The Artists Reclaiming Our Data

23/05/2014 17:14 BST | Updated 23/07/2014 10:59 BST

Antigua Air Station © Mishka Henner

Antigua Air Station © Mishka Henner

"Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe" posits the young architect Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's influential book The Fountainhead, a 1943 novel about the struggle between individualism and collectivism.

After the revelation of the NSA and GCHQ's mass surveillance - their back-door entry to internet giants like Google and Facebook, phone-tapping of world leaders, and a dragnet of the phone records of millions - this society, in the opinion of Roark, would certainly not be a civilised one. It's the opinion of many others too.

Big data, the term used to describe the unprecedented, complex levels of information that can be processed today, has been harnessed by governments, intelligence agencies, and corporations. It means that the privacy of citizens around the world is being steadily eroded. But even though we are now aware of it, little has genuinely changed. There is, however, an increasing number of artists who are reappropriating this mass of collected information in critical, weighty, and expository ways: they're reclaiming our data.

Mishka Henner, a nominee for this year's Prix Pictet, takes images from modern technologies like Google Earth and Google Street View for his work; resources that have been particularly controversial when it comes to privacy. His series, Fifty-One US Military Outposts, documents the many US military outposts around the world, using satellite images available online - easily attainable, much like our personal information - as a basis.

Henner takes these satellite images and then transforms them by altering and artistically-enhancing the colours, lending them an unexpected, lyrical beauty; without ever altering the specific physical details of images. He explains that projects such as these exploit "loopholes in the vast archives of data, connecting the dots to reveal things that surround us but which we rarely see." It is a role reversal, citizens rather than governments doing it, that exposes the ease with which any sort of information can be obtained.

Dronestagram © James Bridle

Dronestagram © James Bridler

The project is reminiscent of Dronestagram, a website that mimics the popular photo-based social media site Instagram, but instead of displaying banal images of meals and pets, it posts satellite images of locations that have been subject to drone attacks confirmed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Similarly, Henner used documents released by Wikileaks, the whistleblowing organisation, to verify the locations of the secret US military bases. By choosing to associate with such institutions, some artists are becoming more radical and aggressive in their approach and content.

"Drones are just the latest in a long line of military technologies augmenting the process of death-dealing" writes James Bridle, the founder of Dronestagram. Through it, he wants to make "these locations just a little bit more visible, a little closer. A little more real."

This stark, alienating reality also confronts the viewer in Joern Roeder and Jonathan Pirnay's project FbFaces. The pair wrote a software programme built to search all of the public profiles on Facebook, systematically copying images, Facebook IDs, and names. Roeder and Pirnay then proceeded to visualise all of this collected data as a wallpaper, covering every surface of their exhibition room. The result is that the images of people are the size of mere pixels, dehumanising them and reducing their existence to mere fragments information.

FbFaces © Joern Roeder and Jonathan Pirnay

FbFaces © Joern Roeder and Jonathan Pirnay

In the same way, Sebastian Drack and Tobias Feldmeier aimed to evoke the terrible potential of big data at Munich's Big Data Art 2013. Particular strands of their interactive light installation, bias, flash when one of the 377 keywords monitored by the US Department of Homeland Security was mentioned on Twitter, temporarily leaving the rest of the room invisible. According to its creators, the fluorescent light signifies the invasion of data privacy, while the project as a whole demonstrates the omnipresence of big data.

Drack explained: "The big data world is still some kind of abstract parallel universe for many people but at the same time data is incredibly real and it is definitely time to give statements, raise awareness and to be part of democratic processes. Do we live in an constitutional state or do we live in a surveillance state?"

This threat of the surveillance state has led to surveillance art, a movement that has proven particularly divisive in the art community: many lambast the approach for its voyeuristic nature. Artists Kyle McDonald and Brian House pushed the limits with their recent work, Coversnitch, that saw them hide a lamp equipped with a computer and microphone, at an undisclosed location in New York. It continually records 10-second snippets of audio, and using voice recognition software, posted the transcriptions on Twitter.

Some of the results were eerily prescient, with one person recorded saying: "Are you sure you want to be talking about this? I really don't know if this is the place," while others were more comical: "I think that white people just act the way we want them to act around us". Yet all of them raise questions about our personal privacy and the power of governments, especially after it was revealed that journalists working on the Snowden files had to put their phones in a refrigerator, with the batteries disconnected, in order to prevent security agencies from turning them into eavesdropping devices.

Just as Ayn Rand's Roark subversively demolishes the Corlandt building after promises are broken and his designs changed, these artists are undermining a society that no longer functions for the benefit of the common people. Their art not only brings home the reality of today's surveillance state, but asks, do we have to live this this?