Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

Three Variations on a Theme of Surveillance

So much street art and graffiti depends upon thwarting the technologies of surveillance. I was looking back through some photographs taken on a trip to London last July, and came across three images, each of which are to do with surveillance in different ways.

Here’s one, taken in Rivington Street:

Rivington warning CU.JPG

I like the double-layering that my photograph creates. The notice announces the fact of being filmed, at the same time as my camera films the notice.

This type of notice and device is typical of what can be seen all over London (and  in many other cities around the world). London has filled itself with surveillance mechanisms, the most obvious of which is of course the closed circuit TV camera. They can be seen in so many streets, angling downwards from their elevated positions, like ugly metallic carbuncles on the walls of buildings. And the idea is certainly that in the streets where a camera can be seen, you can be seen on camera (although this Big Brother-esque cliché is often not true in practice: a few years ago I visited the control room for Melbourne City Council’s many CCTV cameras, and staff there admitted that there were so many screens and so few staff that it was impossible for them to properly see much of what was filmed).

The camera on the wall is just one type of surveillance device; there are others. One is the Oyster travel card that allows users to move between modes of public transport. As they travel, it deducts the cost of their journey from a prepaid account in their name. Super convenient, of course,, but when I was visiting there were a number of interesting stories in the media about how the Oyster system was being used to provide information about people’s day-to-day movements. Cases were cited of individuals who believe their spouse or partner is cheating on them looking at their Oyster statements to check where and when they travelled, in the hopes of revealing illicit trysts. Others believe that such computerized systems can be used for data profiling, either for more extensive marketing and advertising or for the straightforward surveillance of citizens that all governments engage in.

And one street artist in London was promulgating a critique of the surveillance systems surrounding citizens: Xylo’s stickers denouncing the Oyster system and mobile phone records were everywhere in 2008. Here’s one, in which he has transformed the very recognizable Oyster logo into the word ‘Voyeur’:

Paul St #1 CU.JPG

The final image doesn’t survey, and doesn’t denounce: instead, it transforms. The phrase ‘Bill stickers will be prosecuted’ is well known; it announces that bill posting or sticking is a crime and acts as a warning to anyone engaging in the activity. (It has also led to a commonly-seen variety of corny graffiti, in which individuals might write, as a riposte, ‘Poor old Bill Stickers’, or something similar.) In Brick Lane, I found this object affixed to a wall:

Brick Lane #8.JPG

The artist has taken a printed version of the warning, and has edited it (illegibly now), and reconstituted it as part of an artwork itself. Thus the will to prosecute (to ‘put someone in the frame’, as the police might say) has been transformed into an image, itself framed and hung upon a wall, in public space, for all of us passers-by to see it, and to smile.