Surveillance, Performance, Self-Surveillance

Interview with Jill Magid by Geert LovinkIllustrated version on www.networkcultures.orgUS-American, Amsterdam-based artist Jill Magid was a ‘must see’ at the
2004 Liverpool Biennial (www.biennial.com). Her work fitted in tightly
with the Biennial’s topic of the city and the ‘engagement with place’. The
installation, Evidence Locker, shown at the Tate Gallery and the Fact
centre for new media and screen culture, is a seductive play with
Liverpool’s CCTV infrastructure. Instead of portraying citizens as victims
of Big Brother, Magid’s works opens up a new field of art and activism in
which predictable forms of protest against the almighty eyes of power are
turned into a dandy-like performance. Early 2004 Jill Magid spent 31 days
in Liverpoolthe amount of time CCTV footage is stored, unless
it is used as evidence of a crime. Wearing a red coat she was followed by
the CCTV cameras, and an intimate relationship between her and ‘the
Observer’ developed. The installation consists of a variety of formats,
from a printed daily/exchange with the Observer to audio files of
Citywatch employees describing ‘suspect’ behavior of individuals they
follow to Jill strolling through the inner city shopping zone. There are
two outstanding pieces: one in which the Observer is guiding Jill while
having her eyes closed, through mobile phone contact, jumping from one
camera to the next. The second one is a short piece, with Jill on the back
of the Observer’s motorbike, blurry pictures, switching quickly from
camera perspective, until they drive outside of CCTV reach. In the
following interview, which was done via email and live at Fact on October
2004, we talked about the Liverpool in relation to Magid’s earlier work
and about the responses to this remarkable piece of urban techno poetry.

I will fill in the gaps, the parts of my diary you are missing. Since you can follow me inside, I will record the inside for you. I will mark the time carefully so you will never lose me.

Dont worry about finding me. I will help you. I will tell you
what I was wearing, where I was, the time of day… If there was
anything distinguishing about my look that day, I will make sure you
know.

—Excerpt taken from the Evidence Locker Prologue (Jill Magid, 2004)

GL: The dominant presumption about surveillance is that it turns all
civilians into victims. Instead of creating a feeling of security, CCTV
systems treat each of us into potential suspects. At least, that’s the
common belief. How do you look at this widely shared set of ideas? It’s
funny that also political activists, and artists I have to say, have not
yet have transcended the surveillance ideology.

JM: I have never looked at surveillance technology from the position of a
civilian under its gaze. Or rather I should say that when I have done so,
it has been in response to a question such as this. I was drawn to
surveillance technology for its potential, as a tool that offered specific
qualities and capabilities; CCTV systems enabled me to see and capture
myself (and my body) in a form that I could not experience without its
employment. Surveillance cameras create stages, or fixed, monitored
platforms. Under their gaze there is a potential for me to act, and a
potential to save this act as a recorded event. By watching an area rather
than an individual, the camera in its static position seems to favor its
context over the pedestrians passing through it. It seems to say: The city
is permanent, the civilian ephemeral. In a positive sense, this technology
offers me a way to place myself, to become visible (and potentially
permanent) within the city, through a medium bigger than myself. It is
thus a creative field in which I choose to play. In terms of its political
position (as maintaining security or, conversely, invading privacy) I see
these positions as qualities of the technology itself- criteria of the
tool that simply makes its use, in my way, more loaded. I have also looked
at CCTV cameras as objects, or visual signs. In my past project, System
Azure Security Ornamentation, I played with the cameras political
ambivalence: between its position as a tool th= at protects public space
as watched space, or as a sign of watched space. As a sign the camera stands more as a reference to the body or institution that is watching rather than as a tool with the
function of securing. I wondered, are the cameras ornamental? And if so,
do they signify authority?

I approached Police Headquarters in Amsterdam and asked if I could cover
the surveillance cameras on their fade with fake jewels as an art
project. They rejected my request and the idea of working with an artist.
I remade myself into a company- System Azure- and again approached them
with the same question, this time for a fee. After months of negotiations,
I succeeded in officially covering four of the Headquarters
cameras in jewels, in colors with police-assigned meanings. (See
www.systemazure.com). Even here I do not feel I was taking sides
politically, I was more interested in the camera as an image that
triggered questions of meaning, even from those who controlled them.

GL: In your writings for the Liverpool Evidence Locker project you’re
talking about the city of L. Everyone will understand you mean Liverpool.
Why have you chosen to use an abbreviation? Liverpool is not an average
city. It’s quite an extreme and exceptional case, in terms of its history,
decline and attempts to revitalize urban life. What’s special about the
Liverpool surveillance culture?

JM: Using was not really meant to mask the citys identity; it was rather a way to place this identity as secondary, or less important. This question reminds me of the first in that both CCTV and Liverpool have their own histories and connotations that are so loaded with preconceived images and critiques that those suppositions come before
the story I want to put forth. When I speak of CCTV or surveillance in
relation to this piece, or those previous, I try to use analogous terms
that are slightly less recognizable: such as spelling it out as
closed circuit video, or in the book the camera or you to replace those watching through them. I want to get beyond presumptions of the system, or the city, so that the qualities or details that get less attention-that, for me, truly
make them up- can be for-fronted. What is special about
Liverpoolsystem is the criteria it is run by-the 31 day
period of holding footage, the laws of the Data Protection Act 1998 (a
British act), and the fact of it being so new (the system on this scale is
one year old). Some activists based in Liverpool remark that the cameras
are symbols of hygienic space, in which Cunwante are
targeted and removed; or as marketing signs to businesses and consumers
that the city is now watched and thus safer. While I may agree with these
ideas, the debates around them run parallel to my own questions and
desires. I was more concerned with the size of the system and how the
presence of so many cameras turned the city into a movie set with 242
cameramen.

GL: For Evidence Locker you have chosen to take up the role as the
red-dressed heroine, the seductive female dandy that strolls through
anonymous metropolitan areas. In this way the story of urban surveillance
systems so to say steps back and becomes an instrument in YOUR story. What
does this reversal of functions means to you, compared to the viewers of
the installation?

JM:The desire to bring abstract concepts or technologies toward myself in
order to understand them intimately is a constant within my work.
LiverpoolCCTV system is extensive, based on complicated legal
structures and anonymous as public video surveillance. To come to know it,
I needed to use it, to add myself into its equation. I recognized the
system potential to extend beyond its prescribed intentions= .
For me, this potential was romantic: I could be embedded into the
city memory for seven years; the city could be my stage; I
could perform and be watched. If what I created was not my story, but
someone else or that of an invented character, I would not
have been able to feel it in the same way. Only by being watched, and
influencing how I was watched, could I touch the system and become
vulnerable to it.

I designed the two installations, Evidence Locker at Tate and Retrieval
Room at FACT, in a way to bring the viewer along my journey, along a loose
narrative path. At Tate you enter a controlled space, like that of the
secret CCTV station, and at FACT you remember the
xperience through retrieved footage and my letters.

The viewer approaches the work as a third party witness
: He or she watches me being watched. I imagine some viewers identify with
the controller and some identify with me. I am an individual of the public
under view, one who has been singled out. Some people find this position
scary and others find it desirable. I found it to be the latter.

GL: Late 2002, during the WorldInformation.org festival in Amsterdam you
have already done a work that involved police security cameras. Was it
really different to work with the Amsterdam police department?

JM: It was very different, but this difference reflects my approach. With
System Azure, I transformed myself from an artist to a businessperson in
order to be seen by the police. My intention, in either case, remained the
same; this transformation was necessary for them to hear me. I was curious
to explore how those in authority related to their cameras- as ornaments
or as serious tools of security. Once we established the cameras ability
to act as architectural ornament for the police building, the negotiating
space and the project itself became more theatrical. The deeper we got
into the patterns and colors of the fake jewels, the farther we moved from
the camera so-called int= ended function. It was this slippage
that intrigued me; I questioned the representation of power verses the
activity of power.

Working with the Liverpool police was more collaborative. I did not
clearly state my position in terms of career, rather my interest in using
the system. The work was not about representation, but about function. I
wanted to expand the function of the system- a function that was latent
within it- and I needed them to work with me.

GL: In Amsterdam your artistic strategy consisted of the ‘beautification’
of public security cameras: ornamentation of something that is essentially
ugly and suspect. Did you try to make the cameras visible? Was the idea as
simple as that? I found it interesting that you did this in the red light
district.

JM: While the final product-the jeweled camera- is simple, the story
behind it is layered. This is true for a surveillance camera even before
it is ornamented. Surveillance cameras are painted beige as to not stand
out too much, yet- as with the police cameras I used, they are often large
and prominently placed. The police themselves, remarking on the
tools inherent contradiction, explained how the perception of th=
e cameras depended on who was looking: invisible to the innocent civilian
yet a deterrent to the criminal. To be hidden and to simultaneously act as
a signifier is quite an ambiguous position!

Attached to the police headquarters the cameras announce their power: the
power to look down on those walking by, from nine different positions. In
this way the camera is both an ornament and a tool of power. A security
camera on a police station is like a gargoyle on a castle.

It was the police that offered the colors, and the meaning attached to
them. According to the authorities, the color red, meaning liefdevol or
full of love, represents police love
What is that and what does it mean? Love for whom and in what form? My
proposal to ornament police cameras in the red light district in red
jewels simply put that question out there. In this area of Amsterdam, red
is the sign for prostitution; the color signifies the place of consumption
and the kind of services rendered. To use red on the police cameras adds
this meaning of the color with that of the police. What happens to their
meaning then? Asking the police to cover their cameras in red jewels (and
red hearts) is also a way of asking them to claim responsibility for their
cameras (as opposed to the shops and pimps that leave them beige).

GL: You mentioned that there are those who are exhibitionists, and those
who are not.

JM: Some viewers who saw my work reacted to me in a kind of horrified way,
saying how scary they found my watched position to=
be. Others told me they wished it had been them. One man said to me that
he wanted to be the girl in the red coat on the back of the
motorcycle, in reference to my video entitled Final Tour. I
have also been told that there seems to be a large group of young women
who are drawn to the work as a kind of escapist fantasy. I did experience
this to be true when I returned for our talk at FACT. I am not surprised
by the two opposing reactions, as many of my projects in which I have
placed myself before the camera have elicited similar contradictory
responses. I did a project at MIT called Lobby 7 in which I hijacked
the lobby informational monitor to broadcast my own
transmission. This transmission was a real time exploration of my body
beneath my clothes via a pinhole surveillance camera that I held in my
hand. While the experience of exposing myself in this lobby was
terrifying, it was also exhilarating. I created a new relationship with my
body, as well as to the lobby and the people in it, via this technology.
It left me stronger and yet more vulnerable. I don’t assume that everyone
wants to feel this, or would feel this way from the same performance. We
all choose the kind of relationships we like, and the roles we like to
play.

GL: How would you describe the audience responses to the piece? It
certainly raises a lot of questions, in particular about your role as a
performer and artist.

JM: During the performance I was not aware of the audience response; I did
not take my eyes from the monitor. I watched myself while the audience
appeared and aggregated in the lobby behind me. You might call them
witnesses. I could hear comments of those people who watched closely
behind me, and others as they passed.

I could hear one couple close by for at least half the piece; they
discussed the composition of my body on the monitor and how my skin
related to the surrounding architecture. Two men, looking like professors,
passed and one asked the other Cwhat is on the monito
his response: I think its one of those videos about a baby being
born I was told seven police officers came in and asked people
who put the sex tape in the system. These reactions say a lot about how
images of the (female) body, in general as well as in the academic
environment of MIT, can be perceived, as well as the assumptions that come
with those perceptions.

In the days after the performance, at least five women came to me and said
she wished it had been her. Other women I did not recognize gave me nods,
smiles, or angry looks around campus. Both men and women seemed to look at
me longer.

In the documentation video (I had people hiding in the above balconies
filming) it was clear that the image was not readily legible; the viewer
would look at the monitor confused and then his/her face would betray
recognition. Some looked around to find who was doing this, but many just
stared at the screen. Viewers often changed the way they stood: pulling
baseball caps lower, or crossing their arms before their chests. Others
put their hands in their pockets.

The best reaction I got was from a professor of mine named Ed Levine. He
told me that after he had seen the performance, he could never look at the
Lobby 7 monitor again without seeing the image of my body on the
screen.

GL: At MIT you studied with Krzysztof Wodiczko. Is it through him that got
involved in this type of performance?

JM: Not directly. Krzysztofwas part of a team of professors, amongst which
was Dennis Adams, Julia Escher, Ed Levine, and later Joan Jonas. I chose
to go to MIT because I had no longer been satisfied with my studio-based
work. I lived in New York and felt a need to engage with the city
directly. I was making models of architecture that I wanted to build
within the city, which would exist as pockets of silent or intimate space.
The professors asked me if I had experienced these spaces I imagined, and
suggested that until I was offered the millions of dollars it would take
to build them, I should find a way to test my designs. I scaled the models
down to wearable objects and clothing. The only way to test them was to
use them, out in the urban environment. I guess you could call this the
beginning of my performances.

GL: Out of the rich Liverpool material you have been trying to extract a
film script. Are you really thinking about feature film? Would you use the
original footage from the security cameras? Would it be fiction or
something in-between, like a hyper real fictionalized documentary?

JM: The original idea was to use the police footage I have and to adapt
the Subject Access Request forms (the letters) I wrote into a script. I
hoped to make it a feature length film with a narrative structure closer
to fiction than documentary. Since the beginning of the project I wanted
to treat the system as a film crew making cinema. Beginning this process
of adapting the footage into a feature in LA this summer taught me a lot;
the approach I used to make the videos for the art installation did not
easily translate to a cinema space, and I am still considering how this
can be done. There is surely a Hollywood story here; the question is how
to do it. I am also curious to see if someone within the film industry
takes this challenge on. I love the idea of police surveillance footage
inspiring a Hollywood film- of the project making a full circle. I
surprisingly found that what I was faced with- adapting the footage for a
feature- was closer to the process reality TV editors face rather that of
film directors.

GL: What’s the purpose for you of making narratives? This seems to be an
important drive of you in your artworks.

JM: I dont often feel in control of the narratives that happen in my work. When a narrative does happen, I am usually riding along with
it, to a place I am unsure of until I am there. I also would not say that
narrative is consistent within my work. The work I do with mirrors is more
of an action. With the mirror tools and videos, I cut small mirrors to fit
the shape of my hand or to fit the object I want to catch or hold within
them. For example, if I want to hold a skyscraper, I cut a small mirror
the size of a pen. In it, I catch the Empire State Building. Through the
video lens, I drag it across the skyline.=20

The narrative of Evidence Locker grew from a process, or a series of
actions. My intention upon arriving to Liverpool was to use the CCTV
system as a film crew, to act as the protagonist, and to be saved to the
evidence locker forever-or at least seven years. I planned to use the
Subject Access Request Forms as my diary in the city. I dont think most of us imagine our diaries as a story, but of course it reads as a
kind of narrative. The (love) story grew from out from the relationship
that the controllers and I formed through the camera, especially with one
of them.

As for the general occurrence of narrative, I would refer again to my
desire to bring abstract concepts closer to me. A way to do this is to
re-write or reconstruct myself into them. This process is a kind of
storytelling to myself. It is this story I present.

GL: Could you tell us more about the difference you make between private
and public spaces?

JM: To describe private space, I often speak of bubbles. Inside the bubble
is private, outside is public. The boundaries are subtle, possibly
invisible. The inside is softer, quieter, and time runs more slowly. Like
Foucault=E2=80=99s notion of heterotopias, this bubble is a mirror of
its surroundings. In the mirror I see where I am not. A bubble can appear
inside of other spaces, while everything outside its boundaries continues
on as it was. In my example above, I use a small mirror to hold the Empire
State Building in my hand. For me, I have used the mirror to create a
bubble for the tower and myself. Inside I can hold it.

GL: What is self-surveillance in your opinion? Is it self-examination or
rather an urge to control your own image and reach a stage of super
self-awareness? Do you think that the presence of so many cameras means
that we are ‘internalizing’ technology? Is it really ‘invading’ our bodies
and minds or do see ways to ignore it?

JM: Self-surveillance is a way of seeing myself, via technology, in a way
I could not otherwise. In self-surveillance I use a system or a technology
as my mirror. The type of reflection I face is specific to the tool I am
using. Who I appear to be in that reflection is unfamiliar. The process of
coming to recognize myself as I appear there is what I call my work.

URL of the Liverpool Biennial project: www.evidencelocker.net Security
Ornamentation website: www.systemazure.com