Photographer AnnieLaurie Erickson has spent a lot of time lately being watched by law enforcement. In her recent trip this year to Oklahoma, she stood on public property, taking photographs while security guards, local officers, and state police looked on. One might ask, what has she been photographing that requires so much surveillance? The answer is: big data centers throughout the Southern United States, the subject of her smart exhibition Data Shadows at Tulane University’s Carroll Gallery. Erickson’s fourteen photos and one interactive installation explore what happens to the everyday internet data we create.
Only last year, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA has been monitoring communications including email, videos, photos, voice-over-IP chats (such as Skype), file transfers, and social-networking information. While the Arab Spring exemplified how social media could diffuse power, Snowden demonstrated that collecting huge swaths of data permits the government to monitor—and potentially control—social movements. Erickson’s photographs reveal the sites where that information is stored. Pigment print Google Data Center, Surveillance Cameras, Mayes County, OK (2014) depicts a massive white complex behind a chain-link fence. One lone light shines high above the industrial buildings. Throughout Erickson’s Data Center series, fences interrupt the onlooker’s view, a reminder that the majority of us are outside the periphery of control over our information.
Erickson’s title comes from security expert Bruce Schneier’s idea of “data shadows,” or digital extensions of our identities that we create when we use sites like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Erickson’s series Local Server (2014) echoes this concept by presenting human-scale photo sculptures of data servers interspersed with real wires and LED lights. The largest of these works stand eight feet tall and float out from the wall, hovering as if they are about to walk away. An etched mirror hangs behind each photo sculpture, questioning the objectivity of the image. Erickson also manipulates the images in Photoshop, creating small changes in the photo’s perspective. Bundles of wires (photographed at Tulane’s own data center) weave through the photos of computer hardware, creating a labyrinthine effect. Small LED lights installed within the photos glow, warning that these works are active. It is as if emails sent months ago and long forgotten files joined together to form an imperfect twin of one’s self.
Eye-tracking devices, traditionally used by media companies to understand audience behavior, measure either the point of the gaze or the motion of an eye relative to the head. Data Shadows (2014), the titular installation, uses eye-tracker technology and tunnel-vision software to allow the viewer to explore the act of seeing. As the viewer looks into the monitor screen, an underlying image becomes apparent. The movement of the eyes on the screen is recorded and then projected into wormlike patterns on the wall behind the viewer. This technology reveals how one looks at a work of art. Staring at this monitor is like playing a video game, one that makes your eyes feel strained for hours afterward. The installation, in the context of this show, becomes a warning: If our eyes reveal our deepest thoughts and emotions, will eye-tracking technology allow companies to mine even more intimate information in the future?
Overall, Erickson’s prescient exhibit is a warning for our future. Daily internet activity creates an increasingly Frankenstein-like representation of our selves, which is then sold as a commodity to be analyzed and manipulated for purposes both sinister and benign. While Erickson underwent material surveillance to create this body of work, our knowledge of the work via your visit to this website today may be under a more furtive form of digital surveillance.
AnnieLaurie Erickson: Data Shadows is on view at Tulane University’s Carroll Gallery through October 8, 2014.