'Life: a user's manual' is a series of public performances and online mappings that examine the hidden stories captured by private wireless CCTV streams and how they intersect with the visible world around us.
The title 'Life: a user's manual' is taken from a novel of the same name by Georges Perec. In his novel, he peels away the outer wall of a ten story building in Paris and proceeds to describe the interior of each apartment and the stories of its inhabitants. As observers, we are led through a sequence of readings and views as we mentally navigate from one apartment to the next.
A tiny fraction of the radio spectrum has been allocated for public use. Taking advantage of this unlicensed part of the spectrum, the result has been an increase in use of wireless devices that are transmitting on this narrow band. Private use of wireless internet, cordless phones, bluetooth and wireless surveillance cameras has turned the average consumer into 'micro-broadcasters' who transmit their personal narratives through the airwaves. The culmination of these autonomous and synchronous acts contributes to an invisible, ad-hoc network of media overlaid within the socially codified spaces of urban environments, the café, the home, the apartment building, the office, the store, the bar, the hallway, the entrance, the parking lot and the street.
'Life: a user's manual' focuses on the use of wireless surveillance cameras within public and private places that transmit on the 2.4 Ghz frequency band. Easily intercepted using a consumer model video scanner, the captured, live images create a sequence of readings and views of the city and its inhabitants which are observed while walking through the streets.
Discussions concerning surveillance very often turn to the Foucauldian model of the Panopticon and the loss of privacy of the individual. While I acknowledge this view, the discussion for me lies in the phenomenon of -- personal, cultural, social and physical-- boundaries and the anxiety/anticipation and even inevitability of these borders being encroached or crossed. Fear of the ‘outsider’ is felt on a national/international level, evidenced by border and immigration issues and terrorism and in response to what Barry Buzon (People, States and Fear) refers to as 'Societal Security', or perceived threats to society's identity. These perceived threats serve as catalysts in the creation of institutionalized surveillance and other policing strategies in which loss of privacy is an effect.
However within this work I am dealing not with institutional but private use of surveillance. What happens when these technologies are in the hands of the individual. What are people watching? In which ways are they being used?
People place cameras on what they want to protect. Perhaps this is a desire, as Bachelard describes, to return to the original shell of early childhood, where life begins enclosed and protected. "A sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter." The camera captures a portion of space that requires watching, a space with frontiers, defences and weaknesses. The different views, an unmade bed, a baby's crib, a hallway, restaurant kitchen, doorway, café table, gate or sidewalk, illustrate a diverse landscape of perceived insecure areas.
However now another boundary is encountered, one defined by the wireless transmitter whose transmission range does not coincide with the physical boundaries for which the camera is intended. Radio moves beyond walls, wanders and inhabits several spaces at once.
The area that the camera captures becomes simultaneously a physical and virtual place. It originates from a physical location, yet is also moving invisibly through the airwaves. So what are our relationships to places that are hidden yet there? What are our relationships to places that are both physical and the mediated, between place and non-place?
Non-place is a term used by Marc Augé (Non-Places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity) to describe places created by supermodernity. Non-places, mediated, ephemeral and individually oriented, are places formed in relations to certain ends (s.a. leisure, transport, transit and surveillance). Non-places, places you temporarily pass through, include cash machines, airports, motorways and the complex mass of cabled and wireless networks. [Anthropological] places, such as a public square and park, are defined by their inherent social nature, have a history and are formed by local references and codes, Augé describes our contemporary reality where these two modalities of place and non-place are not mutually exlusive, but made up of intertwinings and interminglings between them.
De Certeau also makes the distinction between places and non-places in regards to the opposition between space and place experienced through the act of walking. A place, an assembly of elements existing in a particular order, becomes animated or a 'space; by the motion of a moving body. For Certeau, 'to walk is to lack a place' and 'is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper'.
But the non-places of wireless networks that thread through our cities, are also absent places. They contribute to the invisible strata of an urban environment, of places that are present but not normally seen. There are many possibilities for journeys into unexplored areas and into the unknown.
The action of walking through the city and intercepting wireless surveillance feeds becomes a journey narrative of transient states, intertwinings between place and non-place, between the visible and the invisible, as one moves through and inhabits both the physical and the mediated. The city is a 'network of nowheres' defined by transience and absence, by borders and borderland states.
Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, trans Maria Jolas, Beacon Press, Boston, 1964.
Augé, Marc, non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, trans John Howe, Verso, London, 1995.
de Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984