Jill Magid: The Surveilled Streets; a small conversation on ‘the Streets’ as a concept.

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Jill Magid’s works in the series Evidence Locker and the installation Retrieval Room (all 2004) manipulate surveillance cameras, bringing focus to the silently observed character of contemporary streets. The works all bring together narratives formed from her interaction with surveillance teams and security cameras, during 30 days wandering the streets of Liverpool, wearing a distinct red coat.

Mass surveillance has been a regular theme of dystopian film and literature prior to and since perhaps it’s most famous study, Orwell’s 1984. Other titles examining surveillance include; A Scanner Darkly- Phillip K Dick, Brazil by Terry Gillaum and the Transparent Society by David Brin. In the surveillance dystopian genre, the power of surveillance lies with the Panopticon effect – the surveillance system appears to the citizen to be a faceless omnipresence, utterly powerful. Citizens are unsure of when they are being surveilled, and so live in a state of heightened fear and caution.

In this genre, the surveilled streets are the domain of the totalitarian government, and not the ‘people’. Their ownership, their function are altered. In fact, all space becomes the property of the government, as surveillance is extended to private homes, every little nook and every dark corner is illuminated under their watchful gaze.

In our society, streets are increasingly surveilled: The UK being the country with the most dramatic increase in cameras: estimated at 14 for exery citizen. Crime prevention is used to justify increasing numbers. But how does this increase alter the nature of ‘the streets’? Does it, as in dystopian fiction, transfer ownership away from citizens? In what sense is privacy linked to ownership and control? Does a street belong to those who control it, those who use it, everyone, or no-one?

This leads me to ‘the streets’ as a political concept. ‘Take it to the streets,’ is a way of telling someone to take a political belief and turn it into action. The streets are where the action is. They are where demonstrations march, they are where public life is lived out, they are what was barricaded during the Paris Commune uprising, the streets were where fighting occurred in the Spanish Civil War, where the Wall Street Occupiers set up encampments. In this sense, ‘The Streets’ become synonymous with ‘the people’, public life, or the common person. ‘The Streets’ are the domain of the homeless and impoverished, the place in which lives and culture are lived out by those without the means to access private space. The streets are also the birthplace of Hip Hop, which has it’s own concept of ‘the streets’, and which deserves more analysis than this sentence.

In this sense, if ‘the streets’ are a synonym for ‘the people’, an urban embodiment of the people, then the surveilled streets are a surveilled population, even if we are allowed privacy inside our homes. In a way, the internet can also be considered an extension of the streets. It is where much of contemporary public life occurs, via social media, news gathering, purchasing. It has replaced the square and the market. It may be inside our private homes, but it’s also under surveillance. And like the streets, we are as unaware of our surveillance online.

For more information on Magid’s works; http://artreview.com/features/summer_2016_feature_jill_magid/



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