Temporary art installation at library explores ‘what it means to be watched’

photo by: Joanna Hlavacek

A visitor passes through Rest

Big Brother is watching you.

At the Lawrence Public Library, the oft-quoted line from George Orwell’s classic novel “1984” isn’t just text from a book lining its shelves. Not this week, with a public art project exploring similar themes installed in the library’s atrium.

Over the next six days, we're hosting an on-going conversation about surveillance and privacy, and how it makes us feel…

Posted by Lawrence Public Library on Sunday, January 3, 2016

Created by Lawrence artists and 2015 Rocket Grant recipients D. Bryon Darby, Aaron Long, Cotter Mitchell and Aaron Paden, “Rest Assured, You Are Under Video Surveillance” will end its weeklong run at the library Saturday. (You might remember the project’s appearances at the Cider Gallery and Lawrence Arts Center, among others, during last summer’s Free State Festival.)

The installation involves a trio of raised platforms in which three cameras and a motion sensor are concealed among faux rocks, the whole thing resembling a deceptively serene zen garden. There, library patrons are invited to “relax” within the space under the “safe and watchful eye” of the cameras, each broadcasting their respective feeds to a publicly accessible website for (potentially) the whole world to see.

The idea, says Lawrence Public Library marketing director Heather Kearns, is to engage participants in questions about our “love/hate” relationship with surveillance as well as privacy, rights and individual liberties.

The response, so far, has been positive, she says.

“I’ve gone through over 200 handouts that I stuck out there (next to the installation) in two and a half days,” Kearns told the Journal-World earlier this week.

She’s seen parents talk to their children about “what it means to be watched and what it means to watch others,” especially with the ubiquity of cellphones and social media. A few days ago, a group of teenagers, after checking out the installation, decided to check out some books on surveillance — that was a “big one” in terms of response, she says.

Because the project deals with the duality of society’s relationship with video surveillance (the need to feel safe versus the need for privacy), interaction is encouraged. Some participants have stuck Post-It Notes over the cameras or repositioned them out of the way.

“Rest Assured, You Are Under Video Surveillance” gives participants the choice to decide whether they want to be filmed.

For what it’s worth, the artists — who can watch the live stream from inside the library in a staff workroom — aren’t bothered by it, Kearns says. They seem to be “really enjoying the interactivity,” especially the children who move the rocks around throughout each day.

“One of the things I think is really interesting is that I keep finding people congregating there who wouldn’t normally stop and stand in the atrium space,” she says. “I’m finding that people are hanging out and talking more. It’s kind of cool.”