Nuovo lets Jill Magid slip inside

You might think these are the finest pearls
But it's only cardboard balls
Seamed in glue
Overwhelming technique
Done through diligence
It's all happening from the inside, you say?
Done from the inside
Where it barely shows on the outside
It's remarkable

Captain Beefheart, "Best Batch Yet"

On 24 May 2007, the Swiss TV show Nuovo (it broadcasts in French) ran a seven-minute-long segment about the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP). There were three such segments that day: one was about some pathetic fool from San Francisco who, using wearable cameras, has turned his boring life into an online TV show; another was about a young man from Afghanistan who has become a star by rapping over beats in his native language; and the last one was called "The Theater of Surveillance." A very professional but hardly novel piece of reporting, it captured the SCP performing on the Brooklyn Bridge in April 2007, included interviews with the two players who were involved (Bill and Elisa), and showed Bill in his apartment, getting ready for the performance, and at the office where he works, making copies of the flyer handed out during that performance.

For some odd reason, this segment on surveillance camera theater also included an 80-second-long fragment about the artist Jill Magid. (This was the only segment of the three to include such an interruption: both of the others stayed on their announced subjects.) We can't make up our minds: either this interruption was included to pad out the segment, which hardly seems likely, given how much footage Nuovo's reporter/cameraman (Laurent Burkhalter) recorded while he was indulged by Bill and Elisa, or it was included to highlight the uniqueness of the SCP and its performances. Either way, the Magid fragment was a complete waste of precious airtime.

Unlike the SCP, Jill Magid is not a political activist, but a deliberately non-political artist (she is "neutral," and neither for nor against the use of video surveillance in public places for the purpose of law enforcement); she is not a performer, but someone who makes video art and sets up installations; she approaches surveillance as if it were a theme or topic, and produces no critical response to it; she is not against invasions of privacy, but is someone who deliberately invades her own privacy (we will return to this); rather than rejecting technology, she fetishizes it; and -- worst of all -- rather than criticizing contemporary methods of policing and social control, she works directly with the police to make her videotapes and installations. (In Amsterdam, with the help of the Dutch police, she adorned their cameras with fake diamonds.) In short, Jill Magid's presence in contemporary culture is clearly reactionary.

In her piece entitled "Evidence Locker" (2004), Jill Magid did much more than simply play detective (a phrase that we have long used to denounce performance artists who stage works about surveillance that "ironically" position themselves and/or their audience as detectives, thereby rendering ideological support to the very thing that seems to be confronted): she actually worked with real police officers and collaborated with the British "legal" system.

In 2004, Jill spent 31 days in Liverpool, during which time she developed a close relationship with Citywatch (Merseyside Police and Liverpool City Council), whose function is citywide video surveillance -- the largest system of its kind in England. The videos in her Evidence Locker were staged and edited by the artist and filmed by the police using the public surveillance cameras in the city centre. Wearing a bright red trench coat she would call the police on duty with details of where she was and ask them to film her in particular poses, places or even guide her through the city with her eyes closed, as seen in the video Trust. Unless requested as evidence, CCTV footage obtained from the system is stored for 31 days before being erased. For access to this footage, Magid had to submit 31 Subject Access Request Forms -- the legal document necessary to outline to the police details of how and when an 'incident' occurred. Magid chose to complete these forms as though they were letters to a lover, expressing how she was feeling and what she was thinking. These letters form the diary One Cycle of Memory in the City of L -- an intimate portrait of the relationship between herself, the police and the city.

This goes well beyond lending ideological support for a system that routinely harasses, arrests and even murders immigrants, poor people and native-born Blacks (that is, everyone/anyone who isn't a "white" person, like Magid herself): this is material aid and comfort. We find her introduction of the theme of love into her "close relationship" with the police absolutely disgusting.

Her piece entitled "Legoland" (2000) is even more objectionable. In this piece -- which was her Master's Degree thesis project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (if you can believe it) -- Magid attached a video camera to her shoe, pointed it upwards and thus provided what is commonly called "up the skirt" video. For Jill Magid, "upskirt" images are something to fool around with, that is, within the safe confines of art and academia. In her description of the "Surveillance Shoe," she writes: "Due to the fixed position of the camera to the shoe, that leg [sic] remains bound within the frame. While this leg [sic] appears stable like architecture, the actual architecture becomes mobile." In the abstract for her MIT thesis, which is filled with wordy, elitist and self-satisfied post-modernist theory-babble, she declares:

"My thesis project consists of producing and wearing a system of self-surveillance that has been subversively inserted into an already existing informational and electronic system [...] By bringing surveillance technology closer in and attaching it to the body, I have been able to personalize a form of technological mirroring through which subjectivity and the body are reconstructed. Inside the field of view of this reconfigured vision, the wearer/user is open to create and explore the erotic formation of fluid identities and their potential transgressive relationships [...] In the course of this performance, our bodies, as reconfigured through our surveillance apparatus, came to effect our subjectivities as they were presented in public space. Through the act of hijacking the informational monitor, we performed our power to publicly re-present ourselves back into the space in which we were occupying."

Uh, no. In the real world -- in the world outside of art galleries and exclusive universities -- "upskirt" photographs and videotapes, when taken of girls or women who do not know that they are being victimized in this way, are objectionable and in fact are illegal to make in several states and on federal property. Such images are captured by boys and men who have a fetish for panties, who suffer from an obsessional-compulsive disorder, and who cannot satisfy the former with willing partners and have not received effective therapy for the latter, and so -- in predatory fashion -- they cruise public places, hunting for girls or women wearing short skirts or dresses. They are not just motivated by lust or compulsion: they are motivated by anger. Finding a woman who isn't wearing any panties at all isn't simply cause for celebration and pleasure: she is also cause for anger and resentment. In short, "upskirt" images are a serious business for everyone involved: their makers, their unsuspecting victims, and the police.

But what about a "attractive" young woman who takes "upskirt" videos of her own panties and puts them in art galleries and calls them "art"? What about a woman who -- in a piece entitled "Lobby 7" (1999) -- shoved a camera underneath her clothes and broadcast the images of her white flesh? At the very least, she makes it even more difficult for genuine privacy-rights advocates and activists to convince a brainwashed public that privacy is important, that it is something to be cherished and defended. But she also sends the clear message that violations of the privacy of women can't really be that bad: here's one who actually likes it, and who encourages the general public to like it, not simply on the visceral level, which would be bad enough, but also on the "intellectual" level, which is the worst possible. We do not put it past Jill Magid to fuck herself with a camera and call it "art." But this is not where the social damage is being done. We have no doubt that if a man, "misunderstanding" her art, raped her with a camera, she'd call the police and videotape them beating him to death.

Surveillance Camera Players
9 October 2007

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