Suzanne Treister


Cybernetics and the post-surveillance age

Interview with Ashleigh Kane from Dazed and Confused magazine, October 2014

Full interview:

AK: Could you tell us a bit about Post-Surveillance Art (2014), as well HEXEN 2.0 (2009-2011) which I believe you're re-visiting?

ST: Ok, well to start with 'HEXEN 2.0', the project began in 2009 when I got interested in the ideas of cybernetics, ideas that came to a head at the Macy Conferences which took place in New York between 1946-53. The conferences were an attempt by a varied group of key scientists, also from fields like anthropology, to develop a unified theory of the human mind, in order to control it, the idea being to prevent another WW2.

Cybernetics as a theory of feedback and control seemed to them to provide the solution and it seemed to me that it also was an important link in a chain that has led us up to the current threat of a control society, and that one could in fact increasingly view the internet/www as one giant cybernetic feedback loop of communication and control. It was clear to me when I first heard about Facebook for example, that all this data would be a free gift to the NSA (U.S. National Security Agency) allowing intelligence agencies to cross reference the personal information of millions of citizens.

So with HEXEN 2.0 I wanted to make a project that described for people a big picture, to make diagrams of particular interconnected histories; the history of the internet and computers, histories of the counterculture and of anti-technology movements and their various current manifestations as post-leftism, transhumanism, technogaianism and anarcho-primitivism, into a kind of visual discussion as to possible futures in terms of technology and society. I produced a deck of tarot cards, using material from the diagrams, as a way to let people play with ideas, not in a divinatory way, more analytical and laterally, to break down usual patterns of thinking and suggest alternative pathways.

During this period, up until the Snowden revelations, I was generally considered a conspiracy theorist, which was irritating, so when all that came out in the news I felt in a kind of limbo, waiting for people to apologise, wondering what would happen next, would the NSA be bombed, would people stop using Facebook and other social media, would the activists finally develop a hack proof system of web based communication? Well none of these things really happened and then one day I woke up and felt like, well now we are in a post-surveillance society, business as usual but hardly anyone seems to really be bothered that much about it. So I invented Post-Surveillance Art as a way of describing what things felt like post-Snowden.

AK: Could you describe your style a bit more, I know you're particularly interested in virtual imagery and 80s video game imagery. What programs/materials do you use to make your work?

ST: Yes, well in the late 1980s and early 1990s I used to make work about video games, first as paintings, then on an Amiga computer. I went on to make a series of imaginary boxed software packages and then an ongoing project about an alter-ego/Avatar called Rosalind Brodsky, a time traveller who worked for an imaginary military research institute through the 21st century. This work culminated in a cd-rom (using Director) and web works but by 2000 I was disillusioned with the internet which had become governmentalised and corporatised, and returned to traditional media like drawing to make work about technology (and other things too). Between 2001-6 I made several projects which were the supposed research of the military institute which comprised drawings, photos, videos and sound works, but still with a web component. Stylistically many of my drawings during and after that period were based on 17th century alchemical drawings, when science and art were intertwined and which carried ideas of transformation. With the recent Post-Surveillance Art works I decided to make them on the computer again, in Photoshop, as a kind of double-edged return to the machine world.

AK: What do mean by Post-Surveillance art? Could you explain a little for the readers?

ST: To elaborate, for the texts on the Post-Surveillance Art posters I made up phrases like, ONE WORLD DATA IN FUCKING LOVE; NSA ON DRUGS; NSA SEX BOMB; SHAMAN SURVEILLANT; PSYCHICDATA ALGORITHM ENCHANTMENT; TELEPATHIC NETWORK PARTY (TNP); POST CONTROL; THE POETICS OF SURVEILLANCE; PRIVACY SUCKS and PSYCHIC GLOBAL DATA TRANSFER to somehow describe a state where we are constantly uploading our lives and complicit with government/corporate data collection, with sharing everything including our sex lives and our dreams, where algorithms are flowing through our bodies and our appliances up to satellites in outer space and back, collecting data to be used wherever, whenever and by whoever... to perhaps describe a sublime poetics of control.

So the questions are, do we like this state, are we already there, can we turn back, is there a choice, does the privacy of the past already seem like a weird old fashioned filing cabinet? Clearly many people are subsumed into retro mania, others are leaving their laptops for the allotment, whilst many still queue up overnight for the latest gizmo launched by Apple. The technogaianists would have us believe that technology will save the planet, but in any case the sun will kill it in 2.8 billion years. And if you look at it another way, the sun is a technology of its own. And science may soon prove that we are all really holograms beamed from another planet.

AK: What's behind your choice to have these readily available online for anyone to download and see?

ST: I have a love hate relationship with the art mainstream and the gallery/collector system. I spent the 1990s involved in the new media art world, it was a world of net politics and idealism, of hope for a better future controlled by citizens of the world in open, safe and free communication, I still carry the residue of all that.

link to published version


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