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Princeton University Art Museum Exhibition Examines Surveillance and Contemporary Culture

Exhibition Dates: January 19 through March 31, 2002

PRINCETON -- "Anxious Omniscience: Surveillance and Contemporary Cultural Practice," on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through March 31, 2002, is a multi-media exhibition that examines questions of surveillance at a time when issues of security and civil liberties are increasingly urgent.

Even prior to the recent growth of powerful surveillance technologies and the shift in focus from military to domestic space, artists around the world have explored the dynamics of watching and being watched, and investigated various questions posed by the new tracking practices. Their work, across a variety of old and new media-a sampling of which is presented in this exhibition-teaches us how to "read" various kinds of traditional and high-tech surveillance. While aesthetically compelling on their own, these pieces also are a gesture toward-and a call for-an urgently needed surveillant literacy.

Some of the works on view are historical and analytic, such as Harun Farocki's lyrical video essay on industrial robotics and rocket guidance systems, or Laura Kurgan's striking visual exploration of the shifting terms of information resulting from the dramatic rise in the use of satellite imaging.

Others are more confrontational, such as the ironic video performances of Denis Beaubois and the Surveillance Camera Players, which highlight the often unrecognized use of surveillance in "public" space. The Institute for Applied Autonomy takes a map listing all the surveillance cameras tracking public space in Manhattan and makes it into an interactive on-line tool-aptly described as "MapQuest for the paranoid"-that provides pedestrians the "path of least surveillance" for any given itinerary on the island. In the aesthetic of "candid camera," both Spike Jonze's witty television advertisement for Levi's and Merry Alpern's color photographs from her Shopping series offer a voyeuristic exploration of the fascinating landscape of quotidian consumer spaces-at once all-too-familiar and nevertheless oddly exotic.

While certain works examine how the new image logics of surveillance also have had an impact on more traditional media such as painting-consider the surveillant character of David Deutsch's oil-on-linen rendering of a rather innocuous suburban landscape-others engage issues arising from the state-of-the-art terrain of dataveillance, i.e. the new forms of tracking and mapping made possible by the proliferation of digital data transmission.

Some, such as Jenny Marketou's on-line project introduce the viewer to the new spaces and temporalities of daily life opened up by the proliferation of "webcams"-miniature cameras that broadcast their images on-line in "real time."

Others, such as the Radical Software Group's Carnivore, which has its world premiere here, recasts the protocol of an infamous FBI cyber-snooping program such that, rather than reading your email, it now translates real-time internet data into a series of arresting visual patterns.

What unifies this disparate collection of formally inventive and subtly political work, however, is the shared sense of the urgent need for a critical, differentiated analysis of the pros and cons of surveillance and the very real threat to civil liberties involved in the desire for greater security.

The exhibition, organized by Thomas Y. Levin, guest curator and associate professor, German Department, with Bethia Liu, exhibition designer, and Niraj Bhatt, Class of 2003, technical consultant, was made possible through the generous support of the Office of the Provost; Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies; Council of the Humanities; Davis Center for Historical Studies; Program in Media and Modernity; School of Architecture; German Department; and Office of Information Technology, Princeton University.

Related Events

February 14, 2002, 4:30 p.m.
"Anxious Omniscience: The Aesthetic Politics of the Arts of Surveillance"
    Lecture/discussion with Guest Curator Thomas Y. Levin and artists participating in the exhibition. McCormick 101, followed by a reception in the museum.

March 1, 2002, 4:30 p.m.
Eye/Machine, Lecture and screening with Harun Farocki, filmmaker. McCormick 101, Princeton University campus

The art museum is open to the public without charge. Free highlights tours of the collection are given every Saturday at 2:00 p.m. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and on Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. It is closed on Monday and major holidays. The museum shop closes at 5:00 p.m. The museum is located in the middle of the Princeton University campus. Picasso's large sculpture Head of a Woman stands in front. For further information, please call (609) 258-3788.