Biting the Hands that Applaud Us

We learned of Manu Luksch's film Faceless during an online search for the phrase "Surveillance Camera Players." In an interview published in French, Luksch (an Austrian woman living in London) was asked if her film had been inspired by the SCP and she responded that "The practice of the Surveillance Camera Players has no doubt inspired the conception of Faceless. Bill Brown, the founder, says in an interview (Streets into Stages: an interview with Surveillance Camera Players' Bill Brown by Erich W. Scienke) 'The society of surveillance continues to reify a culture of public conformity and more and more reinforces this dangerous homogeneity of behavior through our social ecologies.' A position that is equally central to my work with surveillance technologies. I have been inspired by their interventions in the streets, when they forcefully interpellate the passersby on the omnipresence of CCTV, by the manner in which they directly address themselves to an invisible audience which, from its faraway watchers' booths, places its mechanical eye on the life in the street, on us."[1]

Of course we are pleased that people in other countries are aware of, impressed by and even influenced by our work. But it is rare that we are impressed by the work that these people have produced. As we noted years in ago in Why We Refuse to Play Detective, it is all too often the case that -- when faced with the alternative of identifying themselves and/or their audiences with the detectives who watch or the suspects who are watched -- artists choose to identify with the detectives. We believe that such a choice strengthens several of the primary ideological supports for generalized surveillance: spectatorship, passivity, the allegedly superior intelligence of the watchers, the failure to understand or have sympathy for the psychologies of suspects, and the fetishization of technology and technological expertise.

Faceless is a very unfortunate instance of such art. Most of the performances staged in front of the cameras were executed by professionals, in particular, professional dancers ("The Ballet Boyz") who were very well-rehearsed. They performed choreographed actions that are certainly beyond the ability of average people, that is, the people who are watched every day: they lack both the time to rehearse and access to large groups of like-minded people.

The videotapes out of which Luksch has created her film were not recorded by the dancers themselves, nor by anyone who was "on stage" with them, and so the viewer of the final product rarely sees the surveillance cameras that captured the action. Instead, all of the source material for Faceless was recorded by surveillance cameras operated by various British authorities and in accordance with the rules of the British government, in particular, the Data Protection Act (DPA) of 1998, which stipulates that -- in exchange for money -- anyone can receive copies of "their" footage as long as it does not violate the privacy of any third parties. (There is something odd about this provision, which claims to respect privacy in the limited context of one citizen's relationship with another, and yet is part of a much larger context in which everyone's privacy is being systematically invaded by the British government.) One wonders: where does the money go? If it is used to fund the maintenance of the British government's surveillance system (which seems likely), then Luksch has helped fund the very thing she has claimed is "opposed to dialogue," a generator of "totalitarian architecture," and a diversion of funds (!) away from investment in "human resources."

The DPA requires that, if the faces of third parties are in fact visible, they must be blocked out or otherwise "masked," thus producing the effect referred to in the film's title. But, according to Luksch, this requirement was often not met: footage was sent to her in which the faces of third parties were in fact visible. But this fact did not bring her to question or reject the validity of the DPA as a whole: she simply did the work that the government failed to do, and added a provision to her Manifesto for CCTV Filmmakers that, if and when such violations of the law take place, other prospective filmmakers should merely content themselves with "reporting the offense." But to whom? The British government?! Ridiculous.

On the one hand, the DPA is rarely followed by the installers of surveillance cameras, who are supposed to accompany their cameras with signs informing the public of the presence of surveillance devices, and who are supposed to inform the Security Industry Authority that new cameras have been installed and are watched by trained professionals, but end up doing neither a whopping 95% of the time.[2] (This certainly presents serious problems for adherents to the Manifesto, which notes that, "for every camera, the operator's name and contact details are to be noted.") On the other hand, the DPA is a fatally flawed document, one that fails to conform with or even contravenes a third of the provisions of the European Union's Data Protection Directive of 1995.[3]

The performances that Luksch staged (and thus the images that she requisitioned) contained no anti-surveillance messages or gestures. Indeed, strictly speaking, none of the performances or images were intended to be seen and understood by either the watchers ("Fuck you and your cameras!") or by the passers-by who might have seen the original performances ("We need to unite across the boundary that separates performers from spectators"). All of the performances/images were simply intended to be retrieved and assembled by the filmmaker herself. And so, the essence of this entire operation is both hermetic and narcissistic: under the DPA, Luksch could only requisition images of herself, and so she had to be her film's protagonist.

There is no detournement here, no irony, no critical distance: the entire surveillance system and the DPA are simply accepted at face value: both are simple "legal readymades," to quote Luksch; the images are supposedly "authentic" and "non-spectacular."[4] And so the politics of Faceless -- despite what Luksch says in her interview and (especially) despite the ludicrous twaddle in the voice-over narrative about the imagined installation of a totalitarian "new machine" and the protagonist's successful efforts to unplug it -- are certainly spectacular and conservative, if not reactionary. ("The conceptual artists of the 1960s used their environment as a medium for art, this was for them a way of questioning it [...] You can compare it [Faceless] to [...] the 1960s, to the musical pieces of Steve Reich or Alvin Lucier [...] in which the compositions are the instructions.") The film does not demand or even advocate change; it simply declares that change has already happened and we must "question" it.

The voice-over of this very slow-moving, 50-minute-long film -- a rip-off of George Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four and the basic elements of the spy novel -- narrates the story of a woman who one day looks at her reflection (Narcissus!) and discovers that she has a face. She is then contacted by some kind of secret organization, which she -- after some detective work on her part -- manages to locate and receive more information from. It turns out that she has both a husband (one of the watchers) and a son. She then goes on a secret mission and manages -- singlehandedly! -- to defeat "the new machine." As if radical action is as easy as throwing a switch, all of the cameras get shut down and the film flickers out.

Intended to be a "revolutionary" film, Faceless is in fact a dead-end. It hits the precise wall one of the SCP's founders warned about over 10 years ago: "We must not mistake the subversive possibilities offered by the abundance of equipment meant to curtail, monitor, and control our desires with a neat new device provided for us by the spectacle."[5]

Surveillance Camera Players
9 October 2007

Note added 25 April 2008: for the very same reasons, we also denounce the 2007 film The Duellists (written and directed by David Valentine), a piece of "video art" that was made with official permission of the CCTV operators in a Manchester mall (closed for the occasion), uses professional actors (not amateurs), and positions its viewers as watchers (not as people people being watched).

[1] Our translation of an article published on 5 September 2007 by Ecrans. All quotes attributed to Manu Luksch in this text were taken from this article. (Note that the quote attributed to Bill Brown is actually part of the abstract of the interview with him.)

[2] The Register for 1 October 2007.

[3] The Register for 18 September 2007.

[4] "[W]hat fascinates me the most is that this aesthetic implicitly tells a story. One keenly feels the authenticity of these video recordings, one feels that they have been generated by a machine that watches, rather by a human being [...] It is also quite amusing and it represents a challenge to work with these totally non-spectacular images."

[5] M. Carter, Manifesto for the Guerrilla Reprogramming of Video Surveillance Equipment (1995).

Note added 13 October 2007:
The composer of the film's soundtrack has responded to this review, which was posted to Our responses will be posted there, as well.

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