In 1983, a musician named Rockwell released a one-hit wonder called “Somebody’s Watching Me.” If only he’d known what was coming.
In the decades since, enabled by technological advances, the culture of visual surveillance has exploded. Today, in the name of safety, commerce, governance, art or simple human curiosity, the camera is virtually everywhere, used by public organizations and private citizens alike.
“Surveillance,” a small but unsettling show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, deftly explores the rise of camera culture and its profound implications for the human psyche.
The exhibit begins with a rare and magnificent object, an image by the founder of modern photojournalism, Matthew Brady. Then, via taut and intellectually rigorous curation by Jane Aspinwall, we are led through the development of ever more invasive surveillance technology.
On a gut level, the show works simply because, let’s face it, people are interesting when they don’t know they are being watched. Michael Wolf’s work on urban voyeurism, for example, evokes a curious mix of emotions — simultaneously eliciting enchantment at what’s being seen and guilt at the thought of unbidden watching.
But there’s far more here than mere peeping. Some of the images are downright chilling, like that of Roger Schall, who secretly recorded the Nazi occupation of France, or Adam Harvey’s fascinating work with hairstyles that block facial recognition software, or a series dealing with the spooky prevalence of drones and spy satellites.
Delving into notions of celebrity, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s candid shot of Marilyn Monroe not only asks how being in the public eye can alter the private self, but how the very existence of a public eye has altered notions of selfhood — an idea that couldn’t be more relevant in the age of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
The only thing wrong with this show, really, is that there isn’t more of it. At the very least, extra images would have been a pleasure. Beyond that, a bit of technology could have nicely amplified the extant themes.
Generally, the Nelson has always shown admirable restraint in its exhibits, eschewing “interactive” gizmos in favor of letting the objects speak for themselves. Given the techo-centric subject matter, though, a little gimmickry would have been welcome. Imagine, for instance, a monitor that allowed people to clandestinely watch other patrons — vividly demonstrating just how compelling such surreptitious watching can be.
This stuff matters, after all. There is something deep within the human psyche that makes us feel like we are being watched, as though every action was somehow known and recorded. That feeling can manifest itself as paranoia, like Rockwell’s. It can manifest as the religious impulse, the notion that God sees all things. Freudians might say it has something to do with mommy.
In the era of mass surveillance, however, the sense that we are being watched is wholly justified. After seeing the exhibit, for instance, I walked through the Bloch Lobby into the Nelson parking garage, then drove the few blocks home. The whole time, I was surveilled. Be it a street-corner security camera or an orbiting satellite, the mechanical eye never blinked.
We are, in fact, always being watched. We just never know who’s doing the watching.
“Surveillance” runs through Jan. 29, 2017, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. Admission is free. Nelson-Atkins.org