“Watching You, Watching Me”

Open Society Foundations–New York
224 West 57th Street
November 4, 2014–May 8, 2015

Simon Menner, Untitled, 2011, pigment print, dimensions variable. From the series “Images from the Secret Stasi Archives,” 2011.

The only way to understand the full extent of the revelations of Edward Snowden—the disregard for law, the imbrication of governmental and corporate power, the simultaneously awesome and pointless data harvesting—is to put your own grievances to one side and look from the position of the surveillant. For more than two years, the German artist Simon Menner combed through the archives of the Ministry for State Security and unearthed disturbing, at times bitterly comic photographs of Stasi agents trying on disguises (mustaches, hairpieces, fur coats with flared collars) and practicing hand signals: an outstretched palm or a fist pointing downwards, as structured as an Yvonne Rainer performance. A hundred Polaroids document not just illegally imported coffeemakers and West German marks stuffed into cigarette cases, but also unmade beds and sloppy desks: The agents put everything back after their raids, leaving the surveilled in the dark. The oppressors are watching you. But what do they see, and what do they want to see?

The nine other artists in this show take a more contemporary view of surveillance and of the photographic apparatus’s complicity in repression and privacy violation. For The New Town, 2013, Andrew Hammerand took footage from a CCTV camera set up in a planned American suburb, and the grainy images of teenagers and families have the look of a crime scene. Drone vision, whether in the black-and-white shots of Tomas van Houtryve or the Google Earth appropriations of Mishka Henner, turn life into data. Neither legislation nor public outcry seems to be enough to stop such gazes, and unless you can shrink to a size of a pixel, as Hito Steyerl has recently suggested, you aren’t going to escape. One other way out might be the one proposed by Hassan Elahi. Every week since 2002, he has sent the FBI hundreds of photos of his daily life, flooding the system and rendering it even more worthless.

Jason Farago