At the top of the MSU Museum's second-floor steps, there is more than what meets the eye. As visitors walk through The Science Gallery Network’s "Tracked and Traced" exhibition, they may notice the cluster of eyes propped on poles simulating the illusion of watching their every move.
Those eyes serve as a symbol for the exhibition's goal: to explore the societal impacts of surveillance.
“Surveillance goes way beyond just visual surveillance,” College of Music professor Mark Sullivan said. “It goes back to sentinels in the Roman Empire where they were to watch the population. The term surveillance comes from the French Revolution. During the Reign of Terror, (Maximilien) Robespierre and others in the Central Committee in Paris got citizens to spy on each other. That's where we got the contemporary meaning of surveillance.”
For the past nine months, Sullivan, along with a team of five curators, sifted through hundreds of submissions from as far as Europe. By July 1, the team selected 15 proposals that would best encompass the four themes of the exhibition.
In the theme of surveillance capitalism, the curator team included exhibits that express the modern struggle for individuals to protect their data and privacy in the face of big tech companies like Google and Amazon.
Department of Art, Art History and Design assistant professor Abhishek Narula said he recognized how some of our most intimate moments are now occurring on the phone in our back pockets. From sharing photos of one’s newborn to text conversations between loved ones, Narula’s exhibit highlights how easy it is for our personal information to be transmitted.
Titled "Promiscuous Routers", a tongue-in-cheek tech joke, Narula’s exhibit shows a dozen internet routers hanging from a string. Whenever anyone's phone comes into proximity, the routers will begin to dance. This signals the router has picked up the phone’s data even if the phone didn’t try to connect to it.
“Wifi routers are everywhere,” Narula said. “We don’t actually notice them when we’re walking around ... I was interested to see how others reacted when they looked at the data being transmitted from their smartphones.”
The government and tech companies will sometimes reward individuals by sharing their data. People might share information as personal as their health for the right price. In an exhibit, there is a simulation that looks to see what price — such as free television, cash, etc. — would a person accept to share their health data. Sullivan notes that in the age of COVID-19, this exhibit is particularly relevant.
The youngest curator on the team, 2021 MSU alumna Allyssa Harris, wanted "Tracked and Traced" to feature a submission she knew would resonate with her peers.
In the corner of the exhibition, there’s a closet-sized room that resembles a college girl’s room with pillows and a duvet cover on the bed. Lingerie hangs on a clothes rack videos of a girl in a lacey bra and underwear are projected on the wall. It is a piece commenting on OnlyFans, a website used mainly to sell explicit photos.
It’s an exhibit normally not found on a college campus, but Harris said she felt it was important to highlight surveillance sex workers face.
“It was one of the ones I really advocated for because I feel like the idea of censorship and especially related to sex work is really important to talk about, especially as a young woman,” Harris said. “The piece really resonated with me.”
The exhibition also focuses on inequalities and marginalization that occurs within surveillance. Sullivan shared one exhibit which showed artificial intelligence identifying black women, such as former First Lady Michelle Obama, as apes.
Despite the strong focus on the dystopian side of surveillance, the curators included exhibits calling people to reclaim their privacy and take protective measures.
Harris said it is up to her generation to make a change.
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“MSU students are growing into the next designers and scientists and writers and medical people,” Harris said. “We’re going to be the ones who essentially get to shape what the future of these technologies look like. Science Gallery does a good job of talking about the social justice aspects of these technologies and the issue of surveillance."
The Tracked and Traced exhibit opened to the public Sept. 10 and will remain open through Dec. 11. The exhibit is located at the Art-Science-Creativity Gallery on 409 W. Circle Drive.
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