From 19 February to 21 February 2009, Bill Brown of the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) traveled to Montreal, Canada, to make a map of the surveillance cameras installed in La Ville Souterraine and then give a walking tour based upon it. Sponsored by the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA), Bill's visit supplemented the SCP's participation in the exhibition entitled Actions: Comment s'approprier la ville, which the CCA curated and hosted between 26 November 2008 and 19 April 2009, and which included more than a dozen such maps Bill has made over the years, as well as a copy of the SCP's classic performance of George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Other participants in the exhibition -- and thus the exhibition catalogue, Actions: What You Can Do With the City (SUN, 2008), which was edited by its curators, Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi -- included an international assortment of guerrilla gardeners, dumpster-divers, radical pedestrians, stencil-writers, urban explorers, parkour traceurs and (closest to the SCP) the Institute for Applied Autonomy's iSee project.
La Ville Souterraine is in fact not an underground city (quel dommage!), but a series of interlocking passageways and halls that run through the ground-floor lobbies and basements of the buildings that stand within the 20-bloc-long rectangle (bordered by two light-rail "subway" lines) that is at the heart of "New Montreal." Le Vieux-Montreal refers to the waterfront, which was cut off from the rest of the area during the "modernization" that took place in anticipation of the International Exposition, which was held in Montreal in 1967 (aka Expo '67). Whole neighborhoods were destroyed so that a highway could cut right through the rebuilt city.
Predictably, the "galleries," "atriums," "pavilions" and "courtyards" in La Ville Soutrraine are now filled with a very odd mixture of hotels, museums, government offices, university campuses, train stations, banks, cathedrals, and (last but certainly not least) shops, stores, stalls, booths, "food courts," restaurants and bars of all kinds. Legally speaking, La Ville Souterrain is privately opened (it closes down "for the night" at 1 am, as does virtually everything else in this city of two million people), but its image, charm and very success depends upon its public character. Just as one is supposed to be "free" to choose among products and services, one must be "free" to dwell in places in which these products and services are bought and sold. It goes without saying that each galerie and all of their interconnected passageways are surveilled by video cameras and patrolled by guards with radio links to other guards. In an interesting twist, each galerie employs its own private security company, which are of course legally distinct entities but maintain strong connections with each other and the Montreal Police Department.
To make matters manageable, the CCA suggested that Bill focus on the Le Complexe Desjardins, which occupies an entire city block, centers upon a fountain that is encircled by a balcony-like "floor" of "underground" space, is guarded by the Reseau Info-Securite Montreal (RISM) and owned by the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Bill mapped out the complex on Thursday, 19 February and Friday the 20th. A total of six hours of work were required to locate a total of 90 cameras: 61 "second generation" cameras (enclosed in protective globes and capable of panning, zooming and tilting [PZT] movements), and 29 "first generation" cameras (enclosed in boxes or tubes and incapable of any movement). These cameras were pretty evenly distributed between the complex's two "floors": forty-eight of them (14 first-generation and 34 second-generation) at the bottom and forty-two (15 and 27) at the top. A single second-generation camera was installed in a highly elevated position, from which it can no doubt see both "floors." The Complexe Desjardins website claims that there are a total of "116 digital cameras" in operation on its premises. No doubt the 26 cameras that Bill "missed" are installed in places that he didn't feel comfortable wandering through, clipboard in hand, well-dressed but sweating like a pig (see below).
Before his first visit to the complex, and following upon their first meeting together, Bill was presented with a half-serious, half-ironic letter written on CCA letterhead and signed by Mirko Zardini, the Director and Chief Curator of the CCA. Translated (by Bill) from the French, this amusing pleasantry stated "to whom it may concern" (a qui le droit):
With this letter I emphasize the fact that Mr. William Brown, from Cincinnati, Ohio, has been invited by the Canadian Center for Architecture in the framework of our public presentations accompanying the exposition Actions: What you can do with the city. Mr. Brown is a researcher into urbanism and public space; his current research concentrates on the presence of surveillance tools in the city.
During his stay in Montreal, Mr. Brown will conduct research into video cameras in public places. This research will conclude on Saturday 21 February with a guided tour of la ville souterraine so as to discuss with the citizens [who are present] the presence of security and preventive measures in the public domain. This activity has no negative intention; it is uniquely organized for the purposes of public education. Mr. Brown and the participants of this workshop will follow all of the regulations of the spaces within la ville souterraine.
If you have any worries on the subject of this programme, do not hesitate to contact me at the Canadian Center for Architecture. Please accept the expression of my distinguished salutations [...]
Of course Bill never had the need to bring out this wonderfully worded lettre d'introduction, and, when it came time for Bill to give the tour, Mr. Zardini himself was in attendance, as was co-curator Giovanna Borasi and curatorial team-member Peter Sealy.
Indeed, the most difficult aspect of this enterprise wasn't the guards or their surveillance cameras, nor the fact that, legally speaking, Bill could be asked to leave the complex at any time, but the great contrast in temperatures between "inside," where it was always very warm (heated for everyone's "comfort"), and "outside," where it was fucking freezing (Montreal in the middle of winter: go figure). On both days he mapped, and the following day, when he offered his walking tour (2 pm on Saturday the 21st), Bill -- dressed to keep warm during the walk to and from the complex -- ended up sweating his ass off, even when he intentionally wore a lighter coat and took it off after he arrived. Same thing in the train stations and subway cars: hot and stuffy.
Though the CCA announced that reservations were required (technically speaking one cannot bring together more than 20 people in the Complexe Desjardins without getting special permission in advance, which Bill found very reminiscient of Guiliani's New York City in the late 90s), and though only 15 people had officially reserved a place, the walking tour drew 35 people. Some were young, in their twenties, while others were older, in their fifties and sixties; almost all were "white." Despite the size of the group and the cumbersomeness with which it moved, the complex's security guards kept their distance and only intervened once or twice (without either aggression or success, in any case) when someone tried to take photographs too ostentatiously.
Speaking to his audience in a mixture of English and French, Bill divided the tour into two parts. The first lasted until 3 pm and was limited to the complex itself, while the second re-convened at 3:45 pm at the corner of rue Mackay and rue Sainte-Catherine, where Bill had located a large and characteristically "triangulated" cellphone tower (third generation technology). During the first part, Bill was hesitant to speak at the "top" of his voice or use a loudspeaker, and so, over time, some people left because they were having a hard time hearing him. When the group finally re-convened out in the wind and the snow, its numbers were down to ten (six "civilians," three people from the CCA, and Bill himself), but its spirit was hearty and the conversation remained as lively and rich as it had been before, while inside the complex.
Several points Bill made during the tour merit recounting and/or elaboration here:
1) "cities" (urban spaces) are not necessarily large concentrations of tall buildings, commodities, storehouses, automobiles and trains (and the respective roads on which these vehicles run), but are places in which large numbers of people are present at the same time and in the same place;
2) accidental collisions, opportunities for chance or anonymous encounters, and short-lived interactions of all kinds are common, sometimes desirable, sometimes not, but are always inevitable in such places;
3) there is a "natural" theatricality to this phenomena, which is called urban life;
4) in such theatrical spaces, everyone has agreed to play their respective parts, to display themselves and to look at the others, to see and be seen, but they have agreed to do so precisely because everyone else is; those who hide themselves are breaking the fundamental rules of the game and cannot be tolerated;
5) this natural theatricality is drastically weakened by, but survives the invention and ever-increasing use of cameras, because the person being photographed or videotaped can still identify and speak directly with the person who is wielding the camera(s);
6) surveillance cameras operated by remote control -- such as those one finds in the Complexe Desjardins (especially the one placed at the top the structure) -- are designed and placed so that they can't easily be seen, and yet, rule-breakers though they are, they are precisely the ones officially tasked with seeing to it that the rules of the game are followed (by everyone else);
7) remote-controlled PZT surveillance cameras can zoom in on and thus "atomize" crowds of people into isolated individuals, who can then be identified and tracked, if need or whimsy be;
8) especially when these same surveillance cameras are attached to TV screens that display that they are recording (when you can see yourself on a surveillance monitor), but also when surveillance tapes are broadcast on TV and consumed as info/entertainment, one can certainly speak of the appropriation of what used to be (called) urban life; and
9) when the Surveillance Camera Players perform, or when Bill offers one of his walking tours, the strategy is not to "appropriate" the city (s'approprier la ville), but to reappropriate what is ours, has been taken from us, and then sold back in a different form.
Two hours before the tour began, Bill performed a brand-new French translation of his own version of Denis Beaubois' classic surveillance-camera theatre piece entitled Amnesia in front of the surveillance cameras that are installed inside the CCA itself. Je suis victim d'amnesia. Vous me surveillez partout tous les jours. Pouvez vous m'aider? Qui suis-je? Normally opposed to staging such risk-free "interventions," Bill agreed to perform in this instance for a variety of reasons: to further the potlatch begun by Mirko; to test his ability to spot cameras easily and quickly (the ones in the CCA turned out to be hidden, not openly displayed); and to take advantage of a unique opportunity that involved performing without anyone from the CCA accompanying him, whenever he wanted, whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted, inside the CCA. All Bill had to do was call either Giovanna or Mirko when he had finished, and they would in turn call the building's security department and ask that the videotapes for the entire day be preserved. To make matters easier, Bill informed his co-conspirators at the CCA that his performance would take place at 12 noon.
Predictably, Bill was able to perform unhassled for several minutes before one of the CCA's security guards interceded. After asking Bill what he was doing, and after being told that he had amnesia, that the CCA's cameras were obviously surveilling him, and that he was asking for their help in determining who he was, this rather large and unamused person stood between Bill and the camera to which he was addressing himself, thereby blocking the action. But when "back up" arrived in the form of a remarkable man named William Geddes, who has been a guard at the CCA since it opened, things became much less dour. Recognizing the style of Bill's performance from the SCP's videotaped version of Nineteen-Eight-Four, which he had studied very closely, as he does with virtually everything exhibited at the CCA, Monsieur Geddes radioed headquarters that the sign-carrying man wasn't actually an amnesiac or otherwise psychologically disturbed person, but seulement an artiste, thus putting every one at ease. Still standing in front of one of the surveillance cameras, the two Bills engaged in a long, friendly and fascinating conversation about the New World Order, the Freemasons and the assassination of JFK, among many other topics.Report filed 24 February 2009.
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