This performance/variable media art work was made possible, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Major support of the Franklin Furnace Fund was provided in 2010-11 by the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation. This exhibit is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Project description:

[New York, NY]--- The creation of a fictional organization known as the Society for Self Surveillance from March 25th through 29th, questioned whether pervasive surveillance in New York is a true threat to liberty, or an over-extended farce. Organized by Bay Area based artist Doug Garth Williams, the organization sought to pose the questions, “Are surveillance cameras the chilling Orwellian eyes of authority or are they modern day gargoyles designed to invoke the idea of security without really providing it? Is it a little bit of both?”

In the current economic climate businesses have popularized the phenomenon of the “pop up shop”, wherein a storefront is obtained by a business to be used for a limited period of time for a narrowly targeted release or marketing campaign. Arts organizations have increasingly been catching onto this trend by displaying art in available storefronts. Williams aims to put a spin on the pop up shop phenomenon by capitalizing on the particular nature and public perception of these open storefronts: Namely the fact that these are commercial spaces, which the public naturally expect to see occupied by traditional businesses of some description. Rather than repurposing these spaces as short-term art galleries, his goal is to create art projects that initially appear to actually be legitimate operating businesses or organizations.

The chashama windows space at 266 W. 37th street in Manhattan was an ideal fit with this project. With it’s large glass storefront¬ at 37th and 8th ave., it had high visibility and every desirable feature needed to help set the stage. The project created posters, advertisements, a promotional website, live monitoring of vital signs, GPS location, and online presence, and occupied the storefront with custom signage. Acting as the public face of the organization, Williams delivered in-character weekday public lectures on how to keep oneself under constant surveillance in order to increase public safety. He also spoke with a large number of curious passersby in informal conversations in his invented persona.

It was essential that this project did not explicitly announce itself as art. The intention was to design a project that would be discovered by a variety of people going about their daily lives. Williams believes that when these materials are discovered there is a crucial moment of puzzlement and uncertainty on the part of the viewer. They are confronted with a storefront boasting all the trappings of a functional organization, but on closer examination it seems to have ambiguous and unusual goals. This is enough to knock viewers out of the autopilot of their daily lives and in that moment they become fully engaged. The idea is to create deadpan materials and performances convincing enough to suspend, for longer than usual, that period of instructive uncertainty.

Society for Self Surveillance documentation