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Samir Gangwani’s Become Camera

Local artist interrogates surveillance culture

Samir Gangwani in Become Camera
Samir Gangwani in Become Camera

Samir Gangwani describes himself as “a brown man with a beard.” He also flies a lot. And he gets “randomly checked” at airports — a lot. Once, he sent a selfie to @AskTSA and queried, “Do you recommend shaving before flying? Whenever I have a beard I get checked but I shaved last time and I wasn’t checked.”

The artist and Carnegie Mellon student’s interaction with the TSA inspired Become Camera, at Filmmakers Galleries. Though grounded in personal experience, the video-heavy installation also addresses our ubiquitous surveillance technology, from security cameras (on both private and public property), smartphones and laptops to satellite imaging.

The exhibit includes images from Gangwani’s ongoing performance “Recording in Progress,” selfies of him peering into various security cams. Nearby, an array of four tiny monitors each displays that familiarly grainy, fish-eyed black-and-white security-cam footage; on one, you can watch yourself, as seen from behind from the gallery’s ceiling.

The show’s deceptively low-key centerpiece is “Always Watching Part 1: A Conversation With the TSA.” An entire wall of the gallery serves as the screen for an enormous video projection of Gangwani’s smartphone and laptop footage. The 20-minute piece finds an older man counseling Gangwani about airport security: “You shouldn’t have to be checked every time you get on a plane. That’s not random.” Gangwani critiques surveillance culture: As a person who gets profiled, he says, “It doesn’t make me feel safer. It makes me feel the opposite.” About one-third of the piece is devoted to real-time footage of him shaving, the electric razor’s whine filling the gallery.

A video piece puckishly called “My Friends” — which the gallery guide describes as Gangwani roaming Pittsburgh streets with a GoPro and audiorecorder strapped to his head, greeting “hardworking security cameras” — sounds like good satirical fun, but wasn’t working when I visited.

While watching “Always Watching,” you might feel you are being watched. That’s because the wall projection behind your back is video of a life-sized Gangwani, staring at you. “Staring Contest” finds him sometime scowling, with eyes that seem to follow you around the gallery. The effect is both amusing and unnerving, and emblematic of the way Gangwani uses humor to address issues that should rightly fill us with rage.

Become Camera also involves a durational performance by Gangwani, one in which, according to the guide, he “loudly sneak[s] around the gallery trying to watch the audience while simultaneously attempting to hide from them and the surveillance cameras.” He later blends into the gallery wall, a “stationary camera.” Gangwani will reprise the performance at the Galleries from 2-10 p.m. on Thu., Jan. 25. A closing reception and additional performance follow from 6-9:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 9. 

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