MSU Museum Exhibits Examine Technology’s Tracking, Tracing of People

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Courtesy of the MSU Museum.

The new exhibition considers surveillance in today's world.

From now until Dec. 11, the MSU Science Gallery presents Tracked & Traced at the Michigan State University Museum. Fifteen exhibits will be on display in the MSU Museum’s Main Gallery, with three additional exhibits scattered across downtown East Lansing and MSU’s STEM Teaching and Learning Facility to collectively examine user data, personal information, surveillance, and ethics in today’s technological world.

This is the first exhibit since the MSU Museum reopened in September after being closed during the height of the pandemic. Museum and Science Gallery Director Devon Akmon spoke to ELi about how the exhibition came to be, via Science Gallery and made possible by MSUFCU.

Akmon told ELi that the Science Gallery was created in Dublin, Ireland, to break the traditional museum mold by bringing art and science together to explore critical ideas. Science Gallery began to grow across the world. Today, there are nine affiliated members worldwide, one of them being the Science Gallery at MSU, the first one in the U.S.

“Science Gallery is an interesting project,” Akmon said. “It was basically formed to engage 15-25-year-olds around thought-provoking and contemporary ideas and things impacting the world.”

“For four years now, since Science Gallery was formed, there’s always been an annual exhibition. This year’s exhibition is exploring the idea of surveillance and its impact on society,” said Akmon.

Science Gallery put out an open call to artists, technologists, scientists, and researchers from around the world to submit an idea for exhibition.

“For ‘Tracked & Traced,’ we had almost 200 submissions, and only 15 got selected to be in the final exhibition,” Akmon said.

Among the 15 exhibitors is Abhishek Narula, Assistant Professor of Electronic Art and Intermedia & Experience Architecture in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design.

The exhibits explore how the devices and tools we use, like search engines, social media, apps, fitness trackers, retail loyalty programs, and more enable the tracking and tracing of people. There are four subthemes within the exhibition, which utilizes displays, and interactive screens.

“One looks at surveillance capitalism, the idea that data has really become the most valued commodity, in the ways in which our personal data is collected, shared, and utilized by companies and government,” Akmon said. “A second subtheme is looking at how surveillance technologies increase inequities in the marginalization of select communities.”

Akmon said the other two subthemes are a bit more optimistic.

“One is looking at how we can reclaim our own personal agency in light of prevalent surveillance throughout the world,” he said. “And lastly, one looks at the actions we can take to actually thwart some of the surveillance technologies.”

“We don’t want this to say that all surveillance is bad. We know there’s a lot of surveillance that is bad, but there are a lot of amazing things we’re seeing too, like the tracking of genomes or the ways we’re tracking the pandemic in the scientific community,” said Akmon. “Surveillance can be both beneficial and harmful, and that’s what we’re really diving into.”

Given the relevance of the topic today, Akmon said the exhibit is especially important for young people, especially college students.

“We know this has a lot of impact on the communities we serve as an institution,” he said. “We want to create space to educate people and have them think critically on the impact it’s having on their lives, but also how they can maybe gain a little bit of agency on how to push back on some of these things.”

Aside from the 15 exhibits inside, there are three additional exhibits embedded in the community. There are two in the new STEM Learning & Teaching Facility on campus. Through partnership with the East Lansing Arts Council, the exhibit “Street Ghosts” showcases images of people on display up and down Grand River Avenue at the same spots Google Street View captured their locations.

The exhibition also coincides with about 10 public programs, including virtual and in-person events, like panel discussions, workshops, and film screenings.

Ultimately, the goal of the exhibition is to start conversations, which are often facilitated by the Science Gallery’s mediators, one of Akmon’s favorite parts about the exhibit.

“One of the really neat things about Science Gallery is that we have mediators, who work in the gallery and facilitate dialogue with our guests,” he said. “They’re not like your traditional museum docent; they ask questions. I find that to be one of the most fascinating aspects because they bring such an interesting level of discourse and engagement that is really uncommon in most gallery or exhibition spaces.

The MSU Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are free, but registration is required. Masks are required indoors for all campus visitors.

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