The Fine Art of Surveillance

The year 2005 ended with a confirmation for those who doubted it: We are not paranoid. We are being watched, our conversations taped, our actions recorded. And if that makes you uncomfortable, you're unpatriotic and probably should be tracked.

President Bush has railed against criticism of his warrantless domestic "eavesdropping" (such a gentle, innocuous word) as "shameful." The NY Times was cowed. Pressure from the government -- the White House told Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau that disclosure "could be useful to terrorists" -- led the newspaper to deep-freeze the story for a year. Byron Calame, the Times' public editor, the "readers' representative," asked for an explanation. He was met instead with the newspaper's decision-makers "refusing to talk and urging everyone else to remain silent."

Still, many Americans seem apathetic in the face of government surveillance: it is for our protection; I'm no terrorist, I have nothing to hide. We have forgotten our right to privacy, grown accustomed to consensual surveillance. Our lives are already coded by identification numbers and tracking devices -- MetroCards, EZ Passes, PIN numbers, account names. We no longer associate surveillance with something genuinely sinister (totalitarian government, Big Brother) but something to be marketed (Nielsen ratings, the Big Brother house).

Activists have taken to protesting, lobbying, and even destroying surveillance devices. Some artists offer a sneakier approach: build awareness, discussion, and revulsion with subterfuge. Some practice reciprocal spying, some toy with real CCTVs; some create fantastical dystopias. The most successful of these play with the perversity of voyeuristic tools -- how they lure and why they are dangerous. Silence and secrecy power a surveillance state. Discussion and re-appropriation undermine its power.

Here's Looking at You

NameBase, an internet-based information index of articles and books, spins the mechanisms of tracking, coding, and watching to other uses. Plug a famous name into NameBase's "proximity search" function at and out comes a colorful conspiratorial mess, or "social network diagram." With the original name at the center, a nest of others cluster around. There is only momentary joy in this mapping of hidden and not-so-hidden associates, and the database of names is limited. But taking what is already available for public consumption and reorganizing it in a seemingly scientific way in order to track the trackers is a satisfyingly simple act of subversion.

With Urban Eyes Marcus Kirsch and Jussi Angesleva also use preexisting technology embedded and unseen in our cities, CCTV surveillance cameras. Instead of computer programmers, they have enlisted pigeons as their conspiratorial message carriers. Kirsch and Angesleva feed pigeons seeds containing RFID tags that communicate with a city's CCTV cameras; as the birds fly near a CCTV camera, a photograph is recorded and sent to a distinct URL. Here's an incarnation of the messenger pigeon -- photographing the city from above, alerting us to invisible eyes. The best part? The project is eco-friendly; digested devices are shat out like so many stones some 12 hours later.

Absurd and, perhaps, minor (Urban Eyes has won prizes but not funding; conspiracy, anyone?), these projects are a new form of sabotage. Ultimately, however, NameBase and Urban Eyes merely reverse the camera angle of surveillance: they say, "see, now we can spy on you" or "look, a pigeon can do this, and then shit out your technology." And the result of the pigeons' work, while a mockery of the government's surveillance program, produces what it critiques, more city surveillance pictures.

Smile, You're on Camera

Stronger projects place the viewer not in the role of the surveyor (conspiracy-map-maker or bird's-eye-spy) but of the surveyed.

Jon Kessler's constructions whiz, crank and spin in their temporary home at PS1. His site-specific The Palace at 4 A.M. is a factory of image-making -- snips of newsreels, photos of exploding cities, advertisements for the new Hummer, political figurines and airport postcards are reconfigured and rerecorded. Every object has a camera aimed at it, each construction is designed for filming, each camera has an output, and the viewer is caught in the middle. The result is maniacally fun, dizzying, and comprehensively damning.

All of the crude crafts of image-altering are open to inspection: photographs dangle from cardboard arms with duct tape; a wall of TVs exposes its backside of snaking wires and plugs. We see the magic of moviemaking (and perhaps nation-building): messily slathered blue paint on soldiers' faces becomes a blue screen open for projections; a picture of explosions taped to a window sets the Long Island City skyline on fire; thanks to a conveyor belt, a Hummer drives to the moon. In the spaces in between these pictures and moving parts, the gallery (and everyone in it) is captured on film.

Our experience of the kinetic sculptures becomes a detective narrative. And we are compelled to watch ourselves. We are caught in the mash up, implicated in the mess, and vertiginously, compulsively searching for our own images in the choreographed wreck. Seduced and incriminated, we are in these images and continue to create them.

While Kessler situates the viewer within a perverted and enhanced reality of pictures and projections, the Surveillance Camera Players use the real, perverse thing. Since November 1996 (they claim the title of first anti-surveillance group in America) the SCP have been staging "conceptually strong and very amateurish" plays in front of unmarked surveillance cameras in public locations, says co-founder and current director Bill Brown. The SCP also hosts guided tours of surveillance camera locations in New York City neighborhoods.

One performance from 2005 involved six performers each holding a signboard. The group traveled from unmarked camera to unmarked camera. The script is reproduced on the SCP website, and presented as an instruction manual for reproduction: "In order of presentation the [six] boards proclaim: It's ok, officer/Just going to work/Just getting something to eat/Just going shopping/Just sightseeing/Going home now." When passersby notice the signboards, they think they are watching actors; soon the spectators realize they are on stage also.

According to Brown, "If people know they are being watched, the watchers have lost their advantage." When security officers watch this footage, the "message will pass upstream, relayed to higher ups. This allows us to protest other forms of surveillance as a whole. Hopefully they feel embarrassed -- like boys in dark rooms watching their little cameras."

When the mics and wires of surveillance are unveiled, they appear small and vulgar. We relearn the difference between the cold, didactic silence of censorship and the silence of being alone.

The SCP is helping to organize International Days Against Video Surveillance during the spring equinox, March 19 and 20. There will be no central organization but a call for performance groups and activists to create interventions and site-specific performances. Do not be satisfied with self-revelation. Disseminate. Grab some signboards.

(Written by Molly Kleiman and published in the 20 January 2006 issue of The L Magazine.)

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