Steve Mann – Prior Art: Art of Record for Personal Safety
Curated by Kathleen Pirrie-Adams
July 5-28, 2001,
Gallery TPW, Toronto
By Rosemary Heather
Wearable computing was in the past an ideal of the future we now live in. If we used to dream of building robots, a more likely scenario today is that we will become robots ourselves. A professor of Computer engineering at the University of Toronto, Steve Mann has been pursuing the dream of wearable computing for over twenty years. At the Gallery TPW in Toronto, Mann displayed the artifacts of the sci-fi reality that is his daily life.
Since 1980 he has on a full-time basis worn an evolving prototype that combines a computer screen attached to a pair of sunglasses with video, audio and data links to the Internet. The continuous data-stream that results, which was for two years, from 1994-1996, continuously available for anyone to view on the web, is one part of a complex project that underpins his development of prosthetic computing with socio-political critique.
Although Mann’s inventions may have the potential improve the life of the blind or people with Alzheimer’s, the show at TPW chose to focus on his work’s more theatrical edge. This includes a performative investigation into the surveillant nature of contemporary society.
Living your life as a full-time cyborg has certain repercussions. Unlike the institutional surveillance network, Mann has no interest in being covert. Although less so than it used to be, his gear is bulky, conspicuous, the better to drag into the light of public consciousness operations that would prefer to remain un-remarked on. At issue here is our otherwise tacit acceptance of private interests right to document our daily behaviors. By practicing his own form of counter-surveillance, Mann gives content, albeit from reverse view, to what otherwise exists as a shadowy realm of potential data that we know exists but never see. In its most radical implication, the project posits technology as the vehicle of an augmented subjectivity, a not inconceivable reality where computers interact not only with the world at large but also our own consciousness. The ideal Mann is celebrating is really one of degree. We already interact with computers in such a way that they augment our experience of the world. Mann places himself on the far edge of techno-fetishism by welcoming a human fusion with computers that is truly invasive.
The same could be said of Mann‘s chosen approach to these issues. In its current state, his personal computing get-up is intimidating, turning personal encounters into confrontations. Mann casts himself as a foot soldier in some kind of cyber-war, perpetrating a personal surveillance-oppression on unwitting victims. On view at TPW is one such encounter with a clerk from the Motor Vehicles Department. The resulting imagery is silent but fully communicative of a certain pathos. The clerk looks cowed, almost scared, Mann having removed the human element from the interaction. Part of his routine is to ask the clerk in question if he is being filmed, Mann winning the point by, in effect, asserting control over the situation. Implied here is a future where personal interests prevail, proto-militarized like the gated communities of today. Mann contends he does this in the name of “personal safety”, but it belies a vision that is ultimately dystopic. He exposes issues of great relevance to the contemporary world, but in the end his practice only manages to replicate the system that is the ostensible object of his critique.