The INTO Interview

Artist Kameron Neal wants you to question surveillance with “Down the Barrel (of a Lens)”

*Photo credit: Thomas Dunn

Kameron Neal isn’t afraid to be seen, whether that’s in large scale installations or intimate performances. An artist and designer, Neal’s work crosses a variety of mediums, working with video, installation, and performance. From his multimedia performance MukhAgni with Shayok Misha Chowdhury, to his giant-sized, self portrait featured in Groundwater, to his video installation HotHouse, he begs viewers to question their connection to ethics, morality, queerness, intimacy, mortality, race, and the bodies we exist in.

But Neal’s artistry doesn’t just reside in his own personal endeavors. His artistic influence can be found in the work of playwright Ryan J. Haddad (Dark Disabled Stories) and in the music videos for entertainers Rufus Wainwright (Sword of Damocles) and Billy Porter (For What It’s Worth). As a Brooklyn-based artist, Neal’s work has graced the stage of The Public Theater, has been featured in publications, such as The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and HYPEBEAST, and has now found a home at the acclaimed Lincoln Center.

His latest installation, Down the Barrel (of a Lens), places archival New York Police Department (NYPD) surveillance footage front and center. Taken from the ‘60s and ‘70s, the 25-minute film installation features footage of citizens engaging with the lens in front of them in ways that make you question the relationship between the surveilled and the surveillant. 

“It’s specifically focusing on moments when people look into the camera and acknowledge they’re being surveilled and is kind of recreating those encounters as an installation that feels like a series of portraits of New Yorkers in their experience in this specific moment in time,” Neal said. “I think in many ways, these films were recorded without people’s permission and I think it feels important that people see these materials and, in some ways, give these materials back to New Yorkers.”

INTO spoke with Neal about his latest installation, why each of his projects feels like a continuation of the last, and the queer icons he wants to work with next.

If you could attach three words to your artistry what would they be and why?

Wow. I think I would say that my work is bold. I would say that it’s interested in scale. I think another word, it’s like two words, but I don’t know, I feel like there’s a lot of social commentary that feels present in the work. I think as an artist and a designer, I think a lot about crafting experiences for the folks that are able to witness the work. So it’s about space and creating an environment for folks to be in, whether that’s living as installation or living as theater and performance or as large scale projections. I also think that there are these undercurrents pointing to a number of social issues or topics. It feels, in many ways, that it’s reflecting the world back at itself.

As you’ve mentioned, you work with a variety of mediums, such as installations, performance, theater, and graphic design. Is there a particular medium that you’re more drawn to, or do you feel that they intertwine as you continue to create new work?

I think it really depends on the project, the themes, and what the needs of each project are. I feel like, for the most part [and] for the last seven years, my work has mostly been living as video installation. I would say that’s primarily what I’m doing, but I feel like I have my hands in many different pots.

Do you feel like any of your previous work continues to maybe inspire new work? 

Yeah, I mean, it all feels like a continuation. In many ways, I feel like this is the artist’s life. I feel like I have opportunities to make a thing in a specific context and then I learn more about my practice and learn more about my work. I feel like that feeds into the next thing. So I feel like there’s always these bits of learning that are happening and these different seeds of ideas. I’m like, “Oh, this form is interesting, but what if I can shift it and approach it from a different angle?” It’s interesting to look back at the work because it feels like this clear, to me at least, continuation of where I am in my life and my practice. It all feels very intertwined.

Down the Barrel (of a Lens), is focused on surveillance, quiet protests, and intrusion. What was the impetus behind creating this installation? 

I started doing this residency with the City of New York. They have this residency program called PAIR, the Public Artist in Residence program, where they basically insert artists into government and city agencies to be civic partners and thought leaders to produce a piece of public art. I basically saw a call for the residency and applied in the Department of Records. I came into the residency really open. I didn’t have a project in mind, but I quickly learned about these NYPD surveillance films that were housed in the archives. I started watching them and was really struck by the material. They date from 1960 to 1980 and were only recently digitized. And it’s all 16 millimeter silent black and white film that was recorded by mostly plain clothes officers holding a handheld camera. It’s documentation of protests and demonstrations that were happening in the city and it’s a very charged moment in American history, in New York’s history. People are feeling the Vietnam War, the height of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, and the rise of the counterculture.

I started watching these films and was really struck by this rare historical record that hadn’t really been seen before. It feels like a complicated historical record in that it was done by the NYPD. I was really drawn to the films and it started to bring up questions around “What does it mean to be recorded and surveilled?” That felt like the central question and then the project grew.

What do you think is the answer to that same question, in your words? 

I think it’s really complicated and I think the piece, in some ways, is interested in leaving the people that experience it with that question for themselves. I think I’m of many contradictory minds about it. I think, in many ways, the NYPD’s use of surveillance is an overreach and I take a lot of issue with that. I also think, in some ways, those tools are also useful for our democratic society to be able to run and function. I think the piece is specifically poking at that because there are so many different reactions to being recorded. There are some folks, like the Black Panthers, that are very militant and kind of have an “‘F’ you” vibe in response to being recorded. Then there are some kids that are just hamming up for the camera, smiling and goofing off. So I think it feels like commentary on our relationship to the media, what does it means to be recorded, and how is that different from our relationship to media and surveillance now. 

You see someone being pulled over and then everyone pulls out their phone and there’s like this self surveillance, right? Or a whole moment in 2020 is born out of a cell phone video of someone surveilling what happened to George Floyd. So I think it feels like there’s a shift in our relationship to being recorded, what that means, and our barriers around privacy.

Why do you think the message of Down a Barrel (of a Lens) is more important even now, today?

I think it’s just important to have a conversation around it. As a person that lives in New York and navigates the city, through this project, I feel like I’ve learned so much. The project is rooted in ‘60s and ‘70s, but through my research, I’ve also learned so much about what kind of present day NYPD surveillance looks like. It feels like an ongoing conversation where now, there’s 20,000 surveillance cameras on the street corners and now they’re scraping your social media. There are all of these tools that we’ve gotten used to that have become a part of our everyday existence. I hope that the project will spark more conversations around [how] the same things they were doing back then still exists in just a different form today.

Shifting gears just a bit, you’ve worked with queer icons Rufus Wainwright and Billy Porter. Are there any other queer icons you’d like to work with?

I feel like Lil Nas X is probably one of [them]. I feel like he’s a video artist and that’s so much of how his message and work lives in the world. I think that would be incredible to work with someone like him. I’m also a huge fan of Jacolby Satterwhite, who’s an incredible Black queer video artist. I’m very inspired by all the work that he’s doing.

My final question for you, Kameron. What advice would you have for up-and-coming Black queer artists who are looking to do something similar with their artistry?

Just be true to yourself in your work. I think it feels like there’s a lot of pressure as a Black artist and as a queer artist, in some ways, to make work about certain things or to tell certain stories about your experience. I think that everyone’s experience is vast and broad. It feels important to hold space for all of that. I think it’s important to not be pigeonholed into certain narratives about your experience as a Black person or as a queer person.

Neal’s Down the Barrel (of a Lens) installation is taking place at Lincoln Center from September 29 to October 2.

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