Anyone who happened to be strolling through central Beijing on the afternoon of Oct. 26 may have spotted a peculiar sight. Around 10 people, all donning high-visibility vests, zigzagged their way down a busy street while crouching, creeping along walls, and leaning in bizarre angles as they went.
The scene wasn’t a training day for aspiring secret agents; it was part of “A Disappeared Movement” — a performance art project that’s teaching local residents how to evade the country’s rapidly expanding surveillance network.
Devised by the artist Deng Yufeng, the project aims to make people aware of how closely they’re being watched by showing them just how difficult it is to remain unseen.
The 35-year-old spent months researching how to avoid detection along a stretch of Xingfu Street in Beijing’s Chaoyang District. He first created a map of all the cameras on the road, before identifying the specifications of each device to work out its field of vision. Then, he choreographed an intricate, “Mission Impossible”-style series of movements to dodge their collective gaze.
After recruiting a ragtag group of volunteers online, Deng finally put his work to the test last month. It took the group over two hours to complete the 1,100-meter-long route.
“It was so much more difficult than I expected,” one of the volunteers, surnamed Ge, told Sixth Tone. “Once you step out into the street, it becomes impossible not to notice the cameras. I now constantly wonder who is sitting in a poky room somewhere watching you make your way across the city.”
That was precisely the reaction Deng was hoping for. The artist has spent years trying to raise the alarm over how the rise of new technologies is endangering individual privacy in today’s China.
In 2018, Deng caused controversy by filling a gallery in the central city of Wuhan with the personal data of over 300,000 local residents, which he had bought on the black market. The stunt — designed to demonstrate how pervasive data leaks have become in China — ended up being shut down by the police.
More recently, however, Deng has shifted focus from data privacy threats on the internet, to the wider issue of collective surveillance.
China has developed one of the world’s most sophisticated security apparatuses over recent years. In 2018, the country had 350 million surveillance cameras installed, or around one camera for every 4.1 citizens. By 2021, there will be an estimated 560 million cameras installed in China.
These cameras, moreover, are rapidly being fitted with facial recognition technology — a field Beijing is championing as part of its push to become a world leader in artificial intelligence.
Authorities argue face scanners are necessary to prevent crime and protect public health during the pandemic, and recent surveys suggest a majority of the Chinese public agrees with them. Yet experts warn many lack awareness of the risks posed by the new technology, especially if biometric data isn’t properly secured.
Speaking with Sixth Tone by phone from his studio in Beijing, Deng discussed what he learned from creating “A Disappeared Movement” and how citizens can resist the surveillance state. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Deng Yufeng (left) guides participants during the performance art project in Beijing, Oct. 24, 2020. Courtesy of Deng Yufeng
Sixth Tone: Much of your work explores issues surrounding privacy and surveillance. How did you become interested in these themes?
Deng Yufeng: I’m interested in exploring underground industries. Much of it stems from a 2015 project called “Black Sutra,” in which I spent several years documenting flyers posted in different cities. I found advertisements for a variety of illegal things, from prostitution, to organ and human trafficking. They’re very revealing about unspoken human desires.
During this project, I was initially more of a bystander. But later on, I started calling the phone numbers on the posters. These investigations led me to my installation, “The Secret,” where I purchased thousands of pieces of personal information from an underground vendor. In a way, “A Disappeared Movement” is a continuation of that work.
Sixth Tone: At the same time, “A Disappeared Movement” deals with a different set of issues than your previous work. Why did you decide to focus more on mass surveillance?
Deng: I’ve always practiced art with a problem-solving mindset. When I did “The Secret,” it was out of frustration over the spam text messages I received all the time. How can I, as an artist, take action and do something about the industry? Although the exhibition was shut down soon after it opened, the authorities quickly penned legislation later that year to curb unwanted messages and phone calls.
For “A Disappeared Movement,” I want to change the subject of interrogation. It’s no longer the companies behind the surveillance system I want to question, but the government and the power dynamics that sustain it.
These power dynamics permeate our public space. When we move in an urban space — for example, when we cross a street — our body is disciplined and controlled by signs and streetlights. But I want to subvert this. Rather than acting as the cameras want us to, why can’t we vanish instead? It’s heroic — and stoic — in a way, because it’s an individual acting against the whole system.
Sixth Tone: You spent more than four months studying the surveillance system on Xingfu Street. What did this experience teach you?
Deng: One thing that surprised me was how fast the number of surveillance cameras was growing. When I returned to the street two weeks after my first visit, more cameras had appeared. I had to adjust my route to take them into account.
It’s now almost impossible to be completely unseen by the cameras. The best we can do is avoid having our faces scanned.
Part of Deng Yufeng’s route for avoiding detection by the surveillance cameras on Xingfu Street in Beijing, 2020. Courtesy of Deng Yufeng
Deng Yufeng and several participants duck to stay out of sight of a camera during the performance art project in Beijing, Oct. 24, 2020. Courtesy of Deng Yufeng
Sixth Tone: In your opinion, how can China balance the need for privacy with the need for public security?
Deng: Surveillance of public space does bring a sense of security. It’s the most direct means to ensure public safety. Wherever you go, the camera monitors you. So, the crime rate will go down. After moving to the city, however, I noticed there were so many cameras — they were like so many eyes staring at me. It made me feel very disturbed.
Now, I can accept the surveillance system can have a positive impact on public security. But at the same time, I’m frustrated and worried about its pervasiveness. When public awareness improves in the future, people will realize how depressing it is to be monitored all the time. It will become a source of psychological distress and social conflict.
I don’t see any solution, so I’m standing up to rebel against it, even if there’s no way out. We’re so used to conforming to this state of submission. Why can’t we live in a society with public consciousness of legal and political issues?
Surveillance cameras are installed above a road in Haikou, Hainan province, June 25, 2020. People Visual
Sixth Tone: What precautions do you take against everyday surveillance?
Deng: I always subconsciously look out for surveillance cameras and avoid them. This kind of attitude is a product of my accumulating fear. When I register on social media platforms, I intentionally use incorrect personal details. But I know these measures only have a very limited effect.
Sixth Tone: Where do you plan to take your project next?
Deng: I’m working on a pamphlet to publicize the route we designed for “A Disappeared Movement.” Anyone interested in going incognito on Xingfu Street can try it out for themselves.
I also hope to replicate the project in other countries, because street surveillance is hardly unique to China. When I carried it out in China, it was less politically charged — it was more like a game. But if I tried it out in other countries, the result might be different. More people might join us spontaneously, and it could actually create a social movement.
I don’t think there’ll ever be a perfect surveillance system in this world, because there’s no such thing as a perfect human mind. Behind every camera, there’s a person. And though the technology can be neutral, the human minds operating them cannot.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Deng Yufeng and several participants crouch to avoid detection by a surveillance camera during the performance art project in Beijing, Oct. 24, 2020. Courtesy of Deng Yufeng)