Bunker Vision:
The Art of Surveillance

With all of the recent excitement about the NSA it seemed like a good time to feature the work of The Surveillance Camera Players. Since 1996 this group has been staging plays for security cameras. Their productions have included Waiting for Godot, 1984 and Ubu Roi. Part of what makes them so conceptually interesting is the fact that because they are performing for security monitors, there is no known footage in circulation from their target audience’s POV. One can fantasize that a bored security guard might compile a “best of” reel.

While I was checking to see if they are still active (a member I later contacted said that they were still quietly operating and helping researchers and students) I stumbled onto a Wikipedia page about Surveillance Art. The page is considered an “orphan” because no other articles link to it, but it is well researched with a bibliography that has 50 entries. Despite my special interest in this sort of culture jamming, some of the examples they cited were new to me. Given how topical the subject has become, one might reasonably expect this category to grow exponentially.

My favorite recent example of this budding art form used Google Street Views as its canvas. You can see the piece (STREET WITH A VIEW) at its website (streetwithaview.com). It is pretty remarkable to read the cast list and to realize how many people were involved so casually in something so guerilla. There is even a fireman rescuing a kitten from a tree!

Another direction this has headed is a sub-genre that is being called Sous-veilliance or inverse-surveillance. This is actually a very logical thing in our over sharing world. Ai Weiwei has probably been the most famous person to engage in this. In cases like his, where there is a political component, part of the goal is to strip the surveillance of its value as clandestine information.

Many writers trace this “art movement” back to a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live in 1992. In the sketch, a bored security guard does goofy things in front of a camera so that he can see himself “on TV”. Members of SCP knew nothing of the SNL skit when they started. Their inspiration was a manifesto; Guerilla Programming of Video Surveillance Equipment. You can read the manifesto at the website www.notbored.org as well as other great Situationist material. A sub section of this site serves as the online home of SCP.

When people write about this in scholarly terms they often make some hay out of the fact that the people who will see these productions are the minimum wage working class. In the official manifesto, cameras are referred to as “tools of social control.”

As far back as 1969, one can find CC cameras employed in gallery installations by Bruce Nauman. More recently Sophe Calle hired a private detective to follow her and to provide photographic evidence of her existence. Whether it is in a gallery, or out on the streets, surveillance might well be THE topic for our time.

(Written by Skot Armstrong and published in the January 7, 2014 issue of Artillery Magazine.)