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In Oakland, That Surveillance Van Might Actually Be Part of an Interactive Art Exhibit

“Eye On Oakland” take the conversation about police surveillance out in public and onto the roads

image via (cc) flickr user pollas

For a while it seemed like every crime movie, whether a drama, comedy, or something awkwardly in-between, would feature a scene in which a team of over-worked cops would cram into the back of an unmarked surveillance van, packed with cameras, microphones, and someone telling everyone else to shush while holding a big pair of headphones up to one ear. It’s a cliché in a post-Edward Snowden world, an outdated one as well, but it’s an image which has nonetheless left a lasting impression on what people think of when they think of law enforcement surveillance. Admit it, you’ve probably walked past a nondescript van parked outside an equally nondescript storefront, and wondered–if only for a split second–whether you’d stumbled across a top-secret stakeout.


For residents of Oakland, California, though, that nondescript van might be something very different.

There, a 1963 Ford Falcon has been transformed into an interactive, and very public, exploration of surveillance: its methods, consequences, and impact on the community being observed. It’s all part of “Eye On Oakland,” a multi-venue exhibit created by The Center For Investigative Reporting, and Oakland’s Mobile Arts Platform which, for the coming months, will be cruising that city’s streets and speaking with local residents about their feelings toward living under law enforcement observation. The repurposed van will reportedly contain monitors featuring CCTV footage, social media feeds, audio, and interviews from previous installation visitors.

Beyond simply speaking to, and hearing from, local Oaklanders, the conversations happening in and around “Eyes on Oakland” will then be used as part of “an interactive, community-powered installation” at the Oakland Museum’s “Who Is Oakland?” exhibit, which opens April 11.

Per its website “Who Is Oakland?” describes itself as:

Addressing a range of topics including the city’s natural beauty, food culture, gentrification, and the history of activism and social justice movements, the exhibition includes video works that reveal the changing face of the city, including Oakland citizens speaking about what it means to be from Oakland. Presented as a dynamic and participatory experience, visitors are invited to add their own stories to the artists’ installations and online throughout the run of the exhibition.

The project is in part a response to Oakland’s “Domain Awareness Center,” a high-tech, and highly controversial surveillance project which began in 2009 as a method to observe and police that city’s docks, grew into a city-wide data collection and processing initiative, and was ultimately rolled back into something closer to its initial profile.

Explains The Center For Investigative Reporting:

We want “Eyes on Oakland” to be an opportunity to discuss the types of data that police collect, why they’re collected, how they’re used and stored, and who has access. And we want to take the information beyond the walls of City Hall and directly into Oakland’s neighborhoods, putting information into residents’ hands and hearing what they have to say.

Given Edward Snowden’s recent revelations to Last Week Tonight host John Oliver regarding the government’s ability to, among other things, look at our dick pics, engaging exhibits such this become all the more important, giving communities the means to both learn about, and demand accountability from, those charged with protecting them.

To learn more about “Eye On Oakland” you can track the van on twitter (try doing that with a real police surveillance vehicle) and catch highlights on the project’s tumblr page.