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Surveillance Cameras for the Unborn Will Capture One Image Over 100 Years

An artist is asking people to stash pinhole surveillance cameras around Berlin for an exhibit in 2114.

A century cam photo. Image: Jonathon Keats

With his Spacetime Industries project barely in the rearview, experimental philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats is already onto his next project: surveillance cameras for the unborn. Over the next 100 years, the city of Berlin will become Keats' canvas. His only media: old school pinhole photographic technology and some black paper. 

This isn't Keat's first foray into overtly political subject matter. In 2012, he satirized currency trading with the Electrochemical Currency Exchange Co., where the ions were exchanged between newly-minted US and Chinese coins in the basement of Rockefeller Center. Even Spacetime Industries had a political edge, with Keats commenting on the political and financial classes' mastery of time. But, as gleefully subversive as these projects were at the time, the "world's slowest surveillance cameras" ascends to almost sublime heights of satire. 

Keats calls it "intergenerational surveillance." And Berlin, currently experiencing meteoric real estate growth, with buildings set to rise and fall, seems to him to be the perfect surveillance playground for an artist.

One of Jonathon Keats century cameras (Image: Jonathon Keats)

To pull off these slow, century-long surveillance cameras, Keats is repurposing pinhole camera tech. The camera will be placed somewhere and returned after 100 years, when the snapshot it has captured will be retrieved. "A pinhole focuses the light and projects it to the back of the sealed capsule, very gradually fading an image into the paper because the light let in through the pinhole is minimal," explained Keats, and said the cameras' simple design would make them less likely to break down. "Over about a century or so, a picture should become visible. Anything that stays in place should look sharp. Anything moving quickly, like cars and people, won't show up at all, and anything that changes slowly, like a growing tree, will be ghostly."

The real challenge, according to Keats, will be found in where participants ultimately decide to hide the cameras. So far, it's produced only agony in those thinking of where to stash them. For one, the location needs to be stable enough to support the camera capsule, but also conceal it, while providing a view worth observing for a century. 

Keats noted that the images will have a sense of motion, like the blur of an athlete in an action photo. He said that it will amount to a single-frame movie. "I'm sure you've noticed that if you have a poster on your wall for a long time, all the colors fade away," Keats told me. "Faces go albino and text becomes faint. The same thing will happen with an ordinary sheet of black paper: The black ink will fade in sunlight, and eventually the page will turn white. But if you were to project an image onto the black paper, only the bright areas would fade, and you'd eventually end up with a printed picture."

A century camera prototype's components (Image: Jonathon Keats)

Keats' imagination was fired by San Francisco's rapid and "enormous transformation." Struck by how much the city changes after only weeks or months away, he wanted to examine how the future of cities is often decided by a few very determined people, and manipulated by non-local financial interests.

"I think the century camera was inspired by the combination of the city in which I live, and the pictures I've been making: a desire to see and show change," added Keats. "Switching from film to black paper slows the pace to longer than a human lifespan. The viewer becomes someone who hasn't yet been born. The process of seeing change is internalized, counteracting complacency."

One of the project's great ironies—one not lost on Keats—is that the Berlin gallery Team Titanic, which has agreed to exhibit the photos in 2114, might no longer have a space at that time. "Institutions don't survive forever, especially in cities undergoing change as rapidly as Berlin," Keats said, noting the long-term success or failure of the project will be one of the ways by which urban transformation can be assessed.

"Will Berlin become so overbuilt with luxury skyscrapers that a gallery like Team Titanic won't have a place?" Keats wondered. "Will all the people who participate in this project move away or lose interest in their city to such an extent that they can't be bothered to tell the next generation about the cameras?"

Keats hopes that this won't happen, but it's very much out of his control. The burden is now on those taking the cameras and hiding them all over Berlin. With any luck, if the cameras are retrieved and the pictures seen by a future generation, then they might be able to understand something about the city's past. Or at least that is what Keats believes. But, with surveillance technology becoming more pervasive and subtle, maybe Keat's satire will be completely lost on the members of that brave new world of the future.