Media festival on surveillance: big brother, we are watching you

The European Media Art Festival in Osnabruck has the motto "We, the Enemy – Life under Suspicion" and ironizes surveillance.

Small, compact, political: Elana Artemenko’s "Comfortable Protest". Image: Promo

This year, the European Media Art Festival (EMAF) could not have chosen any other theme than media surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations have fundamentally changed our view of digital media. We now know that anyone who is under surveillance and whose data is stored is considered a potential perpetrator on the Internet.

The European Media Art Festival in Osnabruck, which has just started, shows how artists are addressing this issue. The motto "We, the Enemy" refers to the first words of the US Constitution. "We, the People often the United States …", they read. We are the people" has become "We are the enemies" for the festival motto.

Since 1988, current trends in media art have been presented at the EMAF, and the film program is still at the center. More than 20 programs of experimental short films will be shown, including Birgit Hein’s latest work, "Abstract Film," a strip that assembles cell phone footage of fighting in Libya, Syria and Yemen posted on the web into a collage.

Whistleblower guest

In addition, each year the festival hosts a very traditional conference with lectures and discussions. This time, the star guest is Annie Machon, who worked as an intelligence officer for the British Secret Service in the 1990s and published information about illegal actions. Afterwards, she had to flee across Europe. She now heads a foundation that campaigns for whistleblowers and raises money for their defense.

Every year, the festival’s playground is once again the exhibition at the Kunsthalle, which this time presents new and older works on the subject. Right at the beginning, for example, a minimalist work by Bjorn Melhus can be seen. "Policia" from 2007 consists of only two video images of a flying police helicopter. They are enough to create the illusion of a moving rotor in the montage, which at the same time appears static.

Harun Farocki, one of the festival’s regulars, will show his video installation "I Thought I Saw Prisoners." In it, he has mounted images from surveillance cameras from an American maximum-security prison.

Some of the exhibits are also hardly recognizable as works of art, but seem more like political actions. Thus, the web blog "Everyday Rebellion" by Arash T. Riahi and Arman T. Riahi hardly add any aesthetic value. Instead, the two Iranians make clear how international protest movements can cooperate by spreading their tactics on the net. After all, multipliers are as important today as creators.

The Swiss Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud also work rather politically with their project "Under Surveillance / Under the Radar". Their wall drawings about police control and surveillance are disappointingly conventional.

All the more interesting are their actions in which they develop digital networks for outsider groups that function independently of the large systems and can neither be monitored nor shut down. An example of this low-tech strategy is the can antenna, which consists of a few wires and a tin can and connects the exhibition hall to the festival center 300 meters away.

Shy camera

The installation "The Shy Camera" by Gregor Kuschmirz offers an ironic counter-design to current surveillance technology. A movable electronic camera is connected to a sensor that reacts to movements. When a visitor approaches, the camera turns away.

For his work "The Situation Room," Franz Reimer recreated the White House control room where Obama watched the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The famous image, which shows not the killing but the politicians watching it, is thus demystified. In the exhibition, every visitor can sit down on the president’s seat. But on the screen he sees only himself.

An ironic reflection of the young protest movement in Russia is Elana Artemenko’s "Comfortable Protest" – a multifunctional demonstration pack that can be worn as a backpack and unfolds into a sign on which one can write down a slogan. Umbrella and first aid kit are also included. And when you are tired, you can use it as a stool. An object made only of wood, fabric and plastic. But quite up to date.