Keeping an Eye on Surveillance, at Performance Art Institute, SF

Have you ever looked into the lit up room of someone’s home as you walked down the street in the evening? You may have felt drawn to look in, to watch—but maybe also felt a little guilty, so you walked on by, hoping no one noticed you watching. We cannot begin to unravel the social and personal complexities of surveillance and voyeurism, the issue is fraught with polarity and ambivalence on numerous levels. But, has fear paved the way for the proliferation of powerful surveillance tools and compromised the principles of the U.S. Constitution to protect our privacy? The Performance Art Institute, in San Francisco, takes on these issues with “Keeping an Eye on Surveillance,” an in-depth look at surveillance in the post-9/11 world.

For this exhibition, curator Hanna Regev has pulled together over thirty artists, working in a range of media including painting, photography and video, as well as multi-media installations. The artworks examine uses, motives, and consequences of surveillance, asking questions such as when and how much is acceptable, and under what circumstance? Some of the works explore the allure of new technologies such as Earth observation satellites, Google Earth, Webcams, and instant posting of cell phone photos. Other works consider the desire to divulge secrets or expose personal details using social media sites, where we seem to so willingly “share” everything about ourselves, where Big Brother has not only become a reality but has reeled us in.

"Paranoimal", photo by E. Sher.

Since it’s not possible to discuss all of the complex works in this show, I’ll mention a brief sampling. In “Paranoimal” (i.e. paranoia the new normal), Elizabeth Sher and Brooke Holve created a small closet-like room with an old wooden door held ajar by a short chain. Peeking inside, you view a video where a woman (Brigit Marie Henry) moves apprehensively down the hall of an old hotel looking into rooms. As she opens each door, she looks in only to find herself looking back at her/us. The video loop becomes a disconcerting sequence involving the viewer as we watch someone watching themself.

Nigel Poor’s “I Confess” was inspired by a new iPhone app. According to the artist, “Confession: A Roman Catholic app, thought to be the first to be approved by a church authority, walks Catholics through the sacrament and contains a ‘personalized examination of conscience for each user’.” Going with this bizarre concept, Poor sent out two hundred letters to acquaintances as well as strangers requesting them to anonymously share their confessions with her. The twenty-three responses she received were printed on small white plaques that were attached to the wall on narrow ledges. To continue the project she has included a supply of SASE, where you too can send in your confessions.


Does airport security make us safer or is it a personal invasion? Sherry Karver’s “Surveillance Series; Suitcases”, involves images that she photographed off of airport screening machines that show the contents of suitcases. These images were then inserted into the lids of actual suitcases and backlit from inside. The usual paraphernalia, shoes, umbrellas, and eyeglasses are there, but the images were “enhanced” with the addition of more ominous items, such as guns, bombs, scissors, and liquid filled bottles. With a dash of humor, the piece plays into our fears of what we imagine might be lurking in someone else’s bags.

Noting the often futile pursuit of personal information, Antonio Cortez and Rosa Maria Alfaro, created “But I Still Haven’t Found What I Am Looking For”, which consists of two video monitors mounted on two silver cylinder trash cans full of trash. One video shows changing images of trash in the cans, the other one streams texts of viewer comments that address the issue of searching our trash for incriminating evidence.

"Church on Fifth Avenue", image from Jim Campbell's website.

For me, one of the most successful pieces in the exhibition is Jim Campbell’s “Church on Fifth Avenue”, which is part of his Fifth Avenue Series 2001. Simple, yet complex, the piece uses custom-made electronics, and video footage taken in the days directly following 9/11. A grid of 768 pixels made out of red LEDs displays a pedestrian and auto traffic scene in NYC. A sheet of diffusing Plexiglas is attached to one side of the frame and angles away from the grid, causing the moving images to gradually go from a digital representation to an analog one. As a result I found myself attempting to visually grasp the fleeting images of the street scene as they moved across the glowing red screen before becoming too digitized to recognize.

The final one I want to mention is a fun, counter surveillance piece by Michael Zheng. The piece, “I See What You See”, is a video that was created covertly during the recent exhibition “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870” at SFMOMA. While it was not officially part of the Museum show, the intervention apparently caused much delightful confusion about who was watching whom and why.

In the words of Hanna Regev, “the exhibition seeks to underscore the need to balance our longing for security with our dedication to a free and open society.” Walking through the darkened gallery, which enhances the viewing of light-based media, you begin to wonder who may be watching you.

The exhibition also included performances, film screenings, and other events. The next performance, “Micromanagement”, presented by Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert promises to be “an evening of sixteen experimental performance artists with an overbearing interest in their audience”. Saturday, October 15, beginning promptly at 8:00pm, and it’s free.

Exhibiting Artists: Rosa Maria Alfaro, Michael Bartalos, Guillermo Bert, Lisa Blatt, Jim Campbell, Enrique Chagoya, Antonio Cortez, Allan deSouza, Rodney Ewing, Roni Feldman, Sean Fletcher, Angus Forbes, Farley Gwazda, Taraneh Hemami, Brooke Holve, Justin Hoover, Sherry Karver, Scott Kildall, Barbara Kossy, Tony Labat, Mark Leibowitz, Charlie Levin, Jennifer Locke, Kara Maria, Andrew Mezvinsky, Daniel Newman, Nigel Poor, Isabel Reichert, Tim Roseborough, Roberto Rovira, Elizabeth Sher, Michael Zheng

The exhibition continues through October 22, 2011 at Performance Art Institute, 575 Sutter St., San Francisco, 415-501-0575. For a list of events related to the exhibition see the PAI website.

To see more on how we view each other, be sure to catch Looking at You, Looking at Me, at di Rosa, in Napa. Curated by Robert Wuilfe, the exhibition considers the relationship between viewing and being viewed, and the ways we look at each other. Opens October 29 and runs to February 18, 2012.


About Satri Pencak

Independent Curator, art writer
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