Institutional partner
Ian Potter Museum of ArtCity Gallery Wellington

2018, 2019

Ian Potter Museum of Art + City Gallery, Wellington

This is an anachronism. Eavesdropping was curated by James Parker and Joel Stern and originally shown at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, before before redeveloped at a larger scale for City Gallery, Wellington, the following year. Though the exhibition did explore questions of machine listening, via two works by Sean Dockray and a public program entitled Silicon Ear, this was not the whole story. But it is where the seeds of this collective project were first sown.

There is documentation of the project here.

And a publication featuring essays by all of the artists, along with beautiful design by Public Office.

EAVESDROPPING used to be a crime. According to William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1769): ‘eavesdroppers, or such as listen under walls or windows, or the eaves of a house, to hearken after discourse, and thereupon to frame slanderous and mischievous tales, are a common nuisance and presentable at the court-leet.’ Two hundred and fifty years later, eavesdropping isn’t just legal, it’s ubiquitous. What was once a minor public order offence has become one of the most important politico-legal problems of our time, as the Snowden revelations made abundantly clear. Eavesdropping: the ever-increasing access to, capture and control of our sonic worlds by state and corporate interests.

But eavesdropping isn’t just about big data, surveillance and security. We all overhear. Listening itself is excessive. We cannot help but hear too much, more than we mean to. Eavesdropping, in this sense, is the condition – or the risk – of sociality per se, so that the question is not whether to eavesdrop, but the ethics and politics of doing so. This project pursues an expanded definition of eavesdropping therefore, one that includes contemporary mechanisms for listening-in but also activist practices of listening back, that is concerned with malicious listenings but also the responsibilities of the earwitness.

This project directs our attention towards specific technologies (audio-tape, radio-telescope, networked intelligence) and politics (surveillance, settler colonialism, detention). Some contributions address the personal and intimate, others are more distant or forensic. Their scale ranges from the microscopic to the cosmic, from the split-second to the interminable. What all the artists and thinkers involved have in common, however, is a concern not just for sound or listening, but what it might mean for someone or something to be listened-to.