Steve Mann

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Steve Mann @ Gallery TPW
Exhibition opens: Thursday July 5th, 2001 at 7 PM. On display until July 28th, 2001.
Gallery TPW is located at 80 Spadina Avenue, Toronto, ON. Tel: 416-504-4242.
Gallery hours are Tues-Fri, 12 - 5 PM. 80 Spadina Avenue is just North of King St., on the West side.
Admission is free.

Prior Art: Art of Record for Personal Safety
Essay by exhibition curator, Kathleen Pirrie Adams

Visual surveillance is a ubiquitous and powerful system that generates redundant and often empty images: endless hours of vacant apartment lobbies, deserted subway platforms, the mechanical routines of minimum-wage workers collecting burger and donut fortunes, pedestrians passing by bank windows, and the slow flow of commuter traffic. Sheer volume and real-time duration support its claims to truth or reality, while the emptiness at its heart obscures its real purpose by suggesting an apparent lack of effect.

In Michel Foucault's analysis of Bentham's panopticon, the philosopher identifies continuous observation as one of the techniques used for ensuring social control. While the structure is able to minimize the number of guards needed to mind the prisoners, its efficiency goes beyond simply saving labour. The design has deeper consequences. Its imposition of constant and continuous visibility creates a situation within which the subject internalizes the gaze of the watcher. Self-surveillance begets self-regulation, which allows the system to operate automatically, by remote control.

Over a period of twenty years artist, inventor, and engineer Steve Mann has developed a body of work that provocatively and humorously undermines the efficiency and normalization of surveillance. Borrowing from the Situationist notion of détournement, Mann has developed a number of strategies-involving wearable devices and performative routines-that allow him to frame surveillance as a political problem and interrogate its banal self-justifications. His subversion of the stealth and insidiousness of surveillance is achieved through "Reflectionism," a program that turns the largely invisible visual order of surveillance into spectacle.

A video document entitled "Shooting Back" provides a clear demonstration of the techniques and technology associated with Mann's performative interventions. It includes scenes of strategic disruption and small-scale confrontation with security guards and clerks in various commercial establishments. Mann enters these contexts outfitted with wearable computers and cameras. His strategy involves asking questions about the closed-circuit camera systems and then mimicking individual employees' disavowal of responsibility for the invasion of privacy or the resulting climate of suspicion. Their defence usually consists of pointing "upstairs" to their management or claiming merely to be implementing an impersonal system. Mann applies the same rationalizations to his own image-capture practices, asserting that his camera is necessary for personal security purposes. This, and his reiteration of their claim that "only people with something to hide are afraid of being monitored," create a revealing feedback loop.

With the Tiedome-a wireless camera and telematic laser pointer device housed inside a smoked Plexiglas dome-Mann's strategy is to make what is supposed to be hidden so obvious that it becomes "blatantly covert." The Plexi domes' migration from ceiling to necktie provides a burlesque of camouflage and covert action while simultaneously calling attention to its disguise (as jewelry). A similar ironic gesture supports the "Maybe Camera" project. In 1996 Mann produced a set of t-shirts emblazoned with the following text: "For your protection, a video record of you and your establishment may be transmitted and recorded at remote locations." Having his "manager" shuffle the t-shirts meant that even Mann couldn't be sure which ones actually contained cameras. Here again, the miniaturization of the camera and its potential invisibility are undermined in order to draw attention to one of the favourite tactics used in one-sided surveillance situations: the production of paranoid self-consciousness based on the possibility of being recorded.

Reflectionism works on a number of levels: as performance, as political statement, as an experiment in social behaviour, and as a commentary on the status of the photographic image within contemporary culture. As performances that use irony, feigned ignorance, and low-key confrontation in order to establish a technique for active resistance, Mann's practice can be situated within the art-historical context of site-specific intervention.

Being in a situation and being part of that situation are central to work such as this. It makes no claim to be objective analysis, external to the events being observed. This non-objective representation is, to return to Mann's vocabulary, the product of "existential technology." Resistant to the notion of essences or pre-existent forms, Mann instead places emphasis on the role of existence in all processes of creation. Not only does Mann's approach insist on a recognition of the social context of technology (and specifically the role of choice and intention in its use), his embrace of Heisenberg's insight into the influence of measurement (mediation) on outcomes also informs his inventions and emphasizes their status as social machines.

While there are parallels to be drawn with earlier institutional uses of photography aimed at regulation and social control-Charcot's clinic, Bertillion's invention of the mug shot, and various social-hygiene movements-several elements unique to current modes of surveillance are brought to light by Mann's body of work.

The insistent flow of surveillance video produces a very different perspective on what it views than the photograph does on its subject matter. These moving pictures collect at a rate that is extraordinarily difficult to archive. Video surveillance doesn't readily lend itself to categorical classifications or exemplification. In light of the time-based character of the media, the frame functions quite differently than in photography-serving to connect rather than differentiate or isolate.

Even when working within the tradition of the print, Mann applies some of the principles of his post-graphic photo practice. With the "Lookpaintings," for instance, Mann presents a segmented vision that represents the movement of the subject's eye as it travels across space stochastically. This picture of active vision suggests not only the subjective view of the operator of the Eyetap camera but also the motion within the short intervals of time that constitute a look. As the residue of a kind of untethered eye, they also suggest what photographic information might look like without a frame.

In a related way, Mann's use of the internet for live relay of real-time events depends upon the convergence of media that characterizes the digital age. In such practices, the image is no longer subject to the snap-print-display time-frame, nor bound by the production requirements of print distribution.

Considering the worldwide volume of surveillance imagery, or speculating about where it goes, how it gets saved, or abandoned, or what its life as a historical document will later be immediately draws our attention to a surplus. Not simply a question of quantity, there is something in surveillance that exceeds what we normally think of as the image. Within the realm of surveillance, awareness shifts away from the screen to the camera. In fact, the screen and the frame, aspects of the image that have traditionally defined it, seem to have disappeared. The image has, metaphorically speaking, been dispersed-become data.

Although a number of artists have been intrigued by the qualities of the surveillance still, and the relation of surveillance to voyeurism, power and identity, few are as interested in exploring the circulation of such imagery in its natural habitat. Less concerned with the visual rhetoric of the surveillance image, Mann is focused on the role such images can play in resisting and transforming that realm. While new dimensions of photography are made apparent through Mann's anti-panoptic surveillance project, the purpose of his work is to keep questions of power and control alive in an era when the value placed on ownership of information tends to exceed all others.

The phrases "art of record" and "prior art" refer to ideas for inventions that have been filed with the patent office. Using these in Mann's exhibition title on the one hand registers the work's documentary aspect, while on the other playfully points toward the extended realm of his project. Because the gallery is not the primary site of Mann's practice, it functions as an interpretive context within which to provide an overview of his work's many dimensions. The exhibition title also suggests that the art does not simply belong to the product-in this case the photographic image-but denotes a whole set of performances, theoretical writings, and institutional processes (scientific, commercial, and legal) through which it comes into being.

Some of Mann's own patent documents are on display in the "Prior Art: Art of Record for Personal Safety" exhibition, and their inclusion works in a number of ways. It emphasizes that the exhibition is itself a record of Mann's history and practice. It reinforces the notion that everything that goes into the presentation is part of the art: that it has a prior history, an existence before it becomes a record. It highlights the influence of engineering on Mann's art. And it calls attention to the artist's interest in a radically expanded field, one that could even include a patent office as a possible site for artistic intervention.

The patent office represents a layer of the data-sphere where authorship and ownership are fixed. It is the place where what is potential becomes what is producible, the place where ideas become properties. For many, this area of symbolic activity might seem subterranean, even Kafkaesque-an echo of this impression resounds throughout the exhibition, and in the decontamination facility patent in particular.

Canadian Patent 2303611, submitted to the Intellectual Property District Office in Toronto on April 1, 2000, describes an emergency-response facility for handling mass casualties: victims of chemical spills and the like. The decontamination facility stands out amongst Mann's projects. While its basic design echoes the panopticon-which has provided the model for the desired psychological effect of video surveillance-unlike his earlier work, it is neither wearable nor image-making. In fact, Mann's architectural turn signals a shift of attention: from acting as the model of possible resistance to the widespread invasion of privacy, to a role of model-maker.

The decon facility nevertheless continues the artist's critical investigation of the issues of privacy and social control and his practice of Reflectionism-albeit in an entirely new medium. It continues to show that beneath the call for "public safety" there is much going on that is invisible to the public, bears little, if any, public scrutiny, and may not even express the needs or desires of the public. Putting the tools and techniques of "public safety" on display returns it to the realm of the public. By drawing attention to the idea of public safety, and calling into question its presupposed necessity, Mann is able to make it apparent that there remains something potentially ominous at the heart of the cultural and political practices of our new networked being.

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