Safe is a Wonderful Feeling: Atmospheres of Surveillance and Contemporary Art

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This paper examines how the combined prism of contemporary art and the notion of atmosphere may offer alternative perspectives on our encounters with places and practices of surveillance. Specifically, this article investigates the atmospheres of surveillance surfacing in the video installation Safe Conduct (2016) by British contemporary artist Ed Atkins. The artwork recreates the well-known situation of going through an airport security check. Through a combination of visual narrative and a soundscape blending the sounds of the conveyor belt and X-ray machines with heavy breathing and Ravel’s Boléro, the work builds up an uncanny anticipation of something awful. Death and violence linger at its edges, and a disquieting atmosphere fills the exhibition space. The objective of the article is twofold: First, it explores the shifting and ambiguous atmospheres produced by contemporary surveillance practices through an immersive reading of the artwork Safe Conduct. Second, and connected to the first, it offers an experimental methodology of written vignettes responding to the embodied, aesthetic experience of atmospheres of surveillance. The article concludes that being more sensitive to the atmospheres of surveillance in our environment can give us a space to think critically about how these atmospheres affect us, how they are absorbed bodily, and how they attune our being: how surveillance is “in the air.”
Original languageEnglish
JournalSurveillance and Society
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)170-184
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jun 2020

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