Suzanne Treister


Omar Kholeif and Suzanne Treister

April 2014

Published in catalogue accompanying exhibition by Constant Dullaart at Carroll/Fletcher, London, England

Omar Kholeif: I am interested in the issue of security and surveillance. I want to start by asking us to consider the formal shapes that surveillance is taking. Do you think that surveillance technology is becoming more embedded and hidden or, as Constant suggests, actually more visible, and human, to the point that we have become somehow neutralised by the notion of being constantly surveilled?

Suzanne Treister: Well it really depends on who you mean by "we", and which surveillance technologies in particular. Obviously the Google van hasn't been down every street in the world, and communities in parts of the globe who don't have access to the internet are not getting their digital data collected. What has changed for me personally, post-Snowden, is not a new awareness and negotiation of a changed condition, but the knowledge that now almost everybody else knows something which was clear as day, if you did a bit of research, and it's great to no longer be called a conspiracy theorist. In reaction to this state of affairs, I have started a new art project/movement called "Post-Surveillance Art" (1), within which I can make works in the knowledge that their background context may now be accessible to a broader audience, even a mainstream art world audience. Most of the art world mainstream took little notice of the early issues of net politics, net art and all of that parallel, mostly invisible and often misrepresented art and theoretical history of the 1990s, and many are now seeing internet related art as if for the first time in the form of the new largely apolitical and market-driven so-called, "Post-Internet Art" (2) movement. As with my first internet project of 1995, I am sharing the work with anyone who wants to download it. I am offering large files to anyone who emails me. "Sharing" does not have to mean giving all your personal data to government security agencies via online social media for free.

Regarding whether "we" have become somehow neutralised by the notion of being constantly surveilled. I assume that you are asking: have we incorporated government surveillance into our physical and mental states to the point where privacy is no longer a default expectation? To that I would say that this is perhaps an evolving paradigm shift for large sections of humanity and, in a Darwinian sense, it's possible that those who are able to accept and even enjoy an increasing absence of privacy are more likely to thrive...and so on.

Omar Kholeif: The trendiness of drone culture (i.e. to discuss it, for artists to respond to its context) has been interesting for a number of reasons. I think it has a lot to do with the formal make up of the drone. I regularly return to George Barber's The Freestone Drone (2013) (3) where the drone is seen as an infant, a small plane, a bee, buzzing, lost/wayward, told what to do, without a mind of its own. Likewise, the writer Guy Mannes-Abbott (4) also seems to reduce to drone to an infant in his writing. What do you think that this description of drone culture says about our relationship to surveillance as individuals? Are we obsessed with the forms of surveillance? their shapes?

Suzanne Treister: I am not so interested in these types of response to drone culture. If I can generalise I would say they sound like typical British responses to new technologies, like in the 1990s there were a lot of computers made out of egg boxes in the name of art - way too Blue Peter for me, with no real political engagement and a fear of getting dirty. I'm not into infantilisation of subject matter. And I see Trevor Paglen's drone photo works (5) as aestheticisations of horror for the art world/market. But yes there seems to be an obsession with the idea and form of the drone. One could perhaps read unmanned aerial vehicles as giant dildos, killer dildos. We might have to bring back psychoanalytic theory for a fuller psycho-sexual interpretation of this fascination.

Omar Kholeif: This also bring me to the question of privacy & intimacy. Increasingly we proclaim that our privacy is of paramount importance to us, that we must own our identities, but simultaneously, we confess, reveal, and expose more of ourselves than ever before.

Suzanne Treister: There have always been exhibitionists, many among them are artists. Exposing and owning your identity are not always in conflict. It depends on how you do it.

Omar Kholeif: I also want to consider issues of control - is it important who owns the systems of control and surveillance? For example, if they are co-opted by artists, by renegades, by freedom fighters - it that okay? I am thinking about this specifically in relation to the idea of having control of one's own image - who owns it? If closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras are constantly documenting us, how then do we control our own image?

Suzanne Treister: The problem is not about who owns the systems, but the extent of the invasion of privacy, the drawing up of agreed boundaries. I don't see how artists or activists could ever have the massive resources of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) or GCHQ (6) - nor would I want them to - but in an ideal world, the general public might have a say in the delineation of those boundaries. Although, as Jacques Ellul (7) would have said, the technologies will in any case attempt to overthrow everything that might try to prevent the internal logic of their own development. There was a great work by Pat Naldi and Wendy Kirkup called Search (8) which they made in 1993, consisting of video documentation of a synchronised walk undertaken by the artists in Newcastle upon Tyne's city centre, recorded on the then-brand-new 16-camera surveillance system run by Northumbria Police (Newcastle upon Tyne was the first city centre in the UK to install a CCTV network.) The footage was edited by the artists into 20 ten-second sequences, which were transmitted during commercial breaks on Tyne Tees Television between 21st June and 4th July 1993.

Omar Kholeif: I want to touch upon Constant's work and ideas around performing in Networks (closed networks). How these might open up new possibilities?

Suzanne Treister: The spaces that Constant is talking about are spaces that existed - or appeared to exist, even though it was understood that the internet was invented by the U.S. Military - when I first started making work online in the mid-1990s and participated in online global listserv discussion groups like nettime (9). So rather than being new, they are in effect an attempt to regain a lost period of idealism and fantasy for what the web might offer the art and activist community, a fantasy which was obliterated around 2000 by the increasing governmentisation and corporatisation of the internet and its U.S. governing bodies, and by the cybernetic controlling effects of Web 2.0 which enabled mass surveillance.

In this sense you could say that Constant's desire for these spaces is a reactionary position. My approach since 2000 has been to make work about new technologies using older technologies like pens and pencils on paper where the originals exist offline, but which are documented online so they can still be shared. In this way no one can wipe the originals from a corporate data warehouse if one day there is no choice but to keep everything on the Intercloud. I do make exceptions, like the digitally produced Post-Surveillance Art (2014) works, which both acknowledge and, at the same time, act as commentary upon the conditions of their medium and net-based context, simultaneously critiquing and celebrating the new paradigm and anticipating future modalities.

There have been people in the nettime community who for several years have been talking about developing an encrypted version of Facebook, but no one seems to have gotten around to it, perhaps because everything inevitably will be hackable. But maybe there is an error in thinking that one has to hide; hiding feels like a negative. We may live in a brave new world, but if you feel you have to hide you will live in fear and in a vacuum. Let's not over dramatise; we are not yet living in the former Soviet Union. I prefer for my work (and not my personal life - e.g., I have never joined Facebook, etc.) to be visible, to confront the so-called "enemy" head on. My project HEXEN 2.0 (10) made many critical references to the NSA, and when it was shown in New York last year a woman from the NSA actually bought a piece. Many of these people are intelligent, thoughtful human beings - they can even have a sense of humour. One has to allow one's work to discourse with the world, not only with like-minded people in an encrypted zone, or nothing will change. Maybe this is what Constant means when he talks in his manifesto about "balconism" (11). Maybe not. Perhaps he is talking about something like Hakim Bey's idea of T. A. Z., The Temporary Autonomous Zone (12)?

References and links:

1. Suzanne Treister, Post-Surveillance Art, 2014

2. What Is Post-Internet Art? Understanding the Revolutionary New Art Movement By Ian Wallace, March 18, 2014,, Beginnings + Ends, Frieze issue 159 November-December 2013

3. George Barber, The Freestone Drone, 2013

4. On Drones, Guy Mannes-Abbott talks to Omar Kholeif

5. Trevor Paglen, Untitled (Drones), 2010

6. "GCHQ is an intelligence and security organisation, working to keep Britain safe and secure in the challenging environment of modern communications."

7. Jacques Ellul, La technique ou l'enjeu du siècle, Paris: Armand Colin, 1954

8. Pat Naldi & Wendy Kirkup, Search, 1993

9. nettime mailing list for networked cultures, politics, and tactics

10. Suzanne Treister HEXEN 2.0, 2009-11

11. Constant Dullaart, BALCONISM, balconisation not balkanisation,,,, 2014

12. Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Brooklyn, New York, USA: Autonomedia, 1991

Omar Kholeif is a writer and Curator at Whitechapel Gallery, London. He is also Senior Visiting Curator at Cornerhouse and HOME, Manchester, Senior Editor of Ibraaz Publishing, Artistic Director of the Arab British Centre, London. His latest book, You Are Here: Art After the Internet was published by Cornerhouse and SPACE in 2014.


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