Who Watches the Watchers?

Who Watches The Watchers?
“If you are a law abiding citizen […] you have nothing to fear” – William Hague 9th June 2013

How would you feel if William Hague was reading your email, or inspecting your browsing history, or listening to your phone calls?

Recent revelations have revealed that the government watches you. It watches all of us, we are all now potential terrorist suspects. There is no line discerning ‘people of interest’ from the rest of the population – it’s far easier to suck up data on every website you visit, every email you write, every phone call you make, and let inscrutable algorithms decide whether you are a suspect or not.

These decisions are made behind closed doors, using unaccountable processes about which we cannot be told, all in the interest of National Security.

So, who’s watching you now? This painting. It watches you back, capturing that most private of moments, the interaction between you and the canvas. It plunders your face and stows it in its digital nest, whether you like it or not.

What have you got to hide?

As more and more of our lives occur online, or are mediated by trackable network transactions, the notion of ‘privacy’ is rapidly changing. The trade-off between privacy and convenience leads to massive datasets of mineable information – whether we explicitly give it away to companies like Facebook and Google, or implicitly through massive Government operated ‘meta-data’ surveillance systems.

This work has been made in direct response to the whistleblowing activities of Edward Snowden, in particular the revelation that the UK intelligence agency GCHQ has installed TCP/IP level monitoring equipment directly to the transatlantic internet backbone running from Cornwall to the east coast of the United States – allowing the potential for direct interception and investigation of much of the world’s internet traffic at 100 gigabits per second.

As more revelations are made about the level of data capture, and ever more draconian infringements on civil liberties are utilised in the name of fighting ‘terrorism’, we are living in a world perfectly primed for a slide into fascistic abuse.

The painting features the current UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, checking your metadata on his iPhone, outside the MI6 building in London. He is accompanied by seven magpies – a bird renowned for its avaricious nature, finding shiny objects and taking them back to their nests. The number seven alludes to the superstitious rhyme associated with magpies:

One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told


Behind Mr Hagues left eye I have hidden a camera, attached to a Raspberry Pi computer, which constantly watches, looking for the faces of observers. When it spots a face, it records a short video sequence of the observer, looking at the painting. The act of engaging with an artwork is a highly intimate and personal experience, a moment when we are truly alone with ourselves. It is just such private of moments are now being automatically monitored and analysed without our consent.


The recorded videos are then processed and transmitted to a separate box, where they are displayed, floating inside a bird’s nest of twigs and Ethernet cables. The intimate act of looking, as seen by the painting, becomes another shiny object, woven into the magpie’s nest.

Since the painting acts as both recorder and server, transmitting the images over a network, the box itself can operate just as easily on the other side of the world as within the same gallery space – alluding to the ‘data sharing’ agreements between the US and UK which effectively allow UK citizens to be monitored from the US and vice versa, thus circumventing any troublesome local laws.


This augmented painting is on display at The New Sublime exhibition until September 8th 2013.

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shardcore on the radio

Here I am talking about CutUp magazine with Jeff Hemmings on Radio Reverb

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Consciousness Engine interview

Reposted, with permission, from Kay Johns‘ blog.

Interview with Shardcore.

During this year’s 2011 Brighton Festival I went to see an exhibition at the Old Market called The Consciousness Engine by artist’s Shardcore and Sam Hewitt. I found this to be such a fascinating experience, it has left me thinking about consciousness, freedom and artificial life forms ever since.

KJ: Your video in the basement of the market place was made using generative software. Was there a reason to use generative software as part of the piece as a message within your work, or did you just use generative software as a process for making the work and it had no relevance to the actual work?

S: The use of a generative system was integral to the piece. It operates on two levels, firstly as representing one facet of conscious experience – that it is continuous, mutable experience (a feat which would either require a huge amount of scripting/editing without a generative system). Secondly, it allows for the content to appear as truly novel, just as in the conscious mind, no two moments are the same – we wanted to create a machine that, while bounded to the limits of the source content, could still produce new juxtapositions that we were unable to predict.

Looking more broadly, generative systems allow the artist to step away from the explicit form of the work, and into the realm of meta-creation – making the rules that govern the creative process, rather than explicitly creating the end piece itself. By loosening the grip on the end product, the artist is able to use the outcomes of a generative system to inform the manipulation of that system; the artist becomes a benevolent curator of the work, rather than the direct creator of the end product.

KJ: Would you say that as the artist you wanted to explore consciousness via an artificial source (the computer, core of the engine) using the process know as generative art to express and simulate existence of the natural world?

S: We wanted to explore consciousness, and that exists in a place beyond what is generally considered ‘the natural world’. So, in that sense, we were never aiming to create a naturalistic environment.

The generative nature of the system, for me, was far more about creating an experience in flux, just as the conscious mind is constantly in flux – it makes no sense to take a snapshot of a mind, it’s very nature is one of change – and that’s why it had to be a generative machine. I wanted the viewer to be an involved observer of a simulated mind, and for that, it was essential that it was constantly changing. If we had used a pre-composed, pre-recorded film, it would have been a different piece entirely.

In building the piece, I wanted to avoid existing AI paradigms and produce a purposefully (semi-controlled) chaotic system. AI generally concerns itself with simulation of specific parts of the human mind to appear ‘intelligent’ in a rather narrowly defined sense.

The Consciousness Engine exists not as an end-point, but as a symbiotic process between the machine and the viewer. The viewer needs to engage their conscious mind directly with the machine for the work to exist. When no one is observing it, it’s just a machine talking to itself in an empty room.

Conscious experience is primarily a constructive process – what you ‘experience’ of the world is mainly a projection of psychological expectations. With this piece I wanted to draw out the mind behind the expectations, the machine provided a method for doing this.

My hope was that the piece, along with the journey of installations before reaching the machine, would guide the viewer into a place where they were provoked to consider the nature of their own consciousness, and not simply assume the role of passive observer.

KJ: I found that the Core of the Engine (computer) related more to my subconscious mind. It felt like I was experiencing a dream filled full of random questions and different locations around Brighton, which were reminiscent of some of my own thoughts and memories. I’m curious was the core of the engine both the subconscious merged with the conscious mind?

S: The part of our mind that we live in, our wakeful consciousness, is but a small part of the machinations of our brains. Indeed, experiments show that the conscious mind is often ‘the last to know’ about what we, as individual functional entities, are doing.

So, rather than considering the subconscious in a Freudian way, I tend to see the conscious mind as a machine struggling to make sense of a series of events coming from both ‘external sources’ (what we see, hear, taste etc) and ‘internal sources’ (our memories, expectations and desires) – I guess you could consider the latter as ‘the subconscious’, but I tend to see them as an integrated system, with consciousness as the final layer.

It was important that the video sources used were of locations and events that may be familiar, this allows the piece to feel more like a mind like occupying a coherent space, and also to use these experiences to provoke memories and sensations in the viewer who may occupy a set of spaces and experiences.

The subconscious is generally seen as inaccessible, only visible via oblique projections, such as dream analysis. For this piece we wanted it to consider the direct conscious experience of the now.

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The Consciousness Engine

The Consciousness Engine is now alive. Come and be part of the machine:

12-5, each Saturday & Sunday in May, 2011

The Old Market, Hove. UK

View Larger Map

you can also:

talk to god
07790 650 959

The Consciousness Engine by Sam Hewitt and Shardcore is a series of visual and digital art installations distributed throughout the hidden spaces of The Old Market in Hove. It is a three dimensional map of an emergent consciousness making discoveries about its own nature, not as a child learning for the first time, but as an adult looking beyond assumptions of what is possible. At the core lies a constantly evolving computer generated mind.

The audience can explore this piece on their own terms and there are several opportunities to interact with and, for a time, become part of the exploration that the Engine is making into the nature of consciousness.

The Consciousness Engine will be the fifth collaborative project between the artists Shardcore and Sam Hewitt, all of which have explored the search for truth: spiritual, scientific, collective and individual.

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The unLOL cats (2009)

The internet is full of cat pictures, generally showing them as nonsense talking idiots. However, cats are not simply LOLing machines, I live with two cats who actively dislike each other.

Inspired by their daily fighting, I have chosen to paint some unLOL cats.

They are currently on display at The Tin Drum in Seven Dials Brighton, at the credit crunchtastic price of only £300 each. If you’re interested in purchasing one please email me directly.

“Mr. Frisky is alarmed by the sudden ringing of your iPhone.”

Silver Spray and Acrylic on Canvas 600mm x 600mm

“Mittens is displeased with your choice of economy cat food.”

Silver Spray and Acrylic on Canvas 600mm x 600mm

“Monty dislikes the neighbour’s new dog intensely.”

Silver Spray and Acrylic on Canvas 600mm x 600mm

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