A Brooklyn Artist Interrogates N.Y.P.D. Surveillance Films

For two decades, plainclothes intelligence officers from the New York Police Department used hand-held 16-millimeter cameras to film people without their consent, producing footage of Vietnam War protesters and Black Panther activists, of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

Those thousands of black-and-white reels from the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s then collected dust in a storage room in Police Headquarters, disregarded for so long that salt stalactites formed on the ceiling.

They were eventually rediscovered, in 2015, and are now the focus of a video installation titled “Down the Barrel (of a Lens),” by the Brooklyn artist Kameron Neal.

In the large, dark room of the exhibition, which is on view in the Clark Studio Theater at Lincoln Center until Tuesday night, surveillance clips appear on opposing screens as an ominous ticking noise plays in the background.

On one screen is a series of moments when people look directly at the camera: A man and a woman kiss, and then blush as they realize they are being recorded. A group of women outside Bloomingdale’s laughs and waves. A line of Black Panther protesters glares at the camera.

The black-and-white surveillance films were taken because a city bureau wanted to track political and activist groups that it believed could be threats to the safety of New York residents.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

“I was specifically interested in this relationship between the person doing the recording and the people being recorded,” Neal, 31, said in an interview at a reading room in the city’s Department of Records.

The other screen focuses on the police officers themselves, displaying footage where they test the cameras and record one another making silly faces or spitting obscenities.

What emerges is an intriguing, sometimes disturbing, juxtaposition between the watchers and the watched.

“I really wanted to create a piece that felt like in some ways it was reimagining or re-creating those encounters, spatially,” Neal said. “So as the audience member you stand between those two surfaces, you’re obstructing the gaze.”

Lindsay Tanner, an education director at a theater company, visited the exhibit on Friday and came away both fascinated and unsettled.

“The fact that it’s an instrument of the state surveilling you, there’s a huge power dynamic at play when it’s not just a friend taking a video of someone — it’s the police,” Tanner, 36, said. “That adds to the invasion and the scariness of it.”

The New York Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Neal created his installation as part of the city’s Public Artists in Residence program, which was established in 2015 for artists to propose “creative solutions to pressing civic challenges” in government agencies like the Department of Sanitation and the Department of Design and Construction.

Neal was drawn to the Department of Records because of its vast surveillance archive. City archivists brought the digitized films from the Police Department to the Municipal Archives on laundry carts, said Chris Nicols, an audiovisual archivist with the archives. They were then uploaded to an online database available to the public.

In 1985, the city’s surveillance methods were declared unconstitutional by a federal court.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

The surveillance activities depicted in the films were ordered by the city’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations, an organization that had gone by many previous names: the Radical Bureau, the Neutrality Squad, the Bureau of Criminal Alien Investigations, and the Public Relations Squad, among others. The bureau wanted to track political and activist groups that it believed could be threats to the safety of New York residents.

As Neal began sifting through the archive in 2021, one film in particular caught his attention: No. 85, taken in Queens in Rochdale Village on Aug. 5, 1963.

In the recording, a group of Black people is seen holding hands to block a construction truck as a protest against racist hiring practices. They stare gravely into the camera. Then, about two minutes in, the film abruptly cuts to two white children sticking out their tongues, rolling their eyes and making other silly faces. According to the collection guide, a police officer may have taken the camera back to his family and filmed a home movie.

It was this stark contrast that inspired Neal to create “Down the Barrel (of a Lens).” “The power dynamics felt present in who feels comfortable being recorded,” he said.

In 1985, the city’s surveillance methods were declared unconstitutional by a federal court, which ruled that the surveillance of political groups needed to be handled by the Police Department’s Public Security Section and could occur only if there was suspicion that a crime had been or was about to be committed.

Neal said he hoped the exhibit would lead to conversations about modern police surveillance. The city has tens of thousands of cameras deployed to monitor residents, he said, as he turned around and pointed behind him.

“There might be one,” he said, “right outside that window.”

Related Articles

Back to top button