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Columbia College Art Show Spotlights City's 'Surveillance Culture'

Columbia College MFA Thesis Show
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DNAinfo/Lizzie Schiffman

SOUTH LOOP — An art show at Columbia College Chicago offers warnings about the "surveillance culture" that has taken over Chicago and the country, a message singer Solange Knowles — who was recently caught behaving badly on an elevator camera — should heed.

The exhibit by Leonardo Selvaggio, who will graduate from Columbia Sunday with a master's in fine arts, is titled, "UR ME."

The display is part of the South Loop college's year-end festivities, which includes a nearly monthlong showcase of senior students' work at 1104 S. Wabash Ave. through May 24, and Manifest, the school's daylong music and arts festival, on Friday.

Leonardo Selvaggio joins DNAinfo Radio to discuss his "UR ME" exhibit:

Selvaggio, a New Jersey native, was inspired to create the exhibit, which includes a wall of security cameras and multiple opportunities for viewers to "borrow" his face, when he first moved to Chicago for graduate school.

"I really hadn't engaged with the idea of surveillance while I was in New York," he said. "It really wasn't until I came here and started learning about Virtual Shield, Chicago's surveillance network of over 25,000 cameras, that I really got interested in the idea, because not only is Chicago the most surveilled city in the nation, it's also qualitatively different ... because Chicago is also the national leader in fiber optics.

"We have this incredible ability to move information back and forth," he said. "The idea that 25,000 camera images could be brought to one place, run through one system, that could do all of this analysis, was very frightening to me."

Selvaggio's approach offers an experiment in dissolving his own identity, and a solution for viewers who want to preserve the privacy of their own.

After passing a wall of fake cameras that light up and animate when their motion detectors are engaged, visitors to the second-floor gallery can pose in a mirror behind a 3D-printed mask of Selvaggio's face from ThatsMyFace.com.

"It's really to set up this kind of dynamic between choosing to be yourself, and surveilled, and choosing to be me, and protected," he said. "That kind of dualism is really at the heart of this project."

Around the corner, Selvaggio distributes free paper masks of his image, with instructions on how to wear and use them. He also has flat-screen TV operating software he designed that identifies up to 10 faces and superimposes Selvaggio's visage over them in real time.

He spent nearly $2,100 creating the installation, money he raised in an Indiegogo campaign.

"I believe that when we are watched, we are fundamentally changed," Selvaggio said. "Instead of being who we are, we perform an acceptable version of ourselves. And I think that's something worth talking about."

"UR ME" and other MFA thesis projects are viewable at the Center for Book and Paper Arts & Conaway Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave. from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Fridays and from noon until 5 p.m. Saturdays through May 24.