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Trace Recordings: surveillance, art and identity in the 21st century

“Stranger Visions” is a series of 3D printed portraits based on genetic material taken from public places, by Heather Dewey-­Hagborg. Image courtesy of the artist

“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” These aren’t lines from Nineteen Eighty-Four but the words of Eric Schmidt, Google’s notoriously frank Executive Chair and former CEO.

The repercussions of Schmidt’s matter-of-­fact assessment are the subject of Trace Recordings, a new exhibition exploring surveillance and identity in the 21st century. It considers the disturbing consequences of surveillance in a networked age and examines controversial new technologies such as computer vision, surveillance drones, facial recognition and biometric profiling.

Responding to the influence of surveillance technologies in our lives, the 11 artists in the exhibition draw together psychology, science, politics and technology in ways that policy experts or privacy advocates can’t. Ranging from the subtle and meticulous to the controversial and playful, their artistic provocations also highlight emerging forms of portraiture in the digital age.

In “Stranger Visions”, Heather Dewey-Hagborg analyses DNA from found cigarette butts, chewed gum and stray hairs to generate portraits of each subject based on their genetic data. Comparing the artist to her own genetically derived self­portrait, the resemblance is striking. While not so exact as to readily identify an individual, the portraits demonstrate the disquieting amount of information that can be derived from a single strand of a stranger’s hair and the disturbing potential for surveillance of our most personal information. Images courtesy of the artist
The artist extracts DNA from these samples to uncover a multitude of traits: from sex, ethnic background, eye and hair colour to hair thickness and curliness and even likelihood of freckles or propensity for obesity. From these data a facial model is generated which forms the basis of a life­size 3D­ printed mask. Image courtesy the artist

The artists use a variety of forms in their critique: creating striking 3D ­printed portraits from DNA taken from public places; meticulously painting spy drones in traditional Pakistani patterns; hiking deep into the wilderness to photograph secret government “moonbounce” installations; or exposing unencrypted surveillance networks using nothing more than a baby monitor.

Trevor Paglen’s photograph “They Watch the Moon” depicts a secret NSA listening station deep in the forests of West Virginia. The facility is hidden in the heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone, 34,000 square kilometres in West Virginia, USA, where WiFi, FM radio and similar transmissions are sensitive to radio astronomy. Courtesy the artist, Altman Siegel San Francisco, Metro Pictures New York and Galerie Thomas Zander Cologne. On loan from the collection of Dr Clinton Ng.

The myriad ways we’re watched and recorded every day are astonishing. Government agencies as unlikely as even the RSPCA can monitor your phone and email without your knowledge and without a warrant. Smart phones have tracked and recorded the location of millions of users without their consent. NSW Police patrol cars collect and catalogue the licence plate of every car they pass.

“Memory”, by Korean artist collective Shinseungback Kimyonghun, is a digital tablet equipped with facial-recognition software. The device records each face it recognises, endlessly superimposing faces to generate a composite portrait of every person who has viewed the work. As with the digital devices we interact with every day, ‘Memory’ quietly and diligently records and reports what it sees. Image courtesy the artists

Meanwhile, Google has argued in court that Gmail users have “no legitimate expectation of privacy”, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes privacy is “no longer a social norm” and former US Vice President Dick Cheney declared massive surveillance programs such as PRISM “the new normalcy”.

In a networked world, where a single datum is often enough to unlock a wealth of private information, how well placed is our trust in these organisations? And if opting out of these systems is no longer an option, what agency do we have within them?

The Disposition Matrix is a system used by the US Government to assess masses of intelligence data. It create a matrix of people, places and events from which it extrapolates lists of targets for surveillance, rendition and killing. Image courtesy the artist

The exhibition offers an artistic insight into the methods and motivations of the people and machines who watch us, as well as providing creative ways to protect yourself—including workshops to design new make-­up looks that confuse facial recognition algorithms.

The exhibition is also the catalyst for a panel discussion, Welcome To The New Normal, that will explore these issues in depth with a panel of experts in psychology, intelligence, criminology, journalism, computer vision, law and sociology.

Traditionally trained miniature painter Mahwish Chishty’s CIA surveillance and attack drones are intricately rendered in the elaborate and colourful Pakistani folk ­tradition of truck decoration. This style of decoration proudly reflects the personality of each truck driver — in contrast to the unadorned, drab grey exteriors of actual drones that reveal nothing about their far-­distant operators. Image courtesy the artist
Unauthorised incursions by unmanned aircraft have become commonplace in north-west Pakistan. By appropriating their form, Mahwish Chishty claims a sense of control over these silent menaces. Image courtesy the artist

Eric Schmidt says: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Increasingly, that seems like a statement that’s as relevant to the watchers as it is to the people they watch.

Trace Recordings opens at UTS Gallery University of Technology, Sydney today and runs until November 29. The panel discussion, Welcome To The New Normal, is at the Guthrie Theatre at UTS on November 5, 6:30–8pm. For more information visit

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