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Watching Me Watching You

In 2011 I was asked to put something together for Falun Walk of Art, a project where different types of video art is shown in windows spread throughout the town of Falun in Dalarna, Sweden. There's a longer video further down, but here's a peek at the finished product.


For a long time I had been wanting to make something where two screens interact. Originally that was how my audiovisual project "2 Eyes 2 Ears" was going to work, but it used music and I couldn't risk it going out of sync, even just a frame or two, so I ended up using a projector for the installation. (2 Eyes 2 Ears is not currently available online due to copyright restrictions.) But there's a certain something about actually having two separate televisions interact, and since audio wasn't a possibility this time, as it would be displayed in a shop window, I decided to go for it.

When it comes to video art, projectors are great because they remove all boundaries, but since the screen is more confining it can also be very interesting to keep those boundaries, and then break them! And the television screen is a symbol in and of itself, with meanings and connotations worth exploring. For a start, the television screen is something we'll sit and watch for hours and hours, and some would say it's a tool to keep people subdued. Like cattle.

George Orwell's 1984, the tagline "Big Brother Is Watching You", and the accompanying iconography is deeply integrated into our shared social framework. The connection to the television show Big Brother says a lot about how strange the form of that integration has become in this society where everything is about being seen, being noticed, and being approved of. In summary the TV is something we watch, but it's also, in some corner of our mind, watching us.


So these were the thoughts running through my mind when I decided to make something with a type of Big Brother character staring grimly out at people walking past and displaying very 1984-ish messages along the lines of "YOU ARE NOT WORTH ANYTHING".

My Big Brother was originally supposed to be a military man, and I spent hours searching online and in real life for a military uniform and, more importantly, an impressive officer's hat. In the end I decided to slap on a suit instead, which worked just as well, although it changed the feel of the character a bit and I had to tone down the acting (which would have been more over the top if I'd had military clothes).

On the other screen I wanted a character who was the absolute opposite of the neat Big Brother. Someone scruffy and unkempt, who does his best to distract and irritate the Big Brother, mainly by writing anti-propaganda messages and trying to get passer-bys to read those instead. Ultimately that would result in a direct confrontation along the lines of the images below.

I resolved quite early to play both characters myself. It seemed like an appropriate mirror-effect, and I decided to use the age-old trick of cutting my hair between characters, which felt a bit childish and gimmicky, but as you can see I was becoming a bit of a scruffy bastard and seriously needed a haircut anyway.


Planning is everything for this sort of project. Production-wise it was a lot like my music video Feet, where different video tracks are interacting in a similar way. Like with Feet I prepared a detailed previz (animated storyboard) and played around with it until it contained all the elements I wanted. I then recorded audio-commands along the lines of "Turn left in 3... 2... 1... now!" and synced them up with the things happening in the previz. That gave me an audio file that I could play while filming, telling me what to do. This, like every part of the process, was to preserve synchronization between the two screens.

After all that planning the performance itself was deceptively easy. It felt as if I must have forgotten something, and I was slightly reluctant to get that haircut... But I find that's the case with most filmmaking - If you know exactly what you need you'll often be surprised by how quickly you can get it. So I got a haircut, changed the background, and recorded screen two.

It turns out balloons don't actually float in the slow meandering fashion I had imagined, so most of the balloons you see in the final version had to be animated, but I thought it would all look fake without a few real ones floating around, so enlisted some help in throwing balloons at me for the last bit.


Making video art is, in terms of editing, completely different from making regular films because art is usually displayed in a very different context, and doesn't establish any type of traditional "contract" with the viewer. For instance Watching Me Watching You is shown in a store window on a street in the centre of town, and as such it is unlikely to hold the attention of a passer-by for the full 10 minutes it takes to loop. It's also winter so people don't want to hang around outside anyway.

Working under that assumption I divided the piece into three parts where quite different things are happening. The goal was not to make people stop and watch for ten minutes (though that'd be cool), but rather to make it so that every time you pass something different is being shown!

In the first part the Big Brother is staring out menacingly and displaying his angry messages while the "Slacker" sleeps. In the second part the Big Brother is doing the same while the Slacker wakes up and and starts writing anti-propaganda, and the third part is where the characters actually start interacting, where the Big Brother pulls a gun and things start passing between the screens.

Most of the loop is made so that it will still work even if it goes a second or two out of sync, but there are points where things pass between the screens and could thus appear on both at the same time. We did everything imaginable to preserve synchronization, including getting two identical DVD-players in case different models took longer to loop. Also instead of making the two DVDs loop after one play I filled the discs up with 12 repetitions, since the loop point itself is where things could get messed up.

Magasinet, who arranges Falun Walk of Art together with Falu kommun and Centrala stadsrum, did a great job of finding two perfect screens and actually building the stylish pedestals that put the screens at eye-level. All in all it turned out looking much better than I could have imagined!

The Finished Product

So this piece is about being seen and judged, possibly by our government (implied by the suit), but also by the public (ourselves). I think it's a relevant topic in today's world where people can lose their jobs over something they've said on Facebook - where people forget what is public and what is private. We all want attention - we're worried about The Surveillance Society, but we want everyone to subscribe to our YouTube. We want to be seen and we want to be liked. Preferably on Facebook.

Even I (especially I) am doing this. Apart from peddling my productions online I literally put this thing, featuring me, in the public space, and this whole post is about how I tried to make it grab people's attention! I am also one of those smug people trying to Say Something About Society, for which I am doubly damned...

On the surface Watching Me Watching You might be a statement about the dangers of a Surveillance Society, and our first choice of store window actually rejected showing my piece because the description apparently made it sound too dangerous. Even though I explained about the balloons and everything! But in the end I see it as a playful subversion and parody of the very concept of a surveillance society.

On the other hand... Are you sure your webcam is switched off?

Jakob Burrows

Text published December, 2011

Video published November, 2011