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Insight: UBERMORGEN & Nye Thompson’s UNINVITED, the alluring potential of surveillance & horror movies

Text by Giulia Ottavia Frattini

‘UNINVITED film still Exploration Tarmac’ (2020) by Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN image courtesy of the artists
UNINVITED film still Exploration Tarmac, Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN (2020)

Who is dwelling inside the security cameras that continuously oversee our daily activities? Do we have any agency while being watched? Does the monitoring affect us, and are we shaping its content? What about accountability and transparency? 

A parking lot that is being screened in its to and fro of cars, the corner of a stairwell and its association with the exit or entry to a somewhere that is not allowed to be seen, or again basements in constant semi-obscurity and lit up in most of the cases by cold neon tubes radiating buzzing noises.

It seems that these recorded actions, even the ones we consider related to the less extraordinary circumstances, are constantly awaiting something to happen, anticipating an interference with the monotony of a lens perpetually fixed on the same spot. In other words, they create a kind shift in awareness and the manifestation of a double present: the actual one and the videotaped one.

In the latter, there often seems to lurk something sinister. Whether because of the low resolution these machines sometimes achieve leaves room in the imagination for the undetectable, or because of a constant sense of voyeurism hinting at something morbid and disquieting, or maybe because of the surveillance mechanism makes visible with an omnipresent third eye what we cannot physically witness.

UNINVITED is the title of a film written, directed, edited and produced by Nye Thompson and artist duo UBERMORGEN and that, to some extent, but in a sharper and more nuanced way, exposes these dynamics to the viewer.

Their collaboration unfolded as a synergetic process of complementarity of practice, giving rise to the mutual unlocking of diverse approaches and ideas to artistic creation. Winner of The Lumen Prize for Art and Technology in 2021, jury member Christiane Paul said it succeeds in using AI to construct a horror movie […], pointing to the dark and oppressive potential in machine learning and surveillance.

What nevertheless seems to be its most endearing and breakthrough distinctiveness is the fact, as read in its description, that it is conceived as the world’s first horror movie for and by machines.

The idea of making a horror film emerged during our very first discussions about a potential collaboration.” So explains the artist Nye Thompson while offering the first insight into the developing process of the film. “We were talking about human-machine networks and an emergent machine agency while browsing through the huge archive of algorithmically-captured security camera images that I had obsessively collected and catalogued from my previous project Backdoored in 2016-18.

The horror film idea came out of these images, which have the eerie quality of horror film stills. I suppose it’s because they speak of unobserved watchers and of a gaze that, if not actively inimical, is certainly inhuman. I loved the idea of juxtaposing the visceral emotionality of horror films with the cold ‘objectivity’ of the network – it generates such a powerful tension.

Obviously, there is an aspect of cultural horror to the idea of our surveillance society and our growing vulnerability to this unpredictable network of devices and systems growing up around us.

UNINVITED film still Exploration Tarmac, Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN (2020)
‘UNINVITED film still Relaxing  Clinic’ (2020) by Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN image courtesy of the artists
UNINVITED film still Relaxing Clinic, Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN (2020)

From a more technical standpoint, the film is the eventual outcome of a research process and gathering footage that has also resulted in some of Thompson’s previous works. Perhaps now, in light of this, can be considered chapters of an extended oeuvre.

I discovered all these screenshots captured by search-bots through compromised surveillance cameras. I was fascinated by how these images came to be – the extent of non-human agency in the process of their creation. […] The images themselves have this strange unanchored nonhuman viewpoint – they are mundane, disturbing, and even beautiful.

So I started collecting these images – tens of thousands of them – and cataloguing them. Many of my projects over the last five years have come out of me trying to find ways to think about these images – what they are and what they mean.

The idea of a machine consciousness stemming from these correlated camera systems has been the basis for the film’s realisation. The protagonist resides in a “Monster” entity, intended here as a circulating and somehow viral network organism with camera eyes scattered everywhere. We, the audience, glance at the world through its billions of irises. It emerges almost unnoticed, but we are direct testimonies of an overwhelming offspring of a creature.

Was the Monster produced by us, and we lost track of its pervasiveness, or is it a sneaking creature that has spawned autonomously, breeding and reproducing relentlessly? Does the Monster watch us, or do we look at ourselves through the Monster’s lens? Is the perspective external or internal? 

UNINVITED seems, in fact, to contain in itself a paradox or dual property: a linear narrative thread and a proper main character are clearly defined, yet the viewpoint is questioned for the whole duration since the viewer is triggered to locate themselves inside of the images. This feature unravels the cooperation between man and machine to disclose the unforeseen with a post-production approach and appears as the foundation for the movie montage. 

The film was generated by acting out of a strict algorithmic process, passing agency and decision-making responsibility back and forth between artist and machine. So each of the 20 Phases in the film were generated from 2 still images – security camera screenshots collected by the UNINVITED network. These images were enhanced, scrutinised, inflated, reprocessed and analysed for content, using all the machine learning processes available to the network”, says Nye Thompson. 

It occurs spontaneously to question again and again where the borders between humans and machines reside and how this coexistence and co-dependence are shaping our multilayered realities. Yet, the liminality between one and the other looks to be the most generative space to debunk and dwell on, letting the discourse germinate. 

By making accurate use of fear, angst and suspense to engage in a progressive conversation, UNINVITED opens up a dialogue that feels like it spreads from the artistic languages but undoubtedly concerns our here and now and will have an impact in the near tomorrow.

(Images courtesy of the artists)
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