An urban view from inside a century camera

An urban view from inside a century camera (all images courtesy Jonathon Keats)

Ever since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, surveillance has gone on the list of big issues that many are concerned about. But what if you were invited to participate in surveillance — to place the cameras where you think they should go — and encouraged to consider the resulting images as a gift to (maybe even the birthright of) future generations? Would that change how you thought about it?

The century camera as it will be distributed tomorrow night in Berlin (click to enlarge)

The century camera as it will be distributed tomorrow night in Berlin (click to enlarge)

In his latest project, philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats is taking the long and DIY view of surveillance, making it a far more curious and palatable prospect. Keats has organized, in associated with team titanic gallery in Berlin, “CenturyCamera,” for which the group has constructed 100 cameras meant to take exposures that last 100 years. The cameras will be distributed tomorrow night to anyone who’s interested in exchange for a €10 deposit; recipients will then be expected to hide their cameras wherever they see fit, and “to keep the location secret into old age.”

The press release goes on:

At that stage, the participant will reveal the location to a child, who in turn will be responsible for keeping the secret into adulthood, so that 100 years from now one person in the world will know where to retrieve each camera. Whoever brings a camera back to team titanic in 100 years will collect the €10 deposit, and the 100-year photo will be extracted from the sealed pinhole canister for inclusion in a special team titanic exhibition. The exhibit is scheduled to open on 16 May 2114.

Like so many of Keats’s projects (including quantum banking), this may sound absurd and more than a little weighted towards the theoretical. But it’s also completely intriguing, not least for the way it rewrites the common idea of surveillance — as information to be used not now or in the immediate future by the government, but rather somewhere down the line by our own descendants. And thinking about future generations, envisioning the changes they might see (or fail to see) in 100-year exposures, spurs the mind to society’s chronic inability to think long-term and the irreversible consequences of that failure.

This type of thought process is precisely what Keats is angling for. “I think that these cameras perhaps have the potential to make people more attentive to change, and their part in it, by shifting perception from the immediate to longer than a human lifespan,” the artist wrote to Hyperallergic. “It’s as if you were seeing yourself vicariously through the eyes of future generations, and judging your environment accordingly. With these cameras, time is both stretched and compressed.”

An early copper prototype of the century camera system

An early copper prototype of the century camera system

So, too, is the image of time, as the cameras are still, not video, built to capture a 100-year exposure on a single sheet of black paper. “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,” Keats explained. “Over about a century or so (depending on lighting conditions), a picture should become visible. Anything that stays in place, like a building that doesn’t get razed, should look relatively 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 picture will be less like a snapshot, more like a single-frame movie,” he said, before adding the caveat that his technology hasn’t yet been tested.

Asked why he chose Berlin for the project, Keats wrote quite thoughtfully about the nature of change and urban life:

Over the past several years, I’ve spent time in Berlin working on art projects. Every time I visit, I’m shocked by how much the city has changed. Districts such as Neukölln are undergoing astonishingly rapid gentrification. People who live here are aware of it of course – and far better informed about the underlying politics than I’d ever presume to be – yet their perception of change is numbed by the experience of seeing it day by day.

The abstract way people talk about the transformation of their city reminds me of my own experience of the city where I live, San Francisco, which is changing almost as radically as Berlin. I suspect that the imperceptibility of daily change, even when it’s rapid, is one of the main causes of complacency, and one of the major reasons why the future of cities is often decided by a few determined developers or political factions. Unless you’re extremely motivated, it’s very easy to psychologically assimilate each incremental adjustment to the infrastructure and economics of your home environment.

Simulation of a century camera in situ

Simulation of a century camera in situ (click to enlarge)

Yet this is true not just of living in cities, but of living anywhere on the planet — for which reason Keats says Berlin is only the beginning of what he ideally envisions as a global project. “What would happen if the century camera were a birthright, and every child received one?” he asked. “These cameras could be made very inexpensively, perhaps for as little as a tenth of a cent apiece, and they could be distributed by UNESCO, which could also host a rolling global exhibition of the photos. Every day, starting 100 years from now, a new set would be revealed.”

If that sounds inspiring, all you need to do is start building. Keats is using open-source technology for the century cameras, so that anyone can make their own.

Jonathon Keats’s “CenturyCamera” will launch tomorrow night, May 16, at 7 pm at Friedelstraße 29 in Berlin.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...