Contra Seguranca, Ordem E Progresso

surveillance camera players in Brazil

Between 12 and 14 September 2009, Bill from the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Invited to participate in Performance Presente Futuro, vol II, Bill was originally scheduled to spend a total of five days and four nights in Rio. Due to extraordinary problems in obtaining a travel visa from the General Consulate of Brazil -- which required equally extraordinary solutions (including an unscheduled, last-minute 1,000-mile roundtrip drive to and from Washington, DC, between 9 and 10 September) -- Bill's stay was greatly shortened.

Curated by Daniella Labra and produced by Arthur Mourra, Performance Presente Futuro, vol II was held at Oi Futuro (Rua Dos de Dezembro, 63, Flamengo, RJ). The exhibition included lectures, videos, performances, installations and workshops by Yukihiro Taguchi, Alexandre Sa, Marcio Shimabukuro, Vito Acconci, Chico Fernandes, Cris Bierrenbach, Regina Melim, Daniela Mattos and Fernado Salis. Bill's contributions were a lecture on Saturday the 12th and a walking tour of the area surrounding Oi Futuro on Sunday the 13th.

The lecture Bill presented was the same one he has given many times before, in both the USA and abroad. This time, it was prefaced by a citation of one of the prerecorded messages that are currently played at the George W. Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas, where Bill had met his connecting flight: "Inappropriate remarks or jokes about security may result in your arrest." (But what is considered "inappropriate"? By whom, and when? Are there appropriate remarks one might make about security? Why say "jokes may result" instead of "jokes will result"? And what exactly is a joke?).

Speaking to about 30 or 40 people, Bill (translated into Portuguese by a professional interpreter named Alexandra) began by elucidating the psychological effects of easily spottable surveillance cameras that have been installed in public places. On the one hand, one is supposed to see and recognize such cameras; on the other hand, one is not supposed to change one's behavior in response to them. Any response, whether gestural, facial or verbal, might be taken as "evidence" of guilt or at least a guilty conscience. And, of course, only the guilty have something to hide. So one tries to "act normal," as if the cameras hadn't been spotted in the first place. But when the members of the SCP see and respond to a surveillance camera, they use it against its watcher, that is to say, to broadcast messages of rebellion and social difference where indications of obedience and conformity had been expected. Bill contrasted the SCP's performances, which are inspired by the situationist tactic of detournement, with actions taken by insurrectionary anarchists, who show their awareness of the cameras by destroying them, and Leftist activists, who attempt to get their elected officials to over-see and regulate their usage in public places.

After this introduction, Bill summarized the SCP's various activities over the past 13 years: use of the Internet to attract, inform and inspire liked-minded people all over the world; travel abroad (England, Spain, Holland, Austria, Germany, Italy and Canada); organize international events with new friends (France, Lithuania, Sweden, Greece, and Turkey); make maps of camera locations; offer free walking tours based upon those maps; give interviews to members of the mass media; and write and stage the aforementioned performances. Pausing periodically to answer questions and listen to comments (of which there was a steady stream, all in Portuguese), Bill spoke for about an hour. He then played the SCP's classic performance of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. There was another round of questions and comments afterwards.

On Sunday, Bill conducted an English-only walking tour of a few of the cameras installed on the Rua Dos de Dezembro. Because there hadn't been sufficient time to prepare as per usual, Bill offered this tour without a map. He was greatly assisted by Carol and Bruno, who gave Bill a brief tour of the area on the previous day. The tour on Sunday focused on the bare essentials: first-generation, fixed-in-position cameras (and their weaknesses); second-generation, pan-tilt-zoom cameras (and their use by militaries in perimeter defense); and third-generation, wireless cameras (and their use in cellphones). Ten people were in attendance; several of them had been at Bill's presentation the previous day. A couple of the new-comers were already familiar with the SCP, having read about the group in the writings of Marta Mourao Kanashiro, who teaches at the Cidade Universitaria Zerferino Vaz, State Univerity of Campinas, in Sao Paolo. (See below.) After the tour, which lasted almost two hours, most of the group retired to a fruit stand, where, over luscious local beverages, they talked about the formation of an independent SCP group in Rio de Janeiro.

The day after the walking tour, and in the rain, Bill mapped out a very small part of Rio: the Flamengo neighborhood, which is the location of both Oi Futuro and the hotel in which Automatica arranged for Bill to stay. Built upon landfill around 1960, Flamengo is an attempt to create another tourist/beach destination on the model of Copacabana and Ipanema, but closer to the heart of the city. This attempt appears to have been half-successful. Today, the Flamengo district has a good share of "modern" office buildings, nice hotels, stylish shopping centers, good restaurants with English menus available, American fast-food establishments (KFC and McDos), buildings from the colonial period that have been restored, and well-funded art and cultural institutions. The area is bustling with activity, even at night, and the "feeling" is inclusive. The "white" people in the city are from all over the world, and speak a variety of languages, Portuguese, of course, but also Spanish and/or English. But the Flamengo district is also full of poorly paid workers, scavengers, homeless people, abandoned buildings and "illegal" homesteads and squats. The homeless people in the Flamengo district are mostly "black" (African) and sometimes "brown" (Spanish). Their destitution is abject. And despite their physical proximity to their rich neighbors, these "second-class citizens" are excluded socio-economically, that is, from all of the basic comforts, not to mention the luxurious rewards, of contemporary capitalism: a cool, dry place to stay, and sufficient money for food, clothes and medical care.

The brutal social divisions within the Flamengo district -- between an "inclusive," happy and rich future, and an excluded, miserable and impoverished past/present -- characterize the city of Rio de Janeiro as a whole. On the one hand, it is a wealthy city, just outside of which oil and natural gas can be extracted in large quantities. There are neighborhoods in which truly wealthy people live. But, on the other hand, the city is pocked with favelas, which are "shantytowns" that have been built by their impoverished inhabitants, many of whom have come from rural areas in search of jobs. Technically illegal, these "settlements" are built within "city lines" and yet rarely possess running water, sanitation, or electricity. One in twenty Cariocas (residents of Rio) live in a favela; in Brazil as a whole, the number is one in five.

Two kinds of surveillance regimes are required for these separations to be maintained. In the favelas, the surveillance cameras are operated almost exclusively by the police and/or the army; they are mounted on or carried within cars, trucks or helicopters; and they are only used to prepare for and during the conduct of "special operations." In the "normal" areas, the surveillance cameras are operated almost exclusively by private security companies; they are mounted on buildings; and they are permanently in use. Together, these two regimes of surveillance form an awkward combination that is widely practiced in Japan, Europe and North America, but with greater integration.

In her excellent essay Surveillance cameras in Brazil: Exclusion, Mobility Regulation, and the New Meanings of Security, Professor Marta Mourao Kanashiro reports that surveillance cameras have been installed in public places in Brazil in three waves: between 1982 and 1995, at banks, and on the suggestion of the police; between 1995 and 2001, at banks, hospitals, schools, malls and soccer stadiums, and obligated by the public's fear of violent crime and lack of confidence in the federal authorities; and since 2001, at the nation's ports and international facilities, and in strict accordance with the basic requirements of the United States in the aftermath of September 11th. Though Prof. Kanashiro doesn't include the pre-1982 period in her study, nor does she include the surveillance tactics that are specific to the favelas, it is certain that the Brazilian military used live TV cameras to monitor and control political demonstrations during its long reign (1964 to 1985). It's just a question of finding them or their ruins.

The map that Bill made on Monday 14 September confirms many of Prof. Kanashiro's findings. Over the course of the last 25 years, privately operated surveillance cameras have accumulated in the Flamengo district. Today, there are a total of 156 cameras in the relatively small area between Rua Silveira Martins and the Rua Almirante Tamandare, and the Rua do Catete and Praia do Flamengo. This is a relatively large number, and roughly equal to the numbers found in, say, Times Square.

The vast majority of these cameras (121) are "first-generation" cameras; the remainder (35) are "second generation." In at least two instances, second-generation cameras are installed in bunches of six. None of these many cameras appear to be operated by the police. Rather than standing alone, as they do in North America and Europe, the surveillance cameras in the Flamengo district are operated in tandem with private security guards, locked doors, touch-pads for entering personal identification numbers, automatic gates, and flashing lights. You aren't simply watched on these streets; you are faced with hundreds of miniature "gated communities" that require proper identification before access is granted. It is stupid to say, Sorria Voce Esta Sendo Filmado ("Smile, you are being filmed)," as does a sign on the Rua dois do Dezembro: it would certainly be more honest to say, Smile, your threat to this building/fortress is being evaluated.

A pair of side notes. (1) Prof. Kanashiro says that, between 1982 and 2005, "there were no manifestations of the population against the installation of cameras" and that "in general, the diverse population that frequents the park [in Sao Paolo] (from prostitutes to resident families) did not oppose the process." But "an exception has appeared more recently: the artistic group Esqueleto Coletivo [which], since 2006, acts in a similar way to the New York Surveillance Camera Players." Before Bill read this report, which he found during the preparation for his trip, no one in the SCP had ever heard of the Esqueleto Coletivo (the Skeleton Collective), though this collective cites the work of the SCP. One notes that the Skeleton Collective was in fact founded in 2003, and was especially active in 2006. Their work, which hasn't been translated into English yet, looks excellent. (2) Prof. Kanashiro's analysis is made within the framework of the theories of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, which is common among academics who are concerned with "surveillance studies." As a result, she is focused upon studying the nature of power: the differences between "disciplinary societies" and "control societies." She aims to determine if Brazil has completely made the move from the former to the latter, or if it is caught somewhere between the two. Bill is thankful that she doesn't mention biopolitics, which is another Foucaultian concept that has also fueled controversy, among academics, concerning the periodization of Western history since, say, 1750. Bill finds it far more useful, as both an artist and a political activist, to see the "Big Picture," which is the development of capitalism. Once again following the situationists, the SCP seeks not (only) to describe capitalism, but to fight against it.

23 September 2009

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