Closely Watched

In New York, on December 13, 1998, the Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) put out a report on the [video] surveillance of public space in New York. Entitled New York City: A Surveillance Camera Town, the document was disquieting with respect to the unregulated proliferation of systems of video surveillance in the streets of the city. It also included a significant map of Manhattan in which 2,397 local cameras figure on the island during the period of the investigation, classified according to their capacity for movement. Beyond the undoubtedly intrinsic value of this report, it's also necessary to underscore its value as a lever in public discussion. In effect, the NYCLU accomplished with its publication the first of its objectives, to initiate a process of debate about two fundamental themes: the question of the right to privacy in public space, and the problems that derive from unregulated use of these devices (especially, the ownership, conditions of use, and distribution of the recorded images). The report ended with a call for citizen collaboration on the improvement, updating, and extension of the map. And effectively, extending this seems to have fed practices with shared affinities.

On December 10, 1996 the theatrical group The Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) began its trajectory with a silent version of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi in the Union Square subway station. It wasn't directed to the passersby, however, but to one of the surveillance cameras. According to the members of the group, they were addressing the bored security guards in the control room. The performance was followed by members of the group and curious people via the closed-circuit monitor in the station, until they missed two scenes that were interrupted by local police officers. The SCP has continued adapting, writing, and performing works for security cameras since then. In 2000, they also began organizing Surveillance Tours in New York and making public small maps of the cameras found in diverse areas. The SCP thus enlarged the NYCLU's approach to include the process of collecting this data as part of the action, and they conceive this as something diachronic. This temporal tracking of certain areas of the city is fundamental, inasmuch as it reveals the spectacular growth of the number of cameras, which have on average tripled in the period from 1996-2002. The decision to classify the cameras according to licensing (private, public, webcams, foreign embassies) is also supremely relevant, inasmuch as it reveals the primacy of private surveillance (around 70% of the local cameras) and the consequential decentralization of control.

The increase in video surveillance cameras has seen no obstacles, rather the steady will of the local authorities who promote this phenomenon as a fundamental tool in the fight against crime and terrorism. The events of 9-11 did not create, but feed this rhetoric. The majority of independent empirical studies, nevertheless, have not shown an unequivocal correlation between the augmentation of cameras and the diminution of delinquency. In most cases, the cameras displace delicate activities to less-surveilled places. In the most common scenario, the cameras serve to document, rather than to repress actions (let's remember the videos of the terrorists of 9-11); to feed voyeuristic drives (spying on sexual situations) or to compile information on suspected individuals or groups (especially activists and minorities). This accumulation of questions threatens the political alibi of video surveillance in New York, whose authorities seem to insist on keeping pace with London, the global vanguard in this matter. While in recent estimates the SCP speak of 10,000 security cameras in Manhattan alone, a recent report of the European project Urban Eye estimates the number of cameras in London at 500,000, of which around 73% are illegal.

Faced with such a somber panorama, other resistances have arisen in silent theater. The Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA), a collective of artists and engineers who explore contestatory uses of the technology, has developed iSee, an interactive map of Manhattan that is available on the web and that offers pedestrians "paths of least surveillance" between two points. A means analogous to GPS systems that drivers use to avoid obstructions, iSee uses the information collected by the NYCLU, the SCP, and the IAA itself to trace the walking route with fewest cameras. Ideally, iSee substitutes the tortuous roads of no surveillance for the economy of the shortest trajectory.

The iSee project gives the passage that permits one to avoid video surveillance, up to a certain point. The documentation and instructions for use on the web are supposed to amplify the political approach, with regard to the practices already mentioned. Above all, because IAA articulates civil rights more than a defense of privacy (but it does that, too), it is a vindication of public space's plainest meaning: a space in which all have a right to pass unnoticed, in which not everything is conspicuous, in which something can occur at any moment. Finally, a space of self-government: the multitude of pedestrians does not aspire to know it, but they recognize it.

The SCP and the IAA form part of a kind of activist network that is bound loosely to the artistic and technological worlds; a network that in August of 2002 came together in the We love New York project, workshops that introduced attendees to the use, diversion, and appropriation of technologies through mapping and signposting.

The core group Eye Beam took the initiative to organize one week of walking tours in Manhattan with the double intention of updating the by-now obsolete database that the NYCLU elaborated in 1998, and to put the participants in direct contact with the surveillance of public space. In other workshops, they utilized the information they compiled to produce maps with technologies based on systems of geographical information (GIS).

The appropriation of the maps as a tool in all these practices was necessary to emphasize its radical importance; then they turned the type of controlling gaze that is characteristically from above into their own mechanism. With an admirable twist, they turned the panoptic gaze back on itself, a laying bare. Nevertheless, these maps are fruit of a gaze reiterated from below, from an itinerant logic that has a stroll and a stroller as the principal instruments of knowledge. In effect, following the tours there were workshops, urban travels, and the lengthy process of finding, classification, and formalization.

It is fitting to indicate two grammatical aspects of these practices. In the first place, there's the fact that they are located conspicuously in the everyday. To bring the surveillance devices out of their invisibility and to make them protagonists, these practices return these devices to the scope of public discussion; this opens a space of critique. The principal merit of iSee is not perhaps that it allows one to trace a route with little or no surveillance, but that it gives us the opportunity to rethink and envision surveillance in our daily movements (displacements). Activism doesn't develop only on the everyday, but also in the everday. In the second place, these practices mobilize essentially logical tactics because, as Michel de Certeau says about modes of operation, they are not the reverse of those of the opponent: to the collecting of cameras, they don't respond with their destruction. Faced with strategic procedures that install cameras, procedures that are carried out from above, from a position of power and control over space, the only hope arises from the tactical exercise of detours, an "art of the weak" that makes favorable use of time. Movements inside the logic of power, in its fissures.

We are watching [side-bar]

The images on the left correspond to some of the cameras situated in the streets of the city of New York, in Manhattan (Times Square, and 2d Avenue at 42nd Street); they depict the webcam and traffic-surveillance cameras, and were extracted from the website of the group the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP). On the right are images that were also captured via the web by the SCP and that show one of the group's plays ("We know you are watching: mind your own business"), performed on different occasions in New York, London, and other European cities. Together with these images is one of the maps made for the "Surveillance Tours," also in the city of New York, in this case, between April and May of last year. The map indicates private cameras (500) and those operated by the police (10). One of the objectives of these maps is to show precisely that a great majority of these cameras are from private entities. On the websites of the Surveillance Camera Players and the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA), one can find different maps and alternative travel for avoiding video cameras in the city of New York, both different forums of activities and debates on this question.

(Written by Isaac Marrero and published the the 26 October 2005 issue of Espacios. Translated from the Spanish by Kim Paice, 27 July 2006.)

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