Rose Butler – Investigatory Power at Decad, Berlin
Curated by Mareike Spendel, the exhibition ran from 2 November 2019 to 4 January 2020.
Article by Juli Cordray
Lacunae—gaps—are a recurring, material presence in British artist and researcher Rose Butler’s solo exhibition at Decad, Berlin. The photographic and video images that comprise Investigatory Power seem to map out the voids that form between what is captured, and seen, by systems of surveillance—paradoxically, perhaps, honing in on that which lacks visibility.
Butler, who is completing doctoral research on the ethics and politics of looking within the frame of surveillance and art, has conducted extensive research at the Stasi Records Agency in Berlin. In the installation, the archival material is distilled to a small selection that illuminates the banality of surveillance, physical practices of surveilling, and the accumulative process of capturing and storing data. The selected materials and the artist’s comprehensive research underline the urgency of talking about the ethics and politics that come to light when we take a critical look at present-day surveillance.
Placing archival footage in juxtaposition with her own photographic work exploring these themes, the difference between technologies and methods is bridged across geography and time: Butler employs extremely high-resolution image capturing technologies alongside an outmoded miniature camera in footage captured, respectively, in Berlin and the United Kingdom Houses of Parliament.
The exhibition opens with one of Butler’s images, a digital composite photo panorama titled simply after the Berlin street on which it was taken: Chausseestrasse (2014). The deceptively mundane photo was shot using GigaPan imaging equipment developed by NASA and Google. Automated motion via robotic camera mounts allows a large sequence of photos to be taken, while corresponding software seamlessly composites them into a single, detailed and panoramic image amassed from a high quantity of visual data.
The central focus of Butler’s gigapixel panorama is itself a gap: the death strip, the formerly barren “no man’s land” lying between East and West Germany. This sand- and gravel-filled strip was regularly smoothed in order for footprints to be made more immediately visible to border guards, the cityscape thus embodying traces of the bodies moving through it.
In Butler’s photograph, the strip is populated by flourishing, un-groomed vegetation, which now sprawls over and obscures the ground. This space is delimited on one side by shrubbery and on the other by a rust-colored barricade, beyond which a construction site looms. Now emblazoned with the invasion of nature, the former death strip is replete with signs of life, contrasted with the cold steel and skeletal structure of a building in process. Moreover, the building that is being constructed is the headquarters of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency.
Seen in parallel to this scene are prints produced from a series of 35mm film negatives, among the materials selected from the Stasi archive. Deep, velvety vignettes encircle each photo frame, as though viewed through a peephole. The ensuing effect is to obfuscate the wider field of vision while materializing the optical device intended to covertly observe and capture. In essence, it appears to emphatically articulate its own concealment.
One grouping shows a vertically oriented and a horizontal arrangement of blown-up filmstrips, one in black-and-white and one in color. They appear infographic, data-like. The color prints comprise a rather banal series of images of an individual making a phone call in one sequence and sitting in the grass reading a book in another. The black-and-white images, on the other hand, depict a public event. What emerge in these negatives are irregular black lines that cut through the image frames: slash marks left by attempts to destroy the files. Gaps in these strips are also visibly preserved in the prints, as missing sections are demarcated by blank space on the paper. The scarring of the surfaces, as well as the spaces between frames—blatant absences—seem to lend the images an especially tactile presence.
Adjacent grids of photographs snapped by Butler using a 1960s Minox miniature camera—frequently referred to as a “spy cam”—likewise appear in both grayscale and color, mirroring the archival footage. Here, too, gaps in visibility are rendered, though this time they are not blank spaces on the paper, but rather dark blocks of graininess: unsuccessful photographic attempts. Arranged in chronological order, these highly textured non-images punctuate moments captured in varying degrees of visibility, exposure and blurriness.
A portion of these images were taken from inside the UK Houses of Parliament during the debates leading to the passing of the Investigatory Powers Act. Put into effect in 2016, the mass data surveillance legislation vastly expanded the electronic surveillance powers of state authorities. Though the law has been contested since its passing and restrictions have been sought, the UK in particular remains a highly surveilled democratic state. Apart from the elusive presence of digital surveillance, this also manifests in the palpable density of CCTV cameras that fleck public and private space.
Such imaging devices are, moreover, becoming entangled with biometric tracking technologies. This implementation of facial recognition has sparked international artists, designers, and activists to create fashion, makeup, and accessory solutions that obstruct digital vision. The artist duo Yoke Collective, for example, recently organized a workshop titled Camouflage in the Digital Age: The Aesthetics of Disrupting Facial Recognition at the Barbican Centre in London. In it, participants learned how to employ materials like face paint, rhinestones, and stickers to effectively block their features from facial recognition technology. These functional shifts in fashion and dress suggest the impact of digital surveillance on the bodies moving under its gaze, changing their aesthetics and interfaces, and perhaps ultimately how they interrelate.
That these developments, and their responses and consequences, are becoming increasingly pertinent in the digital age seems compounded by the selectively blurred faces that populate the Stasi archival images in Butler’s exhibition. This process of anonymization was, of course, enacted only after the fact, as the Stasi Records Agency digitized the files in order to protect the privacy of those who were documented without their permission: those whose privacy had already been violated. And the process is not without error—some faces slip by, mistakenly left un-blurred, while accentuating the question of how it is determined whose image should be anonymized and whose shouldn’t.
This is further underscored by the performance of looking and being looked at, sometimes simultaneously, that is enacted in the second room of the exhibition, wherein video footage from the Stasi archive is presented. One two-channel video shows agents carrying briefcases as they traverse a landscape, part of which is shown to be dotted with human-sized and -shaped cutouts. The briefcases conceal 16mm cameras, allowing for inconspicuous watching and recording. The setup has clearly been arranged for the purpose of hidden camera training; the agents in the field themselves are being watched and recorded from a distance.
In spite of this visualization of looking, in which we, too, as viewers in the space, are implicated—our eye over the peephole—the experience is not analogous to archival voyeurism. Butler stimulates engagement with archival images that have been re-situated firmly in the present; continuities are traced as technological evolution is placed in parallel with little-changed practices and perspectives. Not only is the material shown to be living and expanding—neither detached nor distanced—it also begins to contour that which remains conspicuously out of view.