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MAPPING THE TERRAIN OF CYBERSURVEILANCE
By David Goldberg
....... If LaPorta’s manipulation of the gaze is a matter recursive shifts in perspective, the tricks of looking in the work of Hung-Chih Peng are the product of placing eyeballs where one least expects them and leaving them there. For a installation called Siao-Pai, most recently shown in the introduction 2000 exhibition at San Francisco’s Paule Anglim, Peng enlisted his aunt’s dog to wear a small rig containing a color surveillance camera whose wireless signal is sent to a nearby VCR. The dog roams the streets, sniffing at the ground, meeting other dogs and going about its business, the views punctuated by burst of interference. Along the way, the viewer struggles to map the dog’s actions into human-centered, visually meaningful ones. There is no human agency here, undermining the whole tradition of nature film and remove viewing fantasies where someone is in control over what is being seen. The cyclops gaze emanating from above the dog’s head is a parasitic one that has little to do with its sense of vision or far more sensitive sense of smell. The travel cage on the floor that contains the video projector becomes a little time machine that send the viewer back to this dog’s day, riding shotgun in a completely foreign frame of reference where even the recorded sound loses some of it’s meaning. The piece is almost maddeningly straightforward and supplemented by the cartoon dog-signal-VCR schematics drawn on the walls.
The fact that the dog was a host for the human viewer is not lost on Peng, so he allows visitors try on the “snoutcam”. The snoutcam is a black plastic helmet that looks like an artifact from an alternate year 1979 where access to virtual reality was a fad. It is styled roughly after a dog’s head, with a six-foot tube dangling from the front like an elephant’s trunk. At the ground end of the tube is a video camera and at the other, an LCD monitor. With the prehensile snoutcam one can peek around corners or simply inspect one’s shoes without looking down, but the rewards come from shuffling around the installation with this thing on. Unattended the snout begins to swing back and forth with the rhythm of one’s gait and suddenly the black and white visual field works like one big hyperlink to the visual experience of the dog projecting from the cage. Now, with the POV down there where a dog’s nose would be, and the projection piece fresh in the mind, the installation taken as a whole begins t toggle like a Necker cubes as two species’ modes of perception are translated into human vision and swapped back and forth.
Peng’s work is TCP/IP-free but it points in a direction of powerful and deceptive simplicity that Net art would be wise to explore. He enjoys making people see differently, and though he has not done an internet-based project yet, the rapid development and popularity of streaming media (including the CU-See-Me community) provides him with a potentially huge folk network audience that already speaks his visual language. Sometimes it is better to send a dog to do a human’s job. After all, animals were pressed into the service of our species as our first non-human surveillance systems. As police assistants, shepherds, hunters, guards and guides, dogs have served as a reliable and adaptive means to amplify human perception. We have since developed software and hardware that guards our home, manages the events in our lives and explore our frontiers. The network-enabled personal digital assistants, two way pagers and smart appliances are all trying to develop a level of provides the semi-autonomous, organic loyalty and service that only a pet can provide. Peng’s work at Gallery Paule Anglim is like an X-ray view of this emerging frontier of human desire. This is a culture of surveillance, deployed well beyond smoked glass hemi-spheres in the ceiling of your supermarket, a popular vehicle that displaces the eye, the car, and ultimately, the identity.
David Goldberg is a writer, teacher, artist and programmer based in Northern California.