Watching the watchmen: when artists stare back at CCTV

Miriam Stannage, The White House [chainsaw], 1999, digital photograph. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.

At a press conference in February, Tony Abbott justified his metadata legislation on the grounds that it would help fight crime:

whether it be child abuse, whether it be terrorism, whether it be fraud, drug importation. Whatever it is, metadata is vitally important – absolutely critical.

Emotionally-charged language like this encourages a climate of fear and distrust, one symptom of which is the use of CCTV (closed-circuit television). Now Australian citizens need to come to terms with the privacy implications of the new metadata legislation, passed in the name of national security and crime prevention.

Artists can make a distinct contribution to this debate by offering visual and alternate perspectives, and by engaging directly with their audience.

I recently curated the exhibition Sentinel eye / spy, currently on display at artcollective WA in Perth. This exhibition considers how cameras are used to capture private actions in public spaces.

Photographs by filmmaker and activist Zebedee Parkes and private investigator Peter Andrea are shown alongside works of art by Miriam Stannage.

While Parkes and Andrea use cameras to capture moments of transgression without the explicit consent of those they photograph, Stannage is interested in how such images operate. She is able to interrogate what lies at the heart of our concerns by utilising images, similar to those by Parkes and Andrea, through which she interweaves religious, art historical, social and political references.

Mondrian’s Birdcage with Security Camera (2013) – below – is a playful, three-dimensional rendering of abstract artist Piet Mondrian’s (1872-1944) dynamic relationships between geometric elements.

Miriam Stannage. Mondrian’s Birdcage with Security Camera, 2013, mixed media, 162x35cm irregular (detail). Copyright and courtesy of the artist.

In this work, Stannage has painted horizontal bars in primary colours to break the regular black verticals of the wire birdcage. And just as Mondrian was resistant to predictability in his grid-work, breaks in the regular spacing of the wire are provided by the detail of the birdcage door, and at the intersection with other features in the birdcage.

But this cage contains a surprising substitution: instead of a bird we observe an inquisitive looking camera, standing on a metal leg, head cocked, and gazing out of the cage through its one mechanical eye. This bird-like CCTV camera seems to be observing us as we’re looking back at it.

The artist has generously endowed living qualities to the camera as an extension of her Christian beliefs in a God that is found in nature, all-knowing and all-pervasive. She is familiar with the implications of constant, benevolent and extensive observation given her faith is founded on the understanding that every human action is acknowledged and judged:

The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good. (Proverbs 15:3, King James Bible)

This results is a powerful work built upon the unusual conflation of mechanical device and conscious, omniscient entity.

In The White House (1999) video Stannage alludes to the layers of history embedded within the Australian landscape.

The artist draws the viewer into an eerie and intriguing narrative as she videos the interior of a derelict workers cottage in remote Western Australia. We observe evidence that someone has recently been there: the ancient fridge houses McCain’s frozen food, and a chainsaw has been left on the kitchen table. It remains ambiguous as to whether we are witnessing the scene of a crime.

The details that accumulate throughout the video are evidence of the most recent layer of history of this site, and yet there remains much that we can not see. Dispossession and absence loom as ghostly characters inhabiting this place; the sense of disquiet is amplified by the howling wind and the banging of loose sheets of corrugated iron.

This strange, visual narrative challenges viewers to consider their relationship to the confronting history that lies at the heart of Australian identity – “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” – questions that are simultaneously existential and particular.

The works of Stannage, Andea and Parkes in Sentinel eye / spy are visual statements on the nature of transgression and dispossession, as expressed in the public domain.

We are being watched more and more and, as government and government agencies gain greater access to private information, there continues to be a need to protect those freedoms that allow citizens to interrogate and expose the execution of power through creative endeavour, dissent and debate.

Sentinel eye / spy is on display at artcollective WA until April 18. Details here.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 106,200 academics and researchers from 3,404 institutions.

Register now