Artists Who Used Surveillance Techniques to Create Art

The creative tension between looking and being looked at

Christopher P Jones
5 min readMar 31, 2022

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Portrait of Sophie Calle. Image painted by author.

In 1979, the French artist Sophie Calle went to a party in Paris.

There she met a man known as Henri B.

Henri B told her he was about to travel to Venice on holiday. Secretly, Calle followed him.

For two weeks she pursued him around the floating city, recording his day-to-day actions, taking photographs of him in bars and cafes, down side streets, lingering on bridges. She took with her a make-up kit to disguise herself: a blonde wig, hats, gloves and sunglasses. On her Leica camera, she attached a device known as a Squinter: a mirror that allowed her to take photos without aiming at her subject.

As she watched him, she noted down his actions and speculated on his feelings. She produced a detailed diary of observations and reflections. She also wrote down her own sensations as her surveillance heightened. Suite Vénitienne is the artwork that resulted from her pursuit of Henri B.

As the city of Venice opened up to her, Calle concluded that she felt as if she was falling in love. The warren of narrow streets, cafes and bars — as depicted in her fleeting black and white photographs — became “a repository of her desires”, heightening her feelings for Henri B and for the sense of power her surveillance had given her.

The Human Desire to Look

Surveillance in our digital world is embedded in the applications we all use on a daily basis. What is extraordinary — and what Calle bravely confronted, many years before the internet — is how much our desire to look is part of the human condition.

Through social media, we observe and judge, and in return volunteer ourselves to be looked at and judged. In this process, we release extraordinary amounts of personal information into the digital ether and too easily forget who can view it.

Everything we do, everywhere we go, we leave a trace.

In 1981, long before the internet, Calle took a job as a chambermaid at a hotel in Venice. Under the guise of performing her duties, she entered the rooms of guests and examined their possessions, copied…

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