Smile, honey, you’re on candid camera

The film director Chris Petit looks back on images of surveillance on film and recalls how Britain f

In the early 1990s, I met a friend of a friend who, as a victim of recession, was in the process of reinventing himself as a self-employed man with a van, flogging surveillance equipment.

It wasn't as easy then as you might think: the only sure buyers were supermarkets selling ethnic products in high-crime areas. And yet a corner was being turned. The new Tesco superstores had been persuaded to instal closed-circuit television (I had noticed) as a deterrent to shoplifting. The man joked that, should I wish to hold up the Tesco garage in Brent Park, north-west London, I should do so in the next two weeks, because it had been slow to get around to installing cameras.

When I spoke to him a couple of years later, he was running a successful business with large shopping centres among his clients, and was probably on his way to becoming a millionaire. I was reminded of him recently after being clocked by a speed camera at 82 miles per hour at 16:35:27 on 24/04/10 on the south Tonbridge bypass in Kent.

The central mystery that remains is why the UK embraced surveillance culture far more enthusiastically than other countries, turning us into perhaps the most watched nation on earth. J G Ballard's novella Running Wild (1988) suggested that this obsession with security was indicative of a deep malaise, which had its counterpoint in an emerging feral state - something that was captured in the surveillance images that recorded the abduction of the toddler James Bulger in 1993.

But another movement was being recorded: the drift into blankness. With everything rev­ving towards instant communication, the cameras showed how little could still happen, with only the stamped-on time code proving that you weren't just looking at a photograph of an empty car park. These new recorders showed consumption and boredom in equal measure, to which, it could be argued, the only conclusion was the invitation to terror.
The cult of surveillance has its origins in Thatcherism, driven as it was by private enterprise, corner-cutting and the dubious flogging of arms and military technology. It marked the shift from manufacturing to service industries, and a new emerging landscape in which the big shed was king, followed by retail parks and the 1990s regeneration racket - all of these built security into the equation.

As important was Northern Ireland, for which much of the technology had been developed in the first place (such as the ANPR vehicle-check system, still in use in London). A huge boost in funding followed the IRA Docklands bombing in 1996. A year later, there were more than 167 town-centre surveillance schemes (using over 5,000 cameras); there had been just three in 1990. By 1998, CCTV accounted for more than three-quarters of total crime prevention spending (around £8.5m that year) and, over the next five years, the Home Office made a further £170m available. But in February 2005, an academic paper commissioned by the Home Office found that CCTV was not an effective deterrent to crime, nor did it make the public feel safer.

At this point, the initiative passed from central to local government. In the case of Hackney Council in east London, the library budget was sidelined as the surveillance network grew. The cameras ring-fenced crime zones and troublesome estates, becoming indicators of class segregation, but they weren't as all-seeing as they were made out to be. People learned where the blind spots were; the hoodie was a direct response to the cameras' intrusion. Now the whole concept looks dated, a cosmetic exercise in government spending and an enormous waste of time and money.

The earliest CCTV cameras were at the forefront of the paradigm shift brought about by recent new technology. The sites they surveyed introduced the idea of high security to the everyday. With privatisation, public buildings became more withdrawn; the addition of identity passes, access codes and guards turned business life into something more akin to a military state of alert. In his book Terminal Architecture (1998), Martin Pawley called these the first buildings of the digital age, rendering architecture redundant by their anonymity, leaving everything to the imagination because anything could be going on in the box.

Surveillance came of age at the same time as the cult of gormless celebrity and as Britain became less repressed, more confessional. It was
a recipe-in-waiting for reality TV, notably Big Brother, that post-Warhol exercise in instant fame and disposal. But the real explanation for the CCTV phenomenon is not futuristic, nor is it Orwellian or imaginative. It can be found in solutions of the sort served by Midsomer Murders: a familiar story of greed, commerce, land speculation and local politics, as councils turned from administrative backwaters into ambitious, driven and unaccountable organisations with no shortage of funds.

If we didn't object, it was because we were distracted by how much more mobile and how much easier personal communication was becoming. Moreover, the landscapes surveyed by these cameras belonged to the sort of non-places noted in Marc Augé's 1995 book of the same name - airports, shopping precincts, motorway service stations - which had come to define modern life as one of transit, where only those who failed to pass through were noted as suspicious. What nobody seems to have logged is how much the gain in com­munication was at the expense of freedom of access and notions of public space: rather like being given an extra ten inches of legroom on a long-haul flight, only to find your access to the rest of the cabin restricted.

To date, no novelist or film-maker has explored properly beneath the surface of this new technology. Surveillance in art and cinema remains a conceit. The subject resists embellishment and irony (though Banksy tried, by sticking a CCTV camera in a Constable landscape).

I remain interested in the subject for reasons stated in a short film I made for BBC2's Late Show in 1993. At the time, I found images from these cameras fascinating for their combination of theatricality and suspense, and their logging of low-key, perimeter landscapes beyond the usual reach of cinema and television. In the days before high resolution, the images had the smeared, milky quality of a dream, suggestive of a new avant-garde - diaries kept by machines and the first post-human cinema - while displaying a naivety and lack of discrimination that took us back to the earliest days of the medium, before sound or scripts or budgets.

Two decades ago, CCTV appeared to be about the future. Now it seems more like the last gasp of a tradition of the literal and the actual, before the world became virtual. Certainly the Lumière brothers would have recognised as a camera the old-fashioned yellow box, complete with flash, that snapped me speeding - whereas even the basics of digital technology would be a mystery to them. A sign of the times: in 1993, I visited
a City of London police station to ask if I could scrounge some surveillance footage for our film. It turned out they hadn't even bothered to unpack their equipment, because no one knew how to set it up and they weren't sure of the point of it anyway. In exchange for plugging it in and showing them how to tilt and pan, I was allowed to walk off with a wedge of footage that they considered to be of no value.

What no one anticipated was how speed of communication would end up slowing everything down, with new layers of bureaucracy generated by email alone, in which decisions were endlessly referred, turning film-making into a nightmare of permissions. It has crippled the likes of the BBC - now paralysed by its own complexity and akin to the court of St Petersburg circa 1896 for the time anything takes - leaving it little option but to collapse under the weight of its management.

In addition to the Lumière brothers, any cultural tour of the subject's precursors would need to include Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Chris Marker's La jetée (1962). The random, strategic and weirdly undramatic world of surveillance, with its alien camera set-ups and sense of being monitored by external forces, has a notable precedent in Marker's film, which is entirely prophetic of this technology. Wim Wenders's The American Friend (1977) was quick to pick up on its possibilities, showing the aftermath of a shooting in the Paris Metro watched by (unmonitored) cameras. The most operatic and sustained effort was Michael Klier's The Giant (1983), a wonderful experiment of back-to-back images of surveillance, well ahead of the game and making the subject more or less redundant, in that there was, and remains, little to add. (It was a subject to which Klier never returned, though it has been well explored by his fellow German Harun Farocki, who has been more intelligent than most in working the overlaps between film and installation.)

Andrea Arnold's acclaimed Red Road (2006) - about a Glasgow-based CCTV operator who stalks a man she observes on camera - is notable for the extent of its surveillance, which nonetheless does not resolve the problem of the random and the specific: the more defined the psychological story, the less plausible it becomes. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (2006), which follows a Stasi spy in East Germany, would be more interesting if it had restricted the audience to what the protagonist hears. And although it does not have much surveillance as such, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (2006, which seems to have been the year for the subject) is a believable, dystopian vision of the UK as a police state, seen as a cross between Old Labour, Hammer Horror and Tate Modern.

The latest cultural enshrinement of the subject, "Exposed: Voyeur­ism, Surveillance and the Camera", opens shortly at the Tate. The exhibition covers territory previously explored by German curators in a show that ran in 2001, "Ctrl [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance". As the catalogue (published by MIT Press) shows, this was a hefty, exhaustive working through of the subject that took in the philosophy of Bentham and Foucault. By contrast, the Tate's is an exercise in photographic curating, re-shuffling the usual suspects - Weegee, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sophie Calle. And it appears strangely averse to film, to the extent that the word "surveillance" in its title appears misappropriated. By omission, "Exposed" emphasises what is in­teresting about the subject now: how tracking has become an electronic process of which we remain largely unaware, through Oyster cards and even our Amazon accounts. (You bought this and now you might like to buy this; it's a shock what creatures of habit we are.) We are no longer individuals as such - just the sum of our movements and purchases.

Chris Petit's latest film, "Content", is available to view from

“Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera" is at Tate Modern, London SE1, from 28 May until 3 October.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next