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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Engaging surveillance with Bill Brown

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Bill Brown warned us that the Complexe Desjardins security staff may disband his Discovering the Unmonitored Underground City workshop. Unauthorized groups larger than 20 people can be subject to removal from the semi-public space. Sure enough, a few minutes into our tour of surveillance cameras, security guards descended from their posts and loomed nearby our exceedingly benign group of CCA patrons. The cameras, no longer ignored eyes-in-the-sky, had become the focus of 25 or so individuals concerned with their right to privacy in public areas.

Bill mapped 90 of the 116 [claimed] security cameras in the Complexe Desjardins. Displayed with his permission.

Bill has protested urban electronic surveillance since the mid-1990s, and there is plenty to protest. Camera surveillance has ballooned in its usage over the past two decades. Under premises of crime control, cities such as London and New York have implemented vast networks of closed-circuit TV monitoring, with dubious efficacy

In the case of the Athens 2004 Olympics, over two billion dollars were spent on overall security measures. These included an urban camera surveillance infrastructure that was largely inoperable during the Olympics (traditional security measures were relied upon instead), but is in use by the Athens police today. For now, Vancouver’s municipal government claims that its 2010 Olympics camera surveillance system will be removed from city streets after the event.

Bill sees the implementation of public camera surveillance not only as a violation of personal privacy, but also as a systematic ‘depersonalization’ of public spaces. He prefers the human presence of security guards to the unseen observer equipped with a zoom lens. At least you can look a guard in the eye. Camera surveillance, he argues, has the aggregate effect of pacifying the public and creating a “social vacuum.” The observed become unconsciously aware of being observed and thus embody normalized behaviour. They are also less inclined to protect each other from the threats ostensibly deterred by the cameras. The theoretical social consequences are dire (insert obligatory reference to 1984).

With the advancement of surveillance technology (which now includes ‘biometric’ recognition), as well as the marriage of corporate and government interests, there is plenty of potential for urban surveillance paranoia. On my way home from Bill’s tour, I noticed no less than 40 cameras trained upon my path. At some points they likely recorded my movements, at other points perhaps they were not even operational. In any case, I constantly felt under their gaze.

How should one face their day-to-day surveilled existence without succumbing to dazed apathy on one hand or agoraphobic psychosis on the other? It helps to humanize the camera. One of Bill’s favourite techniques is to display clearly written signs towards its lens, and in the spirit of Denis Beaubois, visually declare that he is “suffering from amnesia.” In the least, one can acknowledge the camera with a wave and smile. “Become a tourist in your own city: look up.” Doing so reorients the lop-sided relationship between the panoptic presence and the watched.

It also helps to pay attention to a camera’s specific purpose. Rather than protecting public safety, in practice most surveillance tends to serve the interests of corporate entities. In the Complexe Desjardins food court, nearly every restaurant has installed cameras (some infrared) to observe not the potential aggressive customer, but instead the employees themselves. Essentially, the minimally paid workers are subject to an insidiously intrusive workspace. In acknowledging this role of the camera, the guise of public security falls and its premises can be challenged.

While these methods may not immediately hamper the proliferation of surveilled public spaces, they are undoubtedly individual actions that build upon Bill’s cause, challenging the basis of camera surveillance at both the individual and urban scales. As for the fate of our tour, we acknowledged the Complexe Desjardins security workers with a wave and smile, and they returned the same personal gesture.

See other actions at the CCA exhibit: Actions: what you can do with the city. Related CCA workshops in French and English will be given over the next two months.



  1. I seem to be resident naysayer here. But I personally was mugged years ago in a deserted part of the Underground City and I have no problems whatsoever with the use of security cameras to help keep us safe.

  2. Although I’ve never been mugged, I’ll join you, Shawn. Nothing at all wrong with cameras. There’s no such thing as an “invasion of privacy” when walking down the street or strolling through a busy shopping center. They’re public spaces.

  3. I don’t feel any safer with cameras around — but then, I don’t feel in danger even as I walk along back alleys at night. Of course, being a rather large guy with a shaved head kinda makes ME the one people are afraid of I suppose, although I wouldn’t hurt a fly. Honest.

    I think the point is that cameras don’t necessarily keep us any safer. Muggings are over in seconds, for example, so if it’s not noticed right away, you’re kinda out of luck after the fact — a bowed head and a hoodie or baseball cap can be amazingly effective at rendering even high resolution cameras rather useless. Makes me wonder why they’re all mounted on the ceilings.

    But security guys love their toys, you know…

  4. Make that three. This isn’t even a real public space (as noted in the second sentence). The owners should have the right to protect their visitors and their property, and perhaps the only potential issue worth noting is whether or not the presence of CCTV is sufficiently signposted at the entrance.

  5. (regarding the labour issues raised in the article, abusive intrusion is covered under various privacy and labour laws, although if Bill Brown finds them insufficient perhaps that could provide him with a more precise and worthwhile cause).

  6. the big space in place desjardins covered an existing street and I heard that this means they have to give the public access.

  7. Orwell is upon us! Workshops or no workshops we asked for it and now there is no way out, but the next step, “they will be monitoring us from within our houses”!

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