"People are generally deceived when they judges issues and events, but later, when they understand things in their particulars, they are no longer deceived [...] It is clear that the quickest way to open people's eyes, given that a general matter may deceive them, is to make them get down to its particulars." Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy.
The Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) is a small, informal group of people who are unconditionally opposed to the installation and use of video surveillance cameras in public places. The SCP was formed in New York City in November 1996 by two groups of friends/activists: one centered around Michael Carter, the author of the manifesto for "The Guerrilla Preprogramming of Video Surveillance Equipment" (1995), and the other around Bill Brown, fresh from the "Unabomber for President" campaign (1996). Both shared a strong interest in the theories and actions of the Situationist International, especially its use of scandals, pranks and detournement (diverting bland or oppressive materials for subversive purposes).
The SCP's first performance was on 10 December 1996, when the group presented its version of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi on the 100th anniversary of the play's first performance. Texts relevant to this performance -- which was interrupted and shut down by the NYPD -- plus an announcement of the SCP's upcoming season of performances, were published in Bill's situationist zine, NOT BORED! (#26, November 1996 and #27, May 1997). For a while thereafter, the SCP was completely inactive; it was not until July 1998 that the group performed for a second time. In the meantime, then-Mayor Giuliani and then-Police Commissioner Howard Safir had begun to install and extol the presence of surveillance cameras in a few public housing developments, subway stations and public parks around the city. And so, the group's third and fourth performances, which took place in November 1998, featured stronger, more relevant material: the SCP's own version of George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four. The group has been intensely active ever since then. The years from 1999 to 2001 were especially active, productive and rewarding.
Centered around Bill, the SCP has also included several long-term members (notably Susan Hull and Marcy Wallabout, as well as William, Kimberly, Miranda and Sean), all of whom define their socio-politics as anarchist. Over the last 10 years, over 50 different people have performed in/with the group. Narrow in two respects (only one African American, only one homeless person), the composition of the SCP has been quite varied: there have been a great many women (over 75%), several gay men and lesbians, and people ranging in age from their teens to their fifties.
Surveillance cameras have installed in New York City in three great waves: 1) in the 1960s and 1970s, to surveill protests by anti-war activists and to discourage thefts of property by individuals or organized gangs (the first NYPD cameras were installed around City Hall and in Times Square in the late 1960s and early/mid 1970s); 2) in the 1990s, as part of Mayor Giuliani's "zero tolerance" campaigns against crime and drugs; and 3) in the wake of September 11th, but especially between 2005 and 2008, which has seen the installation in the subways of 1,000 fiber-optically linked cameras built by Lockheed-Martin; the installation of hundreds of wireless, digital, street-level surveillance cameras financed by federal Department of Homeland Security grants; the placement of surveillance cameras in all MTA buses; and, most recently, announcements of the impending construction in Lower Manhattan of a "ring of steel" (modeled on London) in which 3,000 license-plate reading cameras will be deployed.
The SCP has written 16 different plays, each of which is based upon or even simply consists of a series of large white placards that bear phrases and amateurish images inscribed by hand, by using a large felt-tipped marker. These placards are held up to the surveillance cameras so that they can be seen and read by both the watchers and by bystanders and passersby.
The plays are either Bill's adaptations of works by other writers or Bill's original compositions. There are nine of the former and seven of the latter. The works that he has adapted have either been well-known works of literature, drama or poetry (such Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" and "The Masque of the Red Death," Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Animal Farm) or influential works of "critical theory" (Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Paul Virilio's Art and Fear). In both cases, the general method of composition was the same. Following the "rules" of detournement, the original texts were both summarized and criticized by leaving something out or adding something new. Perhaps the best or most extreme example is the SCP's Waiting for Godot, in which a play that is made up of nothing but words that are spoken aloud is performed in total silence, without the use of any spoken words, by an all-female cast of performers. Other examples: the "casting" of an African-American man for the role of O'Brien in Nineteen-Eighty-Four or the inclusion of "pro-homosexual" messages in The Mass Psychology of Fascism).
Bill has also written seven original plays for performance by the SCP. In each case, these plays are intended to be self-explanatory: they explicitly refer to, and sometimes even include simple representations of what surveillance cameras look like. These plays were written in part to correct a difficulty that arose with the adaptations: there wasn't a clear relationship between their content and the SCP's choice to perform them in front of surveillance cameras. This directness of address may explain why these plays (such as It's OK, Officer, which ironically reassures the watchers that everything is OK; and God's Eyes on Earth, which involve praying to the cameras) are funny or at least funnier than the SCP's other plays.
The SCP's performances have been both less and more than one might expect: they do not stage or "simulate" robberies, fights or other crimes, and so are "boring" in comparison to the excitement of the evening news or popular TV shows; but they leave a deep and lasting impact on people, perhaps they, too, are not exactly sure what the SCP is doing when it performs its plays. These performances -- sometimes serious or hostile, other times light-hearted or loving -- suggest what is possible (life-as-public-theatre) as much as indicate what must be eradicated (the presence of surveillance cameras in public places).
The SCP has performed a total of 66 times, mostly in New York City, but also in several other American cities (Peekskill, NY; Baltimore, MD; Jersey City, NJ; San Francisco, CA; and Boston, MA) and in several cities in Europe (Amsterdam, Holland; Bologna, Italy; London, Bristol, Manchester and Leeds, Great Britain; Mannheim, Munich, Nuremburg and Leipzig, Germany; Graz, Austria; and Barcelona, Spain).
By far the most famous performance given by the SCP took place on 9 November 1998. It was a performance of Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four, staged in front of a police camera in the pedestrian tunnel of the 14th Street and 7th Avenue subway station, and it was interrupted (but not shut down) by two officers from the New York City Police Department, who happened to arrive (as if on cue!) in the middle of the "Room 101" torture scene. Because it was videotaped by one of our people, the various truly priceless conversations that the cameraperson had with the cops, as well as with several passersby -- while the play was going on -- have been preserved for posterity. As a "work of art," this videotape has been exhibited by museums of contemporary art in Austria (2000), Spain (2001), Germany (2001 and 2002), New Jersey (2002 and 2006), Kansas (2002), Chicago (2002 and 2003), New York City (2002), Rhode Island (2002), Massachusetts (2002 and 2004), and California (2003). It is also on-line. The abridged version on www.youtube.com has been viewed 13,586 times since its posting in 2007.
The group has made 14 maps of heavily surveilled neighborhoods in New York City. It has also made maps of other American cities (New Haven, CT; Portland, OR; Chicago, IL; Boston, MA; Providence, RI; and Cincinnati, OH) and maps of cities in Europe (Graz, Austria; Leipzig, Germany; and Leeds, England). Over the years, other individuals and small groups have undertaken to either re-make these maps to see how many cameras have been installed in the meantime or make new maps of places the SCP has never visited.
Made by hand (pen on paper) and in accordance with the guidelines that the SCP set up in a pair of hand-made flyers entitled "How to Spot Surveillance Cameras" and "How to Make Maps of Surveillance Cameras," these maps depict the locations of any/all surveillance cameras spotted in and from public locations (sidewalks, streets, alleys, poles, the exteriors of buildings, rooftops, plazas, parks, etc). Ownership of each camera is surmised upon the basis of location: a "personal" camera is located on an individual's private property; a "corporate" camera is located on a company's property: and a "government" camera is located on city owned property (and can be operated by the police department, the fire department or the department of transportation, etc). A fluid set of criteria for inclusion must be used, because some cameras that can view public locations are in fact installed within personal, corporate or government property and look out at what is in fact none of their business. Though technically installed in a "private" place, these cameras are included on maps that the SCP makes.
Such maps, we believe, are our most effective tool in the fight against surveillance cameras and the erosion of certain fundamental civil rights (the rights to privacy, to be left aloft, to anonymity if desired). These maps catch the proponents, supporters and operators of the cameras in an interesting trap of their own making. The pro-surveillance ideology/industry sells these cameras to the public by virtue of their ability to "deter" and "prevent" crime. Supposedly, "criminals" will not commit "crime" if they know they are being watched. But the surveilling authorities rarely do two things: accompany their cameras with huge signs that say something like WE ARE WATCHING YOU; or publish maps that show the locations where everyone is being watched. Neither is rational: if one's goal is to deter criminals and to reassure potential crime-victims, all cameras should be labeled and all cities and towns operating surveillance cameras in public places should publish maps of their locations. The creation of SCP-type maps explodes the watchers' hypocrisy (we want to watch you but we don't want to be seen by you) and flips the usual cynical question -- "What are you afraid of if you have nothing to hide?" -- back against them. So does the attachment of apparently "appropriate" signs or labels that say WE ARE WATCHING YOU on cameras that are not accompanied by any such signs.
Between November 2000 and December 2007, and using its own maps (see above) for guidance, the SCP gave free walking tours of heavily surveilled neighborhoods in New York City. In total, approximately 3,000 people attended. The SCP has also given walking tours (complete with map of the "downtown" area) in Portland, Chicago, Boston, Providence, Cincinnati, Graz, Mannheim, Leipzig and Leeds.
Because they take place in public, directly in front of surveillance cameras, and obviously involve a high degree of self-consciousness concerning the presence of those cameras, these walking tours are a kind of performance. They also have the same goal as a performance by the SCP: to raise awareness about the presence and functioning of the cameras in public places. But, unlike SCP performances, the walking tours are slow-moving rather than fast, are designed to answer questions rather than raise them, and are more like walking seminars than cultural experiences.
Though there have been exceptions, a "typical" walking tour consists of three parts: 1) an introduction that explains the basics, such as who is giving the tour, why is it being given here, why today and how long will it last; 2) an introduction to aero-space surveillance, that is, cameras in helicopters, spy planes and satellites; 3) a guided tour of some of the cameras that appear on the map, starting from the one underneath the tour guide and tour participants have been standing all along -- focusing on what they look like, how they work and how they fail to work or are inadequate to their tasks -- and hopefully ending with the most interesting or significant camera the mapper(s) have spotted in the area; and 4) a conclusion or "advanced component" that extends the presentation of surveillance to include cellular telephones, which A) people willingly carry around with them, everywhere they go, as opposed to surveillance cameras, which are only in certain locations; B) integrate picture-taking technologies with the tracking features inherent in such telephony (the cellphone tower); C) may soon use or even require biometric identity-authentication; D) would then be the perfect surveillance device (a "personal" device, capable of photographing and tracking its owner in real time); E) may have uses that further blur the lines between military and civilian authority (GPS, automatic or remote-controlled target acquisition).
Bill has written, signed in the name of the SCP and posted on-line a total of 38 "position papers." These texts are quite varied and include commentary on events in the news, research into the history of photographic surveillance, general statements on the "surveillance society," and explanations of the group's positions on specific issues. Though a few are long, detailed and strategic in intention, most of these texts are short, general and tactical. Perhaps the most important of these papers was the one originally issued on 13 September 2001 (and revised on 28 September 2001), which concerned the group's determination to continue its efforts, both despite and because of the September 11th attacks in New York City. Though such a decision might seem obvious or unremarkable today, it received a fair amount of hate mail and a few threats to report the SCP to the FBI in response.
The SCP's position papers have been offered in addition to three other projects in which the "self" of the SCP has been asserted, expressed, explained and (if need be) defended: 1) the group's efforts to "review the reviewers," that is, to offer reviews of the various reporters who have reviewed the SCP in print, on TV or on the Internet; 2) the group's efforts to keep track of and publish on-line the names of those reporters who took up a great deal of the SCP's time but never published or broadcast anything at all, and so were "dead ends"; and 3) the group's efforts to keep track of and publish on-line the names, locations and visitation dates and times of all servers registered to .mil domains (the US military) and servers registered to .gov domains (the US government) that seemed relevant or interesting. The SCP's slogan remains consistent at all levels: we know you are watching us.
The SCP has been given unlimited space on the website hosted by NOT BORED! In addition to using this space to host a freely accessible archive of all of its position papers, scripts, maps, photographs and video-clips, the SCP has created two other archives that have nothing to do with the group: 1) a series of "blogs" that keep track of news items relating to a) abuses of surveillance cameras by those who have installed and/or operate them, b) protests against surveillance cameras by "average citizens" (students and workers) and c) studies that reveal that surveillance cameras are not effective in efforts to fight crime and terrorism; and 2) an informal encyclopedia of surveillance in general.
In each case, these archives are designed to assist others, primarily in their research into video surveillance. One might say that the SCP's series of blogs are useful for debunking (negative critique): disproving the commonly advanced, but rarely criticized notions that cameras aren't abused by their operators, that "ordinary people" are in favor of surveillance cameras and certainly do not protest against them, and that such cameras are effective as crime-fighting tools. And the SCP's encyclopedia of surveillance -- which includes discussions of American laws and legal rulings, histories of camera-installations in London and New York City, technical descriptions of camera types, and profiles of major corporate and governmental investors into and users of surveillance cameras -- is useful for positive knowledge: knowing what one is talking about; seeing video cameras in the context of other forms of surveillance; and developing one's own opinions on the subject.
The group has received a lot of media attention, both in the USA and around the world. Stories/features have been aired on TV, in print, on the radio and on websites in German, Italian, French, Dutch, Hebrew and Japanese, as well as in English. The most frequent coverage has come from The New York Times (6 times); The Village Voice (6); The New York Post (4); CNN (3); MSNBC (3); Wired News (3); and RAI Italian Television (3).
It is important to note that the SCP has never solicited press coverage and that, if the group has received press coverage, it has been the media that contacted the group and not the reverse. With the exception of commercial radio stations, with which the group (out of frustration and disgust) has refused to have any dealings whatsoever since April 2002, all reporters who have requested an interview have been treated with respect and patience. The group's attitude has been relatively simple and straight-forward: "print whatever you like (you will do whatever you want to do, anyway), just get the name of the group right and make sure you mention the fact that surveillance cameras are installed in public places." Behind this sophisticated nonchalance, there has been a situationist deviousness: "you reporters are like wild pigeons; what we feed you is poison disguised as birdseed; the poison are the notions 'Do it yourself' and 'Small groups of people can be very powerful.'"
In August 2006, Factory School Books (USA) published We Know You Are Watching: Surveillance Camera Players 1996 to 2006. This 292-page-long book contains everything listed above (including a selection of black and white photos), except for the news coverage, the SCP's responses to this coverage, and the entirety of the SCP's blogs and its encyclopedia of surveillance.
Following the model of decentralized self-propagation practiced by Food Not Bombs (there is no "central" FNB group, anyone anywhere can form their own), the SCP has always encouraged others who are inspired by the group not to join it or wait for it to come to their town on tour, but to form their own group and, if desired, to adopt the SCP name as well. The only restriction has concerned property destruction, specifically, the destruction of surveillance cameras, with which the SCP cannot and does not want to be associated. In short, such destruction plays right into the hands of those who cynically dismiss all criticism of surveillance on the grounds that "if you have nothing to hide, you should have nothing to fear" or "only the guilty will protest."
Over the years, SCP groups have formed in Tempe, Arizona (USA); San Francisco, California (USA); Stockholm, Sweden; Bologna, Italy; Istanbul, Turkey; and Vilnius, Lithuania. They were mostly active between 2000 and 2002; at this writing, all of them have disbanded. We are certainly able to understand why: the anti-surveillance battle is a tough one, waged without many allies (we are convinced that it is indifference and distraction, not disagreement or repulsion, that keeps them away); and it is always tempting to say to ourselves, "Well, if the people want the cameras to be installed or, more likely, are willing to let the cameras be installed, let them have them; it's not like we did not warn them far enough in advance."
On four occasions, the SCP (and its small network of semi-autonomous groups) have participated in coordinated anti-surveillance actions with other organizations. The first took place on 14 December 2000, during which the SCP in New York linked up with a large network of anti-surveillance groups ("The Collective for Individual Freedom in the Age of Information Technologies," an umbrella group composed of Souriez, Vous Etes Filmes, Droits devant, G10-Paris, SUD-telecom 92, CNT-informatique, and the Anarchist Federation) that was staging a national day against surveillance in France. The SCP staged a performance of Headline News in front of a webcam installed street-level in Times Square so that the French (as well as everyone else) could watched.
The second coordinated action took place on 7 September 2001, and directly sprang from the connections forged in December 2000. As we reported at the time, it entailed the involvement of "23 groups in 8 different countries [...] Among these participants were two brand-new SCP groups: the San Francisco SCP and the Stockholm Surveillance Camera Theatre. The SCP network now exists in three American cities, in a total of four countries, and in tandem with a larger network of anti-surveillance groups in Europe, but especially France and Germany."
On 11 September 2002, the SCP network (NYC, Tempe, Bologna and Stockholm) engaged in an international coordinated effort on its own, without the participation of any other groups or networks. It seems the overlap with the first anniversary of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks did not appeal to people outside the SCP network. A bit discouraged, the SCP did not initiate or participate in any other international actions until 19-20 March 2006, when it got involved in another international day against video surveillance, which this time involved the participation of individuals and groups in Innsbruck, Austria; Vilnius, Lithuania; Chicago, USA; Istanbul, Turkey; Paris, France; and Perth, Australia.
In 2004, a hardcore, heavy-metal thrash band from Germany named Ba'al released an album that included a track called "Surveillance Camera Players." The words: "Why trust your self / When your government doesn't trust you. Don't trust anyone / Like your government does. You're the star in a daily soap / Part of the great 24-7 movie. The optimists are mistaken / And even Orwell was an optimist." Perhaps this is the place to note that the MTV2 video for the Blood of Abraham song "Eyedollartree" features a brief appearance by the SCP.
From 1999 to 2003, a great many of the performances of the SCP, plus several interviews with group members, were videotaped by a pair of professional documentary filmmakers (Jed and Amanda). The original idea was to produce a full-length, feature film called Someone to Watch Over Me. Though a 7-minute-long trailer was eventually produced, the film itself was not. In 2004, in response to the filmmakers' increasingly single-minded turn away from the group's overall project and towards the personalities of individual members, the SCP had no choice but to end the collaboration.
While most "prankster" groups are short-lived, the SCP has managed to endure and, at times, thrive, for 10 years, despite the relocation of several key members to cities outside of NYC, and despite the sometimes highly publicized personal problems of certain members. In general, the group has been both helped and hurt by its "spectacular" isolation, by the fact that it is the only group of its kind. To be fair: Australian activists have been performing in front of publicly installed, police-watched surveillance cameras since 1993, and Souriez, Vous Etes Filmes was founded in 1995, a year before the SCP. But the SCP was the first and remains the only group to offer a well-rounded package: street performances, videotaped documentation, theoretical contributions, maps and walking tours.
It is worth noting that, to this day, very few contemporary political groups or "independent" media websites inspired by progressive liberalism, ultra-Leftist or anarchism have made surveillance a central concern or demand. Perhaps this speaks to the SCP's weakness, its failure to start a movement. But there may be other forces in play. To conclude as we began, let us quote the Discourses on Livy: "It is as difficult and as dangerous to try to liberate a people that wishes to live in slavery as it is to try to enslave a people that wishes to live in freedom."New York
By e-mail SCP@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998