art projects
Visual Arts: Sanctum at the Henry

Seattle Weekly, June 25, 2013

The Henry’s new surveillance-art installation combines your face and others’ anonymous social-media updates. Yes, it’s as creepy as it sounds.

By Brian Miller Tue., Jun 25 2013 at 04:35PM

Do you ever get the sense you’re being followed? Crossing the pedestrian bridge over 15th Avenue to the Henry Art Gallery, there isn’t a drone in the clear May sky. Nor are any of those Google Street View cars driving past. Nor do I worry that the NSA’s PRISM apparatus is tracking my cellphone calls. But Sanctum is watching.

Big Art is watching you.
credit: R.J. Sánchez

In fact, as you walk past the Henry’s new interactive video installation, Sanctum is tracking you, calling out to you, and, if you answer that call, creating a custom-made story for you. And then it politely asks for access to your Facebook status updates, which it will then incorporate—anonymously—into demographically tailored tales for other passersby who follow.

James Coupe and Juan Pampin, the tech-savvy instructors at the University of Washington’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (aka DXARTS) who created Sanctum, want you to consider how your public behavior can be collected and analyzed. They placed their six video cameras at one of the busiest pathways on campus, where just about every passing student has a busy social-media presence. “This taps into what Google and Facebook are trying to do,” says Coupe of Sanctum’s tracking software.

The siren-like Sanctum is actively soliciting you: first by using your own image as a lure, second via directional audio, or what Pampin calls “beaming . . . these kind of sonic tentacles that try to draw people in.” On three banks of video monitors, facing south and west, Sanctum grabs your image and bounces it back when you walk over for a closer look. Hey, I’m on TV! you think. Then Sanctum begins speaking to you with a computer-generated voice that sounds like an old Laurie Anderson or Radiohead album. If you’re female, the voice rises in pitch; if you’re male, it lowers. What you’re hearing—and reading on a text ticker—is a story that Coupe calls “an individual personal narrative. It’s composed for you, in response to you.” But it’s not about you; it’s not that creepy.

Sanctum is profiling you, classifying you by age and sex, “to give people feeling of being singled out in a crowd,” says Coupe. If that sounds ominous, making you think of London’s many CCTV cameras or the TSA body scans at the airport, “this kind of stuff is being used more by Google than the government,” he adds. The reason is money: Sanctum is an art project employing software (some licensed, some proprietary) with tremendous commercial applications. Sanctum’s servers and software are making a hash out of others’ anonymous Facebook postings, Coupe explains, using algorithms to create targeted stories, rather than the coupons or ads that a commercial enterprise might. The story isn’t about you but people like you, who fit your demo—the sort of people you’d friend on Facebook or befriend at school or work.

Then, if you willingly sign up for the project on the designers’ website (sanctum.io), or on Facebook, or via the QR codes prominently placed—along with privacy warnings—around the Henry, Sanctum’s computers will be granted temporary access to your Facebook status updates for up to 60 days. (You can also opt out of the project’s monitoring by the same means.) The database increases its many possible story permutations with each new person who signs up. Your life becomes Sanctum’s story fodder.

However, “story” isn’t really the right term here. What the software spits out is more like the old Surrealist game, Exquisite Corpse, or, more charitably, haiku: bits of random daily detritus that reminds you how useless most social-media updates truly are. “Today the bus smells like cough drops, stale popcorn, and shit,” says one vignette. “Stopped for a scone in Kirkland,” says another. Should we care? I certainly don’t—but I’m not on Facebook, and I’m not one to share the mundane details of my life with others. They’re boring to me, too. And I doubt even the most assiduous Facebook poster considers their journaling to be art.

Yet Sanctum draws viewers and mines ever more data. (The Henry is unable to say how many have signed up to date.) During its May beta period, many curious students were taking cell-phone pictures of the video array, creating a kind of Russian-doll mirror effect: image being captured into image, demographic profile being absorbed into narrative bits and bytes. (Many will doubtlessly post the images to Facebook, or write about Sanctum there—creating ever more story material for the two-year project.)

I don’t love the piece, but it’s preferable to Seattle Art Museum’s costlier and permanent MIRROR installation at Second and Union, created by Doug Aitken. There, interactive sensors trigger prior scenes Aitken filmed around the Northwest. The imagery, much larger than Sanctum’s, feels dated and obsolete—not truly, immediately responsive to the environment, what’s happening in the now. And it’s presented up on the second-floor façade above SAM’s entrance, not at eye level. Sanctum, at least, engages you as a pedestrian. MIRROR just feels like Times Square signage: more commercial and less sophisticated. Sanctum is sneaky and insidious, but at least it tells you what it’s doing and what it’s collecting.

Coupe and Pampin acknowledge how Sanctum’s proprietary software might be monetized in the future. (The UW owns it and will license it.) Marketers would love a technology that identifies and entices customers, calls out to them with specific offers or coupons, even without access to their private social media. Internet advertisers are already doing the same, providing you with tailored pop-up ads based on your browsing, whether you like it or not. And whatever your privacy settings on Firefox or Safari, there’s no guarantee of privacy in the public square.

A government or commercialized version of Sanctum could add many more filtering criteria, looking at your skin tone, height, weight, clothing, and so forth. Is that a turban on your head? Are you wearing a beard? Is that a Koran you’re carrying? The software wants to know.

Or imagine a scenario in which you walk into the lobby at Nordstrom, and a video kiosk greets you with a cheerful “Hey, Brian, you look fat for those pants, and you really could use a good haircut—that long hair really makes you look old. Also, you should consider updating your eyeglasses and wristwatch. And those shoes look like something a hobo might wear.” Of course I might say the same to myself in the mirror each morning, but do I want to be tracked thusly in public?

Yet as I watch young, socially networked UW students pass the Henry, many are plainly curious about Sanctum. In part, a Henry publicist tells me, the project is meant to lure younger visitors into the museum, which is a fine objective. And all their social-media updates get purged from the project, so no one’s privacy ought to be compromised.

Still, inside the lobby you find yourself staring at the ugly backsides of 18 large television sets, which block out the windows and spoil the view. I pity the poor front-desk attendant, who used to enjoy a constant parade of pedestrians outside. In a way there’s less human interaction now, less eye contact. Then again, half the students I observe have their eyes glued to their phones, walking and texting as they pass. Some don’t even notice Sanctum, and some may not care if they’re being profiled at all.


HENRY ART GALLERY UW campus, 543-2280, henryart.org and sanctum.io. Through November 2015.