The Art of Surveillance: A Conversation with Tristan Lajarrige

Written by Nicolas Poblete, Edited by Evelyn Burvant

I arrived at Café Parvis a bit early and decided to sit by the window. It was a hot August afternoon and I felt drained. Humidity dominated the atmosphere, and would only disappear once it would inevitably rain. I kept looking at the sky, observing the shapes and grey tones of the clouds in a hypnotic state of observation. I don’t have to wait long for something to happen.

When Tristan Lajarrige sits in front of me, he first asks me how long I have waited. I tell him I just got here, making no mention of my intimate moment of contemplation. We look at the menu and decide to share a pizza.

On the Artist

Tristan Lajarrige is a visual artist working between Tiohtià:ke / Mooniyang / Montreal and Boston. He studied photography at Concordia University and is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. He is still an emerging artist, but his work has been exhibited in various institutions in Canada and the United States.

In his younger years, Lajarrige started to make skateboarding videos of his friends. He was obsessed with the idea of documenting his observations, no matter how trivial they might have seemed. Naturally, the photographic medium suited his interests and became his favorite tool of artistic expression. His artistic practice is eclectic, sometimes harshly ambiguous, but always aesthetically pleasing and conceptually enchanting.

Photography as Performance

For his Famous Tourist Attraction series, Lajarrige visited several iconic tourist sites, such as the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, Niagara Falls, and Yellowstone National Park. While visiting these iconic spaces, he was suffocated by swarms of tourists, all brawling to take the same image with their iPhones. It was then that a rather simple idea came to his mind: “What if I resist the urge to mimic them? What if I photograph the sky above these attractions?” Each Famous Tourist Attraction work is the product of a photographic timelapse of the sky above the respective tourist attraction. These massive works assemble hundreds of individual photographs into a hypnotic grid printed on archival paper.

Niagara Falls

“Are these performances or photographic works?” I ask. He simply smiles and shrugs. Perhaps there is no distinction between the two. Nearly all of Lajarrige’s photographic works are the product of a performance, or ‘ritual’, as he calls it. To him, the substance of the work relies in its concept and in the implications of its ritual whereas the aesthetic is only the haphazard product of an alchemical process: Lajarrige’s recipes are controlled-chaos. There is a systematic methodology to Lajarrige’s artworks, but no preconceived goal. In fact, when exhibiting his works, the only textual information we have is a description of his method or process, rather than their conceptual intent. For Famous Tourist Attraction, Lajarrige gives his ‘instructions’:

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge detail

“Visit a famous tourist attraction.

Attach a camera to a tripod.

Aim the camera at the sky.

Set up the camera to automatically take a picture every second.

Enjoy the moment until the camera runs out of battery.

Create a grid with all the pictures of the sky.”

Yellowstone National Park

In Lajarrige’s practice, performance and photography become symbiotic, turning the visible artwork into a calculated refraction of an invisible, ritualistic performance. In turn, the artist invites the viewer to do the same, making us wonder where this recipe may take us.

Yellowstone National Park detail

Surveillance and the Panopticon

Beyond the logic of his process, the notion of surveillance is central to Lajarrige’s works. In a late-contemporary era where the camera has been democratized and where surveillance is ever-present, the triviality of Lajarrige’s subjects of contemplation is refreshing. Although Niagara Falls has been commodified by the photographic gaze, the sky above it has not. This representational subversion frames these works in opposition to the capitalist logic of tourist culture. Lajarrige focuses on what is often invisible in the contemporary world and liberates himself from the influence of late-contemporary surveillance culture.

“We are so obsessed with surveillance, we constantly engage in self-surveillance when traveling, during social activities, or private moments. We commodify our own experiences of escapism, and forget to live out the experiences themselves. That’s because we have internalized the idea that self-documentation is productive and that it is a form of responsibility.”

Useless Archive 1

Lajarrige mentions Michel Foucault as a source of inspiration, especially his infatuation with the pressure to act in the eyes of the other. Foucault’s allegory of the Panopticon describes a hypothetical circular prison in which every prisoner can be viewed by an invisible eye and by one another. For Foucault, the mere knowledge of this observation kept order and ensured that the prisoners remained behind bars. Social media has become a digital Panopticon for self-surveillance in which narcissism is the primary virtue. To self-document is to shape oneself in the digital landscape, and to do so is to engage with the contemporary social contract. By placing his camera aside when visiting Niagara Falls, Lajarrige forces himself to evade this contemporary urge of self-documentation in favor of an experience that is more personal, tangible, and human. He frees himself from the digital Panopticon.

Useless Archive 1 detail

A Game Against Technology

As I take a bite of our delicious Margherita pizza, I ask; “do you think you’re fighting against technology?” His report highlights the sense of playfulness ever present in his works:

“I don’t think so. I think I’m playing a game with technology. I’m trying to deceive it to remind it that its power is not infinite, that it has its limits. It’s all a game.”

Hiding Piece

Never is this feature more overt than in Hiding Piece. In this work, Lajarrige placed a 360-degree camera on a tripod in the middle of a forest. After activating an automatic mode where a photograph is taken every 10 seconds or so, he roams around the camera, trying to find hiding spots where he is invisible from the camera’s gaze. In this game of hide-and-seek, he is victorious because the camera is immobile, revealing its fundamental flaw. Even though it is designed to see everything, everywhere, all at once, the camera is defeated. The artwork itself is a montage of all of Lajarrige’s victories, showcasing all the 360-degree photographs in which the artist is invisible. Hiding Piece asserts that the Panopticon can be circumvented, unmasking its illusory power.

Hiding Piece detail

If surveillance is to be an act of violence, Lajarrige’s works of surveillance paradoxically show how it can be useless and easily deceived. For his Useless Archives series, he set a surveillance camera in front of a projected image of an AI-generated landscape in his studio. Rather than taking the photographs manually, the camera was on movement-detection mode. To trigger each photograph, he would run as fast as possible between the projected landscape backdrop and the camera. The goal was to go fast enough to be imperceptible in the photographs. After every attempt, he would change the projected image—six variations of the same landscape were used per piece in this series. The resulting works are grid-like assemblages of all of his successful runs; again documenting how physical mobility allows us to defeat surveillance.

The Meaning of a Grid

Having given attention to the conceptual aspect of these works, I want to go back to their aesthetics. I kept wondering, but never asked: “why are you so obsessed with grids?” As I am writing this, the answer seems obvious. According to Merriam-Webster, a ‘grid’ is “a network of uniformly spaced horizontal and perpendicular lines.” It is a logical system, a visual model that perfectly reflects the obsessive methodology of Lajarrige’s rituals. It is the perfect visual representation of his artistic process.

Useless Archive 2

A ‘grid’ is also a network of conductors for distribution of electric power,” becoming symbolically associated with the ‘technologic’ and the ‘systematic.’ Lajarrige’s works subvert the meaning of a grid. It uses its systematized aesthetic to present something that is uncontrollable. If the grid normally facilitates technological mechanisms, Lajarrige’s grids showcase how technological systems can fail at serving their purposes, becoming testaments of triumph over technology.

Useless Archive 2 detail

In his enigmatic work, Tristan Lajarrige explores the contemporary plague of self-documentation and surveillance. His work is consistently puzzling, multi-layered, and playfully ironic. Using his unique approach to the art of surveillance, Lajarrige’s artworks question the ethics of photography in the late-capitalist Western world.

Check out more of Lajarrige's works visit his website

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