[text] Niels Bonde [e]
Niels Bonde : »I never had hair on my body or head«, 1995/2001
by Anke Hoffmann
The phenomenon of social control mechanisms is a key theme for the Danish artist Niels Bonde. Sometimes used as a neutral subject, he examines symptoms of social control and its effects on the individual, probes the boundaries between voyeurism, narcissism, authority, and power, and invites viewers to take a critical look at associated questions.
The installation I never had hair on my body or head consists of the minimum needed to refer to a domicile, furnished with a table, chairs, a child's bed and pot plants. In the bed there are soft toys, teddy bears, objects familiar to us from children's rooms. However, these seemingly harmless toys have small surveillance cameras implanted in their furry bodies by the artist. For instance, the camera lens replaces one bear's left eye, and with others it grows out of their foreheads. The toys seem to stare at us with their manipulated heads. The toys become suspicious puppets, the innocence of mere objects yields to the implementation of power. A cactus with a tiny camera implanted in it is even droller. The whole arrangement becomes a laboratory whose secret mission is obvious, even though the technology is hidden.
On the other side of the room stands the table, covered with several tablecloths as if a child had made itself a cave. Under the table there are several small monitors showing the interior of the imaginary room and the people moving around in it. The realtime transmission of the images filmed by the soft toys and the plant can be watched directly on the monitors in the cave. Bonde's construction of a typical surveillance system conveys the ambivalent feeling of being at once threatened and safe. Hiding cameras in everyday objects embodies the attempt to carry out surveillance in a subtle manner. Are these Orwellian utopias of total control? The home, the last refuge of the undisturbed private sphere, becomes an experimental field of interests wanting to penetrate the intimate sphere of the individual. In most cultures, the home has a protective function that could almost be called sacred; unwanted intrusions are seen as trespass. We are not safe from the gaze of strangers in the street or public squares, but in our own homes, preservation of privacy is the supreme law. Niels Bonde attacks this law with his surveillance system within one's »own four walls«.
Bonde reacts to the threat to the private sphere posed by the implementation of surveillance technology by presenting a symbiosis of innocence and moral authority, by manipulating things that represent our familiar surroundings and turning them into threatening tentacles of invisible authorities. The fact that these are soft toys in a child's bed can be understood as a direct commentary. However, it would rather seem to be a metaphor for the way things that are too familiar can become invisible enemies.
It remains uncertain who is watching and supervising whom, who installed the cameras, and who looks at the pictures. Is it the parents watching their children or the babysitter? Is it invisible agents acting for political or burocratic interests? Or is it young Dorian Grays looking for attention and desire, who feed their own pictures directly into the internet, seduced by the media's promise of fame? Is it a question of the power of authoritarian control, of moral pressure or of exhibitionism in the sitting room? Just as the boundaries between the private and the public sphere become blurred in Bonde's installation, those between the perspectives of subject and object also appear indistinct in the context of surveillance. Connotations related to the voyeurism and exhibitionism of the webcam idiocy that reaches new heights of excess in TV shows like Big Brother are just as logical associations as those of a totalitarian surveillance state and its perfidious culture of informants. The installation's title is meant to be a commentary on the paranoia about surveillance which Bonde deals with in his works. I never had hair on my body or head is a quote taken by the artist from the psychiatric questionnaire issued by a Copenhagen clinic. The doctors there assessed the psychological state of their patients using the »yes« or »no« answers to these irrational statements.  Bonde's work does not take the aestheticization of voyeurism as its theme, but the obsession with this phenomenon: surveillance paranoia. Since the nineties, Niels Bonde has made a name mostly with installation and media art. In Big Brother Blueprint for the Buenos Aires Biennial Festival 2001, for example, he deals with the large-scale mediatization of the private sphere under surveillance by drawing the floor plan of the TV Big Brother house on the walls and adding quotes from Karl Marx to Foucault dealing with the topic of social control. In a preceding work, The Conversation, he invites the visitors to sit down in a sort of cupboard, in which he has collected childhood memories of games involving pursuit. Here, he uses his own adolescent experiences of insecurity and humiliation caused by forms of social control. In the Take Away project of 2000, he, along with other artists, photocopied his diary, and distributed the copies as reading material on the local public transport. Bonde used the probably most excessive form of exhibitionism for his CCTV installation of the millennium party put on by Josh Harris in a New York loft. The party, which could almost be called an orgy, lasted for a whole week and was attended by around 50 invited guests. For the installation Wet Dream, Bonde's contribution to the exhibition Quiet, around 90 cameras transmitted live pictures from the party loft to the Leo Koenig Inc. Gallery, the organizer of the exhibition. Details from this work also found their way into the Big-Brother version of Josh Harris's WeLiveInPublic.com made shortly afterwards. The work of Niels Bonde reflects the process of habituation and suspicion, of self-interest and discomfort, while dealing with forms of social control.
Translated from German by Tim Jones
1 See Niels Bonde in: Jennifer Ridell, The Art of Detection: Surveillance in Society, MIT Press, Cambridge/Mass. 1997, p.27. ^