why we refuse to "play detective"

In the early days of the process of identification [...], the identity of a person was established through his signature. The invention of photography was a turning point in the history of this process. It is no less significant for criminology than the invention of the printing press is for literature. Photography made it possible for the first time to preserve permanent and unmistakable traces of a human being. The detective story came into being when this most decisive conquest of a person's incognito had been accomplished. Since then, the end of efforts to capture a man in his speech and actions has not been in sight. -- Walter Benjamin, The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire, 1938

Detective stories are very, very popular these days, not only in bookstores, but also at the movies and on television, where they are sometimes called "police dramas." What accounts for the enduring popularity of the detective story? A big factor is obviously the salacious subject matter, the crimes, the most common of which is murder. To guard against the accusation that the writers and readers of such gruesome fictions are puerile or perverted, the center of attention of these "guilty pleasures" is shifted from the crime and the criminal who committed it to the detective who investigates the case. No doubt this is shift is made with great reluctance, because it is commonly believed that criminals are "more interesting people" than police officers. In any event, the need to compromise suggests that it isn't so much the gruesome crimes, but the narrative's displaced relationship to them, that makes the detective story so popular as a genre. People may love to read about criminals, but, deep down, they identify with detectives.

From Sherlock Holmes to Fox Mulder, detectives and other "special agents" have been presented as "faster," smarter, more attuned to details and small changes, and thus more capable of solving complex crimes than ordinary police officers. Detectives use their minds, not their guns or fists, to solve crimes; and so they are rarely accused of brutalizing or murdering suspects in their custody. As a result, detectives are thought to be honest, impartial, beyond reproach. They aren't, of course: detectives and special agents in America have a long and well-documented history of accidentally, mistakenly or intentionally imprisoning or killing large numbers of innocent people. But people are willing to keep pretending that the detective is always impartial and honest because it's a very useful lie. It's flattering, not only to the police, who could use and are flattered by the good publicity, but also to their innumerable amateur counterparts.

"In times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everyone will be in a situation where he has to play detective," says Walter Benjamin in The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire. But it isn't just in times of war or terror -- when truth is the first casualty and information is scarce -- that everyone must "play detective," that is, gather clues that might indicate who is friend and who is foe. In contemporary capitalist society, it's necessary to play detective, to actually be a good detective, at all times.

Guy Debord's later writings -- especially Considerations on the Assassination of Gerard Lebovici (1985) and Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) -- are relevant here. In response to the attacks made against it during the 1960s and 1970s by the revolutionary movement, international capitalism now tries to protect itself by becoming increasingly incomprehensible. Instead of projecting an ideal image of itself, the State now rules by producing and disseminating secrecy, mystery, disinformation and conspiracy. In such a confusing situation, people without "good detective skills" are completely lost. At the level of everyday life, they don't know how to act at work, where to shop, what to buy, who to date or if they should have sex; and at the level of the spectacle, they have no idea who killed JFK, why anyone would hate America or what George W. Bush's real motivations are for going to war against Iraq. And so, a stark and cynical "choice" can be forced upon them: either depend completely upon "experts" (professional detectives), who will tell you what to do and will also do it for you; or become amateur detectives yourselves, which means not only "educating yourself" (on how to be a good consumer-spectator) but also having complete confidence in the "innate goodness" of the professional detective and, by extension, the moral authority of the State.

It's both uncanny and perfectly appropriate that both the text of Comments on the Society of the Spectacle and the translator's introduction to Considerations on the Assassination of Gerard Lebovici refer to Edgar Allan Poe, because Poe was in fact the inventor of the detective story (cf. "The Mystery of Marie Roget," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and "The Purloined Letter"). As Walter Benjamin points out, "Poe's detective, the Chevalier Dupin, here works not with personal observation [of the crime scene] but with reports from the daily press. The critical analysis of these reports constitutes the rumour in the story." Debord's method in Considerations on the Assassination of Gerard Lebovici is exactly the same: he confines his investigation to what's been printed (about him) in the newspapers. In both cases, the line between the professional and the amateur detective is blurred: anyone can solve the crime, that is, if they know how to read.

Significantly, Edgar Allan Poe isn't famous for his detective stories, but for his horror stories ("The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado"). In each of these better-known tales, the center of attention (both the tale's narrator and its protagonist) is in fact a murderer, the murderer. The rejection of the detective in these tales is quite extreme. In "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat," the only reason the narrator/criminal has come under suspicion is because he has tortured himself into making a chilling confession. And in "The Cask of Amontillado," there are no detectives at all; the narrator's chilling confession is that he's gotten away with murder.

Echoing Walter Benjamin, we might say that the invention of video surveillance was a truly momentous development in the history of identification (or "biometrics"). Not surprisingly, there are a great many contemporary artists -- mostly photographers, performers, video-makers and creators of gallery installations -- who are "interested in" video surveillance. That is to say, these artists see the artistic or dramatic potential of surveillance cameras, and wish to use or call attention to it in their art works. It is likely that the overwhelming majority of them are opposed to the police or private security guards using surveillance cameras to engage in racial profiling, to invade women's privacy for the purposes of sexual gratification and/or monetary remuneration, to track the movements of law-abiding political dissidents, etc etc. But it's just as likely that most of these no doubt well-intentioned artists aren't up on their Edgar Allan Poe, because only a few -- Warren Arcan, Jeff Guess and Denis Beaubois, among them -- identify with the criminal. The rest -- Ralph Rugoff, Marie Sester, Harco Haagsma, Julia Scher, Laurie Long, Steve Mann, Jenny Marketou, Bruce Gardner, Joel Slayton, Steve Durie, Michael Klier, P. Elaine Sharpe, Sophie Calle, Merry Alpern, Chris Petit, Alex Galloway, Ulf Lunden, David Deutsch, Pat Naldi & Wendy Kirkup, Vito Acconci, and Dieter Froese, among others -- consistently identify themselves with the detective.

Take, for example, Naldi & Kirkup's 1993/1996 videotape Search, which is described by Helen Cadwallader in the huge exhibition catalogue CTRL SPACE: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother.

Indeed, the very title invites us, as spectators, to stake out a superior position of active knowledge acquisition. To search: to look through thoroughly in order to discover something. Again, this is worked out with heavy irony through the video scenario of the detective-based narrative. We see a "character" (one of the artists) donning a trench coat, the archetypal detective uniform, in order to search for clues. As viewers, our desire to "know" is literally played out through this "detective" who is apparently in pursuit of an assailant or seeking a rendezvous with a shadowy accomplice. And in turn, this detective "search" is one of the very real means by which the police themselves gather information.

The key words here are heavy irony. It is (intentionally) ironic that one of the artists temporarily becomes a detective and that the spectators also temporarily become detectives. The becoming-detective can be undone or reversed easily enough, for it was all staged in play, not for real. The only things that are "real" were the emotions and thoughts provoked by the experience and the possibility that the audience will be inspired to act. To a greater or lesser degree, all of the artists who identify with the detective in their surveillance-based art-works are "ironic" in this sense.

There are three problems here. The first is that irony depends upon and reinforces the same hierarchy that one observes in the cult of the detective: there are a few people who are smart or knowledgeable enough to "get it" (the allusion, the joke, the Big Picture) and then there are the rest, those who just aren't smart or educated enough. The second problem is that irony doesn't see its own irony. For example, many artists think it is "ironic" to play detective, but don't see that, by playing detective, they are imitating the habits of the capitalist consumer. The third problem is that irony is frequently very boring, even if (or precisely because) you do "get it." For example, what's scarier, what's more likely to create a lasting impression -- logging on to an ironic artist's website that plays detective by showing you the "secret" password you just typed in? or logging on to a real detective's website that scans your connection and tells you the ISP number you are assigned? Quite obviously, there's no comparison.

And so we, the New York Surveillance Camera Players, don't define ourselves as artists and never play detective. When we perform in front of certain cameras, 1) they are real surveillance cameras watched by real police officers or security guards, not amateur detectives, and 2) our tales are from the position or about the situation of the criminal, not the detective. We don't want to surveill the surveillers. We want an end to all surveillance.

-- 12 November 2002.

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

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