Demonstrating the Everyday: Surveillance Beyond Fear or Embrace
PhD. student, UC Berkeley, Film Studies
Cultural discourses on the increasing use of surveillance cameras charge that they threaten to invade our privacy as well as that they offer us new scopophilic and exhibitionist pleasures. The Demonstrate project struck a nerve here, conjuring fears of Big Brother that raised legitimate concerns about privacy in public spaces. This essay aims to augment the prevailing discourses on surveillance cameras to suggest that the most lasting response may be neither fear nor fetish, but instead insight into how "the public" sees and represents itself in public spaces.
The discussions ignited by Demonstrate, which took place mostly outside the website itself, in meetings with the project creators, campus authorities, legal experts, and students, focused on the power of Demonstrate's panoramic, high-zoom camera to make visible what we have a right to keep private. In other words, the presence of a powerful web camera overlooking UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza evoked for many the Foucauldian model of surveillance as a disciplining force and threat to autonomy and private subjectivity. But the fear induced by constant surreptitious scrutiny also has its inverse in the fantasy of potent vision and accompanying pleasures, and in the use of the surveillance space as a stage for media spectacle. Thus the debate surrounding the proliferation of cameras into all spaces from ATM machines and parking lots to camera phones and reality television generally splits into two positions: fear or embrace. Is it possible to shift our attention beyond these polarities—to engage, re-filter, and undermine some of the key assumptions underlying the privacy and pleasure debate and thereby open up a space for re-theorizing the citizen-subject under surveillance?
Surveillance, as an internalized, widely distributed, de-centralized condition and practice, has re-visioned the cultural imaginary and produced modes of perception and aesthetic systems that complicate the private/public divide that defines human subjectivity. Two assumptions are elided by the fear-or-embrace debate: First, that surveillance cameras fundamentally expand the visual field to hidden practices that can be identified as worth concealing and worth watching—that is, that we/they transparently know what to observe, or in visual terms, what to focus on; and second, that what we/they observe will be knowable, or will disclose meaning, through this observation. Thus to conceive of web cameras as a threat to privacy assumes that web cameras manifestly document real and significant events in legible form.
Yet the Demonstrate camera reveals that the overtly mediated experience of tele-visual control is as much about how you see as what you see. Howard Dean's speech on the 40th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement was a specific event on which every online participant was riveted. Yet even this singular, testimonial moment was experienced as both presence and omission as remote and on-site users worked to make sense of a live speech through camera vision alone. Demonstrate users (particularly in the wee hours) also spent considerable amounts of time scanning the camera across the space waiting for something to happen, more often than not gazing upon mute shadow, absence, stillness, and daily humdrum. Moreover, neither the video feed nor photographic captures were guarantors of documentary evidence. Users often speculated and constructed narratives for otherwise blank or enigmatic images that revealed more about the person interpreting the image than the actual space or person observed. The camera seems to offer us the seductive power to see without limits, but then reminds us how unreliable and incomplete vision is in the absence of meaningful context.
Demonstrate pulls the enduring status of the photographic and cinematic image—as not merely a representation but as an unmediated trace of a real object or instant—in two directions. The nearly real-time immediacy of watching "live" video, snapping a photo and posting it to the web gives the images the credibility of an unadulterated authenticity that poses legal/privacy issues for the individuals watched and photographed. But the very conspicuousness of the mediating apparatus and the inherent technical limitations on image quality produce pauses, blurs, and abstractions that insistently stress surfaces and form, confounding legibility. By offering us both the immediacy and elusiveness of the tele-visual image, Demonstrate both foregrounds and continually subverts photographic and cinematic indexicality.
Thus the surveillance camera's promise that everything is being watched and recorded produces not just the excited mobilization of fear, shock and curiosity about what can be seen, but also a change in the spatio-temporal experience and expectations of observing itself. Surveillance provides the occasion for meditations on down-time rather than up-time—the dissolution and re-imagination of the subject through waiting, boredom, inattention, noise, and impermanence. While several voyeuristically charged photos captured by the Demonstrate camera acted as lightning rods for the public/private debate, the vast majority of the 1200+ photographs in the database suggest a brief, impersonal glance rather than active scrutiny. Although the threat of anything posted to the internet is that it is can be preserved and tracked, the actual deluge of visual plenitude inspires a mode of attention that skims and moves on. This experiential aspect of tele-visual surveillance is crucial because it reminds us that the technological mechanisms through which we expand our visible field are not transparent. They frame and limit the field as much as they allow magnified access to it. Thus what Demonstrate's 24-7 real-time surveillance really reveals is that the everyday ephemerality, contingency, and confusion of our public spaces are as central to their constitution as contests over weighty ideals.
The privacy issues that drive the current public discourse on web-available cameras are compelling in themselves and have instigated serious critical inquiry. Yet, the flip side of ubiquitous surveillance is that the sheer inundation of mundane moments might induce indifference rather than rapture, impressions rather than evidence. Some images are inflammatory enough to be removed, some images are fleeting enough to be forgotten. Rather than just revealing incriminating visual details that document and lay bare individuals' intimate secrets, is it possible that cameras like Demonstrate might also illuminate how we see and represent public spaces? How public space is constructed in opposition to private space? How even "public" spaces online seem to offer participants the licenses and protections we associate with private space? The historical legacy of UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza encourages an understanding of public space as a site for political activism, creative expression, open assemblies, and community solidarity. Many images and dialogues between Demonstrate participants were shaped by this understanding of the historic plaza and in turn reinforced the centrality of these concerns to the discourses of what public space stands for. But at the same time, Demonstrate participants also charged both virtual and real space with isolation and indifference, cultural, racial and gender divisions, sexualized encounters, punishments and invasions, and actions with and without accountability. All the live video viewed through the camera and all the photographs captured were taken by the same camera mounted in a fixed spot. Everyone who used the camera had access to the same vast but still predetermined field of view. Within this shared space marked by unequivocal boundaries, Demonstrate demonstrates the heterogeneous flux between the banal and the monumental, dystopian and utopian, individual and communal—is this not how public space is created?