Surveillance Art

J.Edgar Hoover loved surveillance even more than he loved those pretty dresses he wore for Clyde. Along with millions of other Americans, the artist Arnold Mesches was tailed by Hoover's FBI for decades. Finally, Mesches got hold of a copy of his file -- all 760 pages of it. As Sara Rimensnyder's piece in Reason has it:

"Seeking to determine whether Mesches was a Soviet spy, investigators from the 1950s into the ’70s relied on a wide network of paid (sometimes threatened) informants to document a private life down to its most minute details: the weight of his newborn daughter, news of a contribution to Mad magazine, the apparently incriminating way he wore his trousers rolled. Almost 10,000 days of surveillance, much of it post-McCarthy, should have been more than enough time to uncover whether a man was slipping state secrets to Moscow. meschesBut after grasping the total irrelevance of much of the data collected on Mesches, you start to feel that 10,000 years might not have been enough, even if he had been the KGB’s favorite paint-soaked spook.
But Mesches was an artist after all. He recognized something beautiful in those neatly typed and heavily redacted sheets of paper. With his fine eye, Mesches turned "The FBI Files" into works of art.
"He calls the pieces "illuminated manuscripts." They feature austere, typed, heavily-censored pages from the files set off by various historical, pop cultural, and commercial icons of the period. Among the images in Mesches’ palette are a Warholesque shoe ad, a 3-D movie audience, Walter Cronkite, Batman, Sputnik, and what looks like a colorful rendition of Robby the Robot. Mesches frames the collages with elegant, colorful borders reminiscent of medieval illuminations."
Neat stuff.

Given the modern technological bent of our internal spymasters, I would guess that any similar work emerging from the Patriot Act will be more multimedia in nature.

May 20, 2004 in Art, Government Intrusion, History, Mesches, Arnold | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack