Talk about serendipity -- or, more likely, awesome good luck -- the Jersey City Museum has just unveiled a show of contemporary art called "Surveillance," a subject so timely even the display copy mentions the Bush administration's spying on U.S. citizens through the National Security Agency. It takes months to plan and pull together an exhibition, but this one seems like it was guided by "real-time intelligence," as agent Jack Bauer of the paranoia-era television show 24 would say.
It's a small show, just seven artists and the Surveillance Camera Players, actors who perform elegantly abbreviated versions of well-known plays for the surveillance cameras that are increasingly prevalent throughout urban and suburban environments.
At first, the group thought of their performances as "entertainment for security guards." But it wasn't long before the relationship to performance art became apparent: video format, stylized action, cue card prompts for narrative drive, almost nobody staying through to see the whole thing. So they started showing the grainy, bootlegged tapes (which they have to cajole out of security guards) in art shows like this one. While this viewer was at the museum, the Players' version of 1984 acted on a Manhattan subway platform was running on a monitor.
All the different ways the Surveillance Camera Players engage popular culture -- miming familiar stories, redefining public space and the obvious it-don't-happen-unless-it's-on-TV parody -- tickle your attitudinals. But it's the confrontation with being surveilled that touches something special.
The Surveillance Camera Players make you think of the security guard staring at his monitors, how boring it must be, and of how much average citizens passively cooperate by paying no attention to the cameras as they trudge by. They even make you think of how, by distracting the guards, the Players are in some sense screwing up the security system -- like, the rent-a-cops can't be watching all the monitors if they've gotten caught up in Big Brother's actual dramatized Newspeak. And that kinda makes you admire the Players; at least, they're aware of it all [...]
That "Surveillance" is not the perfect exhibition on its theme seems less relevant than its timeliness. The Jersey City Museum is looking over your shoulder, but only because it's got your back.
(Written by Dan Bischoff, and published in the Sunday, 12 February 2006 edition of The New Jersey Star-Ledger.)
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