The highly respected and long-established Parish Gallery in Georgetown’s Canal Square will be presenting an exhibition entitled “Under Surveillance,” beginning Sept. 17 and running through Oct. 12. This show of 13 relatively small-scale installations, each composed of a two-dimensional painted “backdrop” and a three-dimensional constructed architectural element (several of the latter “towers” will also be included independently), was collaboratively produced by Harriet Lesser and Cleve Overton, respectively. As it constitutes something of a departure from art dealer and painter Norman Parish’s usual program, both in its overt engagement with currently-relevant political issues (as its accompanying press release makes clear) and its somewhat stage-set-like interpretation of the assemblage medium, this installation of artworks with diverse implications seemed a good kick-off point for our new editorial comment section.
It is not only because “Under Surveillance”’s artists encourage viewers to actually enter its tower-like structures (that is, to themselves experience the act of “surveillance,” of others as well as of their painted “settings”) that this show presents itself as an ideal topic for our first installment of “Alternative Focus,” since that constitutes a parallel to part of what this column hopes to accomplish. This is also true because the structures in this exhibition offer a metaphor for the experience of looking at art, as well as watching those who are looking at it (as critical commentary does), viewing both as being potentially subversive “voyeuristic” activities—an allusion strengthened by the fact that these pieces literally extend into the viewer’s space. Or, as Overton put it himself in a recent interview: “I guess I am a willing participant in the surveillance process.” Thematizing such activities seems relevant in a city dominated by watching political theater, whose participants’ significance lies in being watched.
Yet obviously these installations seek to bring more negative, disturbing present-tense and recent-historical issues to the surface as well, as is made clear by their “subjects” or titles, these including: Guantanamo, Berlin Wall, Auschwitz, Vietnam, Gulag, and Gaza. The paranoia of being watched without being aware of it was investigated in a recent series of articles in The Washington Post about unmarked buildings used for surveillance purposes (see Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, “The Secrets Next Door,” July 21, 2010). The intrusion into and violation of one’s privacy involved in the tracking of peoples’ usage of the internet has likewise been examined in a number of pieces in the Wall Street Journal (by Julia Angwin, interviewed by Dave Davies on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Aug. 19, 2020), as Lesser mentioned when interviewed. Although it is post-9/11, when the intensification of security procedures and an increased consciousness of their implications took place, that surveillance entered public awareness in the wake of terrorism’s emergence onto the world stage, clearly such observation practices had previously been employed as a means of political subjugation and control. These phenomena have in fact preoccupied other contemporary artists’ practice as well as theoretical and art-historical discussion for at least the past decade, as documented for example by: a German exhibition at the Center for Art and New Media in Karlsruhe organized by Thomas Y. Levin called “Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother” (its catalogue published by MIT Press in 2002); and a British conference centered on another show in 2008, “Conspiracy Dwellings: Symposium on Surveillance in Contemporary Art,” which took place in Bracknell.
Doubtless most poignant of the pieces in this Parish installation is a satellite view of Earth, or “surveillance” from outer space—the inspiration for many a science-fiction movie imagining “aliens” who might monitor our planet from beyond its surface, and whom we might see in turn as UFOs—yet here it is an instance of us solipsistically looking at ourselves, “surveillance” having gone extra-global.
- Julia Bernard