Art Theory / Musings / Political / Process

The Artist Under Surveillance PLUS a Guide to Holiday Shopping

Sometimes, while walking around my neighborhood in the ever-shortening window of time between when I get home from work and when the street lights turn on, I think about surveillance. I’m not sure why that thought comes to me at that time. Maybe it is because I frequently end up going into CVS, and I am forced to watch myself enter the store on the closed-circuit system they have rigged up just above the door. It’s like Bruce Nauman’s Live-Taped Video Corridor, except in the less cerebral, non-museum context. An added perk to the CVS camera experience is that I walk away with paper towels (but only after being scared by whatever motion-sensing holiday decor is popping out of the “seasonal” aisle).


Bruce Nauman Live-Taped Video Corridor 1969

And I guess that’s when, thinking about the Christmas season, I start thinking about what I can buy people for Christmas. And then I start thinking about what I can buy people for Christmas that is not going to spy on them, because I would not want a gift to spy on me. This might seem like a weird thought, but Christmas really is the spying holiday. First, Santa is watching kids all the time. That’s surveillance. The Elf on the Shelf? A spy. Actually, digital education professor, Laura Pinto has a lot to say about this in The Guardian article: Professor Says Elf On The Shelf Is Preparing Your Child To Live In A Dystopian Police State. That’s a great title.

claudia-giftsScarves are fantastic gifts. The leaves are always blowing around me when I walk home from CVS. I don’t know where all of the leaves come from because there aren’t that many trees on my block, but that is another conspiracy for another day. The scarf I wear on walks always seems slightly insufficient.

And as I walk I think, OK, the elf is watching all the kids. And a lot of other popular holiday gifts are watching their parents. Alexa is listening to you. FitBits are biometric surveillance. Drones are spyware. GPS is tracking where you go. So what is the problem with all of this stuff? Does matter that our gifts are tracking us? Well, I think that there are people who are a lot more informed than I am that can talk about this for a week (a LONG week), but I’m going to focus specifically on the relationship between privacy and autonomy.

This is the philosophical part of the excursion. I’m furrowing my brow as I walk past the harrowing walls of the Eastern State Penitentiary. In the late 18th century, social theorist Jeremy Bentham invented the Panopticon, which is essentially an institutional building (prison, hospital, etc), that is designed like a wheel, so an observer positioned in the middle of the building could see everything in the entire building at one time. The idea was that if prisoners (or building occupants) always felt as if they were being watched, they would behave in accordance to the watchers’ wishes out of fear of punishment. This type of behavioral conditioning takes the responsibility of behavior out of the conscience of individuals, and places it in external rewards and punishment from the powerful viewer.  Even if no one was actually looking at a prisoner at a given time, the idea that someone COULD be looking, was enough to shape their behavior. It is worth a note, too, that this type of “I might be watching you” surveillance really began with the Eye of God, but Bentham’s structure is a physical example with physical punishments, not an ideological one that may only result in punishment after you die.


Right: Elevationsection and plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791 –  Left: Diagram of a Panoptic Building

Since then, the concept has evolved even further. We, in 2017 United States, live in a digital panopticon, where access to our private information is readily available, should someone in power take the time to look (Duh, we all know that). So people are all behaving as though they are being watched, and the reasons behind their behaviors could be extrinsic, out of fear of punishment. Now, there are definite advantages to this. If someone wants to attack me and steal my CVS bag, well, then I don’t really care if the reason their not doing it is only to avoid being caught on surveillance cameras and receiving a punishment. That’s fine with me. I want to get my paper towels home. Also, if I had a step-counter tracking my walk home, there seems to be no price I am paying for that convenience, other than the 60 bucks it took be to buy it. Both of those reasons for surveillance seem good. The thing that worries me, however, is the connection between behaviors that are altered for the panoptic audience and individual autonomy.



Rene Magritte The False Mirror 1928

In The Value of Privacy, Professor Beate Rossler says, “The true realization of freedom, that is a life led autonomously, is only possible in conditions where privacy is protected.” Philosopher Tom Sorrell agrees with this sentiment by saying, “If one has to answer the question: ‘What, in general, makes privacy valuable?’ It might be that you need privacy in order to be an autonomous person. Otherwise, you might become the mouthpiece for the people around you…of an official view.” My takeaway: you need privacy to be the unique you that you are. This is especially true for creative people.


I step over a truck drawn on the sidewalk. It looks like the artist was probably about 3 years old. Next to the truck is a drawing of a pizza. Pretty good.

Creative people, artists most definitely, but all creative people, have a lot to lose to the overly-surveilled culture. If their privacy, and therefore their freedom to act as an individual is challenged, their ability to make novel creations is in jeopardy. According to a study by Deci and Ryan in 2008, “We identify contextual autonomy support and individual autonomy orientation as antecedents of creativity.” Similarly, the team of Liu, Chen, and Yao in 2010, “Identif[ied] autonomous internalization… as the key factor in driving individual creativity.” All of this just proves that in order to be creative, you need to have privacy. You need to be able to act without feeling as though you are being watched, or without the feeling that your steps are being counted, or that your location can be pinpointed on a map.

My takeaway: you need privacy to be the unique you that you are. This is especially true for creative people.

Unfortunately, there is little that we can do to hide in our culture, but artists should try to whenever possible. I go through the front gate of my house that is adorned with a fake-pine wreath that I wired little red flowers to. The inside of my home feels private enough to me. That is a place where I can be myself. And yes, there is electrical tape covering the camera on my computer.  Beyond that, however, I’m not going to describe the interior of my home, because that is for me to know, and I hope it is a place where I can create.

by Claudia Eckel (Founding Member Proximity Arts)

Work Cited:
– Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology, 49, 14 –23. doi:10.1037/0708-5591.49.1.14
– Liu, D., Chen, X.-P., & Yao, X. (2010, November 8). From Autonomy to Creativity: A Multilevel Investigation of the Mediating Role of Harmonious Passion. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. Doi: 10.1037/a0021294
– Rossler, B. The Value of Privacy, p. 72, quoted in Capurro, Eldrend and Nagel, Digital Wholeness, p. 68


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