Derived from the French word ‘surveiller’, meaning ‘to keep watch’ or ‘to watch over’, the surveillance camera has been used to police borders, to assist war-time reconnaissance, to gain advantage over political enemies or simply to gather information. Techniques of surveillance are closely linked to developments in photographic technology – from the earliest aerial photographs to satellite pictures. In the twenty-first century, cameras on street corners, in shops and public buildings silently record our every move, while web-based tools such as Google Earth adapt satellite technology to ensure that there is no escape from the camera’s all-seeing eye.
Since the early years of the twentieth century, aerial photography has been linked to military activity and espionage. Prior to the D-Day landings, photographs of the beaches at Normandy revealed the location of mines that would be invisible at high tide. In the 1960s spy planes captured the Star of David patterns formed by missile sites in Cuba. In the 1990s, photographer Sophie Ristelheuber used aerial views to document the scars on the landscape created during the first Gulf War.
More recently, photographers have taken surveillance technology as their subject, turning the camera back on itself. Andreas Magdanz has documented the surveillance cameras and look-out points of Pullach, a village in southern Germany from which the US spied on the Eastern Bloc, while Jonathan Olley has photographed the invasive watchtowers built by the British Army in Northern Ireland. Other photographers make visible what is usually hidden from public view. Mark Ruwedel’s photographs of sites on the US/Mexico border show evidence of attempted illegal crossings; while Simon Norfolk has photographed the almost invisible web of wires that enables governments to capture mobile phone conversations
With the development of conceptual art in the late 1960s artists began to use photography to document performances or actions. Every day for one month in 1969 Vito Acconci followed a randomly selected stranger on the streets of New York, recording his experiences with photographs and a written account. Sophie Calle has made a number of works that explore the artist’s voyeuristic nature, whether following strangers or employing others to follow her. In 1981 she took a job as a chambermaid in a Venetian hotel with the intention of gathering information about its occupants.
Photographer Merry Alpern hid a video camera inside her handbag so she could take it into the harshly lit fitting rooms of a number of fashion boutiques, and found that it revealed a disconcertingly unfamiliar image of herself: ‘I had always seen myself quite differently when I looked in the mirror. Suddenly I no longer knew what I really looked like’. Artist Emily Jacir also appeared in front of the camera, inserting herself into the frame of a live webcam trained on the main square of Linz, Austria over the course of a month. Though she is barely visible in the resulting pictures, her diaristic text directs the viewer to her presence.
Artist Bruce Nauman recorded his studio in New Mexico at night using an infrared video camera. For a period of several months he positioned his camera to show different areas of the studio, documenting the objects in the room as they had been left that day as well as the mice that scuttle in and out of the frame. This early version of Mapping the Studio, made in 2001, focuses on his office desk as well as a number of works in progress. Nauman later used the footage to make a seven-screen video installation which puts the viewer into the position of a spy or voyeur invading his private working space.
Hours and hours of surveillance footage recorded all over the world remain unseen by the human eye, played back only when incidents are suspected or the alarm is raised. Harun Farocki’s series Eye/Machine explores the ‘intelligent’ image processing techniques used by machines or technicians in modern warfare for purposes such as programming the path of a cruise missile. Part II of the trilogy, the film shown here pieces together computer-simulated images, leading us to question the distinction between man and machine.