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Mapping CCTV around Whitehall

18/11/2009
Rob Myers

“Mapping CCTV around Whitehall”, 2008, is, as its name implies, a performance of mapping Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) security cameras around the UK’s parliament in London and a video record of that performance by Ambient.tv’s Manu Luksch.

Starting with a HAL 9000-like image of a CCTV lens, the video of “Mapping CCTV In Whitehall” has a glitchy techno aesthetic of sound and images with a post-MTV-Style Guide reportage feel. The first half consists of a recording of the police stop-and-search interviewing Luksch under anti-terrorism legislation, with a map of the area superimposed. The second half consists of CCTV views of the range of Camera number 40 being taped out, and of the people caught within those bounds. Words flash on the screen to identify the subjects of CCTV (….Artists! Sexy Arses!). This redeployment of the language of mass media visual persuasion opens up what we see rather than closing it down, making it a very effective encapsulation of the project’s ideas and aesthetics.

(One tiny criticism is that the video ends with a Creative Commons logo but doesn’t specify the licence. Artists, please at least give the licence URL, and do choose the copyleft BY-SA licence if you can…)

Wandering around to locate CCTV cameras may seem like a cosy techno-fetishist performance, a post-cyberpunk flaneur’s stroll around the streets of London with a pencil, an A-Z, and a tri-field meter. But the creeping authoritarianism of still-Thatcherite Britain makes it an act of protest against a specific law and a reversal of the assumptions of our seemingly unstoppable surveillance culture.

The Serious and Organized Crime and Police Act of 2005 criminalized political expression within an exclusion zone for a kilometre around Parliament Square. It is an indicator of the authoritarianism and assumption of privilege that has come to define political culture in the UK. It is too easy to become cynical in the face of such brazenly opportunistic ideology. If art can help to defamiliarise this in a playful and aesthetically rewarding way then it can help to undo that cynicism, and even more to go beyond it.

The assumption that the State needs to know where you are at all times, just in case you are a terrorist or a paedophile, but that you must not know the workings of the State, just in case you are a terrorist or a paedophile, is at odds with the idea of an open society. The area of London that Luksch has mapped is the SOCPA exclusion zone. A map of CCTV cameras is clearly useful to terrorists, and a map of the CCTV cameras near Parliament is clearly an act of dissent against the political consensus that constitutes domestic extremism. The police who interview Luksch touch on these ideas.

A political elite that is fearful both of and for its polity has retreated into managerial, authoritarian, paternalistic risk-management. That polity is conceived of, post-cold-war, not even economically, more nihilistically. This produces the very loss of freedom that it claims to protect against. The paradigm of government has become the watchful parent who is seen to be good by their watchful neighbours because they prevent their child ever straying into danger. But it is impossible to protect the population against all risk and this knowledge leads to impotent fearfulness. “Something must be done” and so security theatre, the spectacle of impossible systems and behaviours designed to reduce the perception of risk to zero, is used to reassure. Although whether the populace or the politicians are meant to be reassured it is hard to tell.

CCTV is part of the reassurance, of the spectacle of security theatre. (Map of Embankment)

CCTV is part of that reassurance, of the spectacle of security theatre. The UK has the highest density of Closed Circuit Television Cameras (CCTV) in the world. The average Briton is (allegedly) captured on CCTV 300 times a day and there are more cameras in the supposedly open society of the UK than in notionally communist China. Not per head, in total. The area that “Mapping CCTV around Whitehall” focusses on is ground zero for this tendency.

CCTV doesn’t solve crime, it is used to spy on legal protest and it has been placed in school classrooms and pubs.

CCTV recordings are subject to the Data Protection Act, and from 2002-2008 Manu Luksch used personal data requests under the act to obtain the CCTV recordings of her going about her business that she used to make the film “Faceless”. The videos usually had other people’s faces blotted out to protect their privacy, which gave the resulting film its science fiction plot of people starting to lose their faces. But as Luksch was making “Faceless”, the responses to her personal data requests became rarer as the authorities adjusted the balance of power back in favour of themselves.

In 2008, Luksch returned to the subject of CCTV with “Mapping CCTV around Whitehall”, this time mapping out the CCTV cameras themselves within a particular area of London over two days. On the first day she located hundreds of CCTV cameras, on the second she measured the range of the wireless broadcasts of one of them. Part performance, part land art, this has a number of artistic precedents, from the 1960s conceptual artworks that consisted of magnetic fields or patterns of heat, to Situationists strategies for recontextualising the city by navigating it using the wrong map.

Part performance, part land art, this has a number of artistic precedents

Mapping unseen electromagnetic forms was a strategy of some Conceptual Art, whether Art & Language’s landscape art infrared photograph of buried hotwires under a field or gallery-based magnetic and radio-proximity devices. Contemporary artists have used RFID tags Intangible form is irresistible for post-Duchampian attempts to keep the philosophy of art about aesthetics, and for conceptualism it is a way of keeping the artwork open. But the range of a CCTV camera is both definite and, if you have access to the camera, visual. The unseen form of the limits of its observation and the transmission of what it sees tie form to power quite directly.

In “Mapping CCTV around Whitehall” these forms and their composition are part of the landscape of the city. The city is obviously an artificial environment. In contrast, nothing might seem more natural than a painting of the landscape of the countryside. But landscape painting are depictions of valuable property for the landed gentry who commissioned them. They show and by showing make real the products of the ideology of the ruling class using aesthetics. They extend the domain of taste, a novel and socio-economically exclusionary concept, to the presentation of nature as property. They are as artificial, as culturally determined and laden, as cityscapes.

In "Mapping CCTV around Whitehall" these forms and their composition are part of the landscape of the city

The successor to landscape painting is the “land art” of the 1960s and 1970s with its photographs of walks, mud and stones. Viewed cynically, the ‘land art’ of the 1970s is less about one man’s journey through nature than it is about cheap transport and expensive large-format cameras. It is a predecessor of the logistics art of Relationalism. The Romanticism that it shares with landscape painting is for its audience, not its commissioners. As with much art, those are two separate constituencies.

Art creates visual order and visual form for the unseen ideological order and form of the ruling class. Religious icons, jet-age land art and neoliberal Relationalism all serve this function. Critical art also depicts this ideological order, ideological form, aesthetically but to make it strange and criticise its production or content rather than to promote and naturalise it.

The Situationists treated Natopolitan 1950s Paris as a landscape to be made strange through art in order to critique the ideologies that sought to capture its population. Wandering its streets using the wrong maps was a way of challenging the authority embedded in its layout by the old regime and the new order that sought to impose its own new way of looking at things. Creating rather than using a map again re-arranges an equation, not just the equation of ‘derive’ but of the mass-media mass-politics spectacle that the Situationists were so opposed to. CCTV cameras may not seem like generators of spectacle, but their footage is used to sensationalise media reports of crime and terrorism, and their presence and visibility enforces the message that we are all part of an observed spectacle.

CCTV presence and visibility enforces the message that we are all part of an observed spectacle.

Radical land art sounds oxymoronic. But the aesthetics projected onto a landscape can be used as links to the ideology flattered by those aesthetics. And re-arranging the terms of land art can critique that ideology, or at least expose it to critique. “Mapping CCTV around Whitehall” re-arranges the equation of land art to make art of travelling to cameras in order to map the landscape they observe. This is a kind of critical, urban, reverse land art.

George Orwell’s vision of a mediatised totalitarian society from his novel “1984” is often used as a reference point for Britain’s surveillance culture. But this can obscure as much as it illuminates. Bringing out the true, novel, problems with CCTV surveillance as the default solution to the ruling class’s perception of society’s ills is an urgent and difficult task. As CCTV is a matter of the production and control of images, it is an area that art can usefully comment on. “Mapping CCTV around Whitehall” uses the status of art to represent the dark heart of surveillance ideology. Look upon its works…

http://ambienttv.net/content/?q=mappingcctv

Public screenings include ‘Films by Manu Luksch’ at Cinema2, Centre Pompidou (2009)

Betting on Shorts (2009)
http://ambienttv.net/content/www.bettingonshorts.com

NHK Japan (Japanese National Television, 2008), LIFT (2008)

Watch the video (160 sec, mp4) online at low-res.org
http://lo-res.org/~manu/MAPPINGCCTV.mp4

Or on Vimeo
http://www.vimeo.com/3802118

"self-defined artist, writer and hacker" – MakeTank

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