COLUMBIA — If Big Brother is watching, you might as well put on a show.
That's the view of Shane Ferguson, 33, who has created a Facebook group proposing to start performances in front of security cameras downtown, which were approved by voters Tuesday.
The group, called The COMO Surveillance Camera Players, is hoping to give reality TV a whole new meaning: Participants will perform in front of the cameras and then make a Sunshine Law request for the footage after they're done.
"We could turn this into something fun and totally legal," Ferguson said, who created the group Wednesday morning and had drawn more than a hundred followers by 6:45 p.m. "We can do art, we can do little political messages if we want, we can hold up a sign with a poem, and then we can request, legally, to get a document of that — if we know which camera it was and what time."
Ferguson — who was careful to state that he was "not a hippie" — said he wanted to make a positive out of a negative by bringing the community together. "We'll be paying for (the cameras), right?" he said. "Why not have fun with it?"
A little togetherness may be needed. When the votes on the downtown cameras came in, they revealed a city divided. The precincts farthest from downtown were strongest in favor of the proposition, while downtown residents rejected the proposition by more than a 20-point margin.
That divisiveness was apparent at points during the campaign, when the rhetoric on both sides seemed to reveal a competition between fears: crime versus big government.
Proponents saw cameras as a solution for downtown crime, such as the June 2009 attack on Columbia resident Adam Taylor in the Tenth and Cherry streets parking garage by a group of teenagers who appeared to have picked him at random. The attack was captured on the garage's cameras and became a popular issue for many Columbians after media outlets posted the footage online.
Opponents of the cameras invoked the specter of Big Brother — the omnipresent authority figure in George Orwell's novel "1984," which described a society in which a totalitarian government used cameras to monitor citizens in their own homes. Others opposing the cameras cited cost issues and a distorted perception of the city's crime rate.
Despite the ideological differences, the margin in the race appeared to be decided by geography more than anything, raising a different question: What does it mean that citizens on the outskirts of Columbia were more likely to vote in favor of the downtown cameras?
Fourth Ward resident Zac Early, 35, who joined Ferguson's Facebook group, saw the division as a misunderstanding. He said he had always known downtown to be "extremely" safe, but that perception might not be shared with others.
"My experience since moving here (five years ago) is that people who live on the outskirts of town don't go downtown," he said.
"There's this fear of the unknown, there's this fear of the poor, there's some racial issues," Early said, who used to work at an inner-city school in Columbus, Ohio.
Another member of Ferguson's Facebook group, Brian Powell, actually lives outside city limits, but pointed out that downtown cameras affect him just as much.
"I spend a lot of time in downtown Columbia," he said.
Powell, 45, also said he had not seen any problem with crime downtown and that he would "absolutely" participate in Ferguson's performances.
As for the group, Ferguson admitted he was "flying off the cuff here" and that he still had research to do on the various laws involved. Nonetheless, he seemed confident in his purpose.
"It's all about community, doing something positive, doing something artistic," Ferguson said of the performances. "I don't want these messages to be negative or harmful to people. I think there are ways to get across our feelings about those cameras without tearing people apart."
And if the cameras end up being placed in areas with high crime rates, maybe the performances could be a peaceful form of vigilantism; after all, Ferguson said, "What criminals are going to go where there are a bunch of artsy fartsy things happening in front of a camera?"