Why do we need agents, the 00 section? Isn't it all rather quaint? Well, I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I'm frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map, they aren't nations. They are individuals. So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves—how safe do you feel?
The question: how safe do you feel? How safe do we feel in a world where technology has been absorbed? Where the impression of our lives—the physical and tactile mark of our experiences—has been transformed into something that is fluidly recorded in images, in written text. What we look at online, what we listen to, what we search. There is a kind of symmetry to how we interface with these records, a twin-ness to our relationship with the statistics that trace us. Our existence subtly alters data as equally as it alters us.
Not just bureaucratically or commercially, but experientially, emotionally, sentimentally.
Surveillance existed before technology; curiosity and desire are surveillance. Surveillance is romantic. The question, in the expanded field of surveillance, where everyone both is and is watched by Big Brother, is: does Big Brother love us back?
Ed Atkins, Happy Birthday!!, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Cabinet Gallery, London
Enter Surround Audience, the 2015 New Museum Triennial, curated by Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin. Now in its third edition, the triennial features 51 artists and collectives, many exhibiting in a museum for the first time. The curatorial premise of the exhibition hinges on these panoptic qualities of surveillance (as Andrew Russeth wrote, “we’re all simultaneously performing for and examining each other”) but also on this idea of security, and how its many adherences and breaks both affect and influence us.
Cornell and Trecartin suggest the term “surround culture” through the exhibition. This flow of information directly informs the model of the artists and selected works on view. Surround Audience bypasses the traditional gallery model in favor of exhibiting work that has in many cases travelled directly from the studio to the museum—a break in the common threshold that gallery representation leads to major museum exhibitions. The exhibition is, by this definition, one large security breach. The triennial model here capitalizes on the myth that security measures keep us safe—not only conceptually, but also in practice. The break in the soundness of procedure here does away with regulation; it infiltrates and subverts in favor of following protocol.
As with all breaches, once detected, the hunt begins in searching for the break—where did it begin, what was its source? A new protocol is born in the breach.
How can we navigate this rift and use it to our advantage?
The concept is evidence of a larger thematic for Cornell and Trecartin. The question of how technology has coerced our interests has been asked time and time again; the answer is often one of a tacit agreement to surveillance, neither consented nor actively rejected, but tolerated out of necessity. As Cornell expresses in an exhibition catalogue text, “We move through streams of chatter, swipe past pictures of others’ lives, and frame our own experiences, as our digital trails are subtly captured, tracked, and stored.” Surround Audience re-imagines Big Brother—one that we work and cooperate with on a daily basis through the technologies we accept within our everyday.
Firenze Lai, Tennis Court, 2013, Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in (101.6 x 76.2 cm). Courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, China
While the idea of subjectivity is so often removed in the process of thinking about big data, or any technological interface, the work included in Surround Audience suggests otherwise. Technology is inescapably subjective. There is no difference between the digital and real life, as would seem obvious by now. Our interactions within a digital sphere are not without consequence. Materiality does not precede existence. Agency is not eliminated by digital platforms, but enhanced by it. It is almost intimate. Our love affair with surveillance is a point of sincerity and criticism; we open our arms to the social liberties surveillance allows us, granting others access into our persons through the image of international connectivity, while damning its habit of transforming our world into a series of digestible images and symbols.
Self-surveillance—intimately entwined with self-presentation—has been practiced for centuries; technology does not make it possible, but instead makes this act of watching an inescapable tangible reality. The image of selfness is one that is directly imagined in Surround Audience. Juliana Huxtable becomes the poster for this; in various photographic images, the artist’s body is transformed into both a set and its director, simultaneously. You can imagine the self-direction, the self-created image that Huxtable can love and be loved through. There is a command, or awareness, of Huxtable’s image—here, the female body is no longer painted on the silver screen, but rises out of the digital ether. The work is almost simplistic in its exploitation of digital materials—a painted body is superimposed onto a false background of two pantone swatches, one denoting land, the other sky; a white circle occupies the top right corner of the image, perfectly cut out from the atmosphere.
This piece could have only been created in a moment where the development of advanced technologies was already proliferating and undeniably present. While this tension is most present in Huxtable's work, the exhibition unfolds in a series of investigations on this idea—whether in the barely formed bodies of Ed Atkins' Happy Birthday!!, or less directly in the tilting, driftless fields of Firenze Lai's Tennis Court, an oil painting that reads as a ghost of a google image search on Munch, or the distorted full-body self captured through the digital lens, constantly shifting and changing orientation. Perhaps none of these comparissons would have been made to this same painting fifty years ago, though we now preempt our reading of the non-digital, bracing our interpretations—always on, all the time.
This is the exact absorption Cornell and Trecartin’s curatorial system anticipates and pictures.
Frank Benson, Juliana, 2015, Image courtesy of the author.
In close proximity to Huxtable's printed two-dimensional works, Frank Benson’s 3-D plastic model of the artist occupies a white pedestal. Its selfness is no less metallic, purposefully foreign, estranged, or alien in relation to the photographs. The dark silver tinge of her limbs, caught with jewel tones, is futuristic—though not nearly as futuristic as it could be. There is still a physical presence to this piece. As with our relationship to surveillance, we still favor the material over its projection, the “re-materialization of digital and ephemeral forms.” This is not an incorporeal experience, though it can be characterized as digital. It is important that we could reach out and touch her if we wanted to. We could break the rules.
Huxtable’s piece—not to be confused with her body proper—and Benson's accompanying installation is something Rimbaud or Baudelaire would have loved. You can almost hear their verses echoing, intertwined and distant: my self-same, my other.
 “How are visual metaphors for the self and subjecthood evolving at a moment when we not only want to be seen but also manage our self-image and privacy in a more participatory and also more intrusive media environment—what we could describe as a surround culture?” Surround Audience, New Museum Catalogue, 2015.
 Surround Audience, New Museum Catalogue, 2015.
(Image at top: Juliana Huxtable, Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm) from the “UNIVERSAL CROP TOPS FOR ALL THE SELF CANONIZED SAINTS OF BECOMING” series, 2015. Inkjet print. Courtesy the artist)