Exhibition Exploring Role of Surveillance Opens Jan. 30 at F&M Phillips Museum

  • An exhibition of digital art highlighting the role of surveillance in Lancaster and the world will be on view from Jan. 30 to April 7 in the Rothman and Curriculum galleries of the Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin & Marshall College. Image provided by Phillips Museum.

An exhibition of digital art highlighting the role of surveillance in Lancaster and the world will be on view from Jan. 30 to April 7 in the Rothman and Curriculum galleries of the Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin & Marshall College.

"On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers," developed by artist and former F&M postdoctoral fellow James Coupe, comprises a network of 50 surveillance cameras programmed to extract a narrative from people's behaviors and activities. The resulting footage is reorganized through computer algorithms and displayed as a "multi-channel film" projected on screens much like a surveillance control room. One of the screens will broadcast live footage from the F&M Innovation Zone at the Harris Center. Other screens will show simulated and looped footage from the Martin Library of the Sciences, the dining hall, a room in a College House and other locations on the F&M campus.

A reception and gallery talk by the artist, who first became acquainted with F&M as an exchange student from England in the 1996-97 academic year, is planned for 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, at the museum, which is in the Steinman College Center.

Eliza Reilly, director of the Phillips Museum, said the Coupe exhibit fits in with an overall effort to enhance the museum's multimedia offerings, one of the goals of a recently completed renovation project.

"One of our ambitions for the renovated Phillips Museum was to incorporate digital art and new media into our exhibition program," Reilly said. "We also strive to engage the public by showcasing art that addresses critical contemporary issues, such as the role of surveillance in our civic and social lives. Coupe's project meets both of those goals."

Coupe said he draws his title from Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1986 experimental novella, "Der Aufrag," or "The Assignment." The installation is inspired by Dürrenmatt's consideration of the role of observation and surveillance in war, science, terrorism, marriage and religion.

"Today, observation is a pervasive feature of our lives, due to everyday technologies like social media, cell phone cameras, webcams and YouTube," Coupe said. "The question remains: Does being perpetually 'seen' add significance to our lives, or is it something to avoid and resist?"

Coupe developed the exhibition concept during his residency at F&M as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in 2011, after reading a Los Angeles Times story that described Lancaster, Pa., as one of the most-watched cities in the United States, with a network of more than 165 cameras observing its 55,000 residents. Commissioned by The Phillips Museum, "On the Observing" is the first of a series of four surveillance-themed installations that Coupe will exhibit in 2013. Other exhibitions are slated at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto.

During the past decade, Coupe's work has been primarily installation-based, and has incorporated a range of contemporary media, including cell phone text messaging, email spam, Facebook and surveillance cameras. Coupe's work has been exhibited widely in Britain and North America. He has received numerous grants, including awards from Creative Capital, an artist-funding project of the Warhol Foundation in New York; the nonprofit Artist Trust in Seattle and the London-based Arts Council England. Coupe received master's degrees in fine art from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and in creative technology from the University of Salford in England. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Washington, where he is an associate professor at the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media.

F&M's Phillips Museum of Art is open to the public and admission is free. Museum hours are 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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