African-American woman poll dancer performing artist

Sousveillance

What does it mean to defy social norms for artistic expression.

Dorothy Santos art arts editor

by Dorothy Santos
Published April 2015 | Etiquette Issue

“It’s 1983 and the primary mode of communication is of an analog nature,” as I start to tell Taylor, my 19 year old goddaughter, a story over lunch. I continue with an unlikely scenario. “You’re curious and voyeuristic. You have a fascination with found objects, which feeds and motivates your work. You write letters, receive letters, take photographs, develop them in your dark room. But you need inspiration. So you take a walk down the street; you find a stranger’s address book filled with contacts. Prior to returning it to the owner, you make photo copies of the contents and proceed to contact every individual listed in the address book unbeknownst to the owner of the book. With every connection you make, you stitch together a portrait of a man you do not know. You write stories about this enigmatic person through the narratives and experiences of his friends and acquaintances. So, what do you think?”

Her answer was emblematic of the times we live in. She replied, “Doesn’t everyone find out about someone through other people anyway?” She was right. Her perspective not only speaks to the connectivity we have to our loved ones, but to strangers as well. I revealed the scenario as an artwork by French conceptual artist Sophie Calle. Her piece, like others, reverses the order of what is typically objectified in western culture—the woman’s body. But while my goddaughter’s generation may consider our hyper-connectivity the norm, this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, there was a time when such an approach was a break with traditional art practices, a breach of privacy, a pushing of boundaries. But American culture has such a paradoxical relationship to viewership, decency, and etiquette. Ubiquitous communication virtually eliminates etiquette altogether, especially if something is titillating, entertaining, or intimate.

The Address Book (1983) by Calle was one of her more controversial works. It entailed her investigations of a man named Pierre D. based solely on her interactions with some of his friends and acquaintances whom she contacted without the man’s knowledge or permission. Despite the seemingly invasive yet poetic nature of the work, it begs the question of defying etiquette for the sake of artistic expression. It also forces the viewer to wonder, “What are the social norms or acceptable behavior if a work of art is dependent upon the actions steeped in unsolicited exposure of another person?“ But women artists such as Calle have created ways of engaging with ideas of public and private in ways that may be considered inappropriate by creating works that not only push socially acceptable behavior, but perform and exist outside of unconventional art making.

Inventor, engineer, and research Steven Mann coined the term sousveillance. Sous, derived from the French, means below. Although Mann’s work points to wearable technology (i.e., body cameras), the term has been used by some artists to describe an artistic practice that explores the nature of watching others through first person perspective. Sousveillance may be the fitting term to peg with works such as Calle’s Address Book, despite its absence of digital technology. But it brings the basis of surveying and monitoring to the level of the human as opposed to a view atop and away from human sight. Although it may seem strange and somewhat gratuitous to mediate looking at another individual, I mean, we can just look at each other without technology after all, navigating these boundaries actually begs the question of what we find normal versus abnormal behavior.

Artist Tiffany Trenda’s work explores the intrusion of personal space and intimate touch. In her work Proximity Cinema (2014), the artist walks up to the viewer covered from head to toe in a full body fire engine red leather suit. The suit has strategically placed mesh openings that allow Trenda to breathe and maneuver her immediate space. The suit is covered with touch screen mobile devices that show red screens that match the color of the suit with phrases such as “Go Ahead,” “It’s OK,” and “Don’t Worry About It.” If the participant chooses to allow the artist to get close, the viewer has the ability to participate in the performance and touch the screens on the suit. With every touch, a part of the artist’s body is revealed. Despite the mediation of the touch screens to the artist’s body, Trenda’s work complicates the way a viewer sees consent and participation. Yet performance based art isn’t the only way women artists grapple with how we look at private and public.

Instagram feed for Kate Durbin kateannedurbin featuring Disney characters, flowers and men

Navigating outside of accepted social and cultural norms can also take on a rather humorous side as demonstrated by Los Angeles-based artist and writer Kate Durbin. Her use of Instagram not only allows her to be performative and playful, the platform enables her to be a surveyor of the digital landscape. Posting screengrabs of men she has had conversations with on dating site Coffee Meets Bagel provides comic relief to her followers. Mens’ comments and messages regarding her profile elicit some witty and jarring responses from the artist herself. Durbin reflected on her posts as, “performance that overlaps and crosses boundaries between my life and art. I’ve seen a lot of women post screen grabs of guys acting genuinely creepy on those apps, and I have a few of those posts. However, most of mine are responses to fairly innocuous and normal approaches. In a way, I am simply refusing to play along, playing instead a sort of dissatisfying, unpleasing, or halfhearted seductress. I’ve been posing (well it’s not really posing since it’s true) as a mermaid, thinking of the relationship between men and sirens, the mythological creatures they blamed all of their problems on. I’m interested in the subtle dissatisfactions and expectations of online seduction.”  Durbin’s way of playing against the rules and throwing away the niceties signals how women artists are taking it upon themselves to bend and shift codes of behavior using social media as their primary medium.    

Bay Area based artist and writer Indira Allegra spoke to me about the challenges that women of color might face and the necessity of reversing and empowering one’s body as a way of resisting surveillance as well as the effrontery and lack of consideration strangers have imposed on her. In Allegra’s video work Revolve (2014), she uses the camera as a way to connect with her audience—she is watching and connecting with her viewer. Her performance turns a commonly private specific activity into a public display of intimacy. During our conversation, I asked what lack or absence of etiquette has meant to both her well-being and overall practice. What does it mean to defy social norms for artistic expression? I wondered how brown and black bodies must navigate work carefully around etiquette for artistic purposes in order to interrogate as well as infiltrate constructs of behavior. She raised questions that we should all ask ourselves, “How do we come to know what is private? What is at stake when I choose to abdicate something that society says I should keep private?” The idea that a code of behavior can even exist in the arts seems rather silly. But when women have been the subject or the muse of male artists for centuries, the past few decades of shifting the art historical canon to ensure the visibility of women artists is quite a short period of time. Through these explorations in practices, etiquette is unraveled—it becomes apparent that it has become a societal mechanism shielding us from the things we may not want to know. 

With the plethora of ways to learn about each other, how do we even begin to gauge what will offend or impact someone’s view of us? The multitude of moments we live and document are, to a certain extent, our imposition and belief that someone outside of ourselves cares about the things we do and how we think.  Allegra shared a reflection based on our dialogue about Calle’s work, “If someone called or texted people from my phone, they may find memories that I myself have long since forgotten. I feel sometimes that there are parts of my past, my past memories that exist only in other people. You’ll get a different clutch of my memories if you log into LinkedIn, or Facebook, or Instagram. Or, if you called my exes you’d get something different still—there are things I’ve chosen to delete from my own memory bank that other people may still have on their desktops. I feel as though the self is dispersed through time and space (and in the cloud). Perhaps, the text that I do put online shouldn’t be thought of in terms of its nearness or closeness to my body. Perhaps I should think about it as a dispersal of myself.”
 

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