Interview by Bethany Shaffer
previously published in
Provokator.org - May issue
As you walk the streets of this or any other modern city and look up and catch a glimpse of a video camera, craning its buzzing neck in your direction, do you feel safe or do you feel exploited? Do you ever reminisce about the days when your mobile phone wasn´t considered a freakish extra appendage and you would actually hear the words ‘I´ve been trying to reach you all day. Where have you been?´? Or, do you even ask yourself that question? If you haven´t considered questions of personal privacy in this modern age then maybe it´s time to take a look at some people who are, namely the artists, musicians and organizers of this year´s Crash Test Dummy project hosted by Divadlo Archa.
Conceived by Dietmar Lupfer of Munich´s Muffathalle/Muffatwerk, the idea of Crash Test Dummy is to use the Muffathalle space along with Budapest´s Trafo, Ljubljana´s Projekt Zavod Atol and Prague´s Archa to present international and interdisciplinary examinations of urban environments. Each city will explore its own theme and this year Prague´s focus is public space and surveillance, themes which have forced the contributing artists to consider questions such as those above.
Provokator was lucky enough to get the scoop directly from one of the festival´s organizers, Mike Baugh of Divadlo Archa.
Provokator: The themes of this year´s project in Prague are public space and surveillance. In your opinion, what are the major issues and dilemmas confronting contemporary society regarding these issues?
Mike Baugh: The focus of the project will vary slightly in each city; Archa has chosen to concentrate on public space and surveillance
To me the most interesting issue regarding public space and surveillance is the conflict between safety and privacy. It´s natural for us to want to be outside, to interact with others, to be able to relax in the sun, but we deserve to be safe when we do it. And to ensure our safety in these places we have welcomed a level of surveillance into our lives that is truly amazing.
On a local level, the images most commonly associated with Prague are small winding streets or perhaps bridges—Prague seems to be a city designed for motion, not congregation. It´s difficult to find a place to relax and hang out in Prague and the places where people gather are under watch. Now the watchers aren´t even human; technology traces our steps whenever we carry a mobile phone, when we pass by a cash machine, when we walk into the metro. We still think that when we´re alone we have the comfort of privacy but with the state of technology today it´s difficult to have any privacy.
The level of technology provides the opportunity for terrible things. Czechs have experience with regimes that used surveillance nefariously—perhaps this is still the case or will be again. On the other hand this surveillance also helps us and makes our lives so much easier. Who is willing to give up their mobile phone? Are you going to turn in your modem and start licking stamps when you realize that internet providers keep record of your emails for others to look at? Would you feel safer taking money out of an ATM at night when there is no camera?
The world has always been a complicated place. We just want to explore these issues so people can come up with their own answers to the problems of living in today´s world.
P: Who have you asked to help explore these ideas, and what have they produced as a response?
MB:Right now, we have three definite art installations that will address surveillance.
Marko Peljan is an artist that works out of Slovenia and the US. His installation S77-CR deals with the idea of private surveillance and reconnaissance systems, and how they could be used to change contemporary society.
Memoments (formerly Real Time?) by Dominik Rinnhofer is a video installation that uses cameras and motion-tracking technology to record all the movement on the square and in real-time alters the “surveillance camera films” in different ways. One-way alteration produces visual echoes that are repeated on film over a certain amount of time, so that all the activity that has occurred over a period of time are shown together. It´s a great way of using surveillance to create a beautiful image.
Zwölfton by Rinnhofer and David Kleinl (also Austrian) will use cameras and motion-tracking technology that produces sounds when an act occurs in different spaces. In effect it turns a space into a musical instrument that can be played when someone moves within it.
Rinnhofer has proved to be a real inspiration behind Prague´s program of CTD. He deeply cares about surveillance and has some experience with it when he was caught by the police as a teenager for graffiti; the police had checked the records at the local library to get a list of people who had been checking out books on graffiti, and the trail led to him. If you´re interested in talking with him about his work, you can contact him at: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
P: How do you think the idea of surveillance in the 21st Century has affected the lifestyle of a typical Czech?
MB: I believe there was a study that cited Czechs as the people most addicted to their mobile phones; they are more likely to answer their mobile phone during sex than anyone else. And these little phones are probably the easiest way to track someone. I have one of the crappiest mobile phones around and even I have a feature where if I type your LPIN into my phone, I can find you.
Your mobile phone tells exactly where you are. In Britain, the Ministry of Defense developed a system where they could bounce radar off mobile phone masts and have visuals of anything that is happening in Britain; they wouldn´t even need cameras to track people anymore (see: http://www.expats.cz/go/?Ryp2Y6yuIu).
P: Will this project bring up any new ideas among the Czech people? Do you think it is possible that such an exhibit of typically unmentioned issues can bring an element of fear into society? If so, can that fear then be motivated into something positive, such as discourse or action?
MB: The Prague program about surveillance will make people uncomfortable. Surveillance is frightening—especially when the issue is poised in terms of how easy it is for the police, your boss, your husband, whoever to find you. People should be concerned about this; however, they also have to realize that surveillance makes it easier to find terrorists, to identify criminals, to find someone your son who ran away. The issue is too complex for simple answers.
During Crash Test Dummy we plan to have a discussion panel speak about the issues arising from surveillance. We are not trying to terrify people into smashing their phones or destroying video cameras, we just want everyone to be more aware of how prevalent surveillance is so they can decide how comfortable they are with it.
P: You say you would like to raise the public´s awareness of surveillance. Do you expect or hope for any reactionary activity?
MB: I just hope people will think about the issue and address it in their own ways.
P: Similarly, do you hope to get the attention of lawmakers and heads of society?
MB: I think the heads of society are quite aware of these issues. I think it is now up to the public to learn about them and make their voices heard so that the politicians can move their policies to fit the will of the people.
P: Do you find some inherent social responsibility necessary for artists working today? What can art do to explore and possibly help solve those problems?
MB: No. I don´t think artists have any social responsibility. Ars gratia artis is not a bad thing.
What is most important is that art raises questions and leaves interpretations open. Art that deals with social themes is valuable because it urges its audience to question certain issues and pushes them to find their own solution. The danger is art that fails to pose questions and simply posits answers: propaganda.
The Crash Test Dummy festival will take place outdoors at Nábřeží Ludvíka Svobody, Prague 1 from May 26 - June 3. Entrance will be free and the installation art will work 24 hours a day. Archa is currently finalizing the program, so for specific concert and event information please check out Archa Theatre´s website: www.archatheatre.cz
For more information about the international project Crash Test Dummy, please visit the website: www.crashtestdummy.net