What do you think about when you hear the word “surveillance?” Do you picture closed-circuit television cameras? Mass data collection by the National Security Agency? What about tools such as body cameras, license-plate readers and cellphone tracking devices used by your local police department? Did you even know those things existed?
Along with three local artists, The Center for Investigative Reporting posed those questions to residents in Oakland, California, in an experimental art-meets-journalism project dubbed “Eyes on Oakland.” Starting in April, we set out in the Mobile Arts Platform, a Ford Falcon van-turned-roving newsroom by collaborators Chris Treggiari and Peter Foucault, to visit neighborhoods across the city, inform residents about different types of surveillance technology used by local police and spark a dialogue about how they’re used.
Four months and a dozen pop-up events later, we had spoken with hundreds of our Oakland neighbors. Those conversations helped source an interactive installation at the Oakland Museum of California – our own artistic interpretation of the city’s Domain Awareness Center, a proposed surveillance hub for the Port of Oakland, which was scaled back from a proposed citywide system amid public outcry last year.
With these events as our backdrop, we visited the neighborhoods of Fruitvale, Temescal, Lake Merritt and the Uptown corridor on Telegraph Avenue. We set up at local events such as Friday Nights @ OMCA, the Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival and YMCA Healthy Kids Day. We held a youth writing workshop at SoleSpace through the Off/Page Project, our collaboration with Youth Speaks.
You can see exactly where we’ve been in Oakland on the map below:
During our travels, we tested visitors’ knowledge with our five-question quiz on local surveillance technology. Each participant was invited to answer the prompt “Surveillance is …” on one of our Eyes on Oakland cards, designed by Aaron McKenzie, which were screen-printed live on a custom table attached to the front of the van.
All told, we collected more than 120 completed quizzes and photo responses to our prompt, which we included in our installation at the Oakland Museum during the course of its three-month run. We had substantive, one-on-one interactions with each visitor about the tools their own police department uses to collect and store information.
We were pleasantly surprised by the variety and depth of residents’ responses. With such thoughtful interpretations such as “A tool that can cut” or “In your pocket,” Oaklanders illuminated the complexity of the surveillance debate, weighing public safety with privacy implications. Explore a sample of residents’ responses in the slideshow below:
Visitors to the museum installation also were invited to write their own answers to “Surveillance is …” and place their responses on a giant map of Oakland, built by Treggiari, corresponding to where they live. One of 10 artworks in the “Who Is Oakland?” exhibit, our Eyes on Oakland piece invited residents not only to share their thoughts, but also to hear from their neighbors and take home print materials about different kinds of surveillance technology. It was a different kind of venue for a news organization to try to share information, but the breadth of the insights we heard revealed a deep engagement with the material we presented.
“Some of these big issues become like songs on the radio, and you become desensitized to them,” said Evelyn Orantes, the Oakland Museum’s curator of public practice. “But I feel that coming at these same issues through the entry point of art allows for a different kind of dialogue. And in the museum, these more informal learning environments are places to feel safe and have a debate. It makes it more interesting.”
All told, we gathered more than 550 written responses to the prompt on our map. Here’s a sample of what they said:
In our conversations around town, we offered perspective about surveillance, but also heard personal stories about how different technologies intersected with residents’ day-to-day lives.
We heard from new parents in the Laurel District who installed their own closed-circuit camera system, which they say has helped reduce crime and loitering by their property.
A man in Temescal told us that he became interested in current methods of surveillance-aided detective work after someone was shot near his home.
Two young friends in Fruitvale expressed surprise and concern over the use of license-plate readers and said they’d think twice about owning a car because of them.
And when a mother in East Oakland said she opened her door at 6 a.m. one morning to police searching for a person of interest, she said she bristled when the officer turned on his body camera to record their interaction.
These are just a smattering of the voices we’ve heard. We hope that, along with our interactive presentation at the Oakland Museum, they inspire more discussions about the role of surveillance in our communities, a greater awareness of the different types of tools used by law enforcement and a better understanding of how they work.
And we’re not done yet. On Oct. 2, we’re teaming up with The Great Wall of Oakland to project our photo responses outdoors during Oakland First Fridays. There, we’ll host a free interactive conversation about Oakland’s forthcoming ordinance that will govern its surveillance technology.
We’re also still scheming creative ways to redistribute some of the insights we heard back into the community, so be sure to follow us on Twitter, @EyesOnOak, for more updates.