polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide


by Andrew Wade

Last week I was in ICCo for pizza when a girl at a nearby table lost her bag. More precisely, her bag was stolen. Despite the several CCTV cameras attached to the walls and ceiling, someone had made off with her belongings while she was getting her order from the counter. After disappearing to presumably watch the CCTV footage with a member of staff, it was evident that no progress had been made in deterring, recognising, or apprehending the thief. With the overwhelming prevalence of cameras both inside buildings and on the street to monitor public spaces, we must wonder to what extent the intentions of CCTV are met.

The extensive use of CCTV in many cities is clearly aimed at assisting police and ensuring the safety of the citizens by both preventing criminal activity and facilitating the identification and persecution of criminals. Slightly more ambiguous are the feelings of intrusion and claims of imposed authority by other city dwellers. While this portion of the populace may lack a unified voice, its insurgent message is expressed in several ways.

For instance, the now infamous street artist Banksy used a blank end wall in central London for this piece,

which was painted over by Westminster City Council in April 2009.

This is the site as it now looks:

The work, while it lasted, certainly served as a reminder of the widespread surveillance techniques of law enforcement. It even inspired a blog. Further resistance to CCTV is evident by the Institute for Applied Autonomy’s work of devising “routes of least surveillance.” This uses detailed information of all cameras in a particular urban environment to calculate the best way to move from point A to point B while appearing on camera the least number of times. This unique approach to cartography is collected with others in An Atlas of Radical Cartography.

While CCTV may reduce some criminal activity or help to identify those breaking the law, it also aggressively promotes an US v. THEM mentality that can make government appear as a force in opposition to the people rather than a government composed of the people. The prevalence of CCTV culture in the 21st century highlights the political nature of the urban environment. Is CCTV simply attempting to address a symptom (crime) rather than the core problem (increasingly extreme inequalities)? For me, simply being in a neighbourhood with lots of security cameras makes me feel less safe, and causes me to wonder what happened here before to make these necessary. At that point my imagination becomes a disability, not a resource.

(Notes: In completing a google search for CCTV, the first response is actually not even Closed-Circuit Television, but rather China Central Television, whose new headquarters, a fascinating project, was designed by OMA with Arup. Also, ICCo is far better than the linked review suggests, so if you are around Fitzrovia, London, give it a try! Finally, I have no connection with the linked “one nation under cctv” blog, other than sharing a name with its author.)

Credits: Photos by Andrew Wade.