the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Profiling the Profilers

Posted by gninja on July 8, 2007


I saw some great stuff at the Whitney today. Not a bad way to cool off in this 95 degree heat.

The first (small) exhibition I saw was Profiling, well-placed on the museum’s first floor. According to the curators:

Profiling features two artworks that present a dialogue on issues surrounding surveillance, protection, privacy, and identity by exploring the use of automated systems for tracking and “profling” people in public spaces. The connection between surveillance and entertainment is at the core of SVEN-Surveillance Video Entertainment Network by artists Amy Alexander, Jesse Gilbert, Wojciech Kosma, Vincent Rabaud, and Nikhil Rasiwasia. SVEN uses a computer application to track visitors’ movements through space and to analyze their “rock star potential.” A video-processing application uses the live camera feed to generate music video-like visuals. In David Rokeby’s surveillance installation Taken, two side-by-side projections provide different readings of the activities in the gallery space. A continuously accumulating history of the movements of people in the gallery is juxtaposed with a “catalog” of gallery visitors’ headshots that have classifying adjectives, such as “unsuspecting” or “hungry,” randomly attached to them. The projects brought together in Profiling expose the absurdities and subvert the effects of surveillance technologies.

People entering were clearly drawn to the digital images, either for its rarity in a museum or for the chance to see themselves projected on the wall of museum. Immediately past the attendant taking tickets, to the left, is a dark room with a split screen showing images of museum-goers walking about the room. On the left side was a screen containing a series of still-frames, each one an image of an museum visitor. The tiles were constantly shifting around, and periodically, one would be blown up to fit the entire space of the screen, and would be accompanied by a title, such as “unthreatened.”


On the right side of the screen, shifting, ghost-like images of the same people floated about as looped sequences.


I recall my entrance into the room and move toward the far corner being shown several times. A roving white-lined square honed in on people, heightening the experience of subjection to surveillance– as opposed to voyeurism. It felt menacing to see the back of my head focused in on and highlighted for everyone’s eyes.

For all its smallness, the exhibition was a good one for several reasons. For one, it accentuated the lurking sense of vulnerability I already feel when I visit a museum or other public space under surveillance. I am never just looking at works of art. I’m also feeling the lens of the camera on me, as well as the eyes of guards and perhaps even other museum visitors. So the exhibition was relevant to the museum-going experience itself.

It was also good because of its relevance to current concerns with privacy and governmental infringements of those rights. While on this side of the Atlantic we have illegal wiretapping (so, an audio invasion) on the other side there are concerns with omnipresent–though legal–CCTV. These works, while entertaining, effectively achieve the threatening nature of ubiquitous surveillance. The titles I mentioned above, in particular, portray the the perils of innacuracy in public profiling. They produced in me a sense of helplessness and futility at the specter of being misrepresented by the titles appended to my recorded image.

It’s a thoughtful exhibition, carried out really well.

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