Machines of Loving Grace, a Dialogue on Art and Surveillance

7 May 2015

photo by Antti Tenetz


NERO is pleased to present an interview with Mike Watson by Elvira Vanini on art, politics, surveillance, and his role on the project Jump into the Unknown, a collateral event of the 56th Biennale di Venezia, organised by Nine Dragon Heads. The event consists of a series of fast public surveillance performances that will target high visibility areas across Venice. The aim of the work is to play upon the unease felt by the audience, watched by the ever-increasing presence of security technology, and on their complicity with it. 

‘The advance of surveillance beckons its eventual ubiquity. In a completely advanced surveillance society there can be no escape, even for those who develop the technology in order to further their own interests… The eyes of the State are poised 24/7 for the identification and arrest of undesirables as everyday activity comes under suspicion and we all become criminals.’

- Mike Watson, from forthcoming book Joan of Art: Towards a Conceptual Militancy.

photo by Antti Tenetz


EV: I would like to start our conversation with a quote from Lucy Lippard (Long-term Planning: notes toward an activist performance, 1983): “It may be that performance art as a socially responsible medium is indeed transitional and will soon be absorbed into other political activities like labor, community and street theater, or a new kind of demonstration-protest art. Or it may be that with its initial vitality spent, it will have been valuable mainly as a learning process.”

Is this still the case today or has our vitality been extinguished?

MW: What Lippard’s quote demonstrates is the persistence of politically oriented performance art as a form which questions and pushes the boundaries in each epoch. It also changes in line with new technology, so that performance is not just a singular intervention but is often intended to be documented and disseminated quickly. This dissemination, often via social media, serves to amplify the original impact of a performance, communicating with a wider audience, yet it may also entail a kind of loss in quality as the original presence of the performer and their political significance–often putting themselves under risk of arrest or detainment–is lost.

We have also seen in recent years a kind of hybridization of activism and art with the Occupy movement engaging in performance style public interventions and occupied art spaces engaging with notions of ownership and legality in novel ways. The latter in particuarly true in Italy where the Bene Comune (or ‘Commons’) movement has in some cases mimicked the role of legislation by appealing to the Italian Constitution in order to declare disused spaces as free and open to all. This has been seen in Milan with the Isola Art Center and Rome with Teatro Valle. Arguably these experiences represent an ongoing learning process, as whilst power can be mimicked via art, the final recourse to power resides ultimately with the State, its Judiciary and its Police force. By engaging with issues of legality we can see art as a kind of passive form of power and we can learn how to exercise that passive power to challenge the brutal authority of a form of State power backed by financial interests.

photo by Nataliya Chernakova


Police in front of Loredan Palace, photographer Antti Tenetz


EV: In what terms do you still consider art to be an integral to social and cultural change?

MW: Well, this is problematic. Of course art can highlight injustice and point to a better way forward and in this sense it has an educative role which, as part of a learning process, may lead to strategies which can be adopted by those in power. However, in terms of artists and cultural practioners assuming power there are limitations.

Machines of Loving Grace is a performance involving 6 surveillance personnel, modelled on an archetypal vision of a State employee whose role is to watch the public and make sure they remain placid. This performance will run across Venice during the opening days of the 56th Biennale di Venezia, in an adapted boat, and in piazzas across the city. It is hope that the performance and its mimesis of surveillance practice will open discussion on an issue which is very present in the media but which is not analyzed very deeply considering the implications of ongoing surveillance of civilians by some Western governments. We know we are being watched, but we don’t question the nature of the power which lies behind this tendency. Is it an all pervasive power, or is is arbitrary? The former case is almost preferable to the latter, as if we know we’re all being watched always we emerge on a new neutral plane. Who cares? We may just say we have nothing to hide and forget the subject altogether. Yet, in the latter case, where power is arbitrary and surveillance and punishment is only focused on some of the people, some of the time, something altogether more brutal emerges. In this case justice becomes a perverse game of chance. Through a series of performances whereby people will be watched without discrimination it is hoped that this discussion can be furthered. Yet what has already been demonstrated in rehearsals is that while we may be able to broadly mimic the effect of surveilance, the power of art remains always secondary to that of the State, as we ourselves are being closely watched the police, rightfully doing their job and naturally interested in what are doing. How succesful our performance is will depend on whether they permit us to run it across the three days of the Biennale opening. This reflects the wider situation with regards to art as a social tool. It exists at the whim of the powerful and making it useful requires a dialogue with them.

photo by Antti Tenetz


photo by Nataliya Chernakova


EV: The performance starts from a critical analysis of information in the age of late capitalism, focused upon the “power of surveillance” understood as systematic control, interdiction, and the mechanisms of inclusion/exclusion, which founded the postmodern obsession with control. Coercive action which exerts a constant vigilance and at the same time the use of progressively more advanced tools, which whilst not necessarily repressive entails permanent inspection. Yet this is a two way process in which we are all somehow complicit. In your performance, what will be the role of the public ?

MW: We will observe the public from a number of different points in Venice, including the pier of Palazzo Loredan Dell’Ambasciatore, on the grand canal, where our performers will observe passing vaporetti (water buses) and water taxis. The majority of people in those water vessels will be in Venice for the biennale… critics, artists, curators, etc. It is hoped that by creating a small shock and the sensation of being watched, followed by the relief that results as the audience realizes that the surveillance is a staged performance, will open some dialogue on the issues surrounding State surveillance. In this way the existing traffic of the biennale is used as a vehicle of discussion.

photo by Nataliya Chernakova


photo by Antti Tenetz


EV: Machines of Loving Grace, togther with the publication Black Flag, is part of Jump into the Unknown, a collateral event of the 56th Biennale di Venezia, organized by Nine Dragon Heads. Tell me about this wider context and how your role (which is generally one of critic, theorist and occasional curator) has changed into an artistic one?

MW: The performance will be accompanied by a publication–made by artist Magnus Clausen–listing citizens’ rights upon arrest in all of the 89 participating countries of the Venice Biennale. The title of this publication – ‘Black Flag’ – derives from the injunction which the office of the Biennale di Venezia issued to the artists during the process of gaining permission to feature the work as an official Biennale event. Our performers could fly a flag in any colour, so long as it wasn’t black. It takes place in the wider context of Jump into the Unknown, an official collateral event of the 56th Venice Biennale which marks the 20th anniversary of the South Koean art foundation Nine Dragon Heads, run by Byoung Park Uk, who formed the foundation after camping in the Nine Dragon Heads caves of South korea to defend them against mining companies who threatened them and the local ecsosphere which depended on them. The succesful art protest led to an annual  art festival and later uncomprising art events held across the world, includine performances in the border zone between North and South Korea. It is this sense of playing with borders and boundaries which Jump into the Unknown celebrates as, in many ways, ‘not knowing’ is what art contributes to political debates, allowing for new territory to be explored.

My role is unsual in that I’m a critic  and theorist, and sometimes a curator, yet am collaboratine with artist Harold de Bree as an artist, responsible with him for the visual aspects and choreography of the performance. This has grown out of previous collaborations where I took a curatorial role, yet in which the boundary was often blurred. Aside from this Nine Dragon Heads have always followed an ‘uncurated’ approach, so the persence of a curator would have been uncomfortable. Clearly this coincides with art world debates on the role of the curator and the artist, though above all I am just happy to keep working on diverse projects and I think people will see a contiumm with my previous work rather than a diversion from it.

Performance program at this link

photo by Antti Tenetz


Police boat in front of Loredan Palace, photographer Antti Tenetz