May 27, 2008 / 3:20 PM / 11 years ago

"Video sniffers" subverting surveillance for art

ABERDEEN, Scotland (Reuters Life!) - Don’t be alarmed by that strange youth acting out in front of the security cameras, he’s just making an art house movie.

Artists in Britain are intercepting and recording security camera footage to make their own films in a reaction against the seemingly ever-present surveillance camera.

“Video sniffers” intercept wireless camera signals using basic electronic receivers, similar to a device used to pick up television signals. This, connected to a camcorder, allows the sniffer to view images from nearby closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras.

“In the UK it is interesting because we are the most surveyed society in the world,” said Richard Wright, a digital artist and video sniffer from London.

Wright calls video sniffing “DIY media” and says it allows people to make use of the myriad security cameras on street corners, in car parks and in shops throughout Britain.

One widely quoted study estimates Britain has more than 4.2 million cameras, although police cast doubt on this figure.

“Not only are we (video sniffers) interested in this notion of controlling vision but we are interested in anonymity,” Wright said.

“(Video sniffing is) like going on safari to look for wireless CCTV signals,” he added. “Groups of kids typically walk down a street watching as a signal becomes stronger and then it becomes an art to judge from your surroundings what sort of buildings are being surveyed.”


Other artists are using British privacy laws, which allow people to request copies of films where they have been caught by public security cameras.

At the Peacock Gallery, an art gallery in the Scottish port town of Aberdeen, grainy video pictures show London-based artist Manu Luksch having lunch in a cafe, waiting for a bus and then carrying a heavy load of boxes.

Over four years Luksch sent about 100 letters requesting footage from CCTV operators, collecting 15 video clips and using them to make the film.

The Vienna-born Luksch said she was struck by the presence of CCTV when she moved to London 11 years ago.

“From that moment I was looking at ways of working with these recording devices,” she said. “I got into the habit of wearing white clothes just in case I would walk somewhere with cameras — I’d do something like run or handle big objects to grab the attention of the cameras.”


Wright, the video sniffer, also dabbles in “spy-kiting”.

“We attach a wireless webcam to a kite and then fly it to achieve an aerial shot — it’s a cheap way to get an aerial viewpoint,” Wright said.

Another exhibit at the Peacock Gallery, “The Dualists”, shows a choreographed routine of two men vaulting over escalators and sliding down tiled walls in a deserted shopping centre shot entirely on CCTV cameras.

“Artists are people who are interested in the world around them — artists in London have jumped on CCTV because of the amount of cameras there,” said Monika Vyoukal, who curated the gallery’s “Recoded” exhibition.

“It’s being watched .but taking back some power over it.”

Reporting by Golnar Motevalli, editing by Paul Casciato

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