This show is called ‘Authority to Remove’ and there are several different media and pieces in the show, but it all has to do with a story of an experience I had under commission from the Dutch Secret Service, to make an artwork for their new building. I was very interested in understanding the secret service from the inside. I’m not really someone, an artist that goes and makes something in the studio and then imports it into the space. It’s really, for me, an opportunity to learn about a public or a government organisation and specifically I’m really interested in secret organisations, government practices, and things. I proposed that the secret service hired me as a head of service of personal data, and with that position I proposed that I would meet agents in the secret service and collect their personal information, and with that information, create an artwork for the new building.
I would get a phone call. Every once in a while they would say, ‘Hi Jill, it’s so-and-so, you have a meeting today in the American Hotel in the café, you need to be there at three o’clock.’ But basically, I would just go into a bar or a restaurant like this, and I would sit down and someone would sit down next to me and say, ‘Hi Gill, I’m…’ and they would give me a first name, whether it was their real first name or not. And we would just start talking, and it would always begin with this information of personal data. But the conversations usually went for, like, five hours. I never got over the strangeness of staying in a place and waiting for someone to approach me. So even one of the last meetings I had was in the meeting point at Schiphol Airport, and it’s this busy, busy, crowd and all these people are walking by, and rarely they were on time, so someone would walk by and look at me, and I was like, oh, is that the guy? Is that the guy? Is that the woman? And that’s also something interesting that people said to me about the work. It described all these people to the point where when they walked out of the show, they were like, is that a spy? Is that a spy? Is that a spy? And this is something I love, because in our society, it’s very easy to be like ‘us’ and ‘them’, but us and them are almost the same people with the same confusions and desires and questions, and so this interchangeability of who is the watcher, who is the observer, who is the statistic, who is the terrorist? They are not as disparate as one might think.
One of the things was, the agents kept saying to me that I was becoming dangerous, and I kept asking them, ‘Why am I dangerous? What is the problem?’ And they said, ‘Well, you have information that is dangerous to us.’ And I said, ‘What is that?’ And he said, ‘You have our faces. You could burn us.’ And burning a face is a term within the secret service that means the ability to expose another agent’s identity. So one of the main pieces I made was called ‘I can burn your face,’ and I did it in neon, so that it’s really bright neon, and very, very bright so it hurts your eyes and burns your face. And I lifted descriptions from my notebooks of all the agents I met, and there were eighteen of them, and made these pieces where I just get to the point where any further would really burn their identities, but so it’s almost like a possibility or a threat of, this could happen, I can burn your face. And these are the neon pieces that were included in the show.
What happened, in some ways I was told that I got far deeper than they ever expected, and that’s why there was such a backlash. I mean, the Dutch Secret Service confiscated a number of my artworks from the show after they had read the draft of my book. And the bureaucrats were quite frustrated with what I’d done, whereas many of the agents that I met with asked if they could meet me again and again and again, because they really appreciated our interaction. So I think there is this other hierarchical level within the work too, of the distant bureaucrats or the distant centre, and then the people along the way that I met, that I had a much better relationship with.
For me, psychology and human desire are the most fascinating parts of it, and I’m very interested in observation, and it oftentimes falls into surveillance. But it’s really observation. It’s the slow eye that watches things, and that kind of magic in the city that happens if you just stop and stare at the same thing. And that’s really what interests me, and that’s why I think they always tip into the love story, because I think anything closely watched and closely observed, even the most banale of things, can become the most fascinating and the most beautiful and the most full of love. And that thing of looking back into a system that is usually a one way form of monitoring, becomes a really incredible experience of knowing that you are watching and being watched, and what happens in that space is really a beautiful thing, I think, if it can be kind of harnessed and used in a different way than was ever intended.