British-born, Seattle-based artist James Coupe’s recent work examines the power and meaning of surveillance in our everyday life by working with advanced surveillance technologies, including high definition video cameras, facial recognition software and computer algorithms derived from popular search engines and social media sites. Coupe works in new media but his artistic practice is anchored in an engagement with older media—namely, cinema, literature and, most recently, the panorama. Situated at the intersection of the virtual, the fictional and the real, Coupe’s work examines the ways that contemporary surveillance society simultaneously foregrounds self-observation and mutual observation, and thus mobilizes the classic scopophilic dialectic of voyeurism and exhibitionism. Rather than subjecting surveillance to a systematic ideological critique, Coupe’s interests lie in the way surveillance provides a theme and metaphor for exploring the paradoxes of the postmodern human condition.
Surveillance Suite is a series of artworks that make use of contemporary surveillance technologies and ideologies. The series culminates with Swarm, a 16-channel real-time video installation that uses profiling algorithms to auto-composit footage of individual museum visitors into demographically similar “clans.” Four rows of monitors show these different clans occupying the museum, proliferating in number, assembling and dispersing. One might be women in their fifties, one might be people of Asian descent, one might be men in their forties, one might be people all dressed in black.
There is menace inherent in the occupation of a specific space by a single demographic, even more so when that space is a privileged site such as a museum. There is further tension to be found in the parallel occupation of that space by different groupings—some are large, some small, all suggesting an impending confrontation. As new people enter the gallery, visitors past and present size them up, waiting to see which group they will join, and adding to the blend of tension and exclusivity, threat and solidarity pervading the museum.