As a new book from the film-maker Laura Poitras reveals her experience of Big Brother, Fiona Macdonald looks at how artists are using classified materials and spying technologies.

“I haven’t written in over a year for fear these words are not private. That nothing in my life can be kept private.” With these sentences, Laura Poitras began a journal that documented her life as a subject of surveillance by the US government.

The US artist, journalist and film-maker won an Academy award in 2015 for Citizenfour, a documentary showing the Edward Snowden leaks as they unfolded in real time. It turned out that she had been tracked for a decade before that, attracting attention when making her documentary My Country, My Country in 2004. Poitras later discovered she had been placed on a federal government watchlist for filming the aftermath of an Iraqi insurgent attack from the roof of a house in Baghdad. She argues that the footage – lasting eight minutes – did not reveal anything about insurgent or US military positions, but it was enough for her to be marked out. The process reduced her to a nervous wreck, unable to sleep or think straight – as she recorded in her journal, pages from which are on display in a new exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

Extracts from that journal also appear in a new book, out on 23 February, revealing the thoughts of artists, novelists and academics on the modern state of mass surveillance. With contributions from Dave Eggers, Ai Weiwei and Snowden himself, it’s being sold as “a ‘how-to’ guide for living in a society that collects extraordinary amounts of information on individuals”. Subtitled A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance, the book is as much a first-hand account of being a spying subject as a rumination on privacy and Big Brother.

I am battling with my nervous system. It doesn’t let me rest or sleep – Laura Poitras

“I am battling with my nervous system,” writes Poitras. “It doesn’t let me rest or sleep. Eye twitches, clenched throat, and now literally waiting to be raided.” She hadn’t intended to include much from the journal in her book, but as she was transcribing it, she told Wired, “I realised that it was a primary source document about navigating a certain reality.”

It’s an insight that takes the Whitney exhibition beyond dry academic debates or rabid Reddit threads. And it’s something artists are increasingly contributing: an engagement with what surveillance really feels like, away from the headlines. While they don’t all have Poitras’s personal viewpoint, many are able to mark the experience of being spied on in ways that resonate far more than reams of classified documents. They, too, can teach us how to live in a state of surveillance.

Make the invisible visible

Some simply provide images where none exist. “We’ve become used to the mediation of war, the live coverage of shock and awe, cameras in the nosecones of cruise missiles. Before TV, radio reported from war zones; before photography, newspapers sent illustrators to the battlefield,” says the British artist James Bridle. In 2012, Bridle and Norwegian designer Einar Sneve Martinussen embarked on a series called Drone Shadows, painting the outlines of what Bridle calls “flying death robots” directly onto city streets to offer a haunting vision that is part crime reconstruction, part military map.

Bridle became interested in the point of view of the drones, reading reports about strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen collected from eyewitness accounts and local media by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “I was struck by the absence of imagery,” he says. “This war, the most technologically advanced and apparently endless war, was devoid of imagery. And yet at the same time, we’ve spent the last decade obsessively photographing the planet from space, and building image-sharing networks that connect the cameras in everyone’s pockets to everyone else.”

We’ve become used to the mediation of war, the live coverage of shock and awe, cameras in the nosecones of cruise missiles – James Bridle

So he joined the dots, and started to post Google Maps satellite images of “the landscapes of the drone war” on social media each time a strike was reported. “Villages in Waziristan, quiet desert roads in Shabwa, coastal settlements in Shabelle – places no Western reporters or soldiers go to, bombed by robots, photographed by other robots, circulating through Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr.” Spanning 2012 to 2015, his Dronestagram project accumulated 121 posts and 20,000 followers.

Go under the radar

Other artists create work that fights back against encroaching surveillance. Adam Harvey’s designs offer counter-surveillance through clothing, drawing on fashion to give control back to those being monitored. It’s “a natural response to living in an environment of mass surveillance”, he tells BBC Culture. “Being constantly watched over by CCTV, ensnared in social media photos, having our licence plates scanned and our faces analysed does not offer comfort, it creates anxiety.”

Art has the advantage of being a ‘demilitarised’ zone where we can agree to see each other's point of view - Adam Harvey

Harvey’s attempts to address that anxiety include a range of ‘stealth wear’, featuring ‘anti-drone garments’ made of reflective material that avoids detection by thermal imaging and a pouch that allows wearers to block their mobile phone signal. His copper wallet insert stops credit cards being scanned by radio frequency identification (RFID), while his Camoflash ‘anti-paparazzi clutch’ emits a bright light so that any photo taken of the subject is overexposed. “Art and design can approach problems of mass surveillance in ways that other industries can’t,” says Harvey. “Art has the advantage of being a ‘demilitarised’ zone where we can agree to see each other's point of view before engaging in a direct action. Or art and design can engage opposing audiences, such as the Pentagon and the fashion community.”

Harvey’s CV Dazzle project was inspired by the ‘dazzle paintings’ that camouflaged warships during World War One. He experimented with different combinations of make-up and hairstyles to find patterns that would be unrecognisable to facial recognition software. The artist believes his work can have an impact beyond just raising awareness. “Art is about establishing new normals and pushing us towards a better outcome,” he says. “And I think counter-surveillance artwork helps show that surveillance is not infallible. In fact, it often contains vulnerabilities (thermal imaging is blocked with metallised fabric), is brittle (face detection algorithms can be broken by styling your hair a certain way), or sold as security theatre (airport body scanners fail to see many hidden objects). When we move past our fears and anxieties about these technologies then I think we can see that they’re not all necessary, worth the money, or worth the cost to privacy.”

Turn the camera back

Another artist has turned surveillance technology back on its operators. When Google refused John Gerrard’s request to photograph its data farm in Oklahoma, the Irish digital artist hired a helicopter and took a detailed photographic survey from the air. According to Gerrard, when he asked local police what his legal position was, they told him: “All we can say is, the air is free.” As The Guardian put it, he “out-Googled Google, offering a sneak peek at its less than beautiful underbelly”.

These art works offer us an interesting way in to feeling where the limits of power might lie, and in whose favour - Cadence Kinsey

Artists who explore issues of privacy are often looking at a balance of power, according to Cadence Kinsey, the head of a University College London research project called Art after the Internet. “Communications technologies have enabled individuals to obtain, and share, information; but those same technologies are also being used to gather information about individuals through mass surveillance techniques,” she tells BBC Culture. “These competing power dynamics are central to many of our cultural mythologies about virtually all kinds of technology as simultaneously liberating and controlling, a mechanism of resistance but also of exploitation. These artworks offer us an interesting way in to feeling where the limits of power might lie, and in whose favour.”

That insight stretches from maps of drone attacks to fashion accessories enabling privacy. “On one hand, counter-surveillance is about making public places more acceptable. On the other hand, it is also about directly antagonising power asymmetries through creative interventions to create a more even playing field,” says Harvey.

Where is the stuff that mass surveillance is made of, and what does it look like? - Trevor Paglen

Exploring the limits of power also takes in that most bureaucratic of spying ephemera, the classified document. Artists have interacted with the Snowden leaks directly, exposing released files in ways that are often more arresting than news reports. Trevor Paglen’s photos appear to show a murky seascape beneath the waves: but on closer inspection they reveal tiny snakelike shapes on the ocean floor. The US artist gained a diving certificate so he could document fibre-optic cables off the coast of Florida – cables that carry online communications and, according to documents leaked by Snowden, have been tapped by the NSA. “When we talk about the internet or mass surveillance – which are basically two sides of the same coin at this point – we use horribly mystifying metaphors to describe them: the cloud, the world wide web, the Information Superhighway, and so on,” Paglen told Vice. “But… where is the stuff that mass surveillance is made of, and what does it look like?”

Jenny Holzer made a painting out of a smiley face on an NSA slide (drawn next to a plan for circumventing encryption), commenting that "I picked the doodle because it is friendly looking and sinister. I've wondered if Snowden is a hero or traitor or both. I wonder what I should know and what to do with that information.”

Take direct action

Can the work of artists like Bridle or Paglen make a real difference? Kinsey isn’t sure. “Does revealing the location of covert drone operations or NSA-tapped cables adequately resist them?” she asks. “To what extent are such works able to redistribute power by making information visible?” While acknowledging that by making sense of the relationships between technology and society, art like this has an activist aspect, Kinsey argues, “This is a very different strategy to that adopted by earlier artistic movements that engaged with communications technology, such as Tactical Media.” She points to groups like Critical Art Ensemble and Electronic Disturbance Theatre, who carried out DDoS attacks. “Although not necessarily about classified information, these groups clearly engaged in active forms of resistance against power: they were working to shut it down, rather than simply reveal it.”

Perhaps the Whitney show takes a more subtle form of resistance: in asking the viewer to see classified material, it also asks them to collude, however indirectly, with those branded traitors by the US government. “There is a dilemma with seeing Laura Poitras’s exhibition… it is a violation to view classified materials. Yet they are public and on display for you to see,” says Harvey. “If you don't see them you can't understand the extent of mass surveillance. If you do seem them maybe your mobile location is recorded. Who knows.” We can no longer be passive subjects of surveillance, he believes. “Once you see it you can’t unsee it… I like the tension created by this dilemma. It forces everyone going to the show to make a decision.”

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