A Conversation on Surveillance
With Conceptual Artist Julia Scher
And Civil Liberties Activist Chip Berlet
Original Dateline: May 30, 1990 (Revised 8/22/91)
Political Research Associates
Julia Scher was one of just three nationally-known artists chosen to
open the dramatic new Wexner Art Museum in Ohio. A conceptual artist,
Scher uses surveillance cameras and exotic security equipment to capture
and record images of people attending art galleries, and then rearranges
the images so that time, place and identities are scrambled. As people
view the resulting images on TV monitors, Scher hopes they will see surveillance
with new eyes, come to understand the power of surveillance, and gain
strength to confront the increasing erosions of privacy in our society.
Chip Berlet, a paralegal investigator, works as an analyst at Political
Research Associates. He has written extensively about First Amendment
issues and right-wing groups, and has worked on several legal teams litigating
against surveillance and disruption by government agencies including
the FBI, CIA, military intelligence, local police intelligence units,
and right-wing spy networks. Berlet is a founding co-editor of Police
Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report.
Berlet: Why make people confront surveillance?
Scher: Primarily my work is creating areas that are under surveillance
and then marking the targeted areas so that a person feels that a particular
behavior might be suspect. In a design of any surveillance system, whether
it be specific to small group or to a general mass population, the idea
is to make people alter their behavior because of the implied threat
that something will happen to them if they act outside of certain social
limits. Self-limiting practices are basically encouraged by surveillance
systems. There are different ways that areas or spaces under surveillance
are marked or not marked depending on the strategy involved. In public
settings there is commonly an announcement that surveillance is in force.
For instance there may be little signs saying "This area is under
surveillance." A political group may come to believe that there
is surveillance happening, and in effect they mark their own space and
Berlet: How do you mark a surveillance area as an artist?
Scher: As an artist I mark all the areas which are under surveillance,
I generally put up signage. I also use audio or sound to mark a surveillance
area so that a beep, a buzzer, an alarm or squawk or person will allow
you to know you have entered an area under surveillance. But unlike in
a normal surveillance strategy where an area is typically unmarked or
it is marked in order to affect fear, panic or in order to solicit a
specific behavior out of you, I mark an area and then allow people to
see the actual equipment, wires, and other mechanisms involved to demystify
the act of surveillance.
Berlet: The assumption here is that surveillance itself has at least
two purposes, one is to catch and record criminality or behavior that
is not wanted. The other is to prevent that behavior from happening through
a form of intimidation.
Scher: Exactly. Both on the physical level--such as the creation of
a surveillance area or a prison, and also on the abstract level--intellectual
or emotional. The abstract level can include the fear of data-oriented
surveillance: that is files that are in essence monitoring you, or that
you have been assigned a number, or your name is being put into a file.
On both those levels, the physical and the abstract, that act, that watching,
that file, has a concrete effect. What will happen is that you will internalize
a need to restrain yourself or to act in a way that you imagine would
be judicious given the situation. For example to not be a thief or not
create a criminal act, or not make a disturbance, or not speak out.
Berlet: In terms of political organizing and activity, do you think
that the fear someone might have that they are under surveillance or
that someone is watching them, or that there is a file being kept on
them, does this fear limit freedom? Do persons begin to self-limit themselves?
How would they do that? By not talking about their fears, or talking
about it and becoming afraid as an individual or as a group. With something
that is so often not on the table but so often hidden, what happens?
Scher: In the case of a group such as Greenpeace working to create
a forum for their agenda and elicit a response from the public, the goal
of Greenpeace is to actively engage the repressive forces that are out
there, and engage the public with the response that Greenpeace can be
a vehicle for change. Non-involved people noting the process of Greenpeace
begin to feel able to make change, the public is then enabled to engage
the issue as well. Greenpeace gives strength to those people who don't
know enough, or are not initiated as activists but still are very aware
of the real environmental and humanitarian needs of the world, which
is to save itself. For a group like Greenpeace the goal of surveillance
would be to have each member or potential member of Greenpeace be self-limiting
and self-censoring so at the end of the day, if someone was watching,
the report that would be filed would say that no activity took place,
no meeting was held, and no one did anything. The ultimate goal is that
they would stop be active. In the case of Act-Up, which I know personally,
when meetings are under surveillance or infiltrated, it is only the group
force which allows them to not act in a self-limiting basis, however
each of the attendees have internalized the fear and paranoia, and continually
are walking around with the feeling that they must resist these mechanisms.
They have taken on the experience of an actual mechanism of surveillance
or infiltration so that even if the mechanism doesn't exist...they act
as if it does.
Berlet: So that even if surveillance and infiltration doesn't exist,
they act as if they were being infiltrated or are under surveillance?
Scher: Exactly, so that the technique, process and methodology of surveillance
itself is very potent, and therefore to defeat that experience of surveillance
is extremely difficult. After all, how do you shake off a force that
has no form, that you can actually battle
Berlet: You can't confront it because it is a little lens on the wall,
or you may not even know it is there at all.
Scher: Well, I know you teach people how to confront it. You do it
when you photograph covert agents at demonstrations by re-picturing it,
and altering it and giving it a humorous theater for that perception.
By pulling that image of surveillance into another arena and globalizing
it--seeing it as the specter that it is--your motion will be to engage
in that process, demystify it, and not pull back and retreat into self-censoring
Berlet: Regarding your installation at the Wexner Museum. It's a sparse
modern building that now is filled with art, but when you opened it with
two other artists it was primarily a building that functioned as a space
where surveillance was already part of the structural design and architectural
design. What did you do and what were you trying to accomplish with that
Scher: I installed close circuit television, reco-robos (which are
passive infrared heat detectors) and voice annunciator chips to create
a system that would extend the regular surveillance that they had already
installed on the building to create areas in which you not only looked
at the building but the building looked back at you. To create an experience
of watchfulness on many different levels. Not only approaching issues
of what was watchfulness, but talking about the construct of environments
which not only are engaged by you participating in them, they participate
back and suck information off and spill it somewhere else. The closed
circuit of surveillance existed prior to my being there and I actually
plugged in to their real surveillance system. It was a system by which
I plugged into a regular security system, used their camera feeds. We
were able to make available feeds from their over twenty camera positions,
and added them to the artist-added camera positions, which of course
are much better than their existing positions. The artist-added camera
positions made it possible for people to experience themselves as an
object/subject of surveillance but also as a participant/subject. As
you walked through the building you could see yourself at various locations
throughout the site and actually follow yourself and other people so
that there was an element of tracking as well as watching.
As you walked through the building you would find yourself up on monitors
through a series of computers and time-lapse tape decks, you could see
yourself from many parts of the building as you walked through the building.
The standards for the tracking were very clear, you were being recorded
and you were being followed, yet you could also follow and watch yourself
and experience yourself from many different angles at almost the same
Berlet: Do you think this demystifies the process for people? Someone
might argue that an installation like that might just create in people
a sense of fear and loathing and paranoia. In that case, experiencing
your art form would simply make them even more paranoid.
Scher: Actually that does happen a lot, but it also is the case that
some people experience it as normal and don't bat an eye, and others
totally don't see the piece at all. So it is an interesting set of responses.
I'm very interested in using the equipment, the mechanisms of policing
and patrolling of institutional spaces, and doubling them back on that
space in order to highlight the repressive concerns that come up with
these systems, and by the regular normal uses of these systems. By experiencing
this closed-circuit in this temporary installation on this limited basis
I hope that people can bring that experience to the culture at large.
So that they go to a bank machine and they take out money they realize
that they are being watched and they are being recorded and that what
does this then mean to them. It's significant that they can experience
this in a non-threatening way. The piece isn't really threatening, although
it may engender paranoia, since this experience on a limited basis can
be applied to other situations.
Berlet: The hope then is that people would become more aware of surveillance
and then perhaps become more aware to the recourses available to challenge
the kind of pervasive experience of surveillance and monitoring that
goes on. In Europe, for instance, people have access to both public and
private data records and certain record and data keeping practices are
forbidden. The rights of the individual in terms of privacy and surveillance
are given much higher priority in Europe than in the U.S. Through your
art you are telling people that they can take back control.
Scher: Absolutely. The possibility that their identity is imperiled
by these systems is enormous. That was the case at the Wexner Center.
When you did see yourself up on the monitors, a huge full-blown black
and white image of yourself with the time and date generated over your
head, a graphic, a statement, would come up over your face which had
nothing to do with you, but would identify you incorrectly. For example,
your picture would come up, and you are a white man, and it would say
over your face, "You are a girl who has been caught not looking
just right." So it would misidentify you, and it was a simple computer
program generated with an Amiga computer. So everyone was misidentified
and attributed to a characteristic not of their own making. This fallibility
issue is something that I use to bring up the idea and the prominence
of this imperiled identification and the loss that is associated with
There is a loss of freedom associated with not being able to have control
over your own image, your own visual reproduction, your own sense of
self. In my installations I try to show that it is not only self image
which is being hurt or repressed, but also what is at risk is history
itself. We are talking about history which is a construct as we know.
In a lot of artwork and literature, history is what you make of it. But
also vision, your spatial perception, and time are also at risk. So by
using the body as an identity from which to take off from seeing what
is hurt, I hope to imply that these other issues--vision, history, time--are
also effected dynamically.
Berlet: The technology itself is increasing in terms of applications--more
and more people are using more exotic technologies for surveillance.
Twenty years ago you couldn't afford to install a passive infrared-red
detector in a home. Now you can buy them at Radio Shack...
Scher: ...for about sixty bucks...
Berlet: Right, so you can now turn your home into something that in
the 1960's would have been out of a science fiction film.
Scher: Yes, and remember that security was the number one growth industry
last year, this includes guards, correctional institutions, the whole
doo-wop. It is also true that this escalation has been promoted by the
industry itself. The security industry is using the perceived need for
increased fortification as necessary simply to live, and to create the
dynamic of a healthful, happy, safe environment. It is a promotional
critique based on the inability of mass culture to deal with the problems
of society such as crime, drugs, unemployment, homelessness, and the
inability of the criminal justice system to house inmates. The general
growth of repressive mediums follows along with the cultural destruction
of values and morality and the ability of communities to take care of
themselves, and the ability of the police force to be taken seriously--and
the police force is not taken seriously...
Berlet: Because the police are overwhelmed?
Scher: ...well they certainly aren't in control here in New York, and
everyone knows this.
Berlet: The people who contract with private security firms on an industrial
level to monitor dissenting voices in the animal rights or environmental
movement are assuming that the constituted law enforcement can't cope
with their needs for security, so they contract with a private firm to
do that. This then creates another layer with law enforcement being paralleled
by private security...
Scher: ...Oh, the future is totally private security. Public law enforcement
is seen as outmoded. The money is going to private security, and right
now it is really an unregulated industry. You have municipal and federal
law enforcement totally regulated, and watchdog organizations up the
ass, yet you have a whole open field of unconquered territory in terms
of privitization of control mechanisms. We will obviously see more of
this. In every city you have police cars, which are really mobile detention
centers--jails on wheels--and they have the capacity for monitoring as
well. So that you could have a political meeting that could be monitored
from a car, and think of what a great private business this could be.
You could monitor several meetings a night, you don't have to set up
physical bugs, you just drive your mobile unit around and have someone
infiltrate meetings with a tiny transmitter with the signal being recorded
in the mobile unit, and spend the night moving from site to site. In
the past, transit has been constructed as power, any time you have a
car, a train, anytime that you have these interstices of egress, this
has been traditionally constructed as a form of male power. So too, the
gaze--watching--this is being used in very interesting and insidious
ways. Say you have 100,000 mobile detention centers in the form of police
cars across the United States, whatever the figure is, think of a private
industry in which you not only could detain and incarcerate individuals,
but one that is watching back and selling the information to others.
There is a tremendous growth possibility here. I'm very interested in
this in terms of the marketeering and profiteering from a surveillance
engagement of a meeting in which there is an issue discussed where the
information might be for sale to someone else. For example a government
force might be interested in monitoring a meeting, but it is prohibited
by law. Yet they could contract with a private group to obtain the information.
The sales potential in terms of dollars is quite great.
Berlet: But wouldn't the sales potential be greater to a private firm,
say in terms of monitoring an environmental group that wants to shut
down an industry because it's polluting? Obviously the primary buyer
for that information is the polluting industry itself, but not the only
potential buyer, because competing industries might want that information
to put in a bid for a waste-water treatment plant to clean up the site.
Scher: In comic book spy v. spy traditionally doesn't the info go to
the highest bidder? What if there is a new construct where you could
have information available to different bidders at different prices?
The monitoring of groups would be lucrative from a security firms point
of view, no matter what the meeting. It's likely that while not everything
is being monitored now, it would be advantageous to upscale it and promote
systems in which more overall monitoring is possible at a cheaper price
so that even though there is legislation coming up that will limit CCTV
surveillance, so that you will have to get a warrant in the same way
you have to get one for audio monitoring, it's not clear that these laws
will actually pass.
Berlet: Or if they are passed that they will be obeyed.
Berlet: Since one of the slimy undersides of the security profession
is that there are always people willing to ignore the law for a price.
There are individuals and firms that won't do that, but there are those
that specialize in it, and what you are paying them for is to get the
information using any means necessary, as long as they are not caught.
Berlet: Then there is within the culture of surveillance persons who
in order to earn their pay act as agents provocateurs or who consciously
or unconsciously misreport what is going on to make their information
more valuable. It's one thing to monitor and report on a meeting where
people talk about picketing, it's another to report that people discussed
blowing up the industry. Suddenly the value of the information provided
where violence is discussed is much higher than the value of information
about First Amendment activities. So there is a process whereby persons
who sell information know their services are more valuable if they can
report more threatening activity than if they merely report non-threatening
activity. This is the process whereby infiltrators end up being the person
in a meeting say, "I know where I could get a bomb" or suggest
the most militant course of action where that tactic would be inappropriate
to the group or the context of the protest. So it becomes a self-fulfilling
prophecy in surveillance that infiltrators end up fueling the process
by which people turn to more militant activity. Which isn't to say that
in some cases militant activity is not an appropriate course, but that
is a false outcome if it is prompted by the infiltrator, and may not
reflect really where the group is politically or the most efficient and
useful mechanism for protest is at that moment. Since the more aggressive
the protest, the more valuable is the information provided.
Scher: I have only thought of that in terms of government infiltration,
where they get you to do things you would not normally do just so they
can arrest you.
Berlet: Yes, but it is also that the information itself has more value
if it is more threatening to property or to public image. This is apparently
what happened in the case of Fran Trutt where Perceptions International,
a private firm, employed infiltrators who entered the animal rights group
she was in, and convinced her to place a bomb, and in fact they provided
the bomb, they drove her to the site, and when she had second thoughts
while she was on the way, she called another person in the group who
turned out to be an infiltrator that she saw as a friend, who encouraged
her to go through with the action. So in fact the infiltrators generated
the idea, arranged the accumulation of the bomb materials, provided the
means of transportation, and gave emotional support for the action. Who
is to say if they had not been there in the first place that this attempted
bombing would ever have taken place?
Scher: Is it possible that there are private groups out there that
have a motive other than profit, but have their own political agenda
that would provide service such as infiltration?
Berlet: Oh sure, there are a number of these groups.