Inside Out Edinburgh Playing with CCTVs

Photo: Circe f. Ervina

Announced onstage today at TED: JR, the street artist and the TED2011 TED Prize winner, has been working this week in Edinburgh on an Inside Out Project action in the home of TEDGlobal. Writer Celyn Bricker tells the story:

That the UK uses the most CCTV surveillance in Europe is widely known, though perhaps less well known is that Edinburgh is the UK’s most closely surveilled city. When we were provided with the opportunity to work with ‘Inside-Out’ we decided to highlight this little known feature of the city. We did this simply by photographing people on both sides of the CCTV camera -– those that are surveilled and those that work as surveillants. The former, of course, includes pretty much everyone, though we initially narrowed our range of subjects by photographing the group that are the most closely surveilled, namely males aged 16-24.

The process of interviewing and photographing people on both sides of the CCTV had some surprising results. There were some, working closely with CCTV, that found the current situation in the UK regarding surveillance to be highly problematic; likewise, at times we encountered the reverse with the people we spoke to in the streets who had no problem at all with high levels of surveillance and were in support of it. Nevertheless we chose to visually separate the two groups that we photographed by taking the photographs from contrasting angles: the images of the surveilled subjects are taken from above, as though captured on a CCTV camera, and the images of the surveillants from below, as though looking into a CCTV screen. The process of photographing the former led us to climbing onto street utility boxes, buildings, perimeter walls, street statues and monuments in an attempt to capture that moment when the surveilled subject comes into contact with the camera.

By pasting the image of ‘surveilled’ subject and ‘surveillant’ in the same physical space we were able to simulate a kind of encounter that is made impossible by the CCTV system. The strange process of CCTV –- which is essentially people watching other people -– is somehow normalized by having a machine system separating watched and watcher. We wanted to make clear the artificiality of this separation, and at the same time make some equivalence between the two groups: the ‘surveillants’ are of course themselves subject to surveillence, and we mimicked that process by taking their photographs. By pasting in the historic centre of Edinburgh, we wanted to highlight the tension between the city’s at times antique appearance and this surprising feature of its modernity –- that it is the most closely surveilled space in Europe.