[NetBehaviour] Marie Sester Interview
eduardo at navasse.net
Fri Apr 11 23:58:34 CEST 2008
Marie Sester Interview:
Access, Transparency and Visibility in "Exposure"
By Eduardo Navas
Marie Sester is an artist born in France, currently living in Los Angeles.
She was trained as an architect, but soon after receiving her degree
realized that her real interest was in understanding the role of
architecture as discourse in culture and politics. She found art an ideal
space to develop her interdisciplinary projects. Sester sees her art
practice as an ongoing process partly defined by a person's desire to
visualize certain things, while making others invisible. Throughout the
1990s, Sester explored how surveillance redefined our understanding of
reality. In the following interview Marie Sester generously shares the story
behind her three-channel installation, "Exposure," explaining how her role
as an artist allowed her access to information which she could not obtain
today due to the security measures put in place after 9/11.
[Eduardo Navas]: You explain that you are interested in the concepts of
transparency, visibility and access. Can you explain how these came to shape
your project "Exposure" and your interest in surveillance?
[Marie Sester]: The situation that became a reality in the U.S. after 9/11
had been developing in Europe for some time. Bombing attacks were part of my
reality in France, hijacking planes and taking passengers as hostages was
something we lived with day to day. This was often done to ask for money, or
demand for political prisoners to be released. Such unfortunate events were
not part of U.S. reality.
Terrorism was already present in Europe. Sometimes, when bombs exploded.
There were many individuals from small groups using what today we call
terrorist strategies; it was at this time that surveillance devices were
introduced. I was intrigued by this shift, which was a bit disturbing. As
surveillance technology started to be introduced at the airport, it became
normal to have one's luggage X-ray scanned. It became common to find
scanners at the airport, as well as government buildings like City Hall. The
unexpected beauty of surveillance technology fascinated me.
Suddenly, there was a new form of presence and reality defined by these new
devices. And I wanted to work with the images they produced. I had already
been working with pre-made objects and images for some time. At that time I
forged and assembled the notions of transparency, visibility and access and
they are still the basis of my work.
[EN]: You found this imagery beautiful, but at the same time, this imagery
was very pervasive, were you ambivalent to it?
[MS]: Yes, I found it ambivalent. This is how the notion of access came to
develop eventually in my work. In the Nineties, we began to live with a
whole combination of pre-requisites, especially when computers became
common. All of a sudden one is expected to log in in one way or another, to
get access to information, or to an actual place--but this is nothing new.
The mythic city of Jerusalem, for example, had 12 gates, which were well
guarded, and in ancient cities as long as we can remember, one had to show
or pay a right of entry. So the same thing happens with the digital world,
the cyber world. It's another way of also keeping track of access, in this
case more often to information. This is the function of cookies in the
browser, and in the end it's an issue of knowledge and possibility.
Then I reflected on access as a concept and realized that its opposite would
be exclusion, which also became very present. Exclusion divided the world in
parts. Before we had the wealthy and the poor, and now access divides people
in classes. With all this in mind I looked at the X-rays of luggage at the
airport, and also thought about our bodies in medical progress, and my work
began to take shape.
This is what I call the politics of seeing. For example, in ancient China,
the emperor would have privileged access to the highest mountain close to
his city to prove that he had the power to oversee and rule. So today we
have improved technology to see deeper, to see through objects and bodies.
Seeing is a way to attain information. It gives unquestionable power, and
today computer infiltration plays an important role. With all this in mind I
developed my approach to transparency, which for me comes ultimately from
[EN]: When contemplating "Exposure" one wonders very quickly how you got
access to X-ray imagery of trucks. How did you move from the luggage at the
airport to X-ray of passing trucks?
[MS]: It came by chance. I did not know I would be working with such large
vehicles. The trucks were being scanned at the airport, by a research lab
which was experimenting with the technology at that time in France. During
95 and 96, at some point, I wanted to see the images of scanned luggage, and
I said, "how can I get such images?" I wrote a letter to the airport
director and asked him if it was possible to record scanned images at the
airport. It took me one year, but finally I got a letter signed by the
director that allowed me to record images at Orly airport.
I went to the airport with this letter and an expert in recording, who used
a high-end camera. He hooked it up on one of the scanners and we started
recording, but after three minutes and three seconds I had a hand on my
shoulder. A security person told me, "You have to stop." And I said, "I have
a letter." And he read it and he said, "It is not signed by us. Anyone who
has luggage on this plane can sue you. Take your tape and come with me."
Then he took me upstairs for three hours with several policemen. I kept the
tape under my arm and we discussed what I was doing there. Eventually they
thought that I was just an artist who wanted some images. And they said, to
go away and not tell anybody about what I had done. So I kept the images.
However, I was not satisfied. I became more interested and wanted to show
the luggage metaphorically, to stand in for a person. I decided to use my
own luggage to avoid any problems, because the only thing I would need to do
is get the right to use the scanner. During this process, I became close to
one of the people working for a company that provided the scanning machines
to the airport. This private company was based in Paris, and the director
was young and he was open to questioning what he was doing. He opened the
doors of his lab to me and started to show me images of trucks and other
vehicles like tanks and boats.
This was very efficient technology;, a truck of 17 tons would be scanned
from both sides and the top in four minutes. The first scans were black and
white and the second scans were in color, because they show information
differently. People were trained to read the different scans, and I attended
training sessions to learn how to read the images.
I got these images of the trucks from this person. I started to use them
with the project "Four Engines". I had engines instead of luggage;
eventually, I decided to use them for "Exposure".
[EN]: That explains the trucks, but why a house in the East Bay Hills of San
Francisco? How does the house come into play?
[MS]: When I moved to the U.S. I wanted to explore other ways of scanning.
And I met a researcher from Cyra Technologies, Inc. who was also teaching at
Berkeley, and was doing research with laser scanning technology. Among a few
possibilities I chose this house because to me it was a typical American
house. I gave instructions to render a scan moving around the house, as well
as through the foliage and through the walls. You can do a lot with a laser
scan: the stronger the beam the deeper it goes into the material it
encounters. It's the same thing with X-rays. This is another reason why it's
so incredibly fascinating as a form of representation.
Think for a second: here is this thick concrete material around us, and now
we have the technology to see through it. In the future, perhaps even with
Google Earth, we could go into people's houses. I don't want to put that
idea out there, but I think it's possible. It would be scary. In the end,
the gathering of scanned images is a reflection on our obsession with
control and hyper vigilance.
[EN]: You are combining two moments in time, the material from Paris and
Silicon Valley. So what happens today, seven years later?
[MS]: For me it makes sense to show "Exposure" today, thinking about 9/11,
especially because when I listen to people in the U. S. it's like
surveillance just appeared (which is not the case). It was always here, only
today the technology is more pronounced. Politically, today the states are
using it much more. It has become a kind of obsession, and an actual part of
[EN]: Since you have traveled so much, do you think that the U.S.
implementation of surveillance has changed how surveillance is understood
[MS]: Yes, other countries are obliged to adopt similar strategies
everywhere, because the ideology is promoted through entertainment, news,
and propaganda. The U.S. says, "We need surveillance." And the message is so
powerful. It stands for personal power, but also a country's power and it is
a way to cope with the ideology of terrorism. The paradox is that the more
that one resists the terrorists, the more they find a reason to exist. At
some level it cannot be avoided because it is inscribed in the current
structure, our technology and even in human nature.
People are influenced by this, of course. Online it started with Jennycam,
and now we have the show Big Brother, and there is Flicker, Facebook, and
Youtube supporting this ideology of self- exposure and self-promoting, along
with surveillance and control. People think that this technology gives them
a certain visibility, but at a certain price.
[EN]: In your artist statement you also argue that surveillance depends is a
"two-way action": 1) it retrieves information and 2) it outputs propaganda.
Is there anything positive that can be found in surveillance? Can it produce
anything else but propaganda, is there a grey area?
[MS]: I should clarify that I'm not passing judgment. I'm questioning, and
I'm fascinated by this technology, in part because I find it beautiful. Even
before I began with this work, I was intrigued by surveillance images
because I found them so loaded and questionable, but I don't wish to give a
personal statement/opinion. Nobody cares about what I think. What I'm
interested in is to find and stay on the edge, between playful and scary.
Each person who experiences my work has to question herself. "Exposure"
works on this level. But to answer your question precisely, what is
fascinating is invisible: it's incredible how advanced this can be, how
human beings can get access to things that they can't see with the naked
eye, and then we can use the material and manipulate it. What I'm concerned
with is in having autonomy when using this information, and ask what is the
value of information?
[EN]: In relation to this relationship of architecture and network society,
how do you see the concept of exposure functioning in the future.
[MS]: I became invested in the three notions, transparency, visibility and
access, which you mentioned in the beginning of this interview when I was
exploring architecture. In architecture it is about the whole environment,
not just the building but the signs and its surroundings -- even circulating
traffic in the street is part of architecture. From my point of view, our
understanding (i.e. notion) of transparency comes from architecture. A shift
took place in the 19nineteenth century (1851) with the Crystal Palace, which
was made with steel and glass. This building started the process.
I consider that the way of being transparent has many possibilities: a house
made out of concrete--no color no paint, nothing on the wall, with no
decoration is a specific form of transparency. Center Pompidou, where they
put everything outside is also a manifestation of transparency. And then you
have the Glass House by Philip Johnson. And today's latest, is in New York,
where there are new apartment buildings, with walls made of glass. This was
done on purpose; tenants who live there know that people will drive up and
down a highway, and can look into the apartments.
[EN]: The building you are referring to is the Richard Meier Apartments
beside the West Side Highway in Manhattan. By contrast, would you, then, say
that with his Glass House, Johnson was exploring this idea of transparency,
or exposure, as a way to reflect on certain shifts in culture?
[MS]: Since the Crystal Palace, there has been this transition towards
transparency and exposure, on to Johnson, a tendency at play with Flicker
and Facebook. I believe this started with architecture and then it moved on
to biology and other areas in culture. Today, architecture is found so often
as discourse, even in second life.
[EN]: It's interesting that you mention Second Life, because it's a
reflection of our world. One could argue that what you describe started in
the 19th century is today solidified as part of network culture. Now you can
log on and view a mirror version of anything in the world as a virtual
replica in Second Life.
[MS]: Now, military and entertainment work together (combining their
efforts). They used to be counter-balancing each other, i.e. one was
violence, aggression and power skills; the other was play, creativity and
beauty when it was at its best. My concern is with monitoring, how far it
will go, to engage us and encourage us to spend our time in networks like
Facebook or Second Life, building a world reflecting our world, including
war games. World of Warcraft, is another example that has various business
deals behind it.
What all this adds up to is that architects today try to make something
interactive. Buildings start to become more like machines. Buildings and
streets become communication tools and the city is turning into the most
intelligent output of the human brain.
[EN]: Let's relate your interest in architecture to "Exposure." In your
artist statement you reflect that today "what had disappeared is not the
visible, but the invisible, in other words, all that is considered
incorrect." How do you find network culture and architecture, as you have
discussed them so far, linked to visibility and invisibility?
[MS]: I'll answer with a few examples. The Greeks did not have a name for
the color blue. They thought of it as part of the color green. Now let's
think about a landscape; it exists when some of the criteria we define as
part of a landscape are at play. Another example: if the whole world were
wet we would not have a concept of wet. All this is to show that we define
and see cultural values according to pre-existing definitions. This is how
What we define as invisible, then, is what has no right to exist. We remove
it. Today, we have tools to see everything, and we define what we want to
see. When desired, we penetrate through multiple layers with the purpose of
seeing more and more. Yet like the Greeks, if we don't value certain things,
we simply don't see them, or we think of them as part of another element
(for example, green as part of blue). If an element has no function, or is
not desirable, it has to disappear. This is what "Exposure" in the end
explores on various levels.
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