and public officials.

Ryan McKinley discusses his sousveillance projects, including OGIA

But They Rule and OGIA are not a type of artwork likely to be lauded with gallery distribution and acclaim, despite their status as important works with profound social and political consequence. The use of these examples, in which the artist creates a central tool for the public to add content to, is not to infer that sousveillance work is out of the reach of an individual artist’s voice. Just as one tweet could expose profound political strife or or one blogger can influence an entire nation’s economic process so too can an artist expose truths that are hidden in plain view.

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Trevor Paglen, Large Hangars and Fuel Storage Tonopah Test Range, NV Distance ~ 18 miles 10:44 a.m. (date unknown)


Trevor Paglen is probably the most prominent figure working today at the intersection of sousveillance and the arts. An artist with a research-based practice holding a Ph.D. in Geography from UC Berkeley, and until recently better known for his books Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World and Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights, Paglen is something of an anomaly. His work though, whether termed experimental geography, research or documentary art, is incredibly provocative, especially when one hears him speak about the process he goes through in attempt to uncover classified information.

Paglen’s work deals explicitly with an attempt to visually represent the invisible: the classified and hidden infrastructure of the military-industrial complex, known commonly in military circles as the “Black World.” For instance, one of his projects is an ongoing series of photographs of secret military installations that are located in areas so remote that there is no vantage point where an individual without profound military clearance could spot them with an unaided eye. Paglen photographs these sites using lenses typically employed in astronomy, shooting from the closest legal vantage point and capturing anything from an abstract field of grey to details of planes unloading. In true performative/interventionist form he has also led groups of people on “expeditions” to various sites, taking them to the very edge of public space to learn about the social construction of hidden space.

Paglen’s work shares a common thread with many works of sousveillance: the art is not an exercise in overtly revealing classified or private information but instead a process of unveiling public information kept as a well-guarded secret.

He does this by reading between the lines in publicly available documents. His 2006 work Terminal Air, a database for tracking government flights (specifically CIA rendition flights), was created by cross-checking a list of aviation companies which hold permits to land on US military bases with public Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records. When further research into a company suggests that it is in fact a front for secret government transportation Paglen logs the public FAA records of all of that company’s aircraft movement into Terminal Air. Finally we are left with an easily accessible visualization of one portion of the world which is hidden in plain sight.

Trevor Paglen’s speech at Google in February 2009, part of the Authors@Google series

The more accessible and wide-reaching communications technologies become the more potential there is for citizens and artists to take active part in maintaining and reinforcing a participatory democracy. A positive move in this direction came when President Obama signed a memorandum on Transparency and Open Government the day after entering office, but its potential is still far from realized. Programs are still being introduced that read more as Red Scare than intelligent discourse: for instance the brand new Apple-lawsuit-bait iWatch campaign in Los Angeles, an essentially co-opted take on sousveillance in which citizens are instructed to submit leads on potential terrorist activity through a variety of platforms. The promotional video openly states its goal as a top-down surveillance system with citizens as sensors, stating “let law enforcement determine what’s a threat. Let the experts decide.”

Los Angeles Police Department’s iWatch Campaign

Artie Vierkant is an artist based in San Diego CA and Philadelphia PA. He is currently pursuing his MFA at UC San Diego following an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennysylvania where he studied...

5 replies on “Surveillance vs. Sousveillance”

  1. Great piece. You wrote: “But They Rule and OGIA are not a type of artwork likely to be lauded with gallery distribution and acclaim…” That’s probably a good thing, no? These projects sound far too important to be restricted to a gallery or auction block. That’s why it’s been so great to watch coverage of Paglen’s work extend beyond the art press (like to Wired, Democracy Now, and even the Colbert Report!) That he can address such wide audiences is quite a testament.

  2. That’s absolutely a good thing–these are artworks that also happen to have a practical use as a political tool, if they started moving into the realm of the commercial gallery context that would read highly of co-optation.

    But as you say, part of the reason I then bring it to Paglen is that I think it’s very interesting how his work functions across so many different formats: he’s showing at Bellwether, speaking at Google, performing his expeditions in association with a variety of institutions of higher learning, &c.

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