PVI collective: they're watching you

Bec Dean

pvi collective, trigger happy: private lives public spaces

pvi collective, trigger happy: private lives public spaces

Following on closely from 3 weeks of research and development—and new work for PICA’s Putting on an Act and a curated exhibition Tactical Intervention Strategies—I spoke with PVI (Performance, Video and Installation) Collective directors, Kelli McCluskey and Steve Bull, and performers Katherine Neylon, James McCluskey and Chris Williams, about humiliation, discretion, paranoia and behavioural
analysis software.

Your work a watching brief, for Tactical Intervention Strategies at PICA, challenges the gallery visitor not only to perform certain potentially embarrassing tasks in public, but to invite themselves to be watched closely by outdoor surveillance equipment. Did you expect anyone to take the bait?

KM We really didn’t think that people would take the costumes out on the opening night of TIS. We were almost daring the audience to follow through with the instructions, and they did. They have to choose a briefcase, a character, and call a number. They’re given coded instructions for the kinds of gestures they’re expected to perform in the cultural centre outside the gallery, like doing something at the traffic lights or covering their faces.

SB After they’ve received this message they have to look at the dictionary that’s posted near the phone to decipher it. The code steers the telephone conversation away from any potentially loaded ‘key words.’

KM What we try to do is to stretch the boundaries of a given space, then network it back into a performance. For our 3-week research and development at the Blue Room theatre we wanted to focus on surveillance technologies. Our work for TIS specifically came as a response to this report we had found. Do you know that Australia is the second largest distributor of CCTV systems in the world?

That doesn’t surprise me; what’s the first, the US?

KM No it’s actually the UK. They’re incredibly paranoid. The technology that’s available is astounding, like behavioural analysis and facial recognition software.

This leads on from your performance deadspace that referred to telephone monitoring practices.

KM In deadspace we were investigating what constitutes a subversive word, and how language can be misinterpreted. Now we’re looking at gestures and the ways they can be misinterpreted by these cameras, equipped with behavioural analysis software. Something as simple as masking your face with your hands, smoking a fag or scratching yourself fits into surveillance criteria.

KN We discovered that you could avoid being watched by wearing a uniform.

Where did you find the surveillance report?

KM It came out of the UK and basically questioned the successes and failures of CCTV, finding that it hadn’t really been fully investigated. So an independent report came up with some really interesting facts about the people watching CCTV monitors, and how untrained they were. They brought their own prejudices to the interpretation of events, mostly linked to cultural stereotypes. So they would look at young people, or ethnic minorities, or just for the hell of it they’d pick-up on a good-looking woman and follow her around.

Like the Burswood Casino surveillance report.

JM We were also looking at codes used on CB radio and filmic languages.

The extent of your research is broad; what performance outcomes did you expect to achieve through this R&D process?

KM We wanted the guys working on the project with us to perform surveillance tasks on the general public in public places. This is how trigger happy: private lives public spaces was developed. We set-up a workshop space with a scanner and a CB transceiver for walkie-talkies. We could hear them communicate with each other, and we gave them tasks each day to track somebody making certain gestures.

KN We also used our own prejudices, like the CCTV operators, to pick out the people that we would follow.

KM The guys have to try to ‘blend in’ and be discrete which is quite difficult, because the walkie-talkies don’t quite look like mobile phones, so we finally got them some hands-free devices.

SB They walked along speaking a very odd language, and anyone who clued into it gave them strange looks.

KN What we found was that everybody else noticed what we were doing, except for the person we were following.

JM It changes the way that you associate yourself with a space. As a watcher, as soon as you start reporting on people, you become really distanced.

SB It’s interesting how the coded language makes what you’re describing much more loaded. It’s pretty banal, but somebody walking to a bus stop becomes an incredibly over the top performance. So we’ve taken on the idea of Kate, Chris and James blending in in Northbridge, along with the notion that CCTV cameras ignore anyone in uniform. We’re having them dressed up as Santa Claus.

CW Yeah, you just blend in.

So how does the dynamic operate between Kelli and Steve as directors and you Kate, Chris and James as players? Do they give orders that you have to follow? How much personal choice or input do you have?

CW I find the work really satisfying because you’re constantly challenged to do things that you wouldn’t normally choose to do. The first time we started to workshop with Kelli and Steve they made us sing and dance, like “here’s some music, just dance in front of us.” It was humiliating, but you step over that.

SB So Santa Claus isn’t a problem.

JM Because Kelli and Steve work with so many different layers of research, it seemed like we were performing a lot of disassociated tasks which was exhausting, or else talking for hours to extract information from each other. Then, when everything came together with certain elements filtered-out, we would start to hear our own lines coming back at us. Since our first project, we’ve become a lot more involved in their processes, instead of sitting back and being meat-puppets.

CW Also, quite often we’re not aware of everything that’s going on in a performance. I can’t see everything, but Kelly and Steve have the eyes to see.

SB That’s the job.

PVI collective: a watching brief, showing in Tactical Intervention Strategies, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, July 4; trigger happy: private lives public spaces + Putting on an Act, PICA, July 13. PVI are currently in residency at The Performance Space, Sydney, July 30 – August 20

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 38

© Bec Dean; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001