The Conversation and Surveillance

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    John Smith’s ‘The Girl Chewing Gum’ ‘The Conversation’ (Coppola, 1974)
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  • Can’t shake the feeling people are watching you? Passengerfilms and UCL Urban Lab are back for a collaborative screening on SURVEILLANCE, on Thursday the 15thMarch at St. John on Bethnal Green – our first night in this lovely church venue in association with their PhantasmaGloria film events – with events ranging from a talk on the urban panopticon to experimental short works using contemporary forms of electronic surveillance. The feature screening will be ‘The Conversation’ (Coppola, 1974), in which Gene Hackman’s paranoid and personally-secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple he is spying on will be murdered. The film will be introduced by Lawrence Webb, who teaches film studies at King’s College London and works on cinema, space and the politics of surveillance in 1970s New York. The first short will be the Bitnik collective’s ‘Chess for CCTV Operators’, a project based around hacking into surveillance camera signals in public space, in a three day intervention in the city of Essen. Using a video transmitter, antennae and a chess computer hidden in a portable suitcase, they kidnapped the original surveillance signal and replaced it with an invitation to play chess. The surveillance monitor in the control room was thus taken over from the outside and turned into a games console, overcoming the power structure produced by the surveillance situation.(Although during the three day intervention, none of the people monitoring the footage engaged in a chess game with Bitnik.) Secondly we’ll have John Smith’s ‘The Girl Chewing Gum’ (1976), his best-known film, in which an off-screen voice “directs” people as they go about their business on a busy London street corner (‘This young man has just robbed the local post-office and is attempting to appear inconspicuous’). There will also be a 20 minute extract from the audio-visual installation ‘Konspirative Wohnungen / Conspiracy Dwelling’ (see website)by the artist Pam Skelton, Reader in Fine Art at Central Saint Martin’s, and German researcher Joachim Heinrich, who have created a filmic dossier on the legacies of state surveillance and the once secret ‘conspiracy dwellings’ in Erfurt, a city in the former German Democratic Republic. These safe houses, both civic and domestic, were used for clandestine meetings between the Stasi and their informers. Using video, photography and mapping, Skelton plots out patterns of surveillance to retrace the spy network, constructing an unsettling portrait of a city with 483 spy cells for monitoring citizens in the last decade of the GDR. Before the feature, Philip Schofield, Professor of the History of Legal and Political Thought at UCL, will give a talk on the Bentham Project, contextualising the evening with a discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon model and its relevance to contemporary debates about surveillance. As this article on BLDGBLOG asked, how is architecture re-imagined when it becomes the target of paranoia?
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