As I moved into third term, the scope of what I was able to create became incredibly narrow. I had pushed the boundaries of how far I could go in the previous semester and had found the limit of my enquiry; I discovered how far I could go before I would get in trouble. This proved incredibly difficult as I struggled to contemplate how I could further my investigations and scrutinise more thoroughly government notions surrounding privacy without breaking the law. I decided to move away from the limits of the law and explored the origins of this contemporary discussion of privacy.
I began the term by looking at the conversations between Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in 2013. ‘Citizen Four,’ a documentary-film created by Poitras showing the discussions with Snowden in Hong Kong before and during the release of top secret government documents, provided me with some interesting insights into the ways in which Snowden himself made Poitras aware of his findings. The email exchanges between the two gave an indication of the extent to which average citizens were having their right to privacy breached by the NSA. The interchange of communications also showed Snowdon’s anxiety towards releasing these documents and the repercussions of his actions. This is all particularly clear and evident to see simply through reading the exchanges. What was deeply interesting about the emails was the way in which they appeared to represent a dystopian fiction; the solemnity of the situation made it appear fictitious; fabricated and untrue. Yet, there is also something disturbingly real and relatable about the exchanges. We as outsiders to the communications understand Snowden’s desire to set things right; we sympathise with his moral standpoint and negate the consequences that may come from releasing the documents. We comprehend the intentions behind Snowden’s actions and know that he only wants to start conversation and debate, he is not interested in bringing about harm. A connection can be drawn between my art and Snowden in this sense: I intend to start debate amongst my friends about the importance of privacy and the significance of unaccountable, unscrupulous state surveillance. That is not to say that my work stands hand-in-hand with Snowden’s actions, given the gravity of his disclosures, but a connection between my practice and his intentions can undoubtably be made.
In an attempt to capture these emotions and ideas that came from reading Snowden’s initial exchanges, I decided to create a short installation video, narrated by myself, consolidating all the emails sent by Snowden. The video begins with an email from Snowden outlining the seriousness of his disclosures, before moving into logistics of meeting up. The piece was recorded using a RØDE NT-USB microphone and edited using Final Cut Pro X. Multiple text layers were used to keep the visuals in time with the audio. The work is displayed in my studio space on a 32 inch TV. The decision to place the video in this environment is worth noting, as it is not within a greater public space; only art students will see it.
The question of the public space has become a key catalyst for debate in my work. I have considered taking my work beyond the studio and placing it in an environment where works like this are unusual and not expected. While this would bring about interesting debate and reactions, the ethics of doing such a thing must be thoroughly considered. I have found that, by keeping works contained within the studios, I have greater freedom with what I can do as what is created and displayed is automatically defined as art. This means that it will be viewed from the perspective of art. To take it beyond this space would leave it open to greater scrutiny with possibly greater risks and consequences. I have decided that my work for this term, and indeed the work for the previous two terms, has been centred on the studio and the reactions of art students. Next year, I intend to take this work outside of the art bubble and expose it to the university. In doing this, I will have to play close attention to ethics and must ensure that all aspects of the work have been considered.
In regards to this piece, an important question arises given what has been stated: could it be taken into a public space? In my opinion, yes. The work does not bring about harm to any other person. The very nature of what it is representing (email exchanges between Snowden and Poitras) suggest that the work would be suitable in any environment. A short description would be needed to outline the ideas behind the work, but generally it would be understood what is going on. This piece can be linked to the work of sound artist Susan Philipsz who uses sound to define a space. The artist uses recordings, mainly of her own singing voice and projects this recording into a space. She is focussed on how sound can trigger certain emotions. Like Philipsz, this work intends to shape the space that it is in. That is to say that it directs attention away from everything and towards itself. The simplicity of the text that unravels as the piece begins is able to catch the attention of the viewer. For this reason, the piece is particularly powerful in the art environment as it is able to detract from the rest of what is being displayed and centre attention on itself. In any other environment, it may be difficult to do this as the sound may not be loud, the space may be crowded with other visuals or it may not be suited to displaying video. As Philipsz herself stated "when the work is placed in a gritty urban setting, you're prevented from fully entering into a state of reverie." In this sense, the viewer would not be able to fully engage with the work. This provides valid reason for displaying the video in the studio. Another question rises from watching the piece: what is the importance of the soundtrack?
Like my video work in the previous term, this piece is accompanied by an ambient soundtrack. My decision to use a soundtrack in this instance is principally down to creating emotion within the work. The central aim of the piece is to create a sense of tension with the audience. The viewer needs to be aware of the risks that the narrator (in this case, Snowden) finds himself in, and this is highlighted with the soundtrack. That is not to say that the soundtrack is the soul source of emotion within the piece, it simply elevates the suspense of the work. In saying this, however, it appears that I am stating that the work is intended to evoke some sort of emotion from the viewer; that the viewer must feel some way towards the piece. This is incorrect. The audience simply needs to understand the anxiety behind the work; the tension that Snowden has created in sending these emails. There must be an awareness of the thrill, but also of the distress. In doing this, an observer will be able to establish their own emotions towards the piece, if any. In other words, the viewer will be able to judge how they feel towards the piece without the work telling them how they should feel. This is, once again, similar to the work of Philipsz.
A key final question to consider is: what is the work trying to show? Is it trying to say anything?
The work is intended to pinpoint the start of contemporary enquiry into state surveillance and government laws surrounding data retention and privacy. The piece takes us back to where it all started, back to the main source of inspiration behind my two terms worth of work. By doing this, I am able to show where my fundamental ideas for the two terms originated and am able to round off this years work by showing what I have achieved (e.g., I have gone from this starting point, to creating phishing letters, posters, information walls etc commenting on our loss of privacy). This does not mean that my enquiry has finished. On the contrary, it shows how far I have been able to expand off this simple idea and how far I can continue to go. In this sense, the piece is showing that this is only the beginning step, I can expand my ideas further and push more at our loss of privacy and how this can be linked to art and cause debate.