A grainy, black-and-white, slightly out-of-focus image of the coastline near Seattle looks a little like a 19th-century landscape photograph. But the source was actually a hacked surveillance camera.
“I’m essentially a curator of the vast apparatus of a surveillance state,” says artist Marcus DeSieno, who hacks into CCTV feeds, public webcams, and surveillance cameras to create classically inspired landscape art in a series called Surveillance Landscapes.
DeSieno began thinking seriously about surveillance after Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program.
“There was a time where I would take walks around the city I was living in and mark down any time I saw a security camera,” he says. “From those walks, a map of the city began to form, and I began to think about the strategic ways in which the surveillance state operates and molds our collective spaces.”
While much of the discussion about surveillance has focused on privacy, DeSieno is interested in other impacts–how the technology has changed how we perceive place, how it has shaped or confined us, and how it’s used as an instrument of control.
“The surveillance camera is the signifier of dominance and power over us,” he says. “It’s a perfect modern example of Michel Foucault’s metaphorical reference to the ‘panopticon,’ the notorious prison design introduced by 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham where all inmates can be watched by a single guard as there is the threat of a constant invisible surveillance. When we see a surveillance camera outside of a building, it is a sign that somebody is watching. It demands an authority.”
Other artists have used surveillance footage to capture images of people and cities, but DeSieno is more interested in spaces without humans. “The melancholic images that I’m assembling speak to how this technology shapes our understanding of place, and evokes conversations around power, ownership, and perhaps an intended dominance over the environment,” he says.
If traditional landscape paintings often focused on the power of nature–and the relative weakness of humans–his images add a new layer of meaning about technological control. “The sublime is a humbling reminder that humanity is not all-powerful, that we are mere specks within a much larger universe, yet the hubris of the technological age teaches us that we are masters over the natural,” says DeSieno.
For the series, he looked for vacant, isolated landscapes, captured by various cameras–often grimy, with rain or dirt on the lens. “My primary concerns are aesthetic,” he says. “Maybe it’s a traffic camera; maybe it’s a weather camera, maybe a CCTV feed at a military testing ground, or a webcam at a national park. This technology is used for a variety of purposes, but it certainly shapes our psyche and connotes a specific meaning.”
[Photos: via Marcus DeSieno]