art projects
Is it safe?

Art That Profiles You
The Stranger, May 15, 2013


INSIDE ‘SANCTUM’ It’s reading his “soft biometrics” right there.

Before the Boston bombing—before surveillance first saved the day and then re-terrified us when a phone conversation between the bomber and his wife was revealed to have been recorded because every phone call period is being recorded by the government now—two technology artists at the University of Washington created an artwork that profiles people who walk by it 24 hours a day. The art piece, called Sanctum, is as innocent as warm pie compared to the National Security Agency. It opened May 4, projected on the facade of the Henry Art Gallery. The museum commissioned it; it will run for two and a half years. Before that, it spent two years in development, artists James Coupe and Juan Pampin not only building and programming its system, but consulting with lawyers and UW’s Office of Risk Management to make sure Sanctum wasn’t violating whatever remaining privacy we have in public places.

You activate Sanctum. Six surveillance cameras capture passersby and broadcast their images onto video screens in the windows at the museum’s entrance. It is perfectly legal, Coupe said, to film people in public; you run into trouble only if you show them in a false light or project a narrative onto them. Walking past Sanctum and being briefly broadcast is one level of interaction. At the second level, you enter Sanctum.

“Sanctum” refers to a covered area under the overhang of the museum’s entrance. Two of the six surveillance cameras are mounted in the windows, and these are different than the others. They profile you, using “soft biometrics” to guess at your age and gender. (Signs warn you not to approach too closely if you don’t want to be recorded.) Your information is sent into Sanctum’s system, which, within seconds, formulates a response.

The screens go blank, Sanctum blinking to think. When they light up again, there are three channels of programming. One group of screens shows the site where you’re standing, but windblown and empty. You, close up and live, appear on a second set of screens. On the third and final set, there’s pretaped footage of prior visitors standing where you’re standing. They reflect your data in age and gender: Sanctum instant-imports you a clique.

Then come captions also tailored to you—status updates from Facebook users the system identifies as similar to you. Sanctum’s status-update donors are all volunteers. Anyone can join. All the status updates, past and present, of those who do are fed into Sanctum. (Somebody will probably find a way to punk Sanctum at least once during its run, and the artists fully expect people might try to plant fake stories in the hopes of seeing them show up in the art. The system is set to weed out only harsh curse words and explicit material.) The “stories” are spoken by a synthesized voice on overhead speakers, and the voice changes pitch according to whether the system has identified you as male or female. If it pegs you as younger, it talks faster.

On opening day, the first story Sanctum assigns me is from a mom driving her kids around. I am unsurprised that I am demographically predisposed to this. I’m gazing at a preposterously limited version of even my already limited measurable identity, an impoverished data reflection. If I were transgender and black, would I still just read as mom-age lady?

We already know that surveillance is disturbing for its two entwined failures: Its vision for us is violently reductive, and it never sees from inside. What you’re actually doing and what it looks like you’re doing can be at complete odds. It might even be true that the most basic divide in the world is the one between subject and object, between being and being watched. As I’m smugly thinking this a few days after the opening, I catch a fuzzy glimpse of orange puffs in my peripheral vision. I turn my head to look at it and immediately exclaim, to no one, for I am alone, “Azalea!” Reaffirming the plant’s completely arbitrarily given name—its enforced identity by systematic classification—is so viscerally satisfying, I’m distracted entirely from what I was thinking about.