Under Cover

At MICA’s Decker Gallery, through March 11.

For more information, visit micaundercover.com.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, government surveillance has become ever more prevalent. So, too, has surveillance art. In one famous case, after mistakenly being placed on a U.S. government terrorist watchlist, University of Maryland faculty member Hasan Elahi began documenting nearly every waking moment of his life—via photos, debit card transactions, GPS location—and posting it all online (“Hasan Elahi,” Arts and Entertainment, March 30, 2011). Extreme perhaps, yet his actions are not so different from what many of us blithely do every day, through social media and other online pursuits. A new exhibition at the Maryland Institute College of Art attempts to encompass all the ways in which individual privacy is eroding. Titled Under Cover, the exhibition takes on “the fluctuating definitions of public and private space, shelter, and surveillance.”

Under Cover is the culmination of the Exhibition Development Seminar, a year-long, trial-by-fire course in which MICA students plan and execute every aspect of a major exhibition (“Risk/Reward,” Feature, Jan. 31, 2007). The seminar began in 1997, initiated by MICA Curator-in-Residence George Ciscle, and has since produced numerous intriguing exhibitions, from solo shows to an exhibition on slavery to last year’s stellar Baltimore: Open City. But this year’s iteration was unusual. “This is the first time we came into a session with nothing,” instructor Jeffry Cudlin says. “Usually a topic is prechosen.” The theme the class settled on seemed to resonate personally with the students, many of whom are in their early 20s and have grown up in a less than private world. “It’s normal to be watched now,” student Tahira Christian says. “You even have to watch what you Google,” fellow student Logan Dixon agrees.

Eleven artists took part in the show, some by commission, in mediums ranging from photography to painting to video to installation. The students were divided into seven teams with each team responsible for some aspect of the show, including the web site, graphic design, gallery design, and curation. The result is an exhibition that, while a bit amorphous in theme, remains a professional endeavor with a few real standouts.

“Wearable Portable Architecture,” a large installation by New York artist Mary Mattingly, is first to greet the visitor. The piece is a literal interpretation of the concept of the “digital nomad,” a person who works remotely via computer and thus is not bound to a particular geographic location. Mattingly created insulated costumes equipped with GPS and internet, powered by solar panels embedded in the hoods. The outfits—which are khaki, with built-in backpacks and a bag that holds urine, water, or perhaps a conversion system from the former to the latter—are vaguely post-apocalyptic, like something from the desert planet in Star Wars. Attached together, they do double-duty as a tent that rests on a spidery aluminum structure reminiscent of a Louise Bourgeois sculpture. The arrangement, while ingenious, is clearly impractical. The piece is, however, a humorous extension of something we have come to consider normal, and it raises questions about what shelter and home mean in an age in which we are less and less tied down.

Anne Percoco, who hales from New Jersey, takes a slightly more utilitarian tack. Percoco collects bottles, trash, candy wrappers, and the like and creates shelters and modes of transportation with them. A photo on the wall displays “Indra’s Cloud-Keshi Ghat,” a bulbous, oddly beautiful raft made out of hundreds of clear plastic bottles. A man with a long bamboo pole stands at one end, navigating through the water. Visitors can more closely inspect a collection of bound plastic bottles that rests on an accompanying stand. While the piece is not one that seems to address privacy or shelter, it is a clever bit of practicality in a highly conceptual show.

Seattle-based artist James Coupe, on the other hand, turns a common utilitarian object—the security camera—on its head with his piece, “Panoptic Panorama #1: I am standing in an empty room.” Five beady-eyed cameras hang from the ceiling on a pole in the center of the gallery, apparently taking in the entire space. A panoramic display of five screens hangs on a facing wall of the gallery. One expects the screens to show the people milling about the gallery, but in a twist on the old surveillance theme, they instead display the gallery sans visitors. Coupe created a computer process that combs the video captured by the cameras and filters out movement, creating the impression that the gallery is empty when it is not. Occasionally, however, a visitor stands still long enough to flicker on the screen for a moment. “You can tweak [the program’s] sensitivity so it becomes a little glitchy,” Coupe, who was at a recent press preview, says, “which I think is good because it undermines the whole premise.” The piece is disconcerting in an entirely different way than is a typical security camera: Rather than capturing people’s actions, Big Brother-style, it erases them altogether.

MICA photography faculty member Nate Larson and New York-based artist Marni Shindelman’s work, a series titled “Geolocation,” also retains the feel of surveillance without depicting images of human beings. For the past three years, the pair has used apps like Tweetspot to locate the physical places from which Twitter messages have been sent. They then photograph the location and use the text from the original tweet to narrate the scene. (When they began the project, Twitter included locations with each tweet by default, via geotagging; now users must opt in.) The pair has accumulated around 200 images thus far, and six surprisingly evocative examples appear in Under Cover. One shows a beautiful rocky beach. The tweet beneath reads, “There is just no pleasing me..#fucksakes,” a sentiment with which the viewer is likely to agree. Some pieces hint at a back-story. A photo of a sad roadside motel at dusk is captioned: “Tell me I’m not making a mistake. Tell me you’re worth the wait. #fb.” And others simply confound. A photo of a desolate Western landscape seemingly far from human habitation is populated by a broken wooden chair and scattered trash. The accompanying tweet reads: “Omg! My house just got broken into and they took all of our electronics. :,(.”

Larson, who does not use Twitter himself, finds the ease with which he and Shindelman locate these places disturbing. “When I was a kid and we traveled, my mom would stop the mail and put the lights [in our home] on a timer, and we weren’t allowed to tell anyone we were leaving,” he says. “Now people tweet about it.” He cites web sites like pleaserobme.com, which raise awareness of how cavalier people have become about their comings and goings. But given the millions of tweets sent every day into the ether, the project is also a sort of memorial, he says, even if the sentiments expressed are sometimes silly. “Someone felt this here,” Larson says, nodding toward a photograph. Larson and Shindelman are currently applying for grants to replicate their project in a non-English-speaking country.

In contrast to this documentation of what is by its nature a public act, New York photographer Saul Robbins takes on one of the most private interactions imaginable: that between client and psychotherapist. His series, titled “Initial Intake,” consists of numerous photos of empty psychotherapy offices, taken from the viewpoint of the patient’s chair. Somehow it’s immediately apparent what these places are. While each room has personal touches, nearly all feature prominently placed tissue boxes, warm lighting, and leather armchairs. The strange absence of people heightens that feeling of waiting one has in a psychotherapist’s office, as one prepares to expose vulnerabilities to a stranger. The students have chosen to display Robbins’ photos on one wall of a narrow hallway, replicating the intimacy of the offices themselves, and forcing the viewer to encounter each photograph one at a time. It’s a subtle, thoughtful detail in an exhibition with many of them.