Video control: the right to remain opaque

Against a life made transparent, and spied upon by closed-circuit television cameras, the groups that defend privacy are formed. They organize sit-ins and theatrical shows in front of surveillance devices.

By now, they are everywhere. And they operate, day and night, in violation of the right of privacy. Hundreds of television surveillance cameras are installed in every part of our cities, and their numbers continually increase. Not only in Manhattan, one of the places where the density of cameras in higher than elsewhere, but also in Bologna, Italy, the first privacy-defense groups are forming. Their motto is, "A surveilled society isn't a more secure society, but one that is less free."

Among the groups that have decided to take action are the Surveillance Camera Players, a collective of New Yorker street-artists who use the surveillance cameras as tools of social awareness. In front of these cameras, the group presents short theatrical pieces and sometimes literary works that are directly inspired by the topic of video surveillance. By doing this, the group attracts the attention of the passers-by, and invites them to become aware of the fact that daily life is conducted on a stage that is encircled by surveillance cameras.

The founder of the Surveillance Camera Players is Bill Brown, a 44 year old lawyer [sic] who defines himself as a person who simply wants to find out what's going on in the city that he loves and in which he was born. For a long time, he has explored Manhattan's neighborhoods, hunting for electronic eyes. He catalogues them, subdivides them according to type and even tries to find their owners. And he organizes walking tours in which tourists and inhabitants of the "Big Apple" are encouraged to visit the city's surveilled areas.

After the September 11th terror attacks, the control measures have increased. But people such as Brown refuse to believe that the danger is proportionate to the numbers of cameras. "There were so many cameras at the World Trade Center," Brown says, "that I couldn't even count them."

"We are not disposed to renounce our civil rights in exchange for a promise of great security," Brown proclaims; "We want to globalize the rights to privacy and to live free from the control of transparency." The reference is to the Panopticon, a theory of the perfect prison, devised by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1785. Made entirely of transparent cells, this prison would have allowed a single guard, without being seen, to watch all of the inmates from a central tower. A place able to destroy every private moment, "in order to imprison not only the body, but the spirit as well," in the words of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Fearing that a surveilled society can become a transparent prison, Brown promotes the idea that "opacity is a right."

For several months, a cell of the New York group has been active in Bologna, Italy. On its official website, the Italian group declare that our cities are also suffocating from the presence of so many cameras, which often privately owned but aimed at public places. "In Bologna, one can count hundreds of cameras in certain places," the activists say. Like their American colleagues, they use their visibility in order to explore the myth that only those who have something to hide are opposed to video surveillance. All of their performances are available on-line.

Perhaps the Surveillance Camera Players Room are Quixotically tilting at windmills, but analogous initiatives are being taken up. In Pittsburgh, in the USA, there's a collective of artists and engineers that pursues its own strategies against surveillance. These include "iSee," which, through a series of on-line interactive maps, allows one to walk through Manhattan and not be watched by indiscreet eyes. You plug in your points of departure and arrival, and the software suggests the least surveilled route. The "iSee" program was exhibited at the New Museum in New York and in Italy, at the Digital_is_not_analog Festival at Campobasso, 24 to 26 October 2002.

(Written by Giancarlo Sturloni and published in the 4 November 2002 edition of Expresso. Translated from the Italian by an Internet robot and checked by a hooman being.)

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