In Chicago last week a minor ruckus developed around Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain in the city’s Millennium Park. Plensa’s public monument consists of a pair large towers facing each other across a reflecting pool, each of which contains a rotating array of oversized faces of Chicago residents—disembodied heads which always appear to be staring down at the pedestrians below. As part of a Department of Homeland Security initiative, however, this past November the city installed security cameras to the top of each tower. The cameras were noticed several weeks later by bloggers Devyn Caldwell and Mike Doyle, who then tipped off the Chicago Tribune. The city then quickly removed the cameras and offered its apologies.
What is interesting about this controversy is that it did not revolve around concerns with surveillance per se (none of the major participants in the debate appears to question the city’s basic right to position security cameras in public places), but rather concerned issues of artistic integrity—namely, the fact that the cameras had been added to a public monument apparently without the artist’s permission or consent (though the Chicago Tribune does note that “Millennium Park cleared the cameras' addition with the architects who worked with Plensa on installing the fountain.”) Furthermore, the fact that the monument itself revolved around the recording and display of the faces of Chicago citizens was seen as further exacerbating the symbolic impact of the cameras themselves. As Alan Labb, a professor at Chicago’s Art Institute and one of the designers of the Crown Fountain, told the NY Times “To add surveillance to a piece all about faces transforms it into an Orwellian nightmare,” said Alan Labb, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who helped design and build the fountain. James Yood, Labb’s colleague at the Art Institute, concurs:
This changes the whole idea of the sculpture, which is that these are our brethren. Now instead of looking at us, they're surveilling us, which I think is not exactly the artist's intention.
(On a side note, it might be noted that both Labb and Yood appear to be appealing to a notion of artistic or authorial intentionality which is perhaps somewhat archaic in speaking of an art-work which is not only the product of multiple hands but furthermore is positioned solidly within the public sphere).
If one is genuinely concerned with the gradual erosion of personal privacy in the name of an often incompetently executed mandate to combat terrorist threats, it would make more sense to oppose public security cameras tout court, rather than merely the ones which happen to offend one’s aesthetic sensibilities (these security cameras are just two of the 100 that Mayor Daley announced last October would be added to the 200 such cameras already positioned throughout the city). Furthermore, even if one grants the need for an expansion of the State surveillance apparatus in the name of public safety but remains concerned about the long-term impact of such tactics on basic notions of privacy and personal liberty, the compromise solution would arguably not be to shunt the surveillance systems off to where they will attract least attention (as the critics of the Crown Tower cameras appear to be proposing), but rather to keep them front and center, forcing the public to be constantly reminded of what specific liberties they are being asked to sacrifice in the name of “security.”
For these reasons, it seems to me that Labb’s evocation of Orwell is somewhat misplaced—Orwell’s critique was directed at a hypothetical society in which a Big Brotherly surveillance system has become naturalized and ubiquitous, while his own novel sought to draw attention to the possible ramifications of these governmental tendencies. To criticize an artwork like the Crown Fountain for bringing critical attention to these surveillance practices (albeit unintentionally) to these surveillance practices, therefore, is indeed “Orwellian”—but Orwellian in the sense of bringing attention to a potential crisis (as 1984 itself sought to do), rather than in the sense of directly standing in the crisis itself.
While the Crown Fountain incident arguably represents a missed opportunity to use surveillance technologies to draw attention to the potential abuse of those same technologies by the State, University of Toronto engineering professor Steve Mann has been using similar techniques to accomplish precisely that same goal. For the past two decades, Mann has been developing and wearing a series of increasingly sophisticated wearable cameras. Mann has apparently worn one version or another of these camera/computers almost continuously for many years—essentially making himself into a voluntary cyborg whose perception of visual environment is constantly mediated through an elaborate technological interface. In fact, in 2002 he was once forced to remove the equipment from his body while flying back to Toronto from a conference, leading him to become confused and disoriented:
Without a fully functional system, [Mann] said, he found it difficult to navigate normally. He said he fell at least twice in the airport, once passing out after hitting his head on what he described as a pile of fire extinguishers in his way. He boarded the plane in a wheelchair.
One of the political and philosophical points Mann argues he is trying to make with is wearable computers involves a notion of what he calls “reflectionism,” which he describes as
a new philosophical framework for questioning social values. The Reflectionist philosophy borrows from the Situationist movement in art and, in particular, an aspect of the Situationist movement called détournemen, in which artists often appropriate tools of the "oppressor" and then resituate these tools in a disturbing and disorienting fashion. Reflectionism attempts to take this tradition one step further, not only by appropriating the tools of the oppressor, but by turning those same tools against the oppressor as well. I coined the term "Reflectionism" because of the "mirrorlike" symmetry that is its end goal and because the goal is also to induce deep thought ("reflection") through the construction of this mirror. Reflectionism allows society to confront itself or to see its own absurdity.
In other words, the use of passive video recording devices such as Mann’s own wearable cameras—devices which simply record everything the viewer sees, rather than needing to be actively deployed to record specific images or scenes—can be useful in bringing critical attention to the degree to which similar corporate- or State-operated cameras are becoming increasingly interwoven into the fabric of every-day life (Mann imagines certain confrontational scenarios in which, say, a shopping mall with a built-in security cameras attempts to deny access to someone with a wearable computer on the grounds that photography is not permitted in the mall).
While the basic premise of Mann’s approach seems laudable, his proposed mode of execution is arguably impractical and, perhaps, ultimately futile (as demonstrated by his own unfortuante experience at the airport). On the other hand, the Crown Fountain cameras (before they were removed) arguably accomplished a similar objective of “allowing society to confront itself or to see its own absurdity.” Or, alternatively, one might argue that the genuine “reflectionist” inversion in the Crown Fountain incident involved not so much the disturbing juxtaposition of the Tower faces and the security cameras, but rather the contentious dialogue between the city’s expansion of its video surveillance apparatus, on the one hand, and the work of private photographers-bloggers like Devyn Caldwell, who troll the city photographing it for their own purposes and then publishing those images on the web, the virtual equivalent of the very-public Crown Fountain towers, on the other.