BY Noemi Smolik in Interviews | 10 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 23

While you were sleeping

The artist Julia Scher talks about her series of 'Surveillance Beds'

BY Noemi Smolik in Interviews | 10 MAR 16

Julia Scher, Warning: Always there, Installation view, Natalia Hug, Cologne, 2016, Courtesy: the artist, Esther Schipper

The installation Mama Bed, recently on view in the Cologne gallery Natalia Hug, dates from 2003 and is part of my series Surveillance Beds, which I created between 1994 and 2003. Two cameras are mounted on steel posts surrounding a bed and recording everything that happens there. On the mattress is a black leather whip, and an additional handheld camera, which can be used as a recording device. Each camera’s footage is itself re-recorded by a video recorder and displayed on two monitors at the top of the bed. Audio footage is taken by way of a microphone. Long before Edward Snowden and the ongoing revelations about the Internet and its links to surveillance, the work was about the relationship between monitoring and the distribution of information.

My interest in this topic started in 1985 – at that time, I was still mainly making paintings, and had been working on a landscape diptych with a camera mounted in the middle. Behind the partial wall holding up the painting was the nine-inch monitor. The work was called Hardly Feel It Going In (1985). Even then it was about the question: Who is watching whom, how, why and at whose expense? A year later, in 1986, I made my first installation with  multiple surveillance cameras called Softly Tapping the Wires. The work was shown at Medium West, an  artist-run gallery in Minneapolis and consisted of used CCTV parts, furniture and a low frequency audio annunciator triggered by an electronic beam. The frequency of the audio vibrations was between 5 and 10 Hz: the specific frequency range that can stimulate the human anal sphincter. Thus some visitors had to leave the gallery (which contained no bathroom) in order to relieve themselves. 

My fascination with surveillance came from my study of photography. I first photographed destroyed landscapes and was influenced by Susan Meiselas, a photojournalist working during the popular insurrection in Nicaragua and the civil war in El Salvador in the late 1970s and 1980s. In one striking photo no human figure was visible – and yet it was clear that the scenery was being monitored. 

Julia Scher, The New York Bed, 1994, photograph: Charles Erickson, courtesy: the artsist, Galerie Esther Schipper

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) was equally important for me, as was the representation of violence and crime during the Reagan era. Using the newest technologies of his time, Weegee listened in on police radios, using them to arrive at the crime scene and often taking pictures of crime scenes even before police could. I was influenced, too, by the street photography of Garry Winograd, Robert Heinecken’s work with appropriating and re-processing images and of course Jean-Luc Godard and Bruce Nauman. Much of this was conditioned by the fact that I grew  up in Los Angeles, a city dominated by the cult of vision and seeing. Like many artists from the city,  I am influenced by what you can still photograph that has not already been shot.

It is clear that observation is ‘gendered’; it is, primarily, by and for men. Hollywood movies alone tell us that. For a while I worked in Minneapolis as a cleaning woman in the men’s and women’s showers at a gym called The Sweatshop. I crawled around and scrubbed the floor at the feet of naked men. I also began to do my first electronic repair jobs there, fixing fans, door locks and the stereo systems. Nobody paid attention to me, and my own gender wasn’t a factor one way or the other. Eventually I bought a Betamovie camera and began filming the men in the workout room doing their aerobic routines. They were already comfortable with me there, so they didn’t mind me bringing a camera into the workout room. Those were my first shots with a video camera – cheeky and somehow daring. Did that mean, if one takes a sexually neutral position – or a position that seems ‘neutral’ –  that one was free, and could go unnoticed with a camera? This experience confronted me with a set of questions: How do I relate to people with a camera? What role does my gender play? What about proximity and intimacy, and what about violence? How do I enter the scene?

My interest in the bed did not come so much from its association with privacy; rather, I was interested in it as the site for various transitions. In bed, you move from being awake to sleep, from control to no control, from consciousness to the unconscious. In addition, the bed is the location of domestic drama.  My first ‘bed’ work, which was shown in 1994 at Andrea Rosen Gallery,  New York, was created to investigate this zone of transition, but of course, also to monitor the sexual activities of a couple who totally knew what was going on. The electronically loaded bed could record everything and play it back as well. Under the bed there was something like its ‘memory’: the recording device, so that the footage can also be played back. Over the years, the bed recorded a lot of people: Vanessa Beecroft, Dan Graham, Christine Van Assche, Bob Nickas, Andrea Rosen, Andrew Ross, Wolfgang Staehle, Mark von Schlegell and Frances Scholz, among others.

Women sharing bed on Julia Scher's The Italien Bed, 1995, photograph: Julia Scher, courtesy: the artist, Galerie Esther Schipper

In the first bed there was an audio tape playing of me and Celeste Olalquiaga reading a script I wrote about surveillance, about someone who is ‘always there’. In the background you can hear the song Always There (1991) by the group Incognito. The text is a run-on about control and the seductive and dangerous aspect of monitoring. At the time, that had a lot to do with the specific ambivalence of monitoring, but since ambivalence serves as a form of positioning in relational aesthetics, say, this ambivalence does not really appeal to me anymore. You cannot sustain an ambivalent position over a long time. This would be destructive. Back then however, ambivalence was a performing instrument, a tool to trace the functioning of things in lived space – psychological or physical. If you asked me in the 1980s about my relation to surveillance I would have said: I love it or I hate it. Today this is no longer possible. I now say: How do we evolve?

But things also changed generally. If I spoke of surveillance back in the 1980s and early ’90s, only a small part of the audience knew what I was referring to. Now the issue is everywhere. No one asks what it is. And something else has changed, too: I was always concerned with access to information. In the 1990s, that literally meant cables. And so, back then, my installation consisted of many cables. Seeing the recent installation, a visitor asked: ‘Oh, is this for decoration, all the cables?’  I was like ‘Shit’ – and took some away.

As told to Noemi Smolik.

Julia Scher is an artist based in Cologne.

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.