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“Code Names” and “Hansel & Gretel” Art Installations Essay

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2022

Introduction

States and authorities have extended and imposed their influence and controlling territory through the evolution of visual technology. States have utilized visibility to control their people, primarily transforming the relationship between citizens and governments due to surveillance and control. Through the use of visual technology, state secrecy has adopted pervasive mass surveillance, which has, in turn, disrupted the lives and privacy of the public. Artwork at the convergence of identity and surveillance has had a tendency to focus on the portrayal of the human body as an identity bearer and a subject of control and surveillance. Art has the ability to present features of contemporary life in sheer form, calling attention to injustices or suggesting developments or trends that deserve resistance. There are notably many artworks that engage with surveillance, including Trevor Paglen’s “Code Names” and Pierre de Meuron, Jacques Herzog, and Ai Weiwei’s “Hansel & Gretel” Art Installation. This essay will analyze the two media examples from the view of control and surveillance and how it has changed the relationship between people and the state.

Art as an Instrument of Political Resistance

States and authorities have utilized visibility to control the public by focusing on the invention of visual technologies and the strategic use of secret state systems. From the “Code Names” art installation to the “Hansel & Gretel” installation, it is clear how authorities hide behind technology and how artists used technology to overturn such messages. Having an indivisible association with visual culture, art has been used as a fundamental tool for politics in educating and engaging the public. From the formation of portraits to ancient myths to cultural attributes, art, and political power have always been strongly related. The origin of visual technology in the service of authorities began in the 15th century when the Camera Obscura was developed. Camera Obscura was first used by artists to help them attain accurate views in their paintings.

In the contemporary era, the camera was considered an analogy to describe how modern authorities manage and control the public via technology, leaving people to perceive only a single objective opinion. In the age of mechanical reproduction, art has been used as a tool for political power, hence rendering politics as aesthetics (Rives-East 2019). Artists have employed the use of politically charged material to create their compositions and artworks, which criticize authorities and state power systems (Monahan 2018). Contemporary artists still embrace this method as a strategy to disclose and criticize hidden systems of power in the digital age.

Code Names of the Surveillance State by Trevor Paglen.
Figure 1: Code Names of the Surveillance State by Trevor Paglen.

Paglen’s installation comprised over 4,000 Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) and National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program code names. Paglen’s art installation is revealing and bizarre proof of the U.S government’s massive secret surveillance system. His installation is as mysterious as his photographs of black operation programs, drones, black military sites, and spy satellites. The code names are tactfully suggestive of the secret programs they depict. Since the late 18th century, authorities have used various visual strategies to remain unobjectively invisible in plain sight. According to Potolsky (2019), today’s state secrecy is that of total surveillance, social control, and big data, which differ from past forms of secrecy based on quality and quantity. From a quantitative viewpoint, it is uncertain whether it will ever be possible to comprehend these state secrets. The unverifiable visibility of state power is realized through a particular architectural structure. Paglen discloses the common attributes he observed in the U.S government’s surveillance system in his art installation, including spy satellites, drones, and black websites.

Hansel & Gretel Art Installation by Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Ai Weiwei.
Figure 2: Hansel & Gretel Art Installation by Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Ai Weiwei.

The Hansel & Gretel installation is an immersive work that explores the evolving feature of public space in an age of public surveillance. In the artwork, the visitor is both the observer and the observed, with every single movement being surveilled. The installation reveals standard features in the design of modern public facilities, including schools and hospitals, where each facility creates a separate space for every individual. The structure of modern public facilities is designed to discipline and dominate the public by controlling their consciousness through the revelation of the existence of the state or official powers. Rather than displaying force, states and authorities use space, division, and structural modifications to exert control, as depicted in the Hansel & Gretel installation (Monahan 2018). This is the new power paradigm, a new way of instilling discipline in society.

Art and Surveillance in the Digital Age

The withdrawal of authorities from physical space has resulted not in people’s freedom from being monitored and controlled but in more extreme forms of surveillance. Authorities in the modern age oversee and regulate information flow to people, which may be manipulated at any time, as portrayed in Paglen’s installation of Code Names. The artwork shows how people can be monitored through secret state systems without ever seeing the authorities that control them. States have the ability to monitor everything, but they always remain invisible to the public. This can be attributed to the insubstantial and invisible data that characterize the digital age.

To manipulate and control the information flow, the states and authorities only need to modify digital data comprising codes and numbers, as Paglen depicts in the installation. When such data is availed to corporate and state power, the extent of control and surveillance extends past physical space to global dimensions via digital data without space and time restrictions (Mansell 2017). In this kind of authority, domination and exploitation become thorough and more elaborate. For instance, the intelligence programs, special access programs, and information compartments that are designated in Paglen’s art installation involve a range of data. It includes reporting people’s behavior to the government through mechanisms such as credit card details, history of mobile phones, or records of transportation usage. Such data represents thorough and elaborate surveillance and domination of individuals where the government can identify individuals from a particular demographic, whether economic, political, or racial. This shows how control and state power have been consolidated through technology to dominate the public, which continues to take place even today.

With regard to surveillance, most people do not perceive the state’s secret system of control as autocratic. The intangibility and invisibility of state power, which Potolsky (2019) refers to as government secrecy, enables authorities to remain hidden from the public. The power of the government in the digital age is like gas. It is omnipresent, always felt but usually considered ordinary. This insubstantiality and invisibility represent an unparalleled approach to control made possible by technological advancement (Shen 2017). With this intangibility and invisibility, state power renders the public unaware of control and surveillance acts. It leads them to believe that the measures are positive since the state controls information flow and has the ability to guide public perception. People may not have the ability to recognize their role in the system; hence they perceive the surveillance measures as positive. Monahan (2018) states that public perception of control and surveillance changes when people realize their role in a system and begin questioning it.

When people control a particular instance of security systems, it is easier for them to learn how powerless they are within the greater environment of surveillance systems. In the Hansel & Gretel installation, people move through the indistinctly lit shelters of the armory before they enter the big hall. Every movement in the hall is captured by infrared cameras. The video is concurrently broadcast to a universal online audience then cast back to the installation. From the artwork, it is clear that the idea of public space is changing and that people have quietly submitted to being monitored (Rives-East 2019). Today, art has the potential to disclose the existence of state power as well as expose the intangibility and invisibility strategies employed by such power.

Art helps people see their involuntary state of surveillance and thus acknowledge that state power is omnipresent. People only see, think, and feel about the pervasive surveillance systems that authorities have put in place. Hansel & Gretel is an excellent example of an artwork that displays the invisibility of authority or state power in the digital age. The work reveals the reality that we experience as individuals who are consistently tracked and monitored by ridiculously unseen authority structures. The artwork shows how people’s reality of constant surveillance is inconsistent with the truth of invisible state power. In the artwork, a white light monitors each person’s path along with the drill, generating a visual recording of the individual’s movements. The aerial image of the person is then cast back onto the floor. There are two spying drones that occasionally inspect the space, generating a shadow. The encounter makes it impossible for people to conceal their location while in the hall.

The primary artistic significance of Paglen’s artwork is not as much its specific aesthetic quality; rather, it is the artist’s proactive and well-coordinated attack into state surveillance systems. The artist puts across the code names of hidden spying programs onto the British Parliament Houses, which rolled down along the entire frontage like texts on a moving transparent foil. He draws the attention of civilians and politicians to the reality that public discourse about such surveillance measures is necessary and very urgent. Anyone could have searched the code names prior to the installation since they were available in several Internet forums. However, Paglen’s art installation made the code names visible for everyone to see on the frontage of British power’s most significant building.

The projection and publicizing of the code names can’t be undone nor ignored by anyone. No one can challenge the existence of mass surveillance operations and the effect they have had on public space (Haggerty and Tetrault 2017). Knowledge and information are significant components of authorities and state power. Above all, states have control over knowledge and the flow of information between people and information systems (Mansell 2017). This particularly applies to digital culture since all the information available on the World Wide Web can easily be monitored and manipulated through secret state apparatus.

Surveillance in the Technological Age

With the adoption of mobile communication gadgets, billions of people have become connected worldwide. All kinds of data and content are generated every day and channeled across the world in a matter of seconds. Before the data reaches the recipients, vast amounts of it being intercepted by government agencies and private companies using secret surveillance programs as depicted by Paglen. The content is then checked and used by the agencies and companies for their purposes. This surveillance is so pervasive that it has gone beyond measure (Potolsky 2019). While not too long ago, digital communication forms were viewed as the hope for new forms of participatory democracy. Authorities have lately transformed and distorted such forms of communication into perfect mechanisms for monitoring and dominating billions of individuals (Chun 2006). Those who use mobile communication devices are constantly spied through secret apparatus such as black military websites and intelligent programs, which Paglen identified in his art installation. Particularly, smartphones which are carried almost everywhere, have spyware that users are not aware of nor have consented to. Smartphones can be utilized as listening devices and surveillance cameras even when they are off.

Similarly, as depicted in the “Hansel & Gretel” installation, our movement profiles and locations can easily be accessed at any time. In this particular artwork, every move is captured from above the hall by a network of cameras. At the same time, projectors display ghostly images of the individuals on the floor beneath their feet. The installation is filled with contemporary relevance, combined with the latest knowledge that the NSA spent years gathering texts and emails from Americans, which they used to converse with people from abroad. This period saw the administrative branch of the federal government begin to display troubling authoritarian trends, which included surveillance and censorship of individuals. As technology continued to advance, our browsing, contacts, consumer behavior, and preferences became subjects of surveillance. They can now be monitored, analyzed, and communicated at any time in the absence of our consent or knowledge. Censorship and surveillance are mutually dependent as depicted in the artworks; they cannot be viewed distinctly.

The spying and regulation of citizens, companies, and institutions, including the tracking of parliaments, democratically elected politicians, lawyers, and journalists, has always been a known secret. Zuboff (2020) states that spying and regulation is usually the quest of government agencies. However, this classical exercise of government spying on the entire public has been extended to incorporate surveillance by powerful economic enterprises and service contractors (Shen 2017). There are always several cases of publication of important details to the general public by bold journalists and citizens. These publications include the revelation of illegal spying and highlighting of censorship and oppression always ends up in prosecution and punishment of the individuals in the most intense ways. There are daily media reports on new cases of spying and massive interference resulting from exposure to these surveillance measures. The prime importance of art in this subject is proved every day in an effort to maintain government secrecy. It cannot be denied anymore that states have taken measures contrary to the welfare of the public and the economy. This is primarily what inspires artworks like Code Names and “Hansel & Gretel” installations.

In an effort to maintain the invisible surveillance and control of the public, there have been cases where parliamentary investigation committees have been denied access to information that would otherwise solve such actions and measures. However, as Monahan (2018) states, there is no sense of responsibility on the civilians’ part. This prompts artists to rethink the relationship between the public and state systems of control. For instance, in dictatorial states, informants vanish – some get kidnapped or assassinated – and they may even find themselves charged with treason. In addition to the direct measures to control and discipline the public, the surveillance apparatus often employs fear as its most effective tool. Fear has changed the way people engage with the world around them. According to Rives-East (2019), the modern culture of manipulation and fear is driven by the people’s interest in images, as depicted in “Hansel & Gretel.” In the artwork, the individuals transition into observers while they are also being observed. This is a practical illustration of advanced surveillance and its ability to present complete saturation.

The culture of fear is driven by people’s unhealthy and risky addiction to the camera. It is also displayed in the “Hansel & Gretel” installation. For long periods, military warfare has often included the invisible oversight and manipulation of computerized communication networks. In his artwork, Paglen identifies active U.S military programs whose purpose or existence is classified. Currently, all critical information concerning the economy and politics will be captured at some point before it reaches the recipient, will be manipulated, and might as well be falsified or distorted. The significant impact of such manipulation on processes of political decision-making, markets, and stock exchanges and the appropriate functioning of crucial technological systems like transport and public utilities could be more significant and complex in the future. This is an effect of the ubiquitous surveillance that, according to Potolsky (2019), committed to protecting the state but instead has become so pervasive that it surpassed the measurable reasons. The widespread analysis of metadata in electronic communication networks and the unmediated interception of individual data, covert or open censorship through manipulation, interference, and shutdown, has been on the rise.

When fear of impending censorship as a mechanism of control doesn’t work, government secrecy is executed to conceal valuable information from the public: surveillance and censorship impact photographers, journalists, filmmakers, and writers on a greater level. Spying practices are not limited to dictatorial systems, but as Potolsky (2019) states, they are also present in states like the U.S that consider their control as democratic. Security has become the cheap and usual key term through which it is possible to legitimize authoritarian actions in the conviction that resistance will be minimum. Withholding information, control, monitoring, punishment, and the intelligent manipulation of communications and knowledge achieved through the programs designated in Paglen’s artwork function to maintain invisible power of authorities. Today, no one understands the technical possibilities for surveillance of electronic networks or the precise knowledge required to comprehend the subtle and technically complex spying and control measures (Zuboff 2020). Individuals barely know their role in the surveillance and control systems, and hence they rarely question the system.

When more people know their role, the more they question the system as they seek answers. The more ambiguous the questions get, the more emotions and participation they elicit from viewers, and the more uncomfortable the viewers become with regard to surveillance Monahan (2018). Being under the heel of intensely controlling authorities has become a fundamental condition of the digital culture (Franklin 2015). To a certain extent, we recognize this and think about it, but we cannot reverse or undo it. For instance, in “Hansel & Gretel,” people hold and repeat intentional poses in a kind of stop-motion effect. To an extent, they realize that they are being surveilled but still allow it because they cannot undo it. People have become used to this reality, just as they are not scared off by the multitude of video cameras in public places, including offices, hospitals, and many others.

Conclusion

In conclusion, both the Code Names and the Hansel & Gretel installations illustrate the inconceivable extent of state power and its capability to reach physical spaces and digital spaces. It is not easy for the public to escape the control and surveillance exerted by state and corporate power. The public represents vulnerable people who can’t avoid data and physical surveillance and can’t help but remain passive before such control. States in the digital age exercise their control via advanced technology, which renders them invisible. Authorities utilize fear and manipulation to discipline the public. For instance, the cameras that monitor us daily, such modes of state and corporate power, have become gradually unverifiable. Art has for a long time being at the forefront of representing and fighting such political injustice in society. Recently, art has begun to engage with matters of control and surveillance. This synthesis has looked into how states and authorities have exercised control through surveillance and how art has been utilized to criticize such developments.

References

Chun, Wendy. “Control and freedom.” Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber, 2006.

Franklin, Seb. Control: Digitality as cultural logic, MIT Press, 2015.

Haggerty, Kevin D., and Justin EC Tetrault. “Surveillance.” The Wiley‐Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory (2017): 1-3.

Mansell, Robin. Javnost-The Public 24, no. 2 (2017): 146-161. Web.

Monahan, Torin. Cultural Studies 32, no. 4 (2018): 560-581. Web.

Potolsky, Matthew. The National Security Sublime: On the Aesthetics of Government Secrecy. Routledge, 2019.

Rives-East, Darcie. In Surveillance and Terror in Post-9/11 British and American Television, pp. 191-235. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019. Web.

Shen, Fei. “Internet use, freedom supply, and demand for internet freedom: A cross-national study of 20 countries.” International journal of communication 11 (2017): 22.

Zuboff, Shoshana. New York Times, 2020. Web.

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