Throughout the semester, as we studied the discourse on various forms of technology, a recurring theme was its likening to a pharmakon, “a gift that is also a threat.” While being a gift that allows “exteriorization or supplementation” of human capacities, technology serves as a threat as excessive reliance on it wanes our human abilities .
In this project, I explored the idea of the fundamental duality of surveillance technology. Mark Tribe describes surveillance as one of the technologies that New Media Art attempts to address . Consistent with the theme of duality, surveillance tends to be considered a “necessary evil”, dangerously bordering the lines of the positive from protection and entertainment to the negative from invasion of privacy.
Surveillance is oftentimes referred to as the gaze. The gaze can come in a multitude of forms. While the more recognizable forms that record data apparent to the human eye include CCTVs and police body cameras for law enforcement, our data is tracked more inconspicuously (or not anymore) by big tech companies. Namely, “[sites] like YouTube or Facebook or Twitter sucker people into providing free content, which can then be leveraged into something that can be retailed, such as advertising, personal information, marketing surveys, or surveillance” . Personalized recommendations and successful targeted content algorithmically generated by these companies become incentives that continue to attract engagement. With time, “smaller and smaller moments of human life are being transformed into capital” .
Naturally, we are under the gaze 24/7, and all of this data congregates to somewhere connected to the Internet. Simply put, our lives are always “On-Air”. In contrast to the feeling of violation associated with the constant surveillance from the aforementioned forms, we are at the same time consciously contributing to the broadcasting of our lives. Through social media and livestreams, we are constantly broadcasting bits and pieces of ourselves on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. One obvious motivation is the incentive of attention and reaffirmation. The idea of being seen to others’ eyes and acknowledged by likes reveals narcissism. I speculate humans are innately narcissistic, and this seamlessly ties into people’s addiction to social media.
My final project deviates a lot from my initial proposal. Initially, I had planned on creating a virtual world that is unrecognizable to AI. The virtual world would be filled with 3D objects wrapped with 2D adversarial patches that trick image recognition models. For instance, placing an adversarial patch of a banana on an image of a dog would trick the model into misclassifying the dog as a banana. The virtual world was intended to critique our excessive reliance on algorithms and yet the absurdity of a world recognizable to just humans and not machines. Although this is what I had envisioned, given that the installation space allowed user interaction and the tools to interact with a 3D space very limited, I decided to pivot.
With “On-Air”, I aimed to critically inquire about the duality of surveillance technology. I wanted to recreate the feeling of simultaneous desire and disgust for the gaze, more specifically, a gaze that is realized by the object. The title of this piece draws inspiration from The Truman Show. Many turn to this film, which was first released twenty years ago, due to its eerie resemblance to our reality now. Truman’s life is broadcasted in real-time, while an unrealized and anonymous audience watches and empathizes with him. The Truman Show was truly prescient about the gaze that follows our daily lives.
Additionally, the piece was inspired by surveillance methods that pervade my personal life the most—Amazon Shopping and its product recommendations, Doordash and its meal-time notifications, and Duke’s “Panopto” and its questionable name. All three examples trigger a sense of comfort and discomfort in me. Although coming at the cost of my data being collected, I am incentivized by the convenience they offer to tolerate the surveillance. Another unifying characteristic is that they are not intrusive forms of surveillance but are seamlessly embedded in my life that, at first glance, they seem benign.
In order to materialize the visibly benign gaze, I placed a camera inside a Kleenex box. It conceals most of the camera from the viewer and camouflages with the installation space. The use of a Kleenex box was intentional because it is an everyday and commonplace item. It aims to denote both how intimately surveillance pervades our daily lives and how the most trivial and benign objects like a Kleenex can serve as a snippet of ourselves—for instance, your browsing of Kleenex on Amazon today may trigger a recommendation for a purchase tomorrow.
Then to convey the duality of surveillance technology, I divided the piece into the incentive and the threat. For the former, I incentivized surveillance by exploiting the narcissistic nature of the viewer. When a greater than usual motion or sound is detected, it triggers a laugh track. The laugh track is reminiscent of the unknown audience in The Truman Show behind the camera, while, in effect, it is synonymous with the Instagram likes and Twitter retweets that give a pleasing sense of affirmation to the viewer. On top of the audial incentive, a visual element of one’s face being displayed on the screen allures the viewer to continue interacting with the piece. These responses from the work are expected to incentivize the viewer’s engagement with the piece.
I was uncertain about how to best evoke subtle discomfort from surveillance. At first, I considered using another audial cue, an anxiety-inducing alarm, but this made the laugh track incentive less effective. I also considered uploading a snapshot or an unsettling tweet of “You are being watched” to more directly convey that the viewer was being broadcasted. However, ultimately, I decided to go with taking a snapshot every time an anomaly is detected and saving it. These snapshots are saved and played back as a slideshow adjacent to the live camera view. Only after the viewer has interacted with the piece for a while, do they notice images of them showing up. This response alludes to surveillance technology that reacts to particular triggers. For instance, in China, to promote anti-jaywalking, the government used surveillance technology to institute punishments by displaying jaywalkers’ faces on a billboard.
With “On Air”, I offer a critique on one of the widely disputed topics in New Media, surveillance. In the ideation and creation of the piece, I was able to reevaluate a technology that is deeply embedded in our culture. Then in the actuation, the piece mobilizes the technology that it attempts to criticize as the medium itself, which is a strategy oftentimes employed in critical making. With the message challenging the medium, the piece calls on the viewer to also reflect on their interaction with surveillance technology. Furthermore, the piece explores the idea of critical making as it is process-oriented. The piece only evolves when the viewer exists. As more viewers interact with the piece, more data is saved, and the piece becomes more valuable and more dangerous. The fact that the data collected during the exhibition is a part of the art portrays how the piece prioritizes the process. The piece doesn’t necessarily challenge traditional understandings of critical making but rather achieves the conventional objective to “provide a provocative, speculative…vision of our technological future” . By working on this project, I was able to gain a new perspective on art-making and critical-making. I initially believed the hypothetical interpretation of the viewer should not affect the artist’s work. However, in the process, I looked for ways to simplify the art especially because critical making means something is intentional and thought-provoking. I learned that a simple artifact may achieve that best.
 Mitchell, W J. T, and Mark B. N. Hansen. Critical Terms for Media Studies., 2010. Print.
 Tribe, Mark, et al. New Media Art. Taschen, 2009.
 Mirowski, Philip. The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, With a New Preface. United States, Harvard University Press, 2015.
 Paglen, Trevor. “Invisible Images (Your Pictures Are Looking at You).” The New Inquiry, 8 Dec. 2016, https://thenewinquiry.com/invisible-images-your-pictures-are-looking-at-you/.
 Hertz, Garnet. “What Is Critical Making?” Current, Emily Carr University of Art and Design, https://current.ecuad.ca/what-is-critical-making.