In order to see the exhibit Pervasive Surveillance at UNLV, I had to spend 15 minutes uploading my personal and financial details to a parking app so I could pay $2 to leave my car. Of course, that’s such an everyday act in these privacy-hemorrhaging times that I won’t suggest it was particularly ironic—but was it a funny if unintentional preface to the issues that artist Cida de Aragon sets out to address in her work? Absolutely.
In this showing (through November 8 in UNLV’s Architectural Services Library), Pervasive Surveillance is an abbreviated version of de Aragon’s MFA thesis exhibition, which was briefly displayed elsewhere on campus in February. It comprises three main elements: a bank of wall-mounted photographs of eyes, titled “300 Vigilant Eyes”; a quartet of large 3-D animation stills of eyeforms cast as quasi-natural features; and a multimedia element that wasn’t working when I was there.
“The ceaseless scrutiny and collection of data have ingrained themselves in our existence, yielding profound ramifications for our daily lives,” the exhibit materials tell us. This “unwarranted encroachment” is “reshaping the contours of privacy itself.” By way of pushback, de Aragon intends to “create a sense of unease and discomfort in the viewer.”
I can tell you that standing in front of 300 identical, penetrating eyes in a quiet gallery accomplishes exactly that. It’s undeniably creepy; their unified stare is practically tactile. In the real world, surveillance tends to be surreptitious (a point the 3-D stills underline by presenting eyes as organic landscape elements). Here, it’s been concentrated to draw out our foreboding about being incessantly observed, tracked, catalogued; about Alexa whispering my secrets into Jeff Bezos’ ear; about your Ring doorbell feeding intel to the cops; about social media (and parking apps!) creating digital doppelgangers of us for who knows what purpose. This is capitalist modernity, and it’s got us in its 300-eye beam. If the Las Vegas Sphere’s newly famous, skyline-filling eyeball evokes authoritarian supervision on a vast Mordor scale, de Aragon’s eye-swarm represents its granular, daily, ubiquitous complement.
As one Police spokesman put it, “Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be
Because they’re lenticular images, the kind that shift as you move, the eyes swivel with you. One or two briefly close in the process—but that offers no relief, since the other 298 don’t blink. And since de Aragon smartly doesn’t assign the gaze an identity, we don’t know who’s looking—it could be government, big business, marketing algorithms, or tech platforms, assuming you think there’s much difference anymore.
Another smart move: The artist chose to represent invasive scrutiny with human eyes instead of, say, impersonal camera lenses. We’re surely more comfortable believing surveillance is a purely objective, automated process: the inputs simply record what’s there, and include us largely by accident. But these eyes humanize the system, and not in a good way. They remind us that watching isn’t a neutral act, that technology encodes the fears and biases of the people who create it, and that however mediated by software our surveillance might be, at the other end there’s always a human with an agenda, and probably not one that serves your best interests.
“One is compelled to ponder the extent to which these technologies will extend their dominion,” de Aragon writes, “perhaps venturing into the province of our very thoughts.” Unless, of course, they’re already there: Technology theorists like Rob Horning will tell you we lost that fight long ago, that social media has trained us to dole out our private lives in exchange for the addictive neural fizz of presenting our thoughts and selfies to the world.
“The point wasn’t to give people tools of expression,” he argues, “but to put them in environments where continual involuntary disclosure is naturalized …” Disclosure that can be monetized, of course.
It occurred to me after standing in front of it for 10 minutes that de Aragon’s “300 Vigilant Eyes” literalizes that seduction, too, if indirectly and perhaps not on purpose—but at a certain point, all those surveilling eyes become indistinguishable from an audience, and who doesn’t want to engage an audience, tell them all about yourself? Yeah, I’d say the surveillance is already coming from inside our heads.
Leaving, I wanted to gently grouse that de Aragon’s exhibit, for all its urgency, didn’t rally my resistance, didn’t channel the unease it summoned toward a stance more complex and useful than pervasive surveillance is creepy and is affecting my life in ways I can’t grasp—which I already knew. I mean, should I buy a Guy Fawkes mask? Wear one of those shirts with patterns that supposedly confuse facial-recognition software? Trash Alexa?
But perhaps one shouldn’t come to art, even seriously topical stuff like this, demanding action steps. Figuring all that out is my job—our job. Pervasive Surveillance’s task is to suggest we hurry.
Cida de Aragon’s exhibit Pervasive Surveillance is on view through Nov. 8 in UNLV’s Architectural Services Library.
Images courtesy Cida de Aragon.