For four months, Deng Yufeng studied an 1,100-metre stretch of Grand Happiness Street in the Chinese capital, prowling its sidewalks, snapping pictures, sketching drawings and creating detailed maps of the dozens of surveillance cameras that watch its every metre.
Before he began, he hoped to find a route that passes unobserved by their electronic eyes, for an artistic exploration of urban surveillance he has called A Disappeared Movement. He tabulated information about 89 cameras installed on the western side of the street. He measured the angle of their gaze and researched each model to understand the breadth of its vision. With coloured ink, he marked the places they could see and a route that, he hoped, would avoid all detection.
He wanted to see if he could disappear.
But in one of the most closely monitored cities on Earth, he failed. Even if he spent more than three hours traversing barely more than a kilometre – dodging into safe spots and slipping behind passing buses – he could find no way past the cameras' field of view.
“In China, a huge surveillance net covers us every day,” he said. “Living in a world dense with surveillance is like a pair of eyes staring at you no matter where you go. It doesn’t feel good.”
Mr. Deng, 35, is an artist who has probed what remains of personal privacy amid the ubiquity of cameras, data breaches and digital trackers. He is careful to couch his work in universal terms: Street surveillance is hardly unique to China. He hopes to replicate the disappearance project in cities such as London and Washington, D.C.
But Beijing serves as a particularly revealing example of the creeping pervasiveness of technological tools that empower authorities to monitor the sweep of society.
To drive home the point, Mr. Deng is using his research not to create an exhibit or publish his drawings, but instead to create a surveillance tour of Grand Happiness Street. As guide, he points out the cameras and walks people through the best route to avoid them, using different movements – reverse style, head down, crab lateral – to slip through as many gaps as possible in the visual monitoring.
“I hope to drag people through this process and gradually have many of them know about the things I hope they can care about,” he said. “I really want to awaken people’s consciousness.”
He was surprised, at his inaugural walk on Sept. 22, to discover that the disappearance effort had grown even more difficult: Three new cameras had been installed. Beijing has about 56 cameras per thousand people, according to technology services researcher Comparitech, slightly fewer than London. But more than half of the world’s surveillance cameras are in China, where a large percentage are used by authorities to monitor urban areas.
Chinese authorities make use of electronic dragnets on the streets and on the internet to monitor dissent, track people’s movements and even to halt protests before they can take place. But China also has low rates of violent crime – an assault rate nearly 80 times lower than that of Canada, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – and large segments of the country’s population have been happy to accept pervasive surveillance as a guarantor of public safety, even if Chinese cities were safe long before the advent of surveillance cameras.
At Grand Happiness Street, Mr. Deng dressed those who came for the tour in high-visibility vests, leading them in a creeping, crabbing zigzag that lasted nearly two hours. Given the impossibility of avoiding the cameras altogether, they sought a lesser goal: masking their identities.
“At the beginning, I thought what we needed to do was to fully vanish from all of the cameras,” said Wang Chenxi, 19, a university student in a physics program. “It turned out that our goal was to hide our faces from the cameras.”
Mr. Deng estimated that roughly half the cameras along the route have facial-recognition capabilities.
Mr. Wang found it ironic that the elaborate moves to avoid surveillance served only to draw attention to them from people on the streets. One old man, in a mocking voice, asked: “Are these people blind?”
Mr. Wang came away from the walk unmoved. “Most of the surveillance cameras we see today don’t intrude much on our lives. They still leave us personal space,” he said. Surveillance is designed to punish the guilty, he added. And “we seldom see cameras in places where people need privacy. That’s a fact in China.”
Still, Mr. Deng’s boundary-pushing work “illustrates the fight between individual selves and power,” said university art student Joyce Ge, 19, who said she gained a new appreciation for the intensity of monitoring in Beijing.
She was thrilled at the idea of detachment from the tangle of surveillance, admiring the danger in staging such art in China. “The amazing paradox is that the activity was called a social experiment, but its aim was to let me rid myself of society, to be adrift,” she said.
She was, however, blithe about her heavily monitored environs. “Surveillance is a basic tool to protect the public and maintain social order,” she said. “It’s a must.”
For others, the tools of digital control wielded by Chinese authorities clash with a desire for something different. Ivy Guo, 32, who works at an advertising agency in Beijing, brought her five-year-old daughter to Mr. Deng’s walk on Grand Happiness Street. Her daughter’s happy report at the end of the walk: “I felt like our team together defeated the camera system.”
“I was thrilled by the independence she showed at that moment,” Ms. Guo said.
The difficulty of evading the cameras was “beyond my imagination,” she said. But the attempt offered a larger lesson in learning to buck a system that demands obedience from a young age, she said.
Surveillance in China “harms our privacy,” Ms. Guo said. She hopes for a day when China’s social stability measures, “instead of being so rude and rough,” would be more humanitarian.
Mr. Deng worries that the opposite is more likely. As governments install growing numbers of cameras, the initial response might be a public feeling of security. “But after a while, you notice there are more and more of them in your life. Your actions, your laughter, your everything are all recorded,” he said.
“It’s at this moment that things can be dangerous. We are human beings. If we live like this, then what’s the difference between us and a machine?”
With a report from Alexandra Li
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