Art 101

The Art of Espionage: Six Contemporary Artists Who Think Like Super-Spies


The Art of Espionage: Six Contemporary Artists Who Think Like Super-Spies
Julien Prévieux's Suitcase no. 1 (Minister of the Interior—May 30, 2006), 2007. (Image via

Voyeurism is, for many artists, a necessary part of the creative process. But some take the act of watching the unaware a step further, into surveillance or espionage. As the 2011 SF MoMA and Tate Modern show “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870” reminded us, these activities have been going on in art for at least a century—and right now, in our age of Edward Snowden’s revelations and our daily self-tracking through social media, they’re rampant.

For some artists, such as the 2014 Prix Marcel Duchamp winner Julien Prévieux, investigation is a new form of activism. “I believe that if a car is not working it’s way more efficient to open the hood and be attentive to what’s happening under it than to burn the vehicle,” Prévieux says. Others find poetry in the act of surveillance, like Patti Smith who writes of her love for shows like “CSI” and “Law and Order” in her latest book M Train. Still others see spycraft as a necessary form of “adult disobedience,” to quote John Waters’s commencement speech for the 2015 graduating class of the Rhode Island School of Design, in which he also advised the students to “Spy. Be nosy. Eavesdrop.” Below are a few other artists who seem to be heeding his call.


Sophie Calle The SleepersImage via

The French artist is a notorious stalker: in her piece Suite Vénitienne (1979), she followed a stranger she met at a party all the way to Venice, calling hundreds of hotels to ask if he was staying there. But she also applies her intrusive curiosity to herself—in one case, asking her own mother to hire a detective to follow her—and to volunteers. For The Sleepers (1979) she asked people “to let themselves be looked at and photographed. To answer questions.” She has also used these tactics to investigate emotions like grief, as in her recent installation Raquel, Monique (2014) in the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which resembled a detective report with pieces of evidence including her mother’s diary and a deathbed film. For Calle, art exhibitions and exhibits (in the legal sense) seem to go together.  


Trevor PaglenImage via

The artist who has displayed Pentagon code names on a gallery wall says that what he wants out of art is to learn how to see the historical moment in which we live. “In order to even understand how to look at things that shape the world, you have to do an enormous amount of research,” says Paglen, who learned investigative journalism techniques from his good friend A.C. Thompson, an investigative reporter, when they worked together on a project about CIA infrastructure for kidnapping people. In his second show at Metro Pictures in New York last fall, Paglen revealed hidden networks used by national authorities. In the gallery, one could admire stunning pictures of underwater communication cables and intriguing maps presenting cables off the coast of New York or California. In his investigations that end up as art pieces, Paglen—who was a cinematographer on Citizenfour (2014)—cracks the surveillance structure at least a little bit; one sculpture in the Metro Pictures show was actually an open Wi-Fi hotspot that allowed participants to experience truly anonymous communication.


Taryn Simon A Living Man Declared DeadImage via

The American photographer documents hidden things, untold facts, and unutterable stories. In her series The Innocents (2002) she investigated judicial mistakes in the United States, creating an exhaustive inventory of people charged with crimes they did not commit. In Contraband (2010) she spent a week at JFK airport, taking pictures of items detained by U.S. Customs—and revealing that sex toys and pumpkins can be confiscated along with guns or drugs. While working on her 18-chapter photo essay A Living Man Declared Dead (2008-2011), she traveled all around the world researching bloodlines and unveiling, in the process, contemporary tales of power and corruption. The investigative process is at the core of her intensive inventories, which take the simple form of pictures with captions.


Jill MagidImage via

This American conceptual artist has managed to infiltrate and disrupt the police and justice systems of various countries. In 2002, she questioned what she calls the “fetish” of surveillance cameras by inventing her company System Azure Security Ornamentation and getting herself hired by the Amsterdam Police Department to decorate its CCTV cameras at Police headquarters. Two years later, she created the video series Evidence Locker in collaboration with the Liverpool Police, using their public surveillance cameras. One of her most impressive investigations might be her mixed-media project Article 12-The spy series (2005-2010), in which she was commissioned by the Dutch secret service to “help improve its public persona.” In the piece, she interviewed eighteen of their employees and made a piece inspired by these encounters—one that was then censored by the commissioner. In protest, Magid displayed the handwritten notes she took during the interviews at Tate Modern (Authority to remove, 2009-2010), but as if to reinforce her message, the secret service confiscated the uncensored report.


Li Liao ConsumptionImage via

Like Magid, Li Liao insinuates himself into a system in order to expose its fallacies. In his performance Consumption (2012), which was included in the 2015 New Museum Triennial "Surround Audience," that system was a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where most of Apple’s products are made. For 45 days Li worked undercover in this Chinese plant, earning just enough in that time period to buy an iPad. His operation revealed some inconsistencies and gaps within our consumer society and the capitalist world, generating feelings of malaise and unease. Li is also interested in notions of public space and surveillance, as in his performance Single Bed (2011); for this piece he fell asleep in public spaces, thereby transforming himself from a human subject into an object of scrutiny.


Julien Previeux What Shall We Do NextImage via

The 41 year-old French artist undermines and provokes figures of power—employers, big tech companies and politicians—using simple tools: humor and old-school investigation techniques. “I only used a telephoto lens to spy on Google’s headquarters in Los Angeles, and some ‘invisible detective powder’ to steal Nicolas Sarkozy’s fingerprints!” he says. “I don’t hack them or anything.” The photographs of the Google offices became a series of drawings called Data Capture (2014), and the fingerprints were transformed into a do-it-yourself stamp kit titled Suitcase no. 1 (Minister of the Interior—May 30,2006), from 2007. Prévieux has also explored the patenting of hand gestures by technology companies, in a choreographed video and performance series, What Shall We Do Next? (2006-2011), that takes aim at Silicon Valley’s ever-expanding definitions of intellectual property. 


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