Sunday, 25 March 2012

The contemporary anxiety of CCTV

The exhibition by Jane and Louise Wilson at Dundee Contemporary Arts is finishing up. 
The photographs are coming off the wall and the sculpture is being packed away. 
The walls are being repainted and the concepts are being captured and returned to their cages. 
I am a Gallery Assistant so I sit staring at it for long periods of time a day. 
This leaves me with a lot to ponder. 

As soon as we are born our file begins. It starts with a birth certificate, carries on with school and medical records and develops into registration plate recognition cameras, mobile phone triangulation, store loyalty cards, credit card transactions, London oyster cards, satellites, electoral roll, personal video recorders, phone tapping, clocking in at work, mobile phone cameras, internet cookies, social networking sites and of course most evidently, CCTV cameras. There are up to 4.2 million CCTV camera in Britain- about one for every 14 people. Britain is in the top five most watched countries in the world and Dundee is the third most watched place in Britain per thousand people.

This image shows the street sign for the square in Barcelona named after George Orwell. Orwell famously wrote 1984, a novel well known for its description of the dangers of an authoritarian state. This ironic image shows the street sign obscured by the presence of a security camera and implies that we are sleepwalking into this world of official surveillance critiqued in Orwell’s fearful story. In January 2010 Hamas operative Mahmoud Al- Mabhouh was assassinated in a hotel room in Dubai. The assassins were thought to be Israeli Mossad operatives using stolen British and Irish identities. They were caught by Dubai police within 24 hours using collated CCTV footage and facial recognition technology. This footage was edited by Dubai state police and released onto Youtube 3 days later where it was watched by millions of people. The subjects were identified and outed. The only place not included in this CCTV film is the hotel room itself where the assassination took place. Artists Jane and Louise Wilson booked themselves into this room and filmed the interior forensically. Using specialist lenses and extreme close- ups their film creates a 'file' of the room. 

In Discipline and Punish, philosopher Michel Foucault describes the genealogy of punishment. He describes the period at the end of the 1700s where torture disappeared as a public spectacle. Punishment became less immediately physical and the body was no longer the main object of repression. The Christian practice of confession was utilised within a scientific framework in which experts analysed the subject in order to gain information. Reports, surveillance and detailed medical files became the process of maintaining power over a prisoner:
“(punishment) leaves the domain of more or less everyday perception and enters that of abstract consciousness; its effectiveness is seen as resulting from its inevitability, not from its visible intensity; it is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime”
This ideological manipulation of the mind transforms the prisoner into a delinquent. Power and knowledge become entwined. Foucault utilises the architectural ideas set down by Jeremy Bentham in 1791 concerning the ideal prison as an illustration for his debate. The prison is called a ‘Panopticon’, translating literally as ‘to see everything’

It is circularly designed so that an inner tower overlooks each cell. Due to this spatial distribution, cells can be seen clearly and individually from this looking post, resulting in each prisoner becoming individualised. Prisoners are aware of the fact that they may be observed by a supervisor at any time and so they act accordingly: “He is seen but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication”. Discipline is therefore applied via visibility and a fear of surveillance means that prisoners begin to monitor their own behaviour. The resulting actions then become normal ways of being.
This idea of architecture as controlling and manipulative is mentioned in the film with the voice over stating: “If architecture is the editing room, the door is the cutting blade”. There are cameras at every door, acting to edit life into a watchable film.

There is little need for the tower to be occupied, it is merely the concept of being watched which results in the prisoners beginning to scrutinise their behaviour. Prisoners are not forced to repress their desires, they are taught to merely incorporate the law onto their bodies. Instincts are isolated, investigated, corrected and categorised. Disciplinary power succeeds in creating normalised judgement, and behaviour that does not agree with this ‘norm’ is corrected. In modern society power is subtle, faceless and pervasive. No longer does a single authoritative king regulate society: power comes from everywhere and anywhere.

Michel Foucault describes ‘Power’ as a pervasive, multifaceted situation that is working within everything and coming from everywhere. It follows that if power is everywhere then there can be no escape from it. Foucault states: “It seems to me that power is ‘always there,’ that one is never ‘outside’ of it, that there are no ‘margins’ for those who break the system to gambol in”. Here Foucault’s analysis seems problematic. If there is no ‘outside’ to power, then how can it be resisted?

Within the film 'Face Scripting- what did the building See?' the artists can be seen with dazzle paint on their faces. The accompanying text describes how the measurements of facial characteristics are used to build up an identity:

"Algorithms identify individuals by extracting and analysing landmarks from the image of the face"
"Architecture of the human face, taxonomy of eyes, noses and the distance between them"

The face described as 'architecture' could be seen as referential to the planned architecture designed by Foucault in the design of prisons as well as other buildings such as schools and hospitals. Dazzle paint could be a way in which to subvert this 'architecture' and manipulate the power of facial recognition technology. Dazzle camouflage, also known as 'Razzle Dazzle' was a military paint job used on ships during both world wars. It consisted of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, confusing and intersecting each other. Instead of camouflaging the subject, dazzle paint acts to disrupt and confuse visual rangefinders. An observer cannot tell where the bow or the stern is situated on the ship or how fast the ship is moving. Dazzle paint could be used to scramble the images captured by facial recognition technology, as the measurements between facial characteristics cannot be measured. 

As long as new technology is created, new attempts to deviate it progress. This interruption of signal could show an attempt to resist. The surge in availability of plastic surgery and botox means that the ability to change your face and therefore your identity in terms of facial recognition technology has become more accessible.  

One one hand, social media could be seen as a positive method of resistance. The recent riots in Egypt, Syria and London were helped by regular tweets and Facebook updates. Information can be updated worldwide in seconds meaning that it is less likely to be misinterpreted or silenced. The power of the Internet was clearly seen when the Egyptian government closed it down during riots. China has a firm grip on censorship with the country's Internet sites. 

Nevertheless the explosion of online social networking recent years could also be negatively received. Our online social presence serves as a personal Panopticon. We construct our virtual identities, constantly editing and refining the way we are perceived socially. Any unacceptable comments can be taken down from your page, any unflattering photographs from the night before can be untagged.

As well as this anxiety of social status, Facebook also serves to remind us of how closely we are being watched by potential employers, as well as capitalist and consumerist businesses. For example, as soon as a particular topic is mentioned, relevant advertisements appear in the bar on the right hand side. 

Foucault states in Discipline and Punish:

"To begin with, there was a scale of control- it was a question not of treating the body, en masse, 'wholesale' as if it were an indissociable unity, but of working it 'retail', individually; of exercising upon it a subtle coercion, obtaining holds upon it at the level of the mechanism itself- movements, gestures, attitudes, rapidity: and infinitesimal power over the active body"

This clampdown on personal freedom and free speech serves to control and maintain society. We are 'given' protests and Twitter etc so that the facade of free speech can be maintained, forgetting the heavy monitoring and surveillance which takes place. There has been a lot of talk about companies and universities using Facebook to analyse your character before hiring you or offering you a place. 
When we forget about our place within these 'false freedoms' we are punished accordingly. 

Paul chamber’s conviction this summer caused massive controversy amongst Twitter followers and civil liberty lawyers due to its implications for public social freedom. Chambers was charged £2,000 with £600 legal fees after posting this comment on his twitter account: 

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Interestingly, in order to convict Chambers, the Crown Prosecution Service used a law aimed against nuisance calls- originally created to protect ‘female telephonists at the Post Office’ in the 1932 rather than bomb hoax legislation, as this would require stronger evidence of intent. 

CCTV itself is not seen as an effective crime deterrent. 500 million was spent on the cameras in the decade up to 2006. A study, entitled 'Big Brother is Watching' found that 418 local authorities control 59, 753 cameras- 10 years ago the total was 21,000. 
Allegedly the quality of footage is frequently too poor to be used in courts, the cameras are often turned off to save money and control rooms are rarely manned 24 hours a day. This is a description of street cameras however, remember it only took Dubai police 24 hours to track down several people within a busy airport hotel using the surveillance system. 

This Big Brother feeling exists throughout all areas of society. During political protests police use video cameras to film protestors and social networking sites are used to assemble portfolios of people. It is common for police to walk up to members of a protest and ask them a personal question.

As is evidenced in the Panopticon the feeling of constant surveillance works to control bodies in space. It could be suggested that this feeling has been internalised. We maintain an ‘Inner Panopticon’, judging and controlling our own actions in order to maintain our role within society.

As personal freedoms and civil liberties continue to be threatened, as technology progresses, the resistance against these technologies will also shift and change. Power as a multi- pervasive, shifting entity works with resistance, developing and changing with each other. As surveillance increases, so does plastic surgery and botox. Protesters and rioters become accustomed to covering their faces more and more- the mask from V for Vendetta seems to be a popular option.

This exhibition attempts to display this modern anxiety of constant surveillance and the loss of personal freedoms that result from this. We clock in and out of our lives, signing away our location, entering our details into the internet which identifies our personalities and sells us products and advertisements accordingly. 

There are ways to resist this, however if you do not comply with these regulations, you actions can be considered deviant and you are outcast as a social body. Foucault claims that one can never escape from this power. It is therefore necessary to use and manipulate it in order to resist it.