The feeling of unease that typically accompanies watching surveillance camera footage is a very particular and significant condition. Much has been written about this kind of unease, particularly in writing that deals with the theory and epistemology of photography as kind of image that has been mostly interpreted as an indexing sign – a kind of sign that is connected with its referent by a real and yet ephemeral link, like an involuntary trace that some thing, being or event leaves in its wake. Drawing attention to the fundamental absence of what should be being signified, named or presented, the index thus brings out some inscrutability, foreignness, non-identity, an essential otherness of signs and images in general. Walter Benjamin was struck by the lack of transparency in the scenes of Atget’s photographs of empty Paris streets, which looked to him and his contemporaries like crime scenes (Tatort). Juxtaposing this kind of photographic image to other kinds of picture, primarily artistic, Benjamin recognises in the awkward covertness of their meanings a political potential – the opportunity for the observer too to take up a committed stance and interpret them as historical testimonies.
If, then, every photograph is evidentiary material in spe, footage from CCTV cameras is that in a literal sense. Until they are used for their ultimate purpose, revealing history in its truth, the shots from surveillance cameras are however just meaningless scenes. Such a semantic vacuity is troublesome: by no kind of contemplation or hermeneutic ingenuity will we be able to decode their meanings, for their function is one of indexing, for their meaning will be established only after the event and is completely independent of the actual nature of the image. What goes for surveillance images in general holds true for the footage of the Art Pavilion in particular, the current context only heightening this characteristic. Since the gallery is not open for visitors, the images show only empty space – a huge spatial resource in which currently nothing public is going on and in which the traces of last year’s earthquake are visible. A dedicated space that continues to exist while not being used is a disturbing space indeed; it is not just a deserted mise-en-scene, but a location for some anonymous, incomprehensible goings-on, horrors that go beyond the objective causes, which reach down into the role of the intimate and the private, concerning us personally.
Faced with such scenes, then, it is impossible just to contemplate: something has to be undertaken. The decision of a group of artists to intervene into recordings of the empty space of the Art Pavilion shows the way. The first of these artists, Mihael Giba, gives the viewer a virtual introduction into the space of the Pavilion; arriving at the Web site of the Pavilion, the visitor can see a photograph from the surveillance camera, one that is refreshed every second. When the virtual space is visited, with a “click”, a light turns on, i.e., a spotlight in the physical space of the gallery; it will remain on for some time, and then go off until the arrival of a new visitor. The situation that arises is a kind of multidimensional node or loop – activity in the virtual space results in action in physical space, which cannot be experienced any way except indirectly, via the photographic shot that lags slightly after the real duration of the event. The circumstance in which the action, event and experience do not spatially or temporally coincide opens up many philosophical and other questions. We can ask one of these questions here, which is: what actually counts here? Which part of our action or behaviour has real consequences? Is there anything we can think or do that exists without any consequences? The footage of the interior of the Pavilion in the work of Mihael Giba, over the course of time, that is, while the exhibition is on, is gradually worn out: from visitor data, tracks like a barcode are generated – black fields indicate periods when there is no visitor, while voids refer to their presence. As the exhibition goes on, the image from the surveillance camera actually decays, but the state of this virtual place, ultimately depends precisely on how much it is visited.
The footage from the CCTV accordingly returns to its original evidentiary, indexing, function; although the visitors are not visible inside the physical space, at the level of the photographic image, their existence does nevertheless leave a trace. Putting aside the dire predictions of the absolute surveillance of everything and everyone, this ingenious intervention of Mihael Giba primarily tells of the power and competence of the individual; the idea that nothing that we do is not invisible – and hence not without significance – is not comforting, but it can be very stimulating indeed.
Author of the text: dr. sc. Ivana Mance