Thursday, 18 February 2010

Watching the Watchers...

Our first featured film is of an interactive mobile installation designed by a German Artist Raul Mandru. The map itself is based on the findings of the Privacy International global surveillance rankings produced at the end of 2007. It is composed of pictograms symbolising the surveillance issues most relevant to a particular location. The density and size of the pictograms indicate the level of surveillance in that area. For example, you can't fail to miss the giant CCTV pictogram covering the south of England

The interactive element of the installation comes from the ability to navigated the map by use of a mobile phone. Information on particular locations can be retrieved by clicking on them. However, while the satellite view allows the viewer to assume a certain omniscience and make objective comparisons between different locations, if they click on their own location they find that they themselves are on camera. This demonstrates not only their capture within that system of surveillance, but crucially also their complicity with it. 24 hours after attending the exhibit users receive a message on their mobile phone including a photo of themselves and a log of their activity while navigating the map.

Originally conceived as part of his degree at the University of Applied Arts in Dortmund, Mandru's installation went on to win several international awards for design including the Red Dot design award in 2008.

Of the four films that I'm posting today Florian Mondl's is the most recent. It is also the most enigmatic. The title of the film refers to Banksy's 'audacious' Newham Street Post Office mural of 2008. However, I think the real key to the film comes about 45 seconds in with the appearance of the phrase 'Sleepwalk into a Surveillance Society'. I believe this phrase came into currency back in 2004 when the UK's then acting Information Commissioner Richard Thomas commented in the Times on proposals for the National Identity Register (NIR):
My anxiety is that we don’t sleepwalk into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries than British society would feel comfortable with.
Watching the film I couldn't help sensing a degree of ambivalence in it, particularly in the juxtaposition between the stark, almost aseptic, environment it portrays, and the dreamlike soundtrack that carries us through. There are cameras everywhere, but barely a person to be seen. Surveilled London is presented as dystopian, and yet somehow captivating. A fantasy perhaps? I'm reminded of the Lacanian sentiment that truth would be structured like a fiction.

Unfortunately there wasn't much information available about this film online so I decided to try contacting the creator directly. Florian told me that he is currently studying Multimedia Art in Salzburg, Austria and visited London specifically to complete the film. As he explains:
When I think of Salzburg there are hardly any CCTV cameras besides private cameras for home security. Vienna is a little bit more London-like but far from being a "surveillance city"... up to now.
London and its unbelievably high concentration of cameras seemed to be the best place to show how wrong it could go.
Reading this I was reminded of Anna Minton's claims in Ground Control about the differences between British cities and those on mainland Europe. While critics reply that continental cities aren't so great either, Florian's attitude shows us that this is beside the point. To return to Richard Thomas' "anxiety", the fact remains that British Society has accepted a situation that many, both here and abroad, would not feel comfortable with. From this perspective the ambivalence I detected in Florian's portrayal of surveilled London is perfectly understandable. We really only have ourselves to blame. 
Many thanks to Florian for his kind email. His portfolio should be online shortly.

The third film in our roundup comes from Studio Smack based in the Netherlands. The focus for their playful satire is the development of smart CCTV systems such as Samurai. In this context they suggest that "artificial intelligence" functions as a euphemistic cover for the more worrying prospect of "artificial judgement". They portray this through the value laden tags applied to each individual 'threat' as they appear on screen. The film ends by gesturing to the absurdities generated by a technologically managed paranoia of this kind. In the attempt to ensure that nothing has been missed, the need to have watchers watching watchers generates the potentially infinite regress that we could associate with the gaze-tracking camera.

Smack's own Meijdam Antoon (aka Baldy) makes an appearance but is identified from a satellite view only as 'THREAT'. One can only assume that his crimes against the system are too sensitive or varied to be elaborated further. Those wishing to know more about his infamy could start here. I also recommend their award winning film on advertising and consumerism called Kapitaal.

The final film is a personal favourite. It was created by David Scharf and received first prize in the Emerge and See Festival in Berlin 2007. Though it is the oldest of the bunch it has lost none of its salience: while the faces behind national security may have changed, the arguments they provide are basically the same. Each is dismissed in summary fashion. The format borrows significantly from the scenes in either the TV or Film adaptations of Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy where protagonist Arthur Dent consults the guide. I particularly enjoyed the dry delivery of Stephen Taylor's voice over. Despite the film's humorous approach it ends with a serious message:
We believe that people willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.
Don't forget to smile and wave when you see the drones over Stratford City in 2012...just so long as the police remember to secure permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) first that is.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see our animation The Watchers here. A nice detail about it: a year after production I returned to the shooting location and was questioned by security. Why? Because I came across as suspicious on the surveillance cams. A nice example of art becoming life.