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Double-Edged Surveillance at CAM Raleigh

Scene from Blue Sky, written by Clare Bayley and starring Shannon Malone.
Scene from Blue Sky, written by Clare Bayley
and starring Shannon Malone.

Two concurrent shows at CAM Raleigh share conceptual themes, aesthetics, and physical space: the theatrical play Blue Sky and a new-media exhibition “Super-Vision” [both end on Feb. 14]. Co-produced by Burning Coal Theater Company, Blue Sky is written by British playwright Clare Bayley. In it, journalist Jane (played by Shannon Malone) reunites with an old boyfriend, Ray (played by John Allure), to investigate a suspicious airplane that could be a C.I.A. vehicle used to kidnap terrorism suspects for rendition. Jane relies heavily on the Internet to gather information.

The exhibition “Super-Vision” features work by Chris Cassidy, Derek Toomes, and Kevin H. Jones that uses live camera feeds and sonar sensors to engage viewer in the medium of surveillance. Together, the artworks and play confront the audience with the abundance of information we both encounter and surrender through technology.

Kevin H. Jones, Broadcasting to Unknown Points #2, 2016; paint and electronics, 6 by 9 inches.
Kevin H. Jones, Broadcasting to Unknown Points #2, 2016; paint and electronics, 6 by 9 inches.

Cassidy’s work Looking Out III compiles live camera feeds from across the country, the 13 screens aligned by their horizons to enable the viewer to survey several places at once. Cassidy’s work puts the viewer in a position of power, but Derek Toomes’s turns the camera around and subjects the viewer to surveillance. Nine LCD screens display the tails of three jets shooting across the sky. Servo motors tilt and twist like satellites in a field searching for a signal. When the viewer approaches the work, a sonar sensor triggers the screens to turn toward viewer, the sense of scrutiny can induce anxiety. Another interactive work is Broadcasting to Unknown Points #2 by Kevin H. Jones. The piece incorporates a vague list of pending hurricanes that reads like a list of suspects, and a sonar transmits an electronic sirenlike noise that increases in volume as the viewer approaches.

The technologies in play both give and take away the viewer’s power through surveillance, and question the ethics of gathering private information.

Blue Sky’s female lead, Jane, invades the privacy of others to attain the evidence she needs to prove her conspiracy. Surveillance is turned around on the government to hold it accountable to secret operations. In the midst of finding that a British citizen suspected of terrorism was kidnapped by the C.I.A., Ray and Jane respond in two opposing ways: neutrality and action. Jane doubles her efforts to find the proof she needs to publish accusations. Frightened by Jane’s discoveries, Ray asks, “Isn’t it better not to know?” He assumes that the C.I.A. must have good reasons and therefore the victims of torture might deserve the abuse. Ray’s daughter Ana is an activist and blogger and insists that Ray’s neutrality is compliance. Ana and Jane dispute about the reliability and importance of blogs and online media. Nothing in the play is conclusive, we never find out if the suspect is guilty, which leaves the viewer to consider their position.

Scene from Blue Sky. (Photo: Phil America)

Blue Sky was first performed in 2012, before Edward Snowden leaked National Security Agency information. From videos of police violence to Netflix’s documentary show Making a Murderer, new technology has initiated a new wave of accountability. These shows remind us of the uncomfortable truth that, while surveillance may deprive citizens of their privacy, technology has also become a tool of public safety.

Kellie Bornhoft is an artist and writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was a participant in Cycle 2 of BURNAWAY’s Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program


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