Every one in awhile, one comes across an article so monumentally pseudo, so rapturous in its attempt to intellectually legitimize something as inane and ironic as an internet meme, that you simply cannot turn away! I hope this article is one of those pieces of staggering grad-level pseudo-intellectual onanism. Well, I only mean that half-seriously, the other half is my attempt at conveying to you dear reader that I in fact, as impossible as it is to believe given the state of modern “think-pieces”, posses a degree of self-awareness. I am aware of the fact that anyone reading this title alone will probably roll their eyes in mockery at such a shameless attempt to give an air of sophistication to an internet meme. But fear not dear reader, for I can almost guarantee that in this strange world of the Internet, there is hidden depth to the man we only know as “Surveillance Camera Man”. I remember back around 2013-2015, there were period discussions among my group of friends about some strange viral videos that were making the rounds, my one friend in particular found this fascinating. It originated from live leaks if I recall, and then various YouTube channels hosted these videos of this guy who had a simple concept: A new way to troll people in the age of ubiquitous video capability and surveillance is to just go up to random people, without saying anything besides “I’m making a video” with a stoic demeanor, and film them for a period of time.
These 50 minute videos became an instant internet meme, part of online lore, because YouTube kept taking them down, and mirrors of the video “documentaries” kept cropping up, so the anonymity of SCM was secured. No one to this day has broken the silence of this mystery, and certainly the people bamboozled in it seem to have long forgotten being trolled. In fact, I do not even know if SCM himself has contemplated the magnitude of what some people in comment sections, who may only know the definition in passing, have said it “real postmodern art”; No doubt it certainly is postmodern art in that it not only challenges social norms, but challenges what it means to become-art, or becoming-art, in other words, SCM challenges what “video art” should be in the first place.
SCM is an artist that breaks with artistic norms in the postmodern sense because he embodies the PoMo art ethos of elevating mundane existence into the realm of aesthetics, in this case people acting as they are organically on the streets by using raw, and uninvited Cinema-Verite. No only is this PoMo art in that sense, but in keeping with the lions share of most conceptual and contemporary art now a days, SCM’s work is hyper-political, because it challenges our conception of what it means to live in a panopticon surveillance state.
This is quite a bit to take in, and i will use my best pseudo-sophistication to “unpack” it (My God, even that word “Unpack” has become a meme, a demarcation of a certain type of cathedral-approved banal academic discourse).
What we see is an oddly postmodern return to the Kantian notion of aesthetics being “disinterested” and “purposeless”. An aesthetic judgment has universal validity in is appeal to emotion for Kant, and it is “disinterested” in the sense that these feelings of beauty, or pleasure,e or artistic sensibility is derived from nothing other than itself, and no other content (political or otherwise), interferes in aesthetic judgement. We take pleasure in something before we find it beautiful, not finding it beautiful and pleasurable because of some other tertiary set of reasons. Art is created and enjoyed for its own sake, it comes from indifference to our own needs or desires, it exists as a stand-alone artistic entity. etc. Of course our judgment of aesthetics will always be colored with other desires, feelings and political motivations, but Kant even says one can appreciate beautiful feats of danger from a safe position as a spectator.
This is where the art of SCM comes in; It is purly without purpose, and his art seemingly lacks a motivation apart from the political connotations we give it. He simply walks up to people and documents are purely organic, raw, and all too human reaction, both positive, and mostly negative. To Kant, art must be un-grounded, does SCM serve any higher purpose? Perhaps, but it does not appear to be creative out of an exclusive need to convey any particular social message apart from some avant-garde feat of artistic hooligan trolling. It is pure hooligan outsider-art, for it is done on the cheap, at random, without any pretentiousness of being confined in the art world, and spread socially and organically via the internet meme-sphere. Therefore, SCM cannot be broken down into some simplistic metric of “conceptual art” per-say. It has the hallmarks of conceptual art, but escapes the capture of modern aesthetic discourses. People simply enjoy it because it gives them a kick to see the most ordinary of people, some of them on the social fringes, wig-out, scream, and in some rare cases embrace their aesthetic objectification via the lens of SCM. One homeless man on a bike even says “no one has ever taken this much interest in me” as he smiles into the camera.
As or the politics elements to SCM’s artistic exploration of the profoundly mundane, the obvious question is that SCM mimics or heightens the contradictions of living in a panoticon surveillance state. When the street camera takes your public image, it is for the utilitarian reasons of “security” and “safety” etc, but when SCM says nothing and puts the camera directly in the faces of the public, then it becomes a cause for suspicion and concern; It is quite fascinating seeing this primordial upsurge of hostility and suspicion at SMC, often both men and women act verbally and even physically violent. Keep in mind that this is not the usual stupidity of the public YouTube “prank video” or “social experiment” genre that plagued the internet for a number of years (until most of them were exposed as frauds). SCM faces this hostility that arises from the unknown, the blank-void faciality (qua Deleuze and Guattari) is the site of fear of the unknown. The Camera is a deterritorialized entity, then lens is a site of numerous possibilities and suspicions, the grand unknown-other literally fixated upon our faces (the seat of our identity) for unknown reasons. Hence why there is this violent reaction to SCM on the part of most people he films. Again, to go back to the Kantian aesthetic criteria of purposelessness, SCM does not share in the utility of a surveillance camera on the street, yet why is he treated with suspicion and not the government installed network of surveillance devices?
Cameras are now ubiquitous, thus breaking down the walls of not only privacy, but public life. Now happenings and events, the seat of the news event or even mundane aspects of existence within public spaces, are not longer consigned to mystery or imagination from news reels, but are there for all eyes to see. SCM is an art project that highlights and brings to the absolute final direction to the point of absurdity, the new reality of mutual surveillance we live in. SCM, a meme, yet an outsider folk artist, a political conceptual artist that probably did not even think of his project as such, but through the “death of the author” era we currently live in, let us interpret SCM in such grandiose, pseudo-intellectual ways!
artwork down by me, entitled “camera state”, pen and ink, spring 2017.