Surveillant Spaces: From Autonomous Surveillance to Machine Voyeurism

This panel explores surveillant spaces from the point of view of the machine. What does it see? Why does it look? And how does it respond? It will both critically and playfully investigate the performative potential of the machinic gaze and the agencies and materialities involved.
Monday, 19 September, 2011 - 09:00 - 10:30
Chair Person: 
Petra Gemeinboeck
Chair Person: 
Rob Saunders
James Coupe
Michelle Teran
Zwischenräume, robotic installation

Chair: Petra Gemeinboeck
2nd Chair: Rob Saunders

Our everyday environment has become a patchwork of surveillant spaces; interlacing our social networks and mobile devices with CCTV systems, satellite and other wireless signals to produce an endlessly growing network of ‘nodes’ with never-sleeping eyes. As machine agency grows more complex we increasingly become accomplices of the voyeuristic spectacle. While each surveillant space may have different motives and targets, all of them serve as more or less autonomous prostheses that extend, enhance or proliferate the human eye. But what happens if we push the question of ownership of the gaze to a point where the machine’s agency of seeing not only augments the human eye but becomes independent, generative and capable of producing its own narratives?

This panel explores surveillant spaces from the point of view of the machine. What does it see? Why does it look? And how does it respond? It will both critically and playfully investigate the performative potential of the machinic gaze and the agencies and materialities involved. To do so, we will engage with artistic practices that enact the politics of surveillance through performative interventions to experiment with and push the contested realities they produce. Exploring machine vision and computational agency, we will discuss the potential for the machinic gaze to develop a disposition towards what it sees. A surveillant space driven by curiosity, desire and perhaps complicity both playfully subverts and critically extends Virilio’s (1994) dark vision of the ‘automatic-perception prosthesis’.

Paper Abstracts

Surveillance Art as Panacea

by James Coupe

My recent art projects have focused on various themes emerging from surveillance, including real-time data, simultaneity, authenticity, voyeurism and non-linearity. Surveillance today is not simply a grainy black and white image fed to a VHS recorder from a camera pointed at the outside of a building. Increasingly, it is a network of high-definition, robotic vision devices, capable of seeing in ways that we will never be able to. Today’s surveillance networks are presenting massive-scale parallel perspectives on reality – in several places at once – and through this are constructing complex virtual spaces that exist alongside, and not necessarily in sync with real spaces. The narratives implied by this surveillance world claim to show us how we behave, who we really are – they exist purely in the domain of the visual and the behavioral, ignoring any kind of internal psychological states and showing us how malleable reality really can be. Slavoj Zizek has referred to a kind of reflexive short-circuit, a redoubling of oneself as we find ourselves standing both inside and outside our own image – to see oneself under surveillance is to witness the only part of reality that we cannot experience first hand, ourselves as an object acting in the world. This paper approaches surveillance networks as generative art systems, capable of exploring themes such as loneliness, isolation and suspicion. I will argue that surveillance is the inevitable result of the search for a cure to a variety of 21st Century ailments. Rather than dismissing or resisting it, we need to explore it in order to properly understand the reality that we have constructed for ourselves.

Surveillant Interventions: From City Walks to Live Cinema

by Michelle Teran

In 2002, I accidentally intercepted video transmitting from a wireless security camera that was not intended for my eyes. While viewing live images on a monitor being produced by my own wireless camera, I was surprised to see something else appear. Black and white, ghost-like apparitions, people in aprons, emerged intermittently from the white noise. After some scrutiny, I realized that the video was coming from a camera installed in a restaurant kitchen, two floors down. This chance discovery led to a five year search for more hidden images, found by walking and using a video receiver to scan the streets of 17 different cities. Whether intended or not, a person that uses a wireless surveillance camera becomes a broadcaster who transmits live video that is easily interceptible. These anonymous and unofficial broadcasts create an alternate view of the city and its inhabitants. Within this presentation, I will act as a guide through surveillant spaces formed by private use of CCTV and discuss some of the architectural and performative qualities that are inherent within them. I will introduce several urban interventions that piece together unseen stories from the invisible media present in the city and perform juxtapositions between interior and exterior, physical and mediated, personal and public spaces.

Computer Vision for Curious Machines

by Dr. Rob Saunders

Computer vision is a branch of artificial intelligence that is concerned with developing algorithms to allow machines to process and respond to visual data.  The degree to which the early pioneers in artificial intelligence underestimated the challenges involved is often illustrated with an anecdote about Marvin Minsky instructing a student to solve "the problem of computer vision" as a summer project. The first breakthroughs in computer vision came from the field of computational neuroscience and the work of David Marr, building low-level models of the visual cortex from the ground up. Nearly forty years later, the state-of-the-art in computer vision is still very much in the process of constructing relatively primitive representations from captured images. Nevertheless, the research has produced a wealth of techniques that can be applied to suitably structured scenes to extract meaningful information.  Many of these techniques are simple enough that they can be implemented by novice programmers while more sophisticated techniques have become readily available through programming libraries and off-the-shelf software.

The availability of computer vision technology provides a base for experimenting with machine autonomy in creative domains. In this panel I will discuss the possibility of developing autonomous machine performers that take advantage of the advances in computer vision by first reviewing some of relevant low-level and high-level techniques and showing how these can be integrated with machine learning systems. In particular, I will present this exploration in relation to my research developing self-motivated (curious) agents and my collaborations with Petra Gemeinboeck exploring the performativity of the gaze through the creation of machine augmented environments. In this workshop-like session we will explore the construction of a self-motivated machinic voyeur, examine what it sees, how it responds and what drives it.

Voyeuristic Spaces: Materialising the Desire of the Gaze

by Dr. Petra Gemeinboeck

Surveillance and its ubiquitous technological lens is often thought of as a detached gaze, an abstract, remote and impersonal form of watching. It separates watching from witnessing, and, increasingly, even the watching, analysing and interpreting is automated. Yet even though detached, the surveillant gaze is by no means passive and without agency; it is always directed and motivated by human desires. Tate Modern's recent exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera has put the alliance between surveillance and voyeurism on display. The curator, Sandra Philips, argues that “surveillance pictures are voyeuristic in anticipation, seeking deviance from what is there: … evidence of incriminating behaviour, such as spying, crossing borders illegally, or accepting bribes" (2010).

Remote and apparently disembodied, the gaze as social force also has a haptic presence, “the gesture that seizes” (Brighenti 2010), reaching towards the gazed upon. The robotic installation Zwischenräume (Interstitial Spaces) physically manifests the force of the gaze to produce an investigative lens into the politics of surveillance. The work, a collaboration with Rob Saunders, embeds a group of autonomous robots into the architectural fabric of a gallery; they punch holes through the walls to inspect what's outside, signal each other, and conspire. The machine augmented environment examines the stealthy invasion of digital surveillance through the physical lens of urban combat tactics. In contrast to the disembodied, disguised gaze of our everyday surveillant spaces, here the agency of the machinic gaze materializes and marks and wounds our environment.

Zwischenräume’s gazing robotic agents are self-motivated, curious to study their environment and its inhabitants. Rather than serving as the eye for a human agent, they are voyeurs, only watching for their own ‘pleasure’. Interestingly, it is the machines’ desire to detect deviance from the ‘norm’ that intimately links surveillance (the norm) to voyeurism (the deviant). Zwischenräume, whose way of seeing is motivated by what it sees, expects, and doesn’t see, does not only perform but becomes an audience to the audience’s performance.

Bios of the Participants

James Coupe

James Coupe is an artist whose work focuses on emergent systems, aesthetic machines, autonomy, and networks. His recent work with ‘surveillance cinema’ explores the witting and un-witting relationship between the artist/participant and the viewer/participant. This method of ‘surveillance cinema’ utilizes computer vision software to extract demographic and behavioral information from video footage from a variety of sources including YouTube clips, studio footage, and surveillance camera feeds. The footage is then algorithmically reorganized and recontextualized into narratives, often using cinematic ‘templates’ such as Antonioni’s classic film Blow-Up. James Coupe has exhibited both nationally and internationally, receiving awards from the U.K. Arts and Humanities Research Board Innovation Award, Creative Capital and Artist’s Trust. For more information visit

Michelle Teran

Michelle Teran (born in Canada) explores the interaction between media and social networks in urban environments. In her work she looks at different aspects of how urban space is defined, occupied and mediatized. She has a social and site-specific practice which focuses mostly on the staging of urban interventions and performances, such as guided tours, discussions, walks and open-air projections as well as participatory installations and happenings. She is the winner of the Transmediale Award, the Turku2011 Grand Prix Award, the Vida 8.0 Award and Prix Ars Electronica honorary mention (2005, 2010. Currently she is within the post-graduate Norwegian Artistic Research Fellowship Programme where she is doing practice-based research at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts. She lives and works between Bergen and Berlin.

Rob Saunders

Rob Saunders is Senior Lecturer in Design Computing in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. Rob's research centres around creative application of computing and the computational modelling of creativity. Using techniques from machine learning, robotics and surveillance he has explored the role of curiosity in creative processes and developed models of creative systems at individual, social and cultural levels. His models of curious design agents have demonstrated useful abilities for autonomous design systems, including problem-finding and open-ended exploration. Rob works with artists and designers across a range of disciplines to support and engage in the creative application of computing and has applied his research in the development of design customisation systems, smart environments, interactive installations and robotic artworks.

Petra Gemeinboeck

Petra Gemeinboeck explores the ambiguities and vulnerabilities in our relationships with machines and is interested in making tangible the desires and politics involved. Her practice in machine performance, interactive installation, and virtual environments engages participants in scenarios of encounter, in which they are provoked to negotiate, conspire with or even solicit a machine-generated co-performer. Her works have been exhibited internationally, including at the Ars Electronica, Archilab, Thessaloniki Biennale, MCA Chicago, ICC Tokyo, OK Center for Contemporary Art, and the Centre des Arts Enghien at Paris. She has also published widely on issues of interactivity and machine agency. Born in Vienna, Petra is currently based in Sydney, where she is a Senior Lecturer in Interactive Media Arts at the College of Fine Arts, University of NSW.