Critics’ Picks

Barbara Ess, AC [Shut-In Series], 2018/19, archival pigment print, 20 x 27".

Barbara Ess, AC [Shut-In Series], 2018/19, archival pigment print, 20 x 27".

New York

Barbara Ess

Magenta Plains
149 Canal Street
April 7–May 12, 2019

While surveillance watches from above, sousveillance watches from below. Computational engineer Steve Mann coined this term to describe a way of “enhancing the ability of people to access and collect data about their surveillance” in order to neutralize it. With her inaugural exhibition here, “Someone To Watch Over Me,” Barbara Ess—photographer, musician, and founder of the No Wave experimental mixed-media publication Just Another Asshole—takes up sousveillance as a call for covert participation.

In 2010, the artist became a “deputy sheriff” for an internet surveillance community that staked out the border between Texas and Mexico. Becoming a part of this group allowed her entrée to a network of different cameras—heat-sensitive and low-resolution—which she used to create “Surveillance,” 2011–19, and “Border,” 2010, two of the four series of photographs on view in this show. Rather than try to monitor suspicious activity, such as trespassing or drug trafficking, Ess made screen captures of wild horses traversing a mountainside by night, for instance, and an electric-fence warning: images of beauty and caution that, though banal, somehow feel threatening.

“Surveillance” led Ess to investigate other kinds of feeds via weather, traffic, and vacation cameras. With her most recent series, “Shut-In,” 2018/19, the artist turned the camera toward objects in her home and the changing light throughout the day. Not unlike the protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window, Ess, confined to her home with a case of bronchitis (rather than Jimmy Stewart’s broken leg), turned her journalistic interests to the quotidian: from an image of a pink bouquet on her fire escape at the golden hour to a soft, almost painterly portrait of her AC unit. Unlike Stewart’s character, Ess doesn’t unearth evils perpetrated by her neighbors. Instead, she observes the violent mechanization of sight and, along with it, authority itself.