“Where” are we talking about

by Lucy Hunter and R. Lyon*

Lucy Hunter and R. Lyon discuss the use of 24-hour live-stream surveillance in Where, their joint curatorial venture in Brooklyn, NY. Where is a semi-public, high-security shipping container and publishing project launched in October 2013. Open by appointment-only, Where does not encourage physical traffic to the container; instead, the site is an anchor in real space for online broadcast. As its title suggests, Where inverts the implied precedence of exhibition event over secondary documentation.

The next exhibition, “Where 2,” opens December 14. Curated by A.E. Benenson, “Where 2” will question the infinite regress and holographic limit afforded by the recursive appropriation of historical artworks. 

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R:        We have a webcam in our space, and it’s there for a variety of reasons. So the first question is, do we consider this a surveillance camera? The means of conducting surveillance have changed a lot, and I see a big problem with people thinking about surveillance in an early 20th century model —

L:         A panopticon —

R:        Not even. The detective model: surveillance as an individual who follows you around, writing down the bad things you do. He’s hidden and you’re oblivious to being watched. That old model, now irrelevant, continues to be expanded into abstract ideas about government control. But for most people, surveillance is done vis-à-vis the technological apparatus. The introduction of technology is really the second phase in the progression of surveillance. Let’s say mid-20th century. The apparatus is limited to a bug in your clock or a camera hidden in your wall.

L:         Sure, spy tools. James Bond.

R:        Or even just a series of discrete objects whose recording field you enter. But none of that has to do with surveillance anymore. Surveillance is done retroactively, by mining the vast amount of information you already generate through your consumer activity. So then the question becomes, when does surveillance happen? Does it happen when an algorithm crunches data to find the probable route of your walk to work?

L:         The bigger question might be one of intention: who conducts surveillance? Contemporary paranoia stems from the fact that this older model depended on someone watching you. A specific government body gave a shit about what you, specifically, were doing. Now there’s no spy or onlooker to instantiate surveillance, or even a discrete entity that wants to understand you.

R:        That’s what a lot of people don’t get. The vast majority of surveillance is this kind of low-level data collection that treats us as parts. Like a torrent file, taking tiny bits from everybody.

L:         But a torrent file is just a reassembly of bits gathered a huge number of sources. Valuable surveillance actually emerges from an aggregate. It’s not just that the contributions are partial and distributed, it’s that the data sought—traffic patterns, say—only come into existence if tons of people are tapped.

R:        When I did a show at the Goethe-Institut with Julieta [Aranda] and Fia [Backström], we talked a lot about whether certain kinds of reading—surveillance being just one of them— require consciousness. The current paradigm is that surveillance is constant, but ignorant and unconscious. It’s a capitalist surveillance.

L:         Improving your customer experience.

R:        Right. To bring it back to the art world: when we put that webcam in Where, we’re not saying that there’s anything we want to survey. There’s no particular pair of eyes seeking particular information connected to the feed. We’re just trying to be explicit about the experience of looking at art. An experience that has become a kind of research, a kind of browsing.

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L:         We should make clear that we haven’t used the word “surveillance” in any of our language for the gallery. That’s not how we’re describing the live feed. But we are using a surveillance camera, the kind favored by neurotic parents. It’s a nanny cam.

R:        The live feed pre-shadows what I think will ultimately be in every gallery everywhere, which is a 3D hypervision that you move around in. It’s inevitable, an extension of the jpeg.

L:         I would take you up on that. In the early 2000s there was a lot of speculation about virtual reality as a logical or inevitable evolution in the arc of digital media. VR was the immersive or embodied experience that would subsume physical life. But that hasn’t been the way that things have gone. However, I do see expensive museum projects — the Smithsonian Natural History Museum did this — where you use your cursor to navigate through a continuous, stereoscopic panorama of the galleries. Like Google Street View. You think that’s the logical conclusion of art gallery installation shots?

R:        Yes. I think the immersed online experience is important for surveillance, too. The webcam at Where basically shows an unfocused image in a very small space. But for less money than our webcam, you can buy two of these Xbox add-ons that allow you to model a room in three dimensions and record every movement in it. Taking data points as surveillance, you can model and analyze events in ways that are simply not possible with images.

L:         I agree that images are inefficient, and that contemporary surveillance is about data. If you want to know where someone goes, you don’t look for a face on a security camera, you track E-ZPass activity or subway fares.

R:        Yes, but that doesn’t mean vision is excluded. This Xbox add-on I mention is incredibly accessible technology, and there’s no reason to think that the dominant image produced by surveillance won’t actually come from a set of cheaply collected of data points.

L:         Let’s go back to the webcam at Where.

R:        I don’t think our webcam operates as a surveillance device. It’s more a kind of provocation: What are the limits of necessity to experience artworks directly? So many galleries are really functioning as blogs. The physical exhibition is just an excuse to write a press release, get a bunch of artists, and put your name with theirs. The auric experience is missing, and I’m not saying that’s good or bad. But my experience of looking at art is 90 percent at openings or online, and these are really bad moments to have a contemplative experience. I think people are looking for an intellectual experience, and maybe that doesn’t require firsthand experience, but it’s not being delivered by the current norms.

L:         You’re talking about a distracted viewing experience. I’m challenging your prediction of an immersive model, I counter that there’s something satisfying about swiping through images. You have 18 windows tabbed in your browser, it’s not a continuous or cohesive experience as much as a stream of images that you then loosely piece together. But going back to Where and whether or not our webcam is a surveillance tool, I think it’s important to mention that there’s no activity being recorded. Since so little happens inside the shipping container, the feed appears like a still image with a time stamp. We needed to include the time stamp, against both of our instincts, just so it was clear the Internet connection was working, that the clock was progressing. So rather than documentation or surveillance, the webcam is mostly about accessibility. You don’t need to be at Where to see what’s going on inside.

R:        But that won’t necessarily be true for future shows.

L:         You mean shows involving performance?

R:        Yes, but that’s just one possibility. “Where 2,” the show Alex [Benenson] will curate, has to do with ideas of re-projection. It’s very much about using the webcam as a tool of mediation within the exhibition experience. We’re not doing that so much for the first show, which is flat.

L:         A still image, basically.

R:        In the current show, the webcam stands in for the viewer. But I think that can change. There’s a lot of potential for the container to function as a black box, like Schrodinger’s Cat. You put the cat in, you close the door, you open it up—what happened?

L:         Where is a black box if you’re standing outside and the roll bar is closed. It’s a white box anywhere else, with any mediated device. The webcam reveals everything, so you can see the entire space.

R:        Right. It’s also nice not having to decide what to document and what to omit, since the webcam is always there. It’s voyeuristic and it opens up interesting possibilities for performances in general. You can’t do a performance at The Kitchen and tell everyone to leave so that you can be alone with the camera, that’s artificial. But if the webcam is part of the gallery infrastructure, it becomes normal.

L:         This one-way voyeuristic engagement with a camera recalls a 1970s early-video moment. I’m thinking of Vito Acconci or Joan Jonas addressing an unseen public, which today gets conflated with the surveying body.  There’s an ambivalence in those early video pieces, when the artist doesn’t know who is watching or where the power balance lies in that voyeur/exhibitionist relationship. We have a similar uneasiness toward authority, and as directors of Where we play around with these technocratic personae, in how we structure the exhibitions and project our mission. I’ve always called Where the “ego laboratory.”

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R:        What we’re doing is a lot like an artist-run space. We have an intellectual and artistic agenda. We’re not trying to sell lots of paintings. So if you were trying to do that in the ’70s or ’80s you would find the cheapest space you could and try to get people to go there. The expectation was that your audience was hyper-local.

L:         The audience is the artists that you’re friends with, who live in the neighborhood.

R:        That’s a cool project, and I’m supportive of that. There are a huge number of artist-run spaces in New York. What we’re doing, though, isn’t local. Where speaks to a dislocated public that could be in other countries. Maybe someone wants to show our gallery in Rio, as part of another exhibition. That sort of immaterial space is exciting to me. If we look at the exhibition as a format, where can we find potential? Instead of looking for new cool art, we want to create an environment of exhibition-making that is provocative, which can generate ideas and artworks. A gallery that pushes the exhibition format, rather than the artwork per se, can produce a public that produces artwork.

L:         It’s funny to hear you say “producing publics” because that’s a contested social function of art. For good or for bad. Propaganda certainly produces a public, albeit a Fascist one. But that public can also be a rebellious one.

R:        Do you think art produces a public?

L:         I really don’t know. I’m thinking of other people’s arguments—of T.J. Clark talking about Courbet, saying that art coalesces subversive publics at times of discord. Do I think so? I heard Anton Vidokle quote Martha Rosler: “In the future, every public will be an audience.” Such that the spectacle of art, and in particular art online, becomes all the more neutralizing and mind-numbing.

R:        I think one of our deficiencies is the extended Internet base we operate in—even our books aren’t in bookstores, you have to buy them on Amazon. So it is very much an audience that we cultivate, and not a public. Unless they can speak to each other, we’re not doing the job of producing a public. This concerns me because I want to produce a public. I think our ideas are strong and that there is an unconnected public of people interested in these same questions. I would like Where to be a pivot around which people could communicate. That’s something for us to think about—

L:         Feedback.

R:        Not necessarily feedback to us, but between the audience members. If people are watching the webcam is there a way to chat?

L:         Do we have a comment thread?  How do you identify yourself as part of this conversation? Let’s say someone is engaging us by checking in on webcam and buying the books, how can she disclose her participation in this conversation? There’s no way to publicly identify one’s affiliation with us.

R:        We should make T-shirts.

L:         You don’t have to show up to the gallery, you don’t need to talk to anybody else who’s also into this stuff. But part of being in a conversation means identifying as such. And the model that we’re following reminds me of the “Walkman effect,” where everyone’s wearing headphones on the street. We are alone, together. And that’s challenging.

R:        I think it’s more important to produce these questions than to solve them. Sometimes I think we should be more extreme, more alienating. Close off the experience to any kind of—

L:         No opening!

R:        No public! No viewers! Just some notes.

L:         So how does Where relate to online galleries?

R:        That depends on how we consider the job of the gallery. Is that job to get as many people as close to the artwork as possible? Or to produce texts and discourse? How you come down on that question determines if you start looking more like a blog and less and less like a physical space. I’m looking to set up a structure and see where the ruptures are. For example, we’re doing a screening of Dark Side of the Rainbow—the Wizard of Oz played simultaneously with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which apparently synchs up well. You’ll have 15 people out on the street watching some weird movie. That includes our friends, people hanging around on the street nearby, the other shop owners on the block. That’s not an immaterial experience, and I’m looking forward to that.

L:         Recently I’ve been trying to remember how we got the idea for the webcam in the first place.

R:        I don’t know, but instantly we got excited about it. We just wanted to be provocative about a mediated experience. What can you do around art, in a gallery context, short of going to look at it with your eyeballs? Short of the retinal experience, as Duchamp would say. Though it’s still a retinal experience via webcam so I don’t know if that concept holds true here.

L:         But our camera has sound—

R:        Yes, but it barely focuses. What’s the point of having HD if it looks like someone punched you in the face first? [NB: The speakers have since found the “focus” setting in the webcam’s admin panel.]

L:         It’s not a high-fidelity experience. We chose not to have multiple cameras, though they might have conveyed a better sense of what’s going on, because they would have looked like a CCTV panel. The inside of a mall cop’s booth.

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R:        Well, we had a few options for the webcam display. One option was to set up four cameras in the corners, like a deli. Another was to install a camera which visitors to the site could remotely steer. Or we could have a rotating display of a number of cameras, switching at fixed intervals. But for me, the very limited image was more interesting. I wanted to be reminded that Where isn’t a mimetic experience. We aren’t capturing lived experience, this is a rigid and synthetic view.

L:         It’s a fallacy to claim to transmit any experience via webcam.

R:        So we agree about that. Once we settled on having a single camera on a static mount, more questions come up. The precise angle of the webcam says a lot. The most neutral thing is some kind of body height—

L:         Hmm—

R:        If we decide against the surveillance POV up in the corner, eye level is somehow safer. These weird choices keep popping up: do we put the webcam in the back of the room so online visitors can see everything? Or do we move it to particular angle so it focuses on a certain object really well? Or do we try to neutralize the webcam by centering it?

L:         Neutrality being the key term. Whose perspective is being assumed? Someone six feet tall, five feet tall, a child? These are choices, no perspective is neutral.

R:        Sure. But that’s probably where we’ll end up with the webcam a quote normalized central vision that doesn’t allude to surveillance but does become this weird head on a stick.

L:         It’s a homogenizing force, as we are controlling what people see. We hope this will remind visitors of the limitations of “immediacy” or “digital presence.” But it’s a little bit sinister to make these apparently neutral choices about how people access an experience. Yes, it’s simple, there are metrics for hanging art, but those conventions are likely established around the average height of a Western European man.

R:        But it’s also just honest. These are the problems of exhibition design and documentation, and they haunt any kind of second-order representation. The exhibition is a completely controlled, theatrical experience in which every detail is engineered to give you the illusion of immediacy. The illusion that no such engineering took place, that you can have your own perspective and that no one’s telling you how to think. That conceit drives me crazy: the white cube. For me it’s more transparent to use theatrical lighting and this strange webcam—it asserts that we make conscious decisions in the space.

L:         The rhetoric of control in the information age is beautifully concealed: the illusion of choice.

R:        That rhetoric also elicits data from consumers, to be rendered as surveillance.

*Lucy Hunter is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art at Yale University, where she works with David Joselit. She held research positions at the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and on the forthcoming biography of Barnett Newman, published by the artist’s estate. Lucy co-founded Plexus, a two-year interdisciplinary lecture series at Chashama 461 Gallery in Harlem. 

R.Lyon (Columbia MFA 2012) is multidisciplinary artist and performer living in New York. His work, which has shown internationally, focuses on the intersection of system theory and aesthetics as a mechanism for understanding contemporary experience. He is a Jacob K. Javits Fellow and occasional collaborator, working with Fia Backstrom, Jim Drain, Jessie Stead and others. His latest exhibition, “Golden Champagne,” is a touring show that opens in September at Detroit’s What Pipeline gallery, continuing to New York this fall.