Interview: Dries Depoorter - Caught on Camera

The work of Dries Depoorter explores technology in the modern world. His latest project using AI has certainly ruffled some feathers. Paul Milligan speaks to the Belgian artist.

Belgian artist Dries Depoorter certainly has a unique eye when it comes to assessing the use of technology in 21st century society. In just five years as an artist, he has built up an impressive portfolio of work, which always pushes the envelope when it comes to themes of privacy, surveillance, and permission. Depoorter’s background unsurprisingly is in electronics, he then went on to study the arts and describes his work as a “combination of arts and technology”.

Depoorter has caught the eye of the public and the press alike with projects such as Die With Me, a chat app you can only use when you have less than 5% battery on your phone, and Tinderin, which features side-by-side profile pictures of LinkedIn and Tinder of the same person. But it is his latest project, called Flemish Scrollers, which has made the most noise.

For Flemish Scrollers Depoorter has written AI software that automatically tags Belgian politicians when theyare caught using their phones during a parliamentary debate. Every meeting of the Flemish government in Belgium is live streamed on a YouTube channel, so when a livestream starts the software searches for phones and tries to identify a distracted politician using AI. The video of the distracted politician is then posted to a Twitter and Instagram account with the offending politician tagged. The software is written in Python and uses facial recognition to identify the politician. The software started running in July this year. This is not the first time this issue has arisen in Belgium; in October 2019 Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon was caught playing the Angry Birds game on his phone during a parliamentary debate, but Flemish Scrollers has certainly been the most controversial and high profile.


Interview: Dries Depoorter - Caught on Camera

It has received coverage all over the world, from America to Australia. Was Depoorter surprised at the reaction it received? “I expected that, I locked my calendar for a week when it was launched, it was pretty huge. I’ve had other projects go viral but I think this was one of the biggest ones.”

Where did the idea come from? “The starting point for me was the live stream, because I do a lot of work with open surveillance cameras. I use cameras that are connected to the internet but don't have a password. I have used them in several projects in the past, so I thought there's something in this. The first concept was to create software to check the faces of the politicians to see if they were angry or what their emotions were. Doing that experiment I noticed a lot of politicians were on their phones and I realised it would be a lot more powerful if we could tweet them so they could see it on their phone when they were doing it.”

As you would imagine the way in which this project was received depends on whether you were a voter or a politician. The public were simultaneously amused and angry at the caught out politicians being humiliated in such a public way. The members of parliament were left embarrassed, but also angry, because they had been put in the spotlight, with many arguing they were simply answering important messages at the time (whether they actually were or not we’ll never know).
Have any politicians or parliament officials contacted Depoorter to get him to stop the project? “I can’t name names, but certain politicians in Belgian got in touch,” he says. “When they asked for politician’s reactions here in Belgium they were always super weird about it and went into defence mode – i.e. I’m checking my emails so I can reply to important stuff - Why are you protecting yourself?”

Interview: Dries Depoorter - Caught on Camera

One thing is for sure, the Flemish Scrollers project has certainly had an impact already. Since the project began the Flemish parliament has changed the way it records meetings, as Depoorter explains. “It’s still live, but before I launched my project, they would film the speaker and then show images from around the room of other people. After I launched this project, they have changed it, so if someone is speaking they only show the speaker and nothing else. I was also recording the time the MPs were on the phone in seconds, now it’s difficult to do that because there's only one camera standpoint now.”

The impact of Flemish Scrollers has not just been felt in Belgium, but across the world says Depoorter; “Every week since
I launched it, I’ve had lots of emails from different countries saying we have the same problem with our government, can we use or buy your software? How can we change things?” One slightly worrying spin-off from the project adds Depoorter is the number of emails he has received from private companies wanting to use the software to monitor employees. Considering his project has caused the ire of many local politicians, he insists that wasn’t his intention, “I don't want to attack them personally, not at all.” In fact he seems surprisingly apolitical about much of his work, insisting it is looking at technology without a critical eye. “I don’t really have an opinion about facial recognition, that's the funny part, I just make projects about it. I am showing it can be dangerous but sometimes it can be beautiful too. I don't have an opinion about this. I hope people see that in my work.”

Another of Depoorter’s projects to look at camera technology was Jaywalking, an interactive installation consisting of three buttons and three displays. On the three displays are live surveillance cameras pointed at a crossroads. The cameras are ‘unprotected’, ie have no password so can be easily accessed. The cameras location is normally chosen due to the proximity of where the exhibition is being held. Depoorter wrote software to detect if people are jaywalking, “If they cross the road when it's a red light it asks the visitor ‘Would you like to report this jaywalker?’, and then the visitor can press the button which sends an email to the closest police station with the screenshot of the jaywalker in an attachment or they can also not press the button and nothing will happen.” The email address only exists for 10 minutes so they have to decide quickly.



Interview: Dries Depoorter - Caught on Camera

Depoorter has followed that project up with one called Jaywalking Frames, in which he created a wall of more than 1,000 photo frames of people jaywalking from all over the world. In a clever touch, the photos are available to buy for the price of the jaywalking fine in that particular country.

In a time when the use of facial recognition, especially in public places, is being heavily scrutinised around the world,
it’s vital that the world of art, so often an important voice for social issues, reflects that, and causes us to question what we see around us, which is exactly what the work of Depoorter does.


Interview: Dries Depoorter - Caught on Camera






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