series of projects (2007–11)
When I first read Orwell’s 1984 as a teenager living in Soviet Estonia, I compared his Big Brother to the Soviet regime and the constant surveillance of its citizens, or rather the fear of surveillance that the KGB had generated. In the meantime, contemporary capitalist societies have managed to move much closer to an Orwellian reality. Technological advances have provided the tools and created a paranoia leading to a permanent need to protect citizens and their property. This has introduced us to a life under Big Brother’s constant controlled surveillance. Most surveillance is sold to citizens with the promise that it is for their own security and benefit. According to statistics, the United Kingdom has the most extensive CCTV camera network in urban Europe. When I first arrived in London in 1996, I was surprised by how many signs I saw warning me of CCTV, and indeed where they were located. It was not uncommon to find one next to the toilet door in a pub. The question arose: how much private space do we have and which private space is actually under observation? Do they really need to have cameras in the toilets? Since then, the number of CCTV cameras in London has certainly multiplied. CCTV cameras are no longer omnipresent in the public domain only in the UK; most developed urban areas in the world are well equipped with surveillance technology. Furthermore, it is cheap and easy to buy such equipment and everybody can put up a surveillance system to protect their own property if they wish. It is impossible to live in a contemporary urban setting without being observed. We do not pay much attention to where cameras are and what they are recording, and we usually do not question what is done with the recorded material. We believe there are laws and regulations protecting us.
Protected consists of several works which are interlinked, commenting on the obsession with protection. The works were produced over four years and may continue to evolve. The first project was produced for a solo exhibition in the Medienkunstlabor, Kunsthaus Graz in April 2007. For this exhibition, I made a t-shirt with an image of my naked body. Text written on my body warned others (whilst ironically reassuring me) that my body was protected by visible and invisible CCTV cameras. I wore this t-shirt in the streets of London while I was fitted with a portable self-surveillance system embedded in my clothing. Some cameras were inside the clothes filming my body, whilst others faced outside and were obviously visible to the people around me by the oversized crocheted flowers around them. The cameras observed and recorded both the outside environment and my own body. I took several walks through different parts of London and recorded the feed from the cameras. I wanted to see if I would be questioned about the cameras on my clothing and the message on my body. It turned out to be a feminist exercise as the cameras did not bother anyone, yet the image of my naked body with the text was seen as a provocation.
I took further walks before the show in Graz and later in Tallinn and Århus. At the show in Graz, a video projection was shown displaying documentation of a third person recording the walk and the CCTV camera feeds of my body and of the outside environment. The space was in constant motion, in slow animation and becomes rather abstract. It presented a different surveillance view of urban space, questioning the necessity of surveillance systems. Visually, it presented a rather poetic and strange journey through the familiar places where I live and visit.
The image of my body with the text ‘this body is protected by visible and invisible CCTV cameras’ links the next street actions in the series. In 2007–11, I wore a t-shirt with the same text over my body in several European cities (London, Tallinn, Berlin, Edinburgh, Graz, Århus), while doing a series of live-easel painting performances. The idea for painting images of CCTV cameras came out of stories in the media and from friends who had been stopped or even arrested whilst taking photos of CCTV cameras in public spaces in the UK. Apparently because of the terrorism threat, it was illegal to take photos of CCTV cameras etc. in public spaces. However, no law existed to forbid us from painting CCTV cameras. Painting is a process and it takes much longer than pressing a button on a camera. Wearing the t-shirt made my intentions very clear. People are always very curious when they see a painter on the street, and many, therefore, came to look. When they saw that I was painting something as worthless as a CCTV camera, they immediately asked questions, so starting conversations was easy. My aim was not merely to make paintings, but to have discussions and conversations with passers-by about surveillance. The paintings produced were exhibited as an installation, which has been growing as more cities are added to the project.
The installation of paintings also includes handcrafted CCTV surveillance objects – a camera and a monitor embedded into knitted and felted sculptural objects adding another layer of watching and being watched. As the visitor approaches to look at the paintings of the surveillance apparatus, they are under closed-circuit observation themselves and appear on a monitor. We take being watched whilst doing everyday actions for granted now, but we should not. Watching someone else’s life should make us uneasy. By placing the monitor between the legs of a woman I attempted to make the viewer uncomfortable and reassess their own vulnerability, and their own role in the big game of watching which we are all part of.