‘The people who control are also being controlled’

The art of Salvatore Vitale examines the array of surveillance technology that surrounds us all

For the past seven years, the Italian artist Salvatore Vitale has investigated surveillance in all its varied forms.

From 2014 to 2019, he worked on the acclaimed project and photographic book How to Secure a Country, focusing on the tensions between security and control that exist in Switzerland, where he now lives. His most recent project, Persuasive System, is an interactive installation focused on the use of CCTV in public spaces. We caught up with him for a chat about his work.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Coda Story: First of all, let’s talk about your most successful project, “How to Secure a Country.” Why did you decide to work on surveillance systems, and why in Switzerland?

Salvatore Vitale: The idea for “How to Secure a Country” came to me in 2014, after Switzerland held a referendum to change the constitution, in favor of reducing mass immigration. I had been living in an Italian-speaking Swiss canton for 10 years, but I had never really asked myself what it meant to be an immigrant there. After that moment, I started noticing how many contradictions were at play in the country, torn between progressivism and conservatism, between a need for safety and an almost all-controlling surveillance system. 

Switzerland was not only my country of residence, but also a valuable case study. As one of the safest countries in the world, I knew that its surveillance system would be a sort of heightened version of those in place elsewhere.

Surveillance takes so many different shapes that understanding them all seems almost impossible. How did you tackle this incredibly broad subject?

I didn’t really envision a project about security and surveillance in the beginning. What I wanted was to understand where the need for safety in Switzerland comes from. It was an interesting angle to tackle, because safety is such an abstract concept that I didn’t know where to look. I did a lot of research, but I didn’t really talk to normal people about it. I partnered with academics and members of law enforcement, the insiders. 

Many of the themes your work deals with are very abstract. How do you represent ideas like surveillance and control visually?

I took an analytical approach, trying to make the abstract idea of surveillance tangible through its actors and its tools. I tried to be creative in the use of my medium. I knew that my subjects were going to be extremely varied, and I tailored my approach accordingly. It’s one thing to photograph police forces patrolling the border, a completely different thing to photograph malware. 

I took a risk. I decided not to capture actions, because surveillance is a process — it’s constantly evolving. I decided to use my images as triggers. I wanted to convey a sense of oppression, in a way that is cynical and clinical.

“How to Secure a Country” took five years to complete. Did you notice the development of surveillance systems over this period of time?

I definitely noticed how the dividing line between the people who control and the people who are being controlled became thinner and more fluid. As algorithms become more sophisticated and biometric surveillance more widespread, the system becomes circular. The people who control are also being controlled at the same time. 

A security cell on the border between Switzerland and Italy.

How to Secure a Country” is closely intertwined with your current project. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes, the premise for both projects is similar: understanding surveillance. But “Persuasive System” is more universal, not focused on a single country, and it’s not a work of photography, but an interactive installation, almost like a performance. 

I essentially built a system with three CCTV cameras. When the installation is working, it constantly captures images and information about people who interact with it, and people can play together, collecting data about each other.

What is its aim?

I’m particularly interested in how video surveillance influences behavior. I wanted to understand what being a data subject means. We, as humans, have a physical body, but we also have an online persona, built on the basis of all the data that is collected about us. Algorithms that collect data from us online operate like black boxes and so do CCTV cameras. When we see them around, we know that they’re filming us and collecting data, but we don’t know which kind. With “Persuasive System,” people can see how the data is collected, and how much of it there is. It’s a lot. Through it, I’m hoping to foster a shock reaction in my audience.

That’s a huge problem of our time. The amount of data that is collected about us online is unfathomable. How do you think your projects help to shed light on this?

I don’t want to give solutions. I think rushing to solve these issues can be dangerous. My idea is to give my audience more awareness, the “weapons” to navigate our reality. By visualizing the technology, I hope to push people to think critically about their existence as data subjects.

All images copyright to Salvatore Vitale. Follow Salvatore on Instagram or on his website.

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Marta Biino

Marta Biino is a New York-based freelance journalist and the 2021 Li Center for Global Journalism Fellow.

@martabiino