Printed in Metropolis, October issue 2003
Text by Stephen Zacks

The Glam Cam

Rhinestone-encrusted cameras hit Amsterdam.
Ever since George Orwell’s 1984 made “Big Brother” and “thought police” shorthand for the totalitarian threat to liberal society, surveillance cameras have been regarded as precursors to an emerging dystopia. But when Jill Magid convinced officials at the Amsterdam police headquarters to pay her to decorate their surveillance cameras with rhinestones-parodying them as cheap, showy emblems of power- she realized the extent to which they were more props in the theater of public space.

Last year Magid- an American artist based in Amsterdam- approached the police with her proposal, which was part of an ongoing exploration of intimacy and surveillance. “When I presented myself as an artist, no one would speak to me,” she says. “So I invented a company, System Azure Security Ornamentation. I called them up and said, ‘I’m a security ornamentation professional.’” The title made all the difference, and soon she was meeting with police administrators to discuss the public’s relationship with surveillance.

“The negotiations were really interesting,” Magid says. “When I first met with them, they were questioning whether they wanted surveillance to be visible at all”. She pointed out ath if the cameras were intended to serve as a deterrent, it would make sense to emphasize their presence. “After a few meetings-when they decided that they did want the cameras to be seen- we got into aesthetics, and they forgot all about surveillance and security,” she says. Magid presented them with Police Signature Series, a striped scheme that dressed the cameras in the tribal colors of the department- green for “justice, red for “full of love”, blue for “strictness, and white for “integrity”.

Last summer, after six months of negotiations, Magid climbed the ladder to hand decorate the headquarter’s cameras, and administrators began floating the idea of rolling out the ornamentation citywide. But earlier this year the police board had a change of heart and brought the rhinestoning to an end, saying that they wanted to keep a low profile on the cameras. Magid planned to respond with a “Bring Back the Glam” campaign- featuring rhinestone covered placards-when she was tipped off that Amsterdam’s red light district would be installing 26 new cameras. The local Beursstraat police station- which has its own policies separate from headquarters’- immediately bought her pitch that covering the cameras with red rhinestones would transform the meaning of red in red light from prostitution to “full of love”. The new bejeweling is set to begin this fall, pending approval from the city.

Through her role as Head Security Ornamentation Professional for System Azure, Magid found that – in contrast to traditional liberal views- the current reality of surveillance is more farce than science fiction. The rationale for installing the cameras is filled with contradictions, and often no one actually watches the monitors after the cameras are put up. “I like to compare them to gargoyles,” Magid says. “They are visual Band-Aids that emptily represent safety.”