Watching art imitate life

[As ever, this is on the BBC News website, and you can also find some relevant stuff over at the ENTER_  site]

Next week I’m chairing a session at a major conference on digital arts in Cambridge, and if all goes well I’ll be making some of the people there feel pretty uncomfortable about their attitude to personal privacy.

My session at the ENTER_ conference glories in the name ‘control technology’, and it’s about the ways in which artists make use of the many of the surveillance tools that surround and record us.

These range from films like “Faceless” which use CCTV camera footage to more radical projects like Julia Scher’s “Predictive Engineering” and “(re)collector”, a new project from UK artist James Coupe, all of which highlight the degree to which we are constantly monitored.

One of the reasons for discussing this now is that the development of surveillance systems seems to be accelerating, and the technology is getting  more sophisticated.

We’re used to reports that the UK is the most-watched country in the world, but we may well look back on the days of simple closed-circuit television with some nostalgia.

This week we’ve heard reports of ‘intelligent CCTV’ systems like ‘the bug’, an array of eight cameras that scan an area and use movement tracking software to look for unusual behaviour, allowing an operator to zoom in on anyone suspicious.

London is planning to follow Middlesbrough in installing cameras with loudspeakers so that anyone thinking of behaving in an inappropriate manner can be hectored from the control room and told what to do, just as the telescreens ordered Winston Smith to do his exercises in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

More and more mobile phones come with GPS built-in, a boon for the geographically-challenged but something that could seriously damage our ability to go about our daily lives unobserved.

And of course almost everything we do online is recorded somewhere and will be available for inspection by the police if current EU plans to retain details of all emails sent, websites visited and files downloaded go through into national law.

Yet despite the scare stories about the potential abuse of this information we seem remarkably sanguine about the situation.  I came across a posting on Open Diary recently in which a sixteen-year old girl from Florida told all her friends, and any passing strangers, about losing her virginity.

She may be extreme, but millions of people share personal data online, from friendships on Facebook to favourite bands on MySpace, and not forgetting the photos of our friends, family and feet that go up on Flickr and Photobucket.

I’m as bad as anyone here, handing over my shopping patterns to Tesco and Nectar, sending unencrypted emails and visiting websites without seeking to disguise my identity, using Google for my searches and wandering the streets, often walking randomly around in a way that is guaranteed to make me look shifty.

It would be nice to think that the legal framework of data protection and human rights would go some way to protect us here, but I fear that we are going to have to take more direct action rather than rely on the Information Commissioner.

There are some excellent projects which can help online, like Tor, the onion router, which will hide your identity from websites you visit. IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory is working on ‘idemix’, a system which would allow individuals to have more control over the dissemination of their personal data. And there’s the OpenID project, an open source attempt to do something similar.

Alex van Someren, one of the panellists at the conference, is a founder of ncipher, a Cambridge company that helps companies keep their data safe, and he will have a lot to say about what individuals can do.

In the real world it’s a lot more complicated, especially when the mere fact of wearing a hat or hood can be seen as evidence of anti-social intent, and we may need to rely on legal measures and codes of practice when it comes to CCTV.

The collected images, data, sounds and videos from all of this monitoring provide raw material for many artists to work with. Most claim that they are doing so to demonstrate the evils of surveillance, and that their goal is to mobilise opposition to the erosion of privacy and unobserved space, but I’m not sure this is an entirely consistent position.

It seems to be rather too much like the chancellor, who seeks to deter smoking by taxing tobacco but relies on the revenue generated to support other spending programmes.

There is a danger that the art, like other aspects of control technology, will only serve to dull our senses and dampen our indignation, leading us to feel that the unobserved life is not really worth fighting for.

But we cannot afford to go gently into the infrared light of the cameras that watch our streets, and we cannot afford to relax our vigilance when it comes to online surveillance.

I hope that the digital artists who will be speaking next week will recognise that their work raises these serious issues, and perhaps go some way to overcoming my feeling that turning surveillance into art will actually make it easier for those who want to chip away what little privacy remains.

Bill’s Links
ENTER_ site

Enter blog

Sunday Times on ‘Bug’

IBM’s Idemix

Tate conference:

4 Replies to “Watching art imitate life”

  1. I’ve genuinely never understood the concern over CCTV, and I don’t believe most of the public do either.

    A street, or bus, or shopping mall etc is surely a public place. I could sit by the road and watch people walk along the pavement all day. So a camera can do it better? So what? There seems to be a huge difference between the right to keep a private life and the ‘right’ to scrub myself from public existence completely.

    In fact, many of the objections I’ve heard seem to focus on how the CCTV system ‘could’ be used. But if I wake up tomorrow in a totalitarian state, and get arrested for walking down the road in the wrong shade of blue, my reaction will not be “Damn! If only there hadn’t been a camera! Then I’d have been safe…”

  2. There is a big difference between a person happening to see you on the street and a camera recording all the details! A person might remember, but they won’t write it down.

    Plus we already know how CCTV is abused even at the most basic level – the footage of you tripping on the pavement ends up on one of those TV programmes.

    Properly-deployed and CCTV really can be useful, but having it everywhere we go is not to our benefit. Why are people so proud of their ‘nothing to hide’ status? Do we all carry see-through handbags?

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