SELF-SURVEILLANCE AS COUNTER-SURVEILLANCE
On 3 April 2012, exactly one year after his arrest by Chinese police at Beijing Capital International Airport for alleged economic crimes, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei launched his self-surveillance project WeiweiCam (Fig. 1) online. Setting up four cameras in his studio and courtyard, the artist allows every visitor on the now defunct WeiweiCam.com to see his daily activities on a twenty-four-hour-a-day basis. The project soon attracted a mass of attention: after streaming for forty-six hours, it received over 5.2 million views worldwide. The website was subsequently forced offline by Chinese officials.
According to Ai Weiwei himself, WeiweiCam was a response to his encounter the previous year; the project was designed to mirror the eighty-one days of his detention during which at least fifteen CCTV cameras were installed around his house, putting him under strict police observation. The Chinese authorities gave no reason for their decision to shut down the website. Indeed, the site’s closure raises some questions; firstly,–the fact that webcamming has become a normal and even popular activity, and secondly that during his forty-six-hour stream the artist did not violate any laws or regulations pertaining to internet usage. What disquieted the Chinese authorities is that through this project, the artist staged a rebellion, protesting against the opaque mechanism of state control over citizens, and openly challenged the rationality of secret surveillance against private citizens.
WeiweiCam not only provided a critique of public surveillance, but also turned the surveilled place into a stage for political resistance. According to the artist, the project represented an experiment in symbolically showing the transparency and visibility of Chinese governance. WeiWeiCam raises questions of transparency in two ways: firstly, it refers to the fact that prior to his house arrest, the installation of cameras around the artist’s studio was secretly carried out, and secondly, it also suggests that in the action of surveillance, the relation between the observer and the observed is non-transparent; surveillance cameras construct a one-way observation. The viewer is shielded behind a camera while those monitored are exposed to constant observation; the observer remains undetectable and invisible, and thus, occupies a uniquely powerful position.
Such a mode of surveillance clearly recalls Michel Foucault’s theory of Panopticism. Consisting of two buildings, an annular building with a tower in the centre, the panopticon prison was designed to impose an axial visibility on the prisoners and actively dissociated the dyad of the seer and the being seen: “in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen”. And so the most important effect of the panopticon was a sense of invisible omnipresence: prisoners cannot know if there is anyone watching, or when and how are they watched; the only thing they know for sure is that they themselves are totally observable at any moment by anybody with access to the tower. Therefore, even if the surveillance itself is discontinuous, its effect is constant.
The widespread nature of surveillance cameras in the contemporary world brings us ever closer to the Foucauldian notion of a prison-like society. The visible yet unverifiable gaze behind this political technology constitutes an asymmetrical power structure; ubiquitous public surveillance is not only used as a tool for punishing or controlling criminals, but more importantly, as a means of regulation and the behavioural modification of ordinary people.
However, WeiweiCam runs counter to this expectation. Although Ai Weiwei claims that the cameras he set up in his studio performed the same function as the surveillance the Beijing police imposed on him during his detention, the purposes of the two actions are fundamentally different. Government surveillance is an apparatus to make obedient those who are subjected to its observation, whereas WeiweiCam was a sarcastic gesture of rebellion. There was no indication that he modified his behaviour for the presence of the cameras, he was neither overly cautious or disguised in his manner, nor did he do anything radical or striking. For the majority of the time, he did his routine work as though there was no one watching. Nevertheless, he did not completely ignore the camera. There were moments he deliberately looked up into the camera as if to provoke those who were watching (Fig. 2, 2012). By making visible the secretly conducted government surveillance in his recreation, Ai Weiwei forced his viewers into the position of the Chinese state authorities. By transforming unverifiable government surveillance into a live stream for public viewing, the project openly and publicly criticized the legitimacy of these social and political conventions in a very public manner.
Moreover, by the rhetoric of self-surveillance, Ai Weiwei allied with the surveillance camera in order to dissolve the unequal relation between the seeing and the being seen of the panopticon. In real-life state surveillance, asymmetrical power relationships are constructed by a hierarchy of observation; the power of the observer comes from his invisibility. In contrast, in WeiweiCam, the artist as the observed had the ultimate autonomy over his own body and final control of what was observed, he decided whether and where to install the cameras, and it was only by his volition that viewers were able to see him on the stream. In this way, Ai Weiwei removed the camera from the watcher’s control and transformed it into one that empowered the watched. For instance, he cunningly placed the camera in his studio at such an angle that although the viewer could see him working at his computer, they could not see the screen. Likewise, all four surveillance cameras he installed recorded only in low-resolution and no-audio footage, even though the audience could see Ai Weiwei’s–and all his household visitors’–every move, it was impossible to find out what was said and done.
The shutdown of WeiweiCam.com reveals another characteristic of state surveillance: it has been incorporated into the mechanism of censorship, determining the right of the observed to be seen–or not. It serves as a strong instrumental force to suppress speech, public communication and other information, and is therefore antagonistic to modern conceptualizations of democracy which is governed by freedom of expression, both politically and intellectually. Censorship stipulates what can and what cannot be said, thereby consolidating the power of those who decide what constitutes acceptable forms of discourse. This similarly exists within actions and surveillance: when one act or another is decried as undesirable, surveillance is the tool to supress it within the public. In this regard, WeiweiCam resisted public surveillance and censorship by employing the seemingly paradoxical livestream of the artist. By stripping himself bare under the gaze of the public, Ai Weiwei turned the webcam’s cyber space into a place for free expression, and a space of silent, apparently open protest. The lack of explanation from the Chinese authorities regarding their actions towards the artist only served to strengthen the agency of the artist’s protest.
Of course, the protest staged in this performance was necessarily limited. If Ai Weiwei’s accessibility was to be interpreted as specifically documenting the life of an artist, rather than an individual, and that artistic production itself was under surveillance, the shutdown of Weiweicam seems to demonstrate the vulnerability and incapability of art in the face of real-life surveillance and strict censorship: it has a provocative posture and ambitions to challenge state power, yet it is inescapably subjected to it.
The artist decided that even in cyber space he could not explicitly express his opinion with language, and chose to express himself merely through the recording of his banal everyday life. Regardless, his practice represents a form of counter-surveillance through self-surveillance and opens possibilities for democratising the surveillance system and transforming surveilled spaces into sites of resistance for the empowerment of the observed.
OBSERVING OTHERS: THE ETHICS OF SURVEILLANCE
Despite being a common practice by artists, using surveillance footage in art has been controversial, particularly as installing surveillance cameras and using public surveillance for personal use without consent raise legal issues. In Ai Weiwei’s works, any invasion into people’s privacy is minimised. The viewers know that the reason they can see Ai Weiwei’s life is because he is allowing, and even inviting, them to. However, when artists focus their camera on people who lack the knowledge of – or have not consented to – their observation, concerns of exploitation and invasions of privacy are brought to the fore.
The purpose here is not to pass judgments or criticisms of such artworks on a moral level, or to accuse works of being unethical in their practices, but rather to analyse how unease is aroused in viewers by certain works which engage with surveillance technologies and materials. It is precisely the, if not illegal, at least “immoral” ways of recording that makes viewers conscious of the problems raised by using the medium of surveillance cameras per se. They challenge the idea of viewers and artists as “disinterested” or “objective” observers, and the camera as a device purely for filmmaking or documentary recording.