An Interactive Public Installation by Stephen Wilson
Crime-Z-land is an interactive installation/public art project by
Stephen Wilson, with design and fabrication assistance from Bruce
Cannon and Mike Wong. The installation is located in an open downtown
public lot, strategically situated across the street from San
Francisco's City Hall, and offers a counterpoint to Davies Concert
Hall and the San Francisco Opera.
Sponsored by the Arts Commission Gallery, a non-profit San Francisco
arts organization, the work is one of a series of installations the
Art Commission Gallery curates throughout the year, using this urban
site to present public art.
Crime-Z-land is a complex layering of technological and conceptual
components and functions as a provocative and ironic work. It creates
a public space where crime masquerades as entertainment; the site's
theme park facade serves to mask its serious intent. Crime-Z-land
raises questions concerning nature and definition of crime, prompting
discussion on the roles, degree of complacency, and responsibility of
A complex setup of computers runs the installation - two computers,
three chip computers, and two web servers. "That means," says Wilson,
"that when everything stops, the scanner is still working. And
sometimes when the Internet stops, the poles are still working
because they are run by the Mac II...It's like 10 pieces going on at
once, and the Internet piece could go on without the rest of it."
This article is a series of intersections that combines excerpts from
a conversation I had with Steve Wilson at Crime-Z-land with ideas
pertaining to the politics of space, amusement, spectacles, and
The site is located in a lot 35 feet wide by 100 feet long. It
features a ground map of the city of San Francisco created by means
of a system of strings. The site is bounded by crime scene plastic
streamers and is surrounded by a ring of gilded television sets.
A chain-link fence separates the viewer from the mapped city site.
Suspended from the fence are texts that describe the installation and
provide instructions. There is also a laminated chart that lists the
police codes by crime and a basket containing free pamphlets that
describe the site and list the police codes.
To the far left hangs a 2 foot by 4 foot plastic toy "touch mat" that
works as an interface with the interior lot. Areas on the mat are
labelled by crime, such as rape, murder, theft, etc. These are crimes
that have taken place over the past year; here, they are compressed
into a 24-hour period. Wilson used the city police statistics that
record crime by type, location, and time of day.
In the lot, ten poles locate and name the city's top crime spots; for
example, the Haight, the Financial District, Golden Gate Park, 5th
and Mission, etc. Toy police cars and toy clowns sit on top of these
poles with the clowns acting as crime indicators, swinging to and fro
whenever a crime is statistically indicated for that area. Viewers
can also activate the Crime-Z-land indicators by pushing the touch
mat crime areas at the statistically correlated prime-crime-times.
Images from the installation are broadcast twenty-four hours a day by
a mounted surveillance camera connected to the Crime-Z-land website. The website further describes, diagrams, and lists links to other resources.
Viewers at Crime-Z-land are periodically interrupted by strange,
synthesized voices. A speaker system connected to the website allows
viewers in cyberspace to interject commentary.
Perhaps the most popular component of the site is the live broadcast
from police radios. Viewers can push a button to activate the police
scanners to hear possible crimes as they occur throughout the city.
"(Social) space is a (social) product... All 'subjects' are situated in a space in which they must either
recognize themselves or lose themselves, a space which they may
both enjoy and modify."
- Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
Crime-Z-land: An Interview with Steve Wilson
Steve Wilson: So everyone asks me why Crime-Z-land. I don't have one
point in time where it started but I have a longstanding interest in
the danger of abstractions. I think the corporation is a fictional
person, but by law it has the same standing as people.
(Pause) Is that a crowd enjoying Crime-Z-land?
It seems to me if you have fictional entities, it's too easy for no
one to be responsible. I guess it's not hip right now but I really do
believe in the basic decency of people, and a corporation doesn't
give that decency a chance to play that out...I think that...large
fictional entities (like corporations or governments) do a lot of
things they wouldn't do if there were particular people who felt they
were in charge and responsible...Corporations really isolate people
from the responsibility of their acts and...that leads to crime...
So there are these crimes happening out there that should be getting
as much attention...as street crime.
Another influence are television reports on crime. Why aren't they as
excited about someone firing ten thousand workers and placing a lot
of families in dire straits; like when they do these mergers and
15,000...lose their jobs. That's more important than car theft...and
TV plays right into that and it's not sensational. So I wanted to
make it sensational...You know the muckraker era? That was an
interesting period of history.
Paula Levine: What attracted you to this open downtown lot?
Steve Wilson: I have a lot of interest in non-art audiences. I have
questions about the art world...My mother went to museums sometimes
but my father never. My dad drove a truck. What would it be like to
do a piece that my dad would enjoy and get something out of? So I've
always had this interest in non-art settings and non-art audiences,
and this place is prime for that. It's outside; it's across the
street from City Hall and the symphony, and a lot of homeless and
druggies hang out here. I mean you've got everything from the high
polloi to the low polloi, and so it's an interesting environment.
Also, you don't see a lot of interactive computer stuff outside. I
wanted to see what that would be like.
I like sites for their sociological or cultural aspects. In this
case, I wanted to do something related to city happenings and city
life, so it seemed like the right place to do it.
Paula Levine: What about the link between crime and spectacle?
Steve Wilson: It's tricky. It's a way of using spectacle to comment
on it. That's why I have the gilded TVs around the installation.
I think a lot of people come by, take it as spectacle and don't go
to the next level I had in mind. I would like them to walk away and
say: "Gee, why does crime happen in the city?", and think about that.
I would like them to walk away and say: "What is crime? Murder?
Environmental? Corporate?"...To think maybe there are some crimes
that are important that they don't usually think about when they
think about crimes, and then...get active somehow, talk to other
people, ask questions.
Paula Levine: Are you hoping...to put the person back into the
loop of crime and responsibility and reconnect in ways you talked
about earlier, counteracting the ways that the existing corporate
and governmental systems disconnect people?
Steve Wilson: I'd like people to ask: "If corporate crimes are
important, am I involved in any way? If governmental crimes are
happening, am I involved in it? Environmental crime?"
It's tricky. I want people to be moved, provoked, enlightened, but
you can't wait for that. I think very little art does that or really
succeeds on that big level. It takes some baby steps in that area, so
that every time I do a piece I feel somewhat unsuccessful.
You know, the piece works better when I talk to viewers. Then, you
really get to that next level. So...the first few weeks I would come
down and talk to people; ask them what they thought was going on.
There were some kids from Bayview Hunters' point. They were saying:
"Hey, where's my neighborhood. Why isn't my neighborhood there?"
Meaning, why isn't it represented as part of the installation's
mapping of city crime locations? Their claim to fame was their
neighborhood's street crime level. As an artist, I'm interested that
the piece can generate that kind of response, but is that really what
I was hoping would happen?
So I said to these kids: "These numbers are based on police
statistics and people reporting crimes to police. Why don't you think
there are lot of crimes reported in your neighborhood?" That got us
into a discussion about the police and do you trust the police. So
that was another level that was really interesting but that wasn't
quite what I wanted.
There was a homeless guy who came and said: "All the crime is down
here where I live." That's what I wanted. Another woman said: "Well
it's interesting but I'd hate to think there had to be art about
crime." And another said: "Hey, it's across from City Hall. You know,
a lot of those people are criminals." Then it's working as I
intended, but...if art works, it expands enough so that people come
at it from a number of different kinds of ways. I'm happy with that.
I guess I would draw a Venn diagram. I'm willing to accept a big
range but when they move far out, I wonder if I could have done
something to shape that perspective a little more.
Paula Levine: What about the kids' toys. I notice that when there
is a group of people that go by with kids, the kids relate to it
first. The kids' toys are really a strong draw.
Steve Wilson: There's a certain irony to having kids' toys in a crime
thing...Toys are supposed to be symbolic of an age of innocence,
and yet they are not quite. And our society is not innocent...My
friends who keep guns away from their kids have their kids make guns
from fingers and sticks. So there's something there about power and
aggression that I think is human.
Another reason is a commentary on theme parks and amusement, so it's
Crime-Z-land and Disneyland; circus, amusement park. The kids' toys
contribute to that kind of thing. You go to Disneyland; you go to
Paula Levine: What about that?
Steve Wilson: I don't like the fact we are so oriented toward
spectacle and amusement parks. I have this fantasy that thinking
deeply about things can be pretty entertaining...a carnival of
concepts. I really think it could work that way. It's exciting to
think new thoughts. I think that's one thing that art hasn't played
on. The tendency to want to go towards amusement is fine...but what
constitutes that amusement?
You know that critical theory says that's all there is in society,
spectacle and engagement with images in a shallow way. I don't like
it and I don't think it's inevitable.
The history of 'amusement parks' dates back to Medieval times
and 'Pleasure Gardens' that featured live entertainment,
fireworks, dancing, games, and primitive amusement rides.
Pleasure gardens remained extremely popular until the 1700s,
when political unrest caused many of these parks to close.
However, one of these parks remains: Bakken, north of Copenhagen,
opened in 1583, which now enjoys the status of the world's
oldest operating amusement park. "The Amusement Park
Industry - A Very Brief History," National Amusement Park
Designating spaces outside of everyday life allows for the production
and participation in activities and events which are otherwise
excluded from daily, ordinary life; a space for pleasure, for
example. Carnival took place on the steps of the church, acting as an
antithesis to the laws of the church within, and the proprieties of
everyday life without, it designated a space outside of everyday
spaces, and a time outside of everyday time, where rupture could be
contained and localized.
The spectacle, according to Guy Debord in Society of the
Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among
people, mediated by images. Crime-Z-land weds the facade of amusement
to that of spectacle. Using a familiar code of mapping and unifying
through a system of signs and symbolic language, Wilson attempts to
engage viewers through Crime-Z-land's quirky visibility, then push
them past its facade of entertainment.
Paula Levine: Jean Baudrillard talks about Disneyland as a place
which functions "to conceal the fact that the 'real' country, all of
'real' America, is Disneyland. Disneyland is presented as imaginary
to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los
Angeles and the American surrounding it are not any longer real but
of the order of the hyper-real and of imagination." I wonder if you
think that Crime-Z-land also works in this way. That is, it creates a
relationship with the city outside by pointing to itself as amusement
and spectacle. So that if Crime-Z-land is fiction, a simulation, then
everything outside of it must be truth or real.
Steve Wilson: I would say to Cathy, my wife: "There's not enough crime
going on!"...You know there's very few murders in San Francisco.
There's only 80 murders in a year. That's not very many murders. She
said: "You're crazy!".
Or, I come out here, there's nothing going on and I say to people:
"Come back at night. There's more happening!"
Paula Levine: So it swallowed you?
Steve Wilson: I'm uneasy about saying that it's all simulation, it's
all spectacle. In that, there's a kind of resignation.
Paula Levine: And is that movement away from resignation something
that you want to incite in this piece?
Steve Wilson: To the extent it uses the form of a spectacle in order
to get to other levels of thought and involvement, then it works. You
have this amusement park...which gets you thinking about what actually
is an amusement park.
I wanted to involve other parts of the city in this more directly. I
told you I'm working on this technology where I have an inexpensive
camera you can broadcast from anywhere. So I thought I'd hire
students to go to these high crime spots and do live broadcasts to
here. I thought about ways to somehow get criminals to call in. But a
lot of stuff is going on here. I had to give up some things.
I wanted to show that not all spectacles are the same. What is it
that attracts people to spectacles doesn't tell the whole story...
People come and they are amused; they are entertained. They say, "I
went to Crime-Z-land and had a lot of fun."
I don't know if I'm part of the problem or part of the solution.
Paula Levine: What works particularly well?
Steve Wilson: The Internet part. I'm really interested in the virtual
world and the real world...Someone could come (to the site) from the
Internet and (it would) be as though they were pushing the button.
The police scanner is probably the most successful aspect. People
kept asking: "Is this really crime as it happens?" I think eventually
we will have systems in place ... where we really can tap crime as
it's happening. The next best thing is the police scanner radio. It
is crime as it's happening, or it's the police talking about events
that might be crimes. So a lot of people like that because they have
never heard a police radio. In Europe, it's against the law. They
don't want the public listening to the police. This is one of those
circumstances where the American ideal still holds...The U.S. has one
of the most liberal laws in terms of listening to the police. My
Populist notion is that I don't think the public is aware that this
is a resource to them, so it's a real kick to...get it out there.
It turns out, I'm on some kind of edge of the law as it is, because
while you are allowed to listen to the police radio, you're not
allowed to use what you hear... I went to see a lawyer about this to
see if I am in violation of the law. It's still questionable, but I
think what I've done is just set up in a technological way...if
people push a button, they hear a radio...Now, if I recorded it or
something, it would be more complicated. People like it. All kinds of
people are fascinated... They push it. Does it get them thinking
about anything? For some people, I'm sure it does.
Now the part that I did...that...was a lot of work but strong
conceptually, was that I have fake transmissions. I studied the
nature of conversations on the scanner and drove my family crazy
listening to the scanner. I saw how it went, saw how they used the
codes, and then I made up four fictitious transmissions. One was
about a corporate takeover and the resulting unemployed workers; one
about a group that was going to cut down old growth redwoods; another
about an HMO denying more service; the last was about sweatshop
owners in San Francisco.
Conceptually, I think that's just great. I love that part of the
piece. Does it really work? I don't know...It's a deconstruction. I
have the codes...and...I think that's against the law because I'm
using copyrighted material. But it is out there for anyone who
listens. That's the most vandalized part....I had this very nice
graphic of all the codes. I laminated it and it's been ripped off six
times, even though I put copies out there for people to take. I guess
copies run out and people want it, and so they take it...
That's another thing. That's how I know it's strong - if it's
vandalized. There were six teenagers who passed by the site and they
pushed the button on the police scanner and got so mad...This one
kid just took the box and ripped it off. I couldn't believe it
happened just when I happened to be there...I think they were just
being teenagers and showing each other they could do anything they
want, but I wondered if it was the police transmissions and the kid
didn't get that it was a comment on it. Maybe he thought that the
scanner seemed to promote the police and this contributed to his
anger...I should have gotten an interview with him.
Paula Levine: What did you do?
Steve Wilson: I didn't want to mess with them, so I waited until they
went away and I fixed it up. It was hanging by a wire.
Technically this is most complex piece I've every done. All my pieces
have always been run by one computer so only one thing could happen
at once. For this one, I learned how to do the chip computers...and
it's kind of a kick that it's all working at once...
"Any space implies, contains and dissimulates social
relationship, despite the fact that a space is not a thing
but rather a set of relations between things (objects and
products). Space is at once a precondition and a result of
social superstructures. The state and each of its constituent
institutions call for spaces - but spaces which they can then
organize according to their specific requirements..."
- Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
Wilson uses characteristics of space as a mirror with which to
reflect the naming, ordering, and classification of crime.
Crime-Z-land depends upon, and to a certain degree emulates, the
social system's immense capacity to deflect, direct, and control
through a complicated system of techno-mystico routing of
information, abstractions, and representations.
In Crime-Z-land, we/the viewer/the urban bodies hear the disembodied
voices from police scanners mixing with the synthesized voices of
viewers from the web. We are able to analyze the distribution of
crime within the city through a humorous system of toy buttons that
cause the indicators/toy cars to whirl according to crime category
Crime-Z-land becomes, in a strange and strained way, a kind of
extenuated, bizarre and silly (perhaps accurate?) portrayal of the
systems of information that shape social institutional consciousness
and harbor the constituents of social polarities - law/justice or
chaos, truth or fiction, myth or knowledge.
One of the intriguing aspects of Crime-Z-land is that through its
constructions, it gives viewers a place to stand that suggests a kind
of safety zone in which an urban body can experience crime in the
city from some distance. Standing in front of the chain-link fence,
one has, in a strange way, a sense that crime is safely contained and
managed. Its miniaturized scale and system of abstractions afford the
viewer an omnipotent view of the city, one usually reserved for those
in power and in control of information systems; viewing crime from a
place apart from crime in the city; above it (the viewer stands above
the ground map), outside of it. From this perspective, crime can be
assessed, viewed, mapped and 'safely' observed, ironically by all its
participants - the law, criminals and victims, all standing on common
Paula Levine: Who is your audience?
Steve Wilson: Well, it works for the public in terms of engaging a
lot of what's interesting to me that I've claimed is important.
Whenever I come down here, someone is enjoying it.
Did I tell you about the homeless guy who acted as the curator? I
came down here with some friends from out of town and there's this
homeless guy in a wheelchair, and he rolled up and said, "You know, I
can tell you all about this piece." He got most of it right and had
read all this stuff and he was a very interesting kind of docent. I
was very pleased that a stranger, from whatever walk of life, became
engaged by this.
I've got a lot of thoughts; all kinds of experiences. I come down
here and find a non-art audience, a person engaged with this piece in
some way or another. It was pleasing. But I'm still confused about
the art world and the non-art world. So it hurts that the... art
world is ignoring it; the mainstream art world and its commentators.
Crime-Z-land got an honorary mention in Ars Electronica, which is a
great honor. But that's my own confusion as an artist. It doesn't
stop me; it doesn't dominate my life, but it's unfortunate it hasn't
quite succeeded on some level...There ought to be an art prize given
by the public.
I'm always thinking about what I can learn from art pieces. I like
taking information, visualizing it, and making that available to
"As it develops then the concept of social space becomes
broader. It infiltrates, even invades, the concept of
production, becoming part - perhaps the essential part -
of its content."
- Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
Crime-Z-land uses the facade of spectacle to interject critique on
the nature of crime in society. If a crack exists in the scheme, it
lies in its too successful replication of the spectacle's monstrous
capacity to ingest the viewer, which works contrary to instigating a
state receptive to critique. If the spectacle is a force as
powerfully described by Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle,
as that which "does not realize philosophy" but rather "philosophizes
reality" then the force of the inversion must be more strongly
orchestrated than the force of the capacity of the spectacle to
subsume reality, in order for the strategy to propel the viewer out
of the gravitational force of sublime entertainment and into a state
of mind that asks 'why?'.
The problem, with this installation, if there is one, is that the
site is impermanent. Having a fixed site in the downtown urban arena
where one can separate oneself from survival in the city and view
questions of crime with some measure of distance is as important as
parks were to the conversation between nature and culture in the 19th
century. Dialogues around crime engage questions of economics,
disparity, education, neighborhood rights and privileges, and more.
As ideas for theme parks merge with the technology of the 21st
century, the capacity to create sites that convey 'real' experiences
carry powerful and promising possibilities. Such is the nature of the
discussion around the Holocaust Museum in Washington, designed to
provide a link between those who lived the Holocaust, and those who
now must learn about it. Unless time can be conquered, technology
is the next best thing to closing the gap between experience and
knowledge. The possibilities suggested by Crime-Z-land are only
limited by imagination...and cultural support of the arts.
National Amusement Park Historical Association. "The Amusement Park Industry - A Very Brief History".
Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and
Decline of America's Man-made Landscape. Touchstone, N.Y. 1993.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Blackwell, Oxford, 1991
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Black and Red, Detroit,
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Semiotext(e) Inc. Columbia
University, N.Y. 1983.
The Crime-Z-land website.
DeTocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Penguin Books, 1984.
Lippard, Lucy, R. The Lure of the Local: Sense of Place in a
Multicentered Society. The New Press, N.Y. 1997.
Wilson, Stephen. Portfolio and Project Descriptions.
Paula Levine teaches in the Conceptual/Information Arts, Art
Department, San Francisco State University. Her video work has been
shown in Canada, the United States and Europe. Her current projects
include "Blotto", a website that brings together work and ideas
from Hermann Rorschach, religion and projection and "Burials and
Borders", a project on land, history and memory and a coming to
terms with the past. It is situated in Israel, with a focus on the
Stephen Wilson is a San Francisco author, artist and professor who
explores the cultural implications of new technologies. His
interactive installations have been shown internationally in
galleries and SIGGRAPH, CHI, NCGA, Ars Electronica, and V2 art
shows. His computer mediated art works probe issues such as World
Wide Web & telecommunications; artificial intelligence and robotics;
hypermedia and the structure of information; synthetic voice; and
environmental sensing. He won the Prize of Distinction in Ars
Electronica's international competitions for interactive art.
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