I’m not immortalising them in marble as Ai Wei Wei has done with those trained on his front door, but I am photographing and Instagramming a lot of CCTV cameras. Some of these are accidental: they happen to share a pole with a tangle of cables which has caught my eye, so they make it into shot. Some are in such interesting places that they deserve to be photographed in their own right.
I’m not sure I believe that all the CCTV cameras in the world are active, or that anyone is really watching them if they are- they function according to the theories of Foucault’s Panoptican, surely? But for some reason the act of openly photographing them initially made my heart rate rise a little, a little moment of apprehension, similar to that I felt when I enabled my location services on my camera and Instagram feed.
For all that I use social media to my own advantage, and for all I understand about how mobile phones can track us, why does this feel different? And is this feeling enough to allow me to think that I have had a little insight into what it must be to live life under threat from the authorities with whom you disagree? Similar to a little more understanding I have gained through being disconnected from the online world I normally rely on?
Seeing the CCTV cameras around the ‘villages’ on the outskirts of Beijing, amidst the dust and detritus where the artist studios we are working are located is contrasted with those I encountered at the highest part of the section of the Great Wall I climbed last week. Their reassurance of protection and rescue if needed is obviously not the whole storey. But up a mountain surrounded by nothing more than trees and the breeze, the cameras seemed more unwelcome. They dragged me back from musing on the human effort involved in building the wall hundreds of years ago, back to the present where I remembered I was actually walking on heavily restored steps.
The unseen human effort behind the construction is as alien to me as that which monitors the cameras. Yet here I am, a fellow human, connecting to them by just bing in that spot.
I think that anonymous connection is a key element of my experience here. I stand out on the subway even as I am squeezed in with scores of other people. I stand out in the local restaurant and as I walk down the street. I am present but completely disconnected.