Rose Butler. Special Operations: Deploying artists’ methods in investigative practices

This arts research has a double focus on academic as well as societal impact. I make artwork that examines borders, bordering, definition, resolution and the image; it crosses paths with the politics of big tech and surveillance. Through arts research and collaborative practice, I examine physical and digital, visible and less visible power dynamics. I produce projects and exhibitions that result in multiple outputs, of presentations, papers, publications and exhibitions.

I will discuss two projects; the first is doctoral research that commences at the Houses of Parliament, London, during the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act (2016). This surveillance legislation significantly extended the UK’s digital surveillance capabilities. It is followed by an analysis of archival film, video and photography from hidden cameras at the Stasi Records Agency, that has failed, is sabotaged or misses its subject. Research methods employ props, writing, performance-lectures, and exhibitions. Retro spyware is used covertly whilst the Investigatory Powers Bill is debated, to question what might become visible when surveillance techniques are repurposed to look at surveillance. 

Research findings emphasize, iterative, nuanced, and minor processes founded in making art that extend technique through grounded, situated and relational critique. A search for definition within the study is examined within images, arts methods, surveillance, and ethics. The study emphasizes the importance of arts research within wider contexts and its potential to question established research orthodoxies.

The second is a collaborative project (Kypros Kyprianou, Newcastle University / Jeremy Lee, Sheffield Hallam University). UNLAND is an exhibition of photographic, video, and print works at NeMe, Cyprus (April–May 2023) that presented both documented and fictional material of contested spaces within Cyprus including the Cyprus buffer zone, Varosha and British military bases.

These artworks extend the threshold of the visible through contemporary imaging techniques (photogrammetry, LiDar and AI) complemented by the particular ways that artists “look” through making work. The focus of this project has been to move representation of these complex spaces beyond navigation, illustration, aestheticization or documentation. The artists’ use of these technologies extends and disrupts their geographical, military, and forensic antecedence. “Visioning” is disturbed, warped and “messed up” while also being extended. Their processes reject “definition” and resolution in favor of “messy data”. These undercurrents come to the surface, affect the quality of the image, create alternative textures, disturb the image and unsettle representation and reporting of sites of conflict. Rather than enhancing the “quality” of the images, technologies expose the gaps, flaws, or what is missing. Through this they present the overlooked, beneath the surface, hidden, accidental or malfunctioning manifestations of “visioning”.

Rose Butler is an artist, researcher and senior lecturer of Fine Art. She uses adapted technology and custom built software alongside early cameras and analog techniques to make interactive installations, single and multi-screen videos or large-scale photographs. Through her creative, collaborative and interdisciplinary practice she examines the physical and digital, visible and less visible barriers that keep people alienated or impose power dynamics. Earlier this year, she exhibited new work as part of the exhibition UNLAND at NeMe Arts Centre, Cyprus. In 2017 she exhibited Come & Go, an interactive dance installation at the Museums of Sheffield.