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Rejecting Webcam Big Brother at Chicago's Flat Iron Building

Artists and Tenants Say: "We Are Not Your Truman Show"
By Tom Michaels, article from the Revolutionary Worker, No. 1113, August 5, 2001 Posted at rwor.org

Wicker Park has long been a center of Chicagoís art and alternative scenes. Spoken word has been showcased at the Mad Bar and now gets read in the park itself. Jazz drifts out of late night clubs. And there are massive piles of used books to go through at Quimbyís and Myopic.

Artists, hipsters, crusty punks, Latino working people, homeless poets, weekend partiers, kids breaking out of mayonnaise-land and growing numbers of middle class professionals all crowd the sidewalks and cafes.

Even after years of creeping gentrification, art has stubbornly remained. And a big reason why is the artist community in the famous Flat Iron Building.

You canít miss the Flat Iron: itís a huge, white, triangular, three-story flat iron right at the key intersection of Wicker Park--inside, from basement to roof, it is a catacomb of creativity--a winding maze of studios, hallways, lofts and galleries--involving over a hundred artists.

And alongside the "wall art" is a busy "skin art" parlor for tattoos, a basement practice space for rock bands, plus a recently arrived occult bookstore. And, for 11 years, the Flat Iron Building has been the home to RCP Publications Public Relations Office, a crucial outlet for revolutionary news and literature in the U.S.

The Flat Iron is the center of the annual Around the Coyote art festival. For many years, this was the home of a radical Puerto Rican art scene. And it remains a constant whirl of gallery openings and art events. The first Friday of every month all the art galleries and studios are open to the public, featuring sculpture, oil paintings, water colors, puppets, collages and comic book art. The Note club features jazz, blues, and world beat.

Diverse views share space at the Flat Iron--gay and lesbian artists; anarchists; feminists. The atmosphere has been friendly to radical politics. Flat Iron is where "Against the Nightstick," the art show against police brutality, had its first opening. It is the home of an annual International Womenís Day art show. And it is where Li Onestoís photos "Nepal: Faces of the Peopleís War" were first shown at the ATC Space.

And then, one day, Big Brother just showed up.

In the Unblinking Eye In June, the tenants of the Flat Iron noticed landlord Bob Berger roaming the building with a technical crew to install cameras everywhere. His plan was mind-boggling: he intended to capture the lives of the artists in a "real TV" style. There would be a whole system of cameras in the hallways, in the ground level cafť and nightclub, on the stairs, at the entrance--scanning, recording, transmitting constantly through a high-tech bunker in the basement.

Bob Berger is a landlord who many had thought was a friend to the artists--after he bought this lively center a few years ago and continued to make affordable space available as rents rose in Wicker Park. But now, suddenly, he revealed his ambitions to turn the artists into cultural capital.

In his grand plan, each camera would be fed to a web page on the internet, so that anyone "around the world, around the clock" could tune in, real time, to the comings and goings of the Flat Iron. And Berger was going to set up a huge 7-by-7 foot TV screen at street level--so that anyone passing by could watch the artists working, or hanging out, or heading for the bathroom--and listen to their conversations.

In Bergerís "Flat Iron of the Future" every argument or hug in the hallways, every late night visitor, every moment when someone dressed up to step out their studio door, would be recorded and broadcast for everyone standing in the street and watching on the internet. He planned to put their lives on display to every stalker, potential rapist, and burglar on the street, to every nosy cop with professional interest in radical events, to every voyeur with a web browser.

Berger had no plans to discuss anything with the tenants or ask for their consent.

In Chicagoís Flat Iron, people quickly saw they were in a situation chillingly similar to the Truman Show--the popular Jim Carey movie where every detail of Truman Burbankís life is filmed without his consent and broadcast to the world as highly profitable "entertainment" by Christof (a slick corporate TV producer played by Ed Harris).

To the artists, this Flat Iron is a living thing, a stronghold of creativity. For the owner, it is property--his property--to be used any way he wants, to be turned into entertainment and used to make more money.

What Kind of World Are We Going to Live In?

"We are not your Truman Show!"

Media alert from the Concerned Tenants of the Flat Iron Arts Building

"This happened without our input. We could not say anything about it. We were outside the whole thing. No compromise has been possible with the building owner. It was just his way. If you donít like it you have to get out of the building. And thatís not cool. Itís good this battle is still being fought." Billy,* speaking to the RW

"Thatís blowing it up out of my own personal life. Youíre stripped of your ethereal rights--the right to your presence you now share with whomever owns the strip youíre walking on. Thatís staggering to think about. It is the same issue you have everywhere. The people who have money maintain their civil rights. People without money are slowly being stripped of them in a very comfortable and quiet way. God, you know, youíre stuck, you have to pay rent, youíve got to live somewhere."

Regina artist and tenant, speaking to the RW

"Itís intrusive. There are many artists who donít want to be filmed walking back and forth from the showers, and some women in the building are worried about their safety." J., painter

"Bob Berger likes to think he is a patron of the arts or whatever, and some ways I suppose he is. But this place would be like a zoo-thing that he has fun with, and thatís not respect at all--for the lifestyles, for the artists, for what we are trying to do here. Our lives are not about being put up 24/7 without our consent. You know what I mean? You feel dis-empowered. It is a cheapening kind of experience. People are going to look at this building as more of an entertainment center rather than having something thatís quality or people who actually are working towards something deeper. Itís funny to me but not in a funny way. Itís very exploitative, the whole situation here, exploitative of life styles."

"I donít really want people, whoever would, to click on, watching my coming and going. It is an icky feeling. It gives me a chill when I think about it. The cameras are just panning you everywhere and there is somebody watching and me not having a choice. It kinda creeps me out. People just gawking at us, you know? Also, you think about your safety as a woman. A lot of people sitting on the computer are very strange men that may have strange fetishes or whatever and all it takes is just one guy that sees you and is able to take in your comings and goings." Alice, speaking to the RW

"This is a place that prides itself in creativity, free-thinking and a definite outlaw spirit. If this kind of intrusive filming can get over here, then where will anyone be safe? If we in the Flat Iron allow ourselves to be robbed of privacy and protection from snooping eyes--what does that say about the kind of future we all will face? We have already seen this kind of spying done by corporations, and police, and government agencies. And now, are our lives going to be turned into entertainment by our landlords? Is this the kind of a world we want to live in?"

Jessie Davis, office manager for RCP Publications P.R. Office

America 2001 is a country where everyone is increasingly and constantly recorded, tracked, monitored, and spied on. This is a place where crowds of people--on the streets and at football games--are scanned by experimental new face-recognition software and compared with police and FBI records. This is a place where medical records are bought and sold, where computer systems routinely track our online preferences, where the keystrokes of office workers are monitored minute-by-minute, where webcams watch babysitters and even kids at school, where email is monitored and cell phones are triangulated, where huge credit-card-databases and subway passes record our movements. And more and more, in stores, at ATMs, workplaces, jails, schools, street intersections, and on parking lots, people throughout the U.S. are routinely videotaped as they go about their lives.

In one sense, this "surveillance society" has come on us all in a rush in just the last few years--and at the same time it has arrived piecemeal, silently, even secretly, with far too little controversy or publicity. Much of what is happening is unknown to anyone but the watchers--done by secret computer subroutines, and hidden webcams, and silent spying systems. And many of us are only half aware of how much of our lives are recorded and sold for profit.

Jessie Davis told the RW: "Weíre naturally outraged that a landlord is assaulting this wonderful creative community here at the Flat Iron. But we have also been talking about how this involves much more than just this one building. To me, this is really not basically about technology or the obvious perversity of our specific landlord, itís about how capitalism continues to twist everything, including all this potentially promising new technology and communications, into another way to control the vast majority of people. And itís about how people, and their creative products, are reduced to nothing more than things--to be manipulated and exploited for money and profit. This is really part of the much larger conflict over what kind of society we are going to live under--and who will determine that future."

Whose Life Is It?

"I know you better than you know yourself."

Christof, fictional mastermind speaking to Truman Burbank

"I know whatís best for the artists." Bob Berger, real-life big brother speaking to Flat Iron tenants

"I hate it. I hate it so much. I hate it. I was standing in front of the elevator, by myself, nobody in the hallway. I go to pick underwear out of my ass, and thereís the fucking camera, right there! And oh god--canít even be private in the halls now. Iím frustrated that the money is being spent where it is, that it means that property owners have the right to broadcast non-property owners. Thatís not just a frustration, thatís like a deep-seeded fear."

Regina, painter, speaking to the RW

When the tenants of the Flat Iron organized a "speakout" it quickly became obvious how un-popular these cameras are. Some artists offered to allow cameras in their spaces, but only if they could turn off the cameras when they wanted. None of that was acceptable to Berger.

The "Concerned Tenants" put out a media alert entitled "We Are Not Your Truman Show!" And immediately this whole affair became a major local news story--with each side arguing its case in the media.

The landlord argued in the press that his webcams would help sell the art in the building. One painter countered in the Chicago Sun-Times: "Itís not exposing my art, itís filming me!"

In the alternative weekly Chicago Reader, Berger laid out that this webcam project was just the first step of a money-making scheme to sell the lives of these artists as the raw material and the background for a television sitcom. The first scripts are already written. "We want to have a year on the Internet under our belt," Berger said. "Then this show will go to television!"

His answer to the resistance of the tenants was to threaten everyone. The morning of the speak-out, Berger announced that he was evicting RCP Publications P.R. Office from the building--ordering them out by July 31. "These people are dangerous," he told the Reader. One artist told reporters during a press tour of the building: "It is ironic that in a building where free-thinking, alternative lifestyles and art are supposed to flourish, that at the first sign of dissent people get evicted."

As we go to press, nothing has been settled yet. The cameras are being installed, but are not yet broadcasting. The eviction has been ordered, but has not yet been carried out.

And the questions are still demanding answers: Do our lives belong to whoever owns the property where we work or live? Is art just raw material for the money-making machinery? Are our future lives going to be spied on constantly by everyone from employers to government agents to bored voyeurs?

   
  *Since the publication of the article in 2001, RCP Publications P.R. Office was forced to move, as the lease was not renewed