Your Face Is Safe With Me

Your Face Is Safe With Me

Date posted: 2006-02-23 00:00:00

New exhibit probes issue of privacy
By John E. Mitchell, North Adams Transcript
Saturday, February 18

WILLIAMSTOWN - A Williams College graduate has used her concern over surveillance and privacy as inspiration for art and citizen action.

Tiffany Holmes, currently an assistant professor of art and technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, channeled her interest to create "Your Face is Safe With Me," an installation that animates images pulled from closed circuit television networks within the gallery, mixed with images of surveillance sites from the Chicago area.

"What the viewer will see is the computer playing video games against itself for no purpose," said Holmes, "and the surveillance images, which are fairly recognizeable, come up from time to time in the games."

Holmes incorporates real video games so that the surveillance images of the gallery patrons becomes fodder for Pac Man to consume or the very bricks that imprison the player in Breakout.

"The games parodied attempt to refer the proliferation of these closed-circuit television networks and their potential to create these enormous databases of images," said Holmes.

Surveillance and privacy have become major issues since 9/11 and are currently making the headlines in the form of wire-tapping. The fervor toward protection from dangers both real and imagined has lead to a climate where some members of the government, as well as private citizens, argue that some loss of liberties is mandatory to security and safety - good news to companies in the surveillance industry, for whom mass suspicion is the best advertising they could get.

"We're told repeatedly by the media to protect ourselves, that public safety is an enormous concern," said Holmes, "and folks who are actually in the closed circuit television industry have benefited quite a bit by this because more and more people want to put in security systems in their homes or cameras at the workplace, cameras outside to monitor their establishment's street access."

Ironically, as technology gets better and allows for more precision surveillance, privacy faces more of a threat. Video resolution has improved over the years, allowing much clearer images, particularly at night - this, of course, makes any intrusion more crisp, which might be helpful to police in identifying suspects, but also raises possibilities for other sectors of society with a different sort of use in mind. Sometimes all it takes is one skilled computer hacker with the desire to circulate images online.

"I read in the New York Times, a group of parents who were suing their daughters' high school because the school had an IP enabled surveillance camera in the locker room," said Holmes. "People could actually stumble across them online if they punched in the proper Javaforce codes of that particular camera. The images were actually publicly available if you knew how to look for them."

The future of airport security includes scanning technology that will display nude body silhouettes for the purpose of uncovering weapons, but there are many concerns about the images once they have been generated for official use. Recently, as part of Operation Disruption, the city of Chicago channeled money seized in drug-related arrests into a system of surveillance cameras in high crime zones. The cameras, which are equipped with sophisticated panning and zooming capabilities, are manned by retired police officers at a central location and have sparked a lot of heated conversation among citizens and public officials.

"The moderate view is that these cameras can perhaps be useful, but everyone's just a little bit concerned about the footage," said Holmes. "Is the footage deleted after a certain period of time? Who has access to it? Is it being duplicated, is it not? None of these questions in my mind have been really answered in a satisfactory way, there's still a lot of mystery around how the system works. Who's actually in charge of this? We know that the Chicago Police is in control, but it's not clear where the footage goes, how it's maintained, and where it's archived."

Holmes' personal activism has resulted in her involvement with the group Open-Loop, largely comprised of a group of students who Holmes works with. Its purpose is to map all the public surveillance cameras in Chicago and make that information available online. The group updates their information every year and makes maps and images available on their Web site.

Holmes has approached her own work with the same set of concerns she directs to the surveillance networks she critiques - the images she takes in during an installation is grabbed and held by the hard drive for a total of ten minutes in order to be featured in the animation, and then is deleted.

Recently, Holmes has worked on a related project for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, creating an animation that takes its data from the monitoring system in the building that is designed to measure and control water and energy use-information usually relegated to basements and boiler rooms, now put front and center in the building's lobby, freely dispensing the levels of consumption by the workers in that space.

"It's all about the hidden data that is within the bowels of our buildings that typically people are not really exposed to, they're not really looking for that." said Holmes.

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