The art of surveillance?
Wired has an interesting piece called the Art of Surveillance. It’s about “citizen-friendly surveillance”. Isn’t this an oxymoron? Personally, I don’t see how surveillance cameras that pry and snoop can be “citizen-friendly”. And a recent UK Government report highlighted what many of us think – CCTV/public webcams do zippo when it comes to preventing crime. If you missed my post on this report entitled National CCTV Strategy, go here to read it.
But back to today’s post – apparently designers, architects and filmakers are making art out of the technology that is controlling, sorry watching, over us. If you ever look at CCTV cameras around the places humans inhabit (do you ever stop and look?), you’ll probably notice that they are generally black glass-domed unblinking electronic eyes. Cold and silent. Our culture is surveillance-saturated. And so some dudes are tarting up the electronic eyes so they look less sinister. So here’s an example by a San Francisco interactive artist. A black-and-white camera tracks pedestrians as they stroll an adjacent plaza. Live video feed is transformed into giant animations projected on the rotunda’s 60-by-80-foot glass-and-aluminum façade:
Frankly, I’m putting a question mark after the title of Wired’s piece. Turning surveillance equipment into artistic expressions or making them less 1984-looking simply glosses over the issue – they still remain instruments of control and data collection. I’m sure artists and designers think they are subverting surveillance mechanisms and helping to make us feel more comfortable with them. But the facts are dark – what happens to all the footage collected? Who exactly is watching over us? Is there profiling going on? If a UK Government report admits that CCTV cameras don’t deter crime, then what’s the point of having millions of CCTV cameras around the world?
Here’s Mojo, which shines a spotlight on pedestrians as they walk along. The creator of Mojo says he simply wants to “energize street life”. Sorry, but Mojo looks like a creepy surveillance tool to me. No attempt at tarting up a CCTV camera to look inquisitive and friendly convinces me.
And then there’s the “You Are Being Followed” theme going on here:
This is a photo of a bridge in Luxembourg that has passive infrared sensors. So as pedestrians walk along the bridge, pink and white neon tubes light up and then dim as they pass. The interactive designer says: “Each individual drags along cultural baggage, the personal light sphere which surrounds the traveler. Metaphorically, your shadow of light follows you as you move from one end to the other.” Intellectually, I understand and agree with this. But it also highlights for me just how prevalent an issue surveillance has become in our society. When artists and designers get hold of it, you know it’s a societal issue. And pink and white lights following people as they walk along a bridge is a reification of the notion of surveillance and just makes it more concrete and smack in your face if you ask me.
Although, we could look at this another way – our society is narcissistic. Contemporary society is grandiose, self-indulgent, boastful and pretentious. This is why we are inflicted with so many crappy reality shows – it’s your chance for 15 minutes of fame. This is why we build McMansions that stretch from fence to fence leaving little room for the front or backyard. This is why we are heading towards spending a record amount this Christmas, despite worries over mortgage rate increases and sub-prime lending, and why charity donations are at a worryingly low level. We concentrate on the self, not the other. So you could look at surveillance cameras through the narcissistic lens – if you pass through the glare of one, you have your instant fame, you are immortalised on film. It’s about paying attention to you and preening over you – the individual. And so an artist interpreting CCTV as surveillance-meets-narcissism comes as no surprise.
In this image, a Los Angeles interactive designer uses a mirror-like monitor that displays a real-time video feed of human faces. It’s a sculpture that stores previously captured images in a database and projects them onto a courtyard wall to form an ever-changing portrait gallery.
I suspect we’ll start to see attempts to turn surveillance cameras into works of art. I can certainly imagine a future where you’re trotting down Pitt Street mall in Sydney; you glance to your left and spot an image of yourself in some mirror-like monitor. The image changes seconds later to show another fellow citizen in glorious colour. I can see how this just might appease us, make us feel warm and fuzzy – our individual image is so important that it shines up there in a public portrait gallery. The tracking of people turned into an interactive communal experience.
I’m not sure how to describe how these surveillance cameras make me feel. It’s as though they are an add-on, not part of the composition or the construction. For me, when you add a CCTV camera, the landscape or the composition suddenly becomes dark, repressive, manipulated. I was thinking the other day that with the rise and rise of global capitalism over the last 20 or so years, there are various key notions associated with this phenomenon – transparency, trust and openness come to mind. So surveillance cameras fall in line with the capitalist phenomenon – they remove the darkness and invisibility and provide transparency. Because if you’re hidden or opaque, you’re not to be trusted or you are suspicious. So surveillance equipment shines the light of transparency on society and reveals the transparent society. Not sure about this – I need to think more so I can develop a better argument.