- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
Michelle Teran is a Canadian-born artist whose practice explores media, performance and the urban environment. Over the last decade Michelle has developed an impressive body of work that critically engages media, connectivity and perception in the city. Her performances and installations repurpose the language of surveillance, cartography and social networks to construct unique scenarios that call conventional power and social relations into question. Given her interest in 'everyday' urban experience, we thought a discussion of Michelle's work would serve as an excellent addition to an issue exploring ambient culture and aesthetics.
[Parasitic Video Network, Electrum House – video still]
Greg J. Smith: The appropriation of surveillance technologies and protocols is a trope that you've explored in numerous projects. Parasitic Video Network transforms banal everyday spaces into hyper-mediated performance zones while in Life: a user’s manual, the ambulation of a nomadic figure becomes a window into pervasive, unsecured CCTV networks. Do you consider surveillance networks to be 'everyday' technologies? I ask because on one hand the aforementioned projects delineate surveillance systems as pervasive and inescapable, but in doing so they defamiliarize our conventional experience with these networks.
The body of work to which you are referring to took place over a six year period, from 2002-2008. In 2002, I accidentally intercepted video transmitting from a wireless security camera that was not intended for my eyes. While viewing live images on a monitor being produced by my own wireless camera, I was surprised to see something else appear. Black and white, ghost-like apparitions, people in aprons, emerged intermittently from the white noise. After some scrutiny, I realized that the video was coming from a camera installed in a restaurant kitchen, two floors down. Whether intended or not, a person that uses a wireless surveillance camera becomes a broadcaster who transmits live video that is easily intercepted. This chance discovery led to a five year search for more hidden images, found by walking and using a video receiver to scan the streets of 17 different cities.
To start to answer your question, quite obviously surveillance is now ubiquitous and pervasive, to the extent that there is now an urgency to open up new ways to think about surveillance practices. There is a whole field of research, such as what the Surveillance Studies Network is doing, that looks at contemporary practices as they intersect with culture, visual culture and moving image studies. Essentially there are many frameworks for thinking and talking about surveillance. For my part, I started to look at two aspects of surveillance; that of the incidental production of images and surveillance as architecture. German media theorist Vilem Flusser states that we are living in a universe of technical images. This started with the invention of photography in the late 19th century, but now can be applied to any technical apparatus that is used within contemporary image making. For Flusser, whereas traditional images were connected to the objective world, used to create abstractions of objects, current images are connected to concepts. This means that its not about what the image contains, but how and for what purpose the image is produced and how this influences and shapes everyday reality. So, concerning my work, I started to think about the qualities of the images themselves, and what kind of concepts and experiences they conveyed, which for me turns out to be quite a spatial experience. I owe part of my thinking to what I consider a seminal book "Loving Big Brother: Surveillance, Culture and Performance Space" by theatre maker John E. McGrath. In his book, he suggests that we should open up surveillance discourse, conventionally framed around privacy and control, and start to incorporate other narratives to start to describe the complexities of living within a surveillant society. For McGrath, the corporeal experience of surveillance (both as the observed and the observer), temporal and spatial dislocation, interpretation of meaning (who gets to interpret the image and why), desired surveillance (related to politics of race and gender), and death are some narratives that explore these complexities. I was also influenced by some of Brian Massumi's writings about vision. In his book Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Massumi describes "mirror" vision as being how you see yourself, while "movement" vision is how others see you, that is in motion and from other angles than a fixed and frontal position. Being able to view oneself in motion creates a new experience in self-reflection and new relation to place.
Therefore, in the different projects that I carried out, I wanted create situations that would explore the different experiences of surveillance, the politics of observation, contemporary image-making practices and the corporeal experience of living within these systems.
[ Friluftskino, Urban Interface Oslo / 2007]
Well, the politics of observation and corporeal experience were certainly interrogated in Friluftskino: Experiments in Open Air Surveillance Cinema. In that project you went as far as setting up chairs and serving popcorn to an assembled audience during ‘screenings’ of intercepted CCTV footage. In this project you essentially ‘inverted’ the cinematic experience and brought those viewing conventions and related rituals into (semi) public space. How did audiences and inhabitants of the city respond to these feature film length screenings?
I take as an example one of the screenings within this series, titled 'Car Wash'. This screening took place in a darkened parking lot in the neighbourhood of Grønland and used live video coming from the interior of a car wash. I was first drawn to the simple image of the car wash, of having the (perhaps banal) activities of the car wash become amplified and projected from the parking lot. The area itself was very dark and quiet, almost forgotten. Therefore, my initial gesture was to illuminate this forgotten corner and to see what events would unfold when a darkened space was activated by essentially turning a building inside out and projecting an interior from the outside. Predictably, other layers of information came out through the performing of this intervention.
Grønland is a place of different communities of people and also one of transition. Historically a white working class area of Oslo, it became the target destination of many people coming from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Somalia, making it one of the most mixed neighbourhoods in the country. In the last years, the neighbourhood has become a hip place to live, with new housing developments and subsequent rent increase. However Grønland is at the same time connected with crime and drug use. You can see this quite clearly in the number of addicts hanging out in the park nearby who openly buy and inject heroin in public.
The car wash was mostly a place for taxi drivers, mostly coming from Pakistan, who came to wash their cars and take a break during their shift. During that week, Norwegian mainstream press published reports involving tax-cheating, money laundering and connections with drugs and weapons distribution by the Pakistani taxi-business, making them suddenly very much in the spotlight.
In the parking lot I set up the projection and then laid out the chairs with the help of some assistants. This attracted a lot of attention, first by the cab drivers who were using the car wash and then from passers-by. One could immediately see how much the parking lot was actually being used, by the cab drivers who would come, park for a while and then leave and also people who would cut across the parking lot on their way to somewhere else. These two groups became the cinema audience.
There were many cab drivers that were very curious about what was going on and approached us to ask questions. Some sat down to watch and to talk with the people already seated. We offered them popcorn and tea. When these cab drivers left to wash their cars, others came out to sit and watch. The cab drivers become both the spectators and also the subject of the open-air cinema.The interchanging actions of observing and being observed continued throughout the evening.
After about 45 minutes, the owner of the car wash finally came out to talk with us. He was wondering what we were doing and if we had asked permission beforehand, appearing a little nervous and unsure as how to approach this new addition to his parking lot. The people sitting with me were also unsure about their roles, suddenly becoming co-conspirators in the process by being cinema goers and observers. I had deliberately not asked permission as I felt that more interesting things would happen when the situation was not too planned in advance. Therefore the hijacking of parking lot, wall and signal were carried out without his prior knowledge. He told us we were using this parking lot, his wall and his camera, then said we were using his images. In this sense he was framing the discussion around private property. But by owning the camera, did he own the images as well? If the intervention was taking place from the street, would the discussion change? What were the boundaries between private property and the public domain?
When questioned about the camera, he said that junkies had used the car wash to warm up during winter months. At some point things started to go missing so the camera went up. After going back inside the car wash, he turned the camera off for about 10 minutes before turning it back on. This seemed to emphasize that, as owner of the camera, he had control of the images by deciding whether to produce them or not.
Ten minutes later, at 10.00 p.m., the projector was turned off and the equipment put away. The parking lot was once again immersed in darkness, and returned to its normal state. Two days later, when I walked by the same area, the surveillance video was no longer there.
That is a fascinating account of the scope, reach and context of that project and you’d be hard pressed to top that interaction you had with the owner of the car wash. The ensuing debated—it sounds like he argued in no uncertain terms—where he opined that you were appropriating his images must have been the perfect capstone to the initiative. Had you pursued an antagonistic relationship with him I could imagine some kind of Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote battle over hertzian space. Have any of your other performances and installations generated similar controversy or public discussions?
Yes, but not in the way you might think. Last year I was invited to create a new work for the Mediations Biennale in Poznan, Poland. I was asked to develop a project that in some way related to the city, but with the assumption that I would do something connected to previous works. I had two very strong impressions during my first visit to the city. There were many vacant commercial spaces within the city centre, which I learned was due to exorbitant rents that the landlords were charging. The landlords preferred to leave them empty and wait for higher end tenants, such as banks, than let these spaces be used for other perhaps more interesting purposes. As such, many cultural organizations and independent artists had difficulty finding affordable work space.
At the same time there was a demonstration by Rozbrat and its supporters in the city centre. Rozbrat, a sixteen year old squat and autonomous space for various political, social and cultural activity was in a precarious position with the threat of closure. This was due to a city development plan within the Solacz district where the squat was located which would link a green park area with high-priced housing. The official map of the plan designated the area, and site of a vibrant cultural space, as "wasteland".
I approached Rozbrat with the proposal to make their issues visible within the Mediations Biennale. They agreed on the condition we address the "social and political problems that they are working on and exist in the city." They put forward the plan to carry out a political action against the proposed settlements of industrial containers by the city intended to house the very poor which will be installed far away from the city centre and therefore hidden. The idea was to install a container in the city centre during the first week of the Mediations Biennale which would function as an undisguised site for information and public debate.
The proposal was formally rejected by the city due to pavement regulations in the city centre. A counter-proposition for use of the exhibition space within the town hall was rejected by the Bien- nale because it was "expressing a criticism of the city". A third suggestion to place the container in front of the hospital of Orzeszkowa Street was rejected by Rozbrat as being secluded and not an effective site for public debate. My final proposal was to make a financial contribution of 750 euros, half of my artist honorarium, to support Rozbrat’s ongoing activities but not necessarily taking place during the Mediations Biennale. Rozbrat accepted this offer.
Documentation of this process was presented as an installation at the National Museum of Contemporary Art. I made a enlarged print of the contract between myself and the Biennale’s organizers placed together with photographs of the financial transaction from my bank in Berlin to their bank in Poznan. Rozbrat and I worked together translating some texts, from Polish to English, about gentrification in Poland and the lack of social housing. To this was added text and photo documentation of a industrial container settlement in a nearby city, from research carried out by Rozbrat in the previous year.
The installation generated controversy on a number of issues—criticism of city policy and neo-liberal agendas as well as giving a platform to a cultural space which officially wasn’t supposed to exist—however the most contentious issue was the fact that I had made the economic transactions between artists and organizers of the Biennale suddenly very visible. Artists compared how much they were getting paid, if they were getting paid at all. Art and culture are part of the larger political and economic issues that shape the daily life of any city. Invited artists are implicated in these structures. But not everybody is treated equal. I was being paid while, for example, an Estonian artist and local artist received no financial compensation for their contribution to the Biennale.