Week 13: Proposal for Neighborhood Surveillance Portraits

Cameras begin to create a need for themselves, and they will never be removed.
— Bill Brown, Surveillance Camera Players

A proposal for a real-world socially engaged art project.

A couple of weeks ago visiting guest artist, Joseph Moore, discussed a body of work sourced from the live feeds of unsecured web cameras. When he mentioned a site of such feeds at insecam.org, I immediately hopped on to peruse those labeled New York City. Many of the cameras peer out onto the sidewalks from doorways, seemingly unbeknownst to passersby. I didn't know what to expect, but I felt as if I had stumbled into someone else's secret. Who else was watching and why?

I remembered the long-running project of The Traveller, who has toured the world the past 16 years photographing himself through cameras with Internet-accessible feeds, always in the same attire with the same pose so that he's easily recognizable in every shot. He asks even more questions: 

"Who sets up these automated cameras, and why? What do they show? Are people aware of them? Who looks at their images? Does someone need these images? Does the presence of a camera alter a site? What constitutes a photographic image in terms of authorship or quality? The Traveller project examines borders of private and public grounds, global spread of imagery between irrelevance, information and surveillance, and the aesthetics involved." 

This planted the seed for a "real-world" socially engaged art project to organize and gather folks with ties to a particular neighborhood for a series of group webcam portraits and conversation about surveillance in their local community.

But first, how to find these cameras online? It was readily evident to this long-time resident that many of the cameras on insecam were not NYC-based, and those that were listed falsified or removed their specific locations. Depending on the surrounding signage, as in this case however, that would be easy to solve. This would only be applicable to this project if enough unsecured cameras in the same neighborhood were identified. EarthCam posts links to several touristy locations (with sound!), but they are spread around town. Artist James Bridle's #Rorschcam takes advantage of the many more NYC's Department of Transportation cameras.

I decided that while a group shot via webcam is a nice payoff, perhaps it isn't necessarily the point. Perhaps a better place to start is by asking and attempting to answer the following questions together: Are there cameras in my neighborhood and where are they? Are they for public or private use? Does that engender different responses? (Think security or privacy infringement--ah, the privacy paradox on our streets!) What happens when private cameras are pointed into public spaces? If cameras are secured, we could emulate the surveillance shots and take a group selfies from the points of view of the cameras, then posting online to share camera locations with the rest of the community. 

Since I spend most of my time on or near NYU's Washington Square campus these days, a quick search of "surveillance cameras around nyu" immediately served up to my delight up the surveillance mapping records of the New York Surveillance Camera Players at notbored.org


Parts theater troupe and anti-surveillance activists (here's a brief trailer for an unmade documentary and some performance recordings), their last map of the NYU neighborhood in 2004, counted 510 cameras of which they identified 500 as private surveillance cameras. (All of their neighborhood maps are listed here.)

Thanks to SCP, I found links to the now defunct NYC Surveillance Camera Project, an initiative of the New York Civil Liberties Union to map all of Manhattan's cameras, or at least the ones that volunteers could see: "Whether tucked surreptitiously out of the line of vision or small enough to escape detection, we believe many more cameras currently watch our city streets than appear on the map. And numerous others are continually being installed...Our modern panopticon is making prisoners of us all, as we are constantly under the gaze of the camera." Last updated in 2006, they listed 173 cameras in Manhattan's Community Board 2, which includes NYU. A 2011 New York Daily News article mentions that the NYCLU ended the project after realizing that there were just too many to map, with 8,000 cameras counted between 14th Street and the southern tip of island alone.

Another lucky find, the reporter for that Daily News article chronicled his own casual neighborhood surveillance camera tour, and he lives right near the NYU Tisch building:

"...on Washington Place between Mercer St. and Broadway, there are two surveillance cameras outside two adjacent nondescript doors. After I cross to the east side of Broadway, I walk in view of two cameras perched outside the NYU Bookstore at 726 Broadway. About 40 feet north, there are two more cameras outside 730 Broadway, an NYU building housing the student health center. Two additional cameras hang outside the building's second entrance about 30 feet away....On a typical week, I stop by a nearby Bank of America ATM at least twice. A surveillance camera captures me walking inside. After that brief stop, I cross to the west side of Broadway and almost immediately walk into view of two cameras outside the Cozy diner."

Well, now I'm super curious. That was seven years ago. What's the current state, and why don't I think about it? Am I so distracted by the steady stream of images fed to me by my phone that I've forgotten to look up and realize that my own image is being pumped into multiple image conveyor belts to who knows where? Clearly the area is due for an update. Fortunately, the SCP also posts a surveillance camera map-making guide to help anyone get started. 


(Of note: I found NYU's Annual Security and Fire Safety Reports for it's New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai campuses online. The Shanghai report includes a specific section on it's video surveillance program, which includes facial recognition technology and that "all of the video surveillance cameras at NYU Shanghai report back to the Control Rooms of the Academic Building and the Residence Hall, providing direct feeds around the clock to the certified security officers. Recorded images are maintained for 30 days, in accordance with local regulation." Regarding general security and access to facilities in Abu Dhabi, there are "external and internal
monitoring via video surveillance cameras in a number of locations, which is monitored in a 24/7 Control Room." Similarly, for its NYC buildings, there are "video surveillance systems
in various outdoor and indoor locations, including residence hall lobbies," but I see no mention of a control room.)

A meetup with neighborhood members to map surveillance cameras on their blocks and converse about their responses to and the implications of video collection in public and private areas. Participants will photograph cameras with embedded location data with their cell phones and group surveillance portraits emulated via selfies to acknowledge and share ownership, if only for a split second, of the gaze of the unseen and unidentified viewers on the other side of the cameras.

Participants will develop an awareness of surveillance cameras in their immediate neighborhood.
Participants will dialogue about ideas of public vs. private, senses of safety vs. privacy, and the role of imagery to support or deny those agendas.
Participants will post camera locations and portraits to a wider audience via online social platforms.

Meet at a neighborhood school, library, or coffee shop (20-30 minutes): Ask participants to share their definitions of public and private spaces and any experiences with installed cameras in those areas. Have installed cameras helped participants to feel safe or encroached on their privacy? Share research above, ask for expectations of the activity's outcomes and discuss any hesitations.

Provide recommendations, adapted from the SCP guide:

  1. Familiarize the group with various types of cameras.
  2. Consider a system by which to categorize cameras, either by the camera's rotational ability or presumed ownership.
  3. Looking for cameras: Go slow. Be patient, but don't linger. Do one side of the street at time. Look for cameras a eye-level and also perched on the second-floor. Make sure to look at and underneath canopies, doorways, as well as above entrances. At intersections, look up at traffic lights, poles, and lamps.
  4. Mutually agree upon a social platform and hashtag to share camera locations and portraits.

Commence the neighborhood (or block) surveillance scan itself (30-40 minutes): Photograph cameras with enough surrounding visual information so as to easily discern their location and context. Embedding location metadata will also help. Also take a group selfie from the point of view of the camera. Post images.

Return to neighborhood meeting spot and debrief (20-30 minutes):
What did we find? How does it compare with our expectations? 
Have our definitions of public and privates spaces changed?
What about feelings of personal security and privacy?
What new questions do we have? (i.e. Would you support surveillance regulation? The NYCLU project supported legislation that would limit the duration of recordings, the amount of time footage is retained, the registration of cameras, as well as the notification to passersby that they are under surveillance.)

Additional Resources
Two recent 2017 reports on New York videotaping laws:
New York State Laws on Videotaping
Backyard Surveillance Bill

And from ITP alumnus, Ross Goodwin, The Sentient Surveillance Camera