Downtown cameras spur Facebook performance art group

Thursday, April 8, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 6:24 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 8, 2010

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?"

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Kevin Gamble April 8, 2010 | 8:36 a.m.

Everyone who voted for the downtown cameras should have surveillance cameras put up right outside their own homes. Because that's exactly what they've imposed on those who live and work downtown.

It's a tragic flaw in this vote--allowing people completely removed from the situation to impose this thing on *other* people. If the question was whether people should pay tax money to put up city cameras right outside their own homes, the vote would have been very different--as it was downtown, where people sensibly rejected this idea.

Why should I now have to live with security cameras every time I go downtown just because some people on the outskirts of the city thought it was a good idea, which conveniently didn't affect them personally?

The ballot language was also problematic--the phrase "safety cameras" was used on the ballot, which is absurd. They're surveillance cameras--that describes their actual function. "Safety camera" is a colorful, speculative, leading term which can only have been used to help manipulate voters.

(Report Comment)
kirk utterback April 8, 2010 | 10:29 a.m.

I talked to several people and every one of them who voted for it thought it was geared towards red light cameras only! A lot of misinformed people voted for this proposition!

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 8, 2010 | 11:04 a.m.

Hahaha, LOL, you go Shane, I think you have a fabulous idea and it does sound like alot of fun, perhaps we can make this waste (IMO) of tax payers money pan out after all, maybe have some performances there in front of the cameras, where we can all tune into later, maybe do some political stump speaking (on the dangers of the 24/7 surveillance state etc. ) use them as a means of broad casting things to the public etc., this is the kind of create, non-violent TYPE of 'activism' that I think could be very potentially beneficial, educational, and perhaps even entertaining at the same time. Cheers and kudos for thinking 'outside the box'.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 8, 2010 | 11:26 a.m.

This is a terrible idea.
These cameras were meant to film criminals, not neighborhood watch performers.
How's any self-respecting criminal going to get their 10 minute of fame if you guys hog the lens?

(Report Comment)
Cecelia Ryder April 8, 2010 | 12:00 p.m.

It says a lot when the opponents of Prop 1 take the least mature response possible.

(Report Comment)
Dale Jones April 8, 2010 | 12:22 p.m.

We are finally getting modern along with other modern cities. The majority of Columbian's wanted the camera's. So be it. Per square footage, the crime in downtown is not small. The downtown association is there everyday and wanted the camera's. Common sense and smart people voted for the camera's.

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 8, 2010 | 12:28 p.m.

Hmmm, Ray, I see your point, but let's not forget once these first cameras go online and people see how much fun they can be...well ya know soon everyone is going to want their own, and well with the *unlimited* amounts of OTHER peoples tax money to use, we should have plenty of leftover cameras to spare (for any "real" or perhaps wanna be 'criminal'.)

I'm thinking though, that since IMO these things are really to be aimed at any homeless or perhaps young college/high school students/partiers etc. maybe we can simply round them all up and they can all get acting parts in one of Shane's productions. Whatdaya think???

And Cecelia, I have to disagree if I read you correctly and you are insinuating Shane's idea is 'the least mature response possible', nope, I hear in the totalitarian Big Brother U.K., citizens are simply placing tires around 'gatsos' and settting them ablaze. Ouch!

Let's be glad we still live in a society that values individualism, free thinking, and still hasn't lost it's sense of humor......yet.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz April 8, 2010 | 12:32 p.m.

Well "Dale" maybe the Special Business District should have spent the $25,000 they allocated previously and put in their own cameras. As it is right now, the only data we have is from the 30 day trial of the system the council voted down. Remind me how many people were arrested or cited during that trial? I'm going to say about zero, otherwise Keep Columbia Safe would have been trumpeting those numbers from the top of the Tiger.

Speaking of the downtown square footage, what percentage of it do you think would have been covered by the four cameras that were under consideration? What do you think the downtown business owners would have thought if their precious property was not chosen to be "protected" by one of the four cameras? Handouts for some, but not all?

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 8, 2010 | 12:37 p.m.

Dale, it was a pretty small 'majority', I'm just impressed with all of the CorpState MS media scaring the poor sheep 24/7 with images of big bad boogiemen lurking behind every rock and shrub, that still over 40% of Columbia voters had the common sense not to buy into the selling of fear.

And c'mon, cameras are so 'old school' these days anyway, you need to step up to the advantages of the new super Verichip tracking chip, it can keep you all warm, fuzzy, and very safe in case you get lost or wander off out of the ever watchful and loving eye of 'Big Nanny'. She loves you, and only wants the best for you (as long as you keep paying her, and paying, and paying......

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 8, 2010 | 1:04 p.m.

@Carl Kabler:
I don't know about opening up "performance art" to all those unsavory undesirables who frequent and sometimes, or at least used to, spend money in the soon to be under CPD surveillance cameras.
May I suggest that "The District" just be frequented by those "who have nothing to hide" and only "feel safe" if they are being watched.
Although, if appropriate plays were used in front of these "safety" cameras, I'd watch:
"Waiting for Godot"
"The Fantasticks"
"One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"

Of course, now we're all going to have to learn how to read lips. Perhaps this will create some new classes at MU?

(Report Comment)
Shane Ferguson April 8, 2010 | 3:26 p.m.

@Cecelia Ryder who said: "It says a lot when the opponents of Prop 1 take the least mature response possible."

Can you please explain how you see this as the "least mature response possible".

I can think (and have thought) of plenty of other 'responses' I would love to take (once the cameras are installed) that would be quite immature. This just so happens to have been the most mature idea of all that I was inspired into thinking about. The inspiration came from a link a friend of mine posted on a social networking site. Yes, 'Agent X' = 'Shane Ferguson' (I don't believe in 'hiding' behind pseudonyms, but, I do believe in having fun with them).

How exactly are art, dance, creativity, peaceful and unobtrusive activism, community, sharing, fun and non-violence immature?

This isn't going to hurt anyone. This won't even burden you financially. There will be a fee charged for each request of footage which will be paid for by the individual or group requesting the footage.

Everything organized by this group will be within the confines of the law, artistic, tasteful (though my idea of ‘tasteful’ and others ideas of it may differ a bit), thought provoking, made sure to be unobtrusive and noninvasive to our fellow community members. Yes, Cecelia, that even includes you and anyone else who thinks this is immature or an otherwise awful idea. We won't even ask you to view a single frame of our finished product or our unfinished product for that matter.

(Report Comment)
Rob Weir April 8, 2010 | 3:26 p.m.


The Missourian did a story before the election in which we investigated crime rates and found that they've been basically unchanged for about 10 years. (Though the number of crimes in the city has increased, the rate of crime has not, because the number of crimes has more or less tracked with population growth). You can read that story here:

Rob Weir
Director of Digital Development
The Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Shane Ferguson April 8, 2010 | 3:26 p.m.

@Cecelia Ryder (continued...)

Just because we as individuals disagree on an issue or how someone or some group is handling an issue doesn't mean we just throw maturity, respect, common courtesy and decency for our friends, neighbors and fellow community members out the window. Those are the exact points we need to embrace, it's one of many things that helps to make this town so great and it saddens me to see all of the fecal tossing that’s been going on rampant in our fair city. Especially through this last election, but, I won’t mention any names will I, Gary Kespohl.

Let’s not sink to Gary’s level, it’s stinky down there and is dark and… for lack of a better word, “icky”.

I would implore you to, please, explain yourself further. I wish to better understand where you are coming from and what you mean, maybe you have a point I should be taking into consideration in the development and organization of this group. However, without further clarification it's going to be really difficult for me to think of anything other than a 3 year old lashing out with words during a nasty little tantrum.

There's nothing negative about this group. Nothing violent, this is not going to be a bunch of kids showing their a$$'s off for the camera's. This will be organized, tasteful, artistic, wholesome fun for young, old and everyone in between… and if it makes people feel like they're kids again and you wish to call that feeling 'immature', by all means, sound your barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world... I will not hold it against you in the least.

I feel younger already.

p.s. I am, indeed, not a hippie.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro April 8, 2010 | 4:07 p.m.

Cecelia, you're breaking my heart.
Were you frightened by a mime in the 70's?

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 8, 2010 | 5:53 p.m.

Thanks Rob, yes I've read that article (and others) and it seems to reconfirm what many of us suspect, that any rise in serious crime in the District is pretty flat. I appreciate the way those at the Missourian seem to be able to tackle timely, often potentially divisive subjects and do it in a way that allows both 'sides' of an issue to fully have their say and really get a fair shake. Much appreciated.

My comments often alluding to the *CorpState* media reflect only my view of the dismal condition of the NATIONAL media outlets (not local as far as I can tell) who seem like they can never run enough propaganda to keep the poor sheep always stirred up and clammoring to be 'saved' from whoever the latest shadowy villian is. Often sadly IMo it seems to me that it is this 'saving process' that is to often the REAL villian.

I guess fear sells though and when a country has shipped out most all of its abilty to manufacture anything tangible, all that's left perhaps, is cannabilizing the poor, the sick, and the unemployed for $$$, building more and more prisons and viewing their staffing as 'growth opportunities', and reaching in the back of tax payers pockets repeatedly to fund it all. What a Racket!

(Report Comment)

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