The Pervasive Eye, Veillometry, Using Electronic Viewing as Scalpel

Since the conception of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon in the late 18th century—the prison design in which inmates are unaware of whether they are observed or not, and yet are under constant observation creating the effects of universal surveillance—an ontology of the viewed has been foregrounded. Since the age of Bentham, CCTV and corporate capitalism, surveillance cameras have become nearly ubiquitous –on bank teller machines, in retail stores, in schools, public transport, and public space. Of particular concern in the 21st century is that of the further reach and insinuation of surveillance practices as a whole with the introduction, for instance, of powerful drones like the Predator or Global Hawk, the latter which can stay aloft for vast periods of time transmitting HD remote control surveillance streams back to military bases in the US.

Bentham, panopticon plan.

Bentham panoptical prison plan designed for surveillance of prisoners, 1843.

Artists such as Trevor Paglen have made groundbreaking artworks by engaging with a near-Earth astronomy of spy satellites and drone transmission interception. Jordan Crandall performed a series of vignettes based on dramatizations of people involved in drone surveillance and Beatriz De Costa used a fleet of pigeons to monitor air quality through remote sensing for ISEA in 2006. (See article/review in Otherzine, Issue 11.) These constitute a form of ‘veillance’ unto itself.

What may be more disturbing, however, are new forms of passive surveillance–automatic sink faucets driven by infrared illuminators and sensors which act as a single pixel “eye”. Even in its simplest form, one can see what Paul Virilio meant when he wrote in the 90’s “There are eyes everywhere. There is no blind spot left.”  In addition, anyone with a cellular telephone has a piece of the networked panopticon in his or her hand, and even submits “selfies” as a form of self- surveillance. Such omnipresence of cameras, or watched behavior, was alluded to in Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema when she formally questioned the nature of the camera in cinema as an institutional objectifier of the female body and brought about a new critique of control vis a vis notions of spectatorship as well as raising the bar on female pleasure in viewing and being viewed.

Another ironic form of ‘veillance’ exists in the forms of “selfie-media”, from Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and others.  Technologically augmented popular society seems to have turned from an outward-looking stance through the space program and science fiction boom of the 60’s and 70’s to an inward swing.  The personal gaze has turned around from StarTrek to that of the selfie; if we’re not going to Mars in our lifetime, what else do we have to do besides know what dress Anne Hathaway is wearing this week?  And as a parallel metaphor, Georg Simmel wrote that the difference between history and fashion is that one has significance, and the other is merely caprice with no reason for its existence but human preference.  From this, one may posit that socially-mediated beings are also self-surveilled, likening to the Panopticon, except in this case, humanity is now obsessed with self-broadcast as well as watching one another. Gone is the notion of the power relationship in Bentham’s design as the ease in fulfilling the narcissistic impulse trivializes any care for the idea of imprisonment or capture of the gaze for the need for attention.

The relaxation of vigilance concerning viewing or being viewed as a function of power also ceases to be humanized.  Less obvious forms of surveillance and submission to view are created in the names of control (surveillance cameras), bathroom sinks and public toilets (hygiene), as well as drones and automated public surveillance systems used for security.  It is as if the inmates of the Panopticon have ceased to have any concern about being viewed or not as they are now more concerned about broadcasting themselves as self-promotion and with watching others’ images that the new ‘veillance’ infrastructure for automatic viewing apparatus is now merely assumed.  Thus ‘veillance; of all kinds now appears to be merely a function [a-critically] of Late Modernism or Postmodernism with its decentering of the human subject of the gaze of ‘veillance’.

Therefore, all forms of viewing or ‘veillance’ are endemic to the current age where sensors and cameras are nearly ubiquitous. At the same time there are artists who are developing critical practices to push against the oppressive nature of surveillance, despite public passivity.  Privacy artist Hasan Elahi has sent frequent pictures of whatever he has been doing at any time, no matter how banal, to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation which in turn has investigated him solely on grounds of his identity. Wafaa Bilial has both trained a webcam-operated paint gun on himself in a closed room (Domestic Tension) and mounted a digital camera to the back of his head for a period of time.  Artist/scientist  Steve Mann has used his uniquely designed head-mounted wearable computing devices to practice ‘sous’-veillance, or viewing from below/grassroots as opposed to ‘sur’-veillance or viewing from above/institutional gaze, since the mid-1970’s. Some of his early performances were directed at the degree to which the body was being watched and filmed without permission, a right primarily reserved for governments and institutions and less for the individual. In shooting back he used his own camera and was followed by a videographer into a department store, essentially using the masters’ tools to cut the master down to size. This shooting back tactic has also been used by the Surveillance Camera Players and the DIY Drone Brigade who either play in front of officially installed surveillance cameras or use drones as a form of sous-veillance.

The Veillance Foundation is dedicated to the examination of mediated viewing in all its forms; or of ‘veillance’ stripped of its political etymology. Surveillance, sousveillance, panopticism involve the act of mediated viewing and machine (‘augmediated’) vision and are fields of interest and possible inquiry. A hope of The Veillance Foundation is to bring public awareness and discussion to the presence of forms of ‘veillance’ through ongoing artistic and scientific investigation, education, and the development of tools like veillometers that make viewing fields visible. Low-cost wearable computers and other tactical interventions such as documented experiments or workshops are part of pushing/shooting back.

What is certain in all of this is the universality of watching and being watched; and this condition has increased exponentially in the last three to five years. It’s high time to make this dialectic of watching and being watched into a visible phenomenon through the astute gaze of both art and science.


Steve Mann’s ‘Shooting back’ – Sears

More Steve Mann

1990s – “gesture-based wearable computing”
Steve Mann. “Wearable Computing: A first step towards personal imaging ” , IEEE Computer, pp. 25-32, Vol. 30, Iss. 2 Feb. 1997 [Adobe PDF][HTML] [BibTex]

Earlier work of Steve Mann goes back to 1974:


Domestic Tension


Tracking Transience


Sousveillance art

DIAP_sousveillance [from the editor]


Surveillance Camera Players


DIY Drone Brigade – Keystone Pipeline action


The Veillance Foundation, 2013 IEEE ‘veillance’ conference:

The Veillance Foundation scientific and related research 2015


See more at Sur/Sous-veillance screening, 9/24 at Other Cinema.


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