art projects
Imperica: Being Watched

Being watched

James Coupe. Photo by courtesy of James Coupe

Next time that you walk past a CCTV camera, stop and reflect on how your image is being recorded, captured, and used. Does it make you feel comfortable? Is it the same feeling as when you record your thoughts to your Facebook wall?

The inter-relationship between the self, digital media, and surveillance runs through many of James Coupe’s works. CCTV cameras, power networks, robot systems, call centre telephony systems, and even Facebook applications have been deployed to find new meanings and narratives in data and in content. Surveillance Suite, for example, used computer vision software to extract behavioural and demographic information from video footage, reappropriated into new narratives.

The increasingly covert ways in which surveillance now exists within digital media led Coupe to develop Today, too, I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days. The work takes the form of a Facebook application, combining status updates, YouTube uploads and video portraits to automatically generate new short films, which are posted back to users who add the application to their profile.


It is the first artwork to be based entirely within a Facebook application. Coupe explains how it works. “It seemed clear after playing with Facebook, that here was a database of people with very specific demographic profiles. All that I needed to do, would be to get my video software to profile people, send it to Facebook, and then back would come a quote or a line in the narrative of a person’s life. It is the difference between who somebody actually is, and how we interpret them visually through the camera… to overlay status updates which could be borrowed from somebody else’s life.

Facebook obviously allows for a person’s social graph to be utilised, which is how products such as contextual advertising have developed. However, Coupe uses such a social graph to be a seam of data that can be mined for other purposes: to survey activity in order to tell new stories – from the stories that people have told themselves, to a Facebook wall. However, there also needs to be an editorial process. This editorial process, a computerised algorithm, essentially reframes the story – in the same way that chopping up parts of old films allow for completely different narratives. “When you’re working with massive amounts of information and data, which something like Facebook offers, you have to have some selectivity. You have to have something that is determining how long is a shot, what is the shot, who is in the shot: all of those kinds of things. Borrowing that kind of vocabulary, cinematography or timing from some pre-existing structure often makes sense. The narratives are built using “Perfect Human” as an algorithmic template which, when combined with Facebook and YouTube, build new compositions.”


Perfect Human, Jørgen Leth, 1967

These and other recent projects have led to an exploration of surveillance: how we see ourselves, and how we see ourselves being seen by others. As we walk past hundreds of CCTV cameras every day while simultaneously updating Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare, Coupe sees these conscious and unconscious sharings of ourselves as ultimately to be parts of a constantly-evolving narrative. “I was interested in ways in which you could almost be in several places at once. Extrapolating that out seems to resonate with the way we live our lives now. I see surveillance as a cure to some sort of symptom in society. it’s very interesting that we resist it, while at the same time fully engaging with it, and it seems like a very interesting metaphor for how we exist nowadays: wanting to be in several places at once.”

“What I’ve been doing is exploring the relationship between narrative and surveillance in these constructed environments. I’m building a work, and then looking to extract narratives from that on some level. It is very similar to what would happen to a surveillance system in the real world as well: that interesting disjunction between what you are or what you know yourself to be doing, versus what it might appear that you could be doing.”

Our desire to share these shards of our lives therefore offers a reframing of concepts such as privacy and identity, that Coupe is keen to explore. The “Today I hope to…” Facebook application uses Facebook and YouTube in a way inspired by Jørgen Leth’s 1967 film Perfect Human, which takes a very objective perspective on human beings, asking how “the human” performs functions like eating and sleeping. From there, Coupe considers Facebook as being a constantly-evolving petri dish for discovering who we are, how we communicate, and what it means to communicate over a network.

We’re playing a game where you can’t get out, as long as you’re pawning information about yourself. Maintaining a profile means that we have to give something up in order to communicate with the world.

“It’s not a black and white situation; it’s much more linked to the fact that in the face of vast, unpresentable structures like cities, the Internet, news channels, and telecommunication systems, we find ourselves as individuals, in and amongst large networks. That provokes senses of loneliness, suspicion, and isolation – which then prompt us to respond with some sort of message back into the network, which is a form of self-surveillance, and fundamentally shifts notions of privacy.”

Of course, it’s easy to see how social networks can also foster values such as warmth and intimacy – the opposite of the above. These are effectively a product of people “knowing us better” by our offering of status updates. Coupe sees both sides of this issue, but ultimately, the technology allows us to have a more direct relationship with our sense of self – assuming that we want it. “It’s like the relationship between one’s subjective and objective self. Through something like Facebook, people see particular aspects of who you are. Maybe they understand things about you that you don’t even understand about yourself. The difference between your own subjective notion of your identity, versus how you may appear in the world through these surveillance or self-surveillance systems, is often not the same thing. Which one is more real nowadays? Are you sure that your subjective understanding of yourself, is more correct than your objective appearance through these increasingly non-linear and expansive ways of communicating yourself?

I think that it’s showing us new ways of navigating who we are and who we want to be: how we want to present ourselves. Some people are really good at it, and do a really great job of constructing an identity, which is absolutely nothing like one’s experience of that person in the real world. It’s a very open, very playful environment – and, at the same time, very serious.”

Coupe’s work for the Current project, The Lover, uses his vision-profiling software in order to extract demographic information from video. It features a custom installation of cameras throughout the Harris Gallery, which recognise human movement and categorise the clips according to age, gender, race and location. The software then automatically splices the clips together and projects them as a narrative based on Harold Pinter’s play of the same name, which touches on personas, fantasy, social repression, and identity.

Because the work is displayed with live camera feeds, it allows each viewing to be completely different. “That’s what art should always do – show you something that you can’t see without it. This is to do with involuntary participation, in which it’s not so much what you do, but who you are.

The challenge to you as the viewer is to discover how you fit into [the work]. It’s a fundamental shift in how we might look at art, and one that is very much integrated with how we live our lives nowadays. The way that we are, traditionally, supposed to look at art is in a very one-dimensional, passive experience, which is what museums are architecturally set up for.”

Moving on

Coupe’s next project takes place in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It is a city with a closed surveillance network, run by its citizens. The network has been subject to debate over ownership of the data: after all, as a citizen-run network, who is watching who? The work will continue Coupe’s real-time analysis and re-appropriation of people in a system, and continue to challenge and disrupt our sense of who we are within a network.

Social networks are here to stay. However, it will be people like James Coupe that will allow us to continue to address our sense of self – and others – within them, how we offer ourselves to others, and how our personalities can be re-contextualised.

After all, it’s just data, right…?

James Coupe is a digital media artist, and Assistant Professor for the Center for Digital Art and Experimental Media at the University of Washington.

“The Lover” is being exhibited as part of Current at the Harris Gallery, Preston. The “Today, too I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days” app is available on Facebook. Video material generated by project is available on YouTube.

James’s website features further information on all of his works.