At 11:30 am on Thursday 14 December 2000, the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) performed a slightly expanded version of We know you are watching: mind your own business! over and over again in front of one of six webcams installed in Times Square, Manhattan. Scheduled to coincide precisely with a demonstration in Paris, France, and presented in front of a webcam so that the Parisian demonstrators (and others with access to the Internet) could watch it as it took place, this 20-minute-long performance was the very first that the SCP has staged as part of a coordinated day of international action against the video surveillance of public places.
It all started on 19 November 2000, when the SCP was contacted by the French group Souriez, Vous Etes Filmes (Smile, You Are Being Filmed). Founded by anarchists, ecologists and principalement sans etiquettes (mostly people without manners) in 1995 in a working-class suburb of Paris called Levallois,
We are national french association fighting against surveillance cameras [wrote Jean-Pierre, the group's spokesperson, in his first e-mail to the SCP]. We are making some actions in the street. We want make international resistance. In 1999, we have make a national day against surveillance videos in the sreet. Why nott international?
(Since SCP Director Art Toad speaks French, subsequent correspondence was conducted in French and not in English.) On 29 November 2000, Jean-Pierre wrote to say that "CLIFTI," Le Collectif pour les libertes individuelles face aux techniques de l'information (The Collective for Individual Freedom in the Age of Information Technologies) -- an umbrella group composed of Smile, You Are Being Filmed, Droits devant, G10-Paris, SUD-telecom 92, CNT-informatique, and the Anarchist Federation -- was planning to stage a nation-wide protest against video surveillance at 17:30 (French time) on 14 December 2000. Jean-Pierre enclosed a copy of the collective's declaration, which M. Toad then translated into English and posted to the SCP's website.
Once it agreed to get involved, the SCP only had two weeks in which to make the French day of protest into an international one. In addition to arranging a performance of its own, the SCP sent out invitations to its mailing list (which has become extensive of late), posted announcements in three different languages (English, French and German) to a variety of relevant web sites, and sent out faxes to TV stations, newspapers and other sources of mediated information in the New York City area. Because of the short notice, it doesn't appear that protests took place in countries other than France and the United States. (One group in Germany expressed support for the project, but didn't have sufficient time to plan an action in its own country.) But the protests that did take place were both coordinated at the international level and very successful as local interventions.
Because it appeared on the Associated Press's Day Book, which is a high-profile and widely available listing of news-making events for each day of the week, the SCP's performance in Times Square was very well-attended. In addition to the people who chanced by it as they strolled through Times Square on a sunny weekday just before noon -- one of whom said, "I've seen you [the SCP] on TV!" -- the performance was seen by a gaggle of news reporters. In all, there were five of them: one from The Christian Science Monitor and one from WBAI-FM, both of whom saw the listing on the AP Day Book; one (a student videographer) from New York University who'd contacted the SCP earlier in the week; and a pair from WNYC-FM who had already taped an extensive audio interview with M. Toad as he strolled through Washington Square Park one evening in early December 2000.
As one might expect, the performance and the spectacle surrounding it drew the attention of a few private security guards from neighboring buildings and business associations, and a few police officers "walking a beat" in the area. Public space is heavily policed in New York City, and especially in the "new" Times Square. But the performance also drew the attention of the Intelligence Division of the NYPD, which no doubt pours through the AP Day Book every day of the week and "investigates" every single protest, rally and political demonstration on its watch-list of dangerous subversives. On this particular day, the so-called Red Squad dispatched a handful of detectives on foot, as well as a squad car with every seat filled, to "investigate" the SCP performance and the dangers it potentially posed to law and order and the public peace.
Five reporters, four or five security guards, a handful of detectives, four or five police officers on foot and three or four officers in a squad car -- all of them there to see Beth and Bill (the only SCPers who could make it) hand out a few flyers and hold up a few signs in the direction of a webcam! Too bad only a few of these people were on-camera, for it would have been a truly grand spectacle indeed if the viewers at home could have seen everything that was happening around the woman handing out flyers and the guy holding up printed boards. Predictably, the only players who didn't enjoy their roles in the drama were the police officers and detectives, who quickly realized that they had come out to Times Square for "nothing," called in their embarassed reports and left before the performance was over. As for the security guards, who, unlike the lilly-white police officers, were all black: they seemed to enjoy and be supportive of the content of the performance. When the boards in the play moved from NO MORE RACIAL PROFILING to WE WILL BE FREE, one of the guards pointed to Bill and gave him the thumbs-up sign.
Far less tolerant, Earthcam itself took decisive action after about 20 minutes: it took the webcam out of operation. Instead of live action, which is what the Internet company lives and dies for, its prized web camera -- the one closest to the ground, and thus the one to produce the "best" (most privacy-invasive) shots of people's faces, bodies and movements -- was forced to display a single image taken from a different webcam than the one the SCP had been using (so that the image frozen in place wouldn't be of the SCP in action). For as long as the SCP stood in front of it and talked to reporters, which went on for half-hour after the performance ended, webcam 3 was kept off-line and the frozen image kept in place. You are to be visible to our voyeuristic clients, but you are not to use that visibility for your own purposes, especially if they are critical or political in nature! Quite obviously, this strategy is doomed to failure. All the SCP would have to do to defeat it would be to perform in front of all six of Earthcam's Times Square webcams at the same time. . . .
While the SCP was performing in Times Square, a demonstration against video surveillance was taking place in Paris. Fortunately for the SCP, one of its members (Dumbaberry) was vacationing in France on the day of the protests, and managed to attend the one in Paris, make contact with Jean-Pierre, who'd already been informed of Dumbaberry's arrival, and send back the following excited report.
the action went very well. lots of people! probably 40 gathered and by 6:15 or 6:20 pm we -- plus the media, including Canal+ TV, Paris Indymedia, one woman who does public access and other individuals with cameras -- walked to the Gare de Lyon, which is one of the main train stations in the southeast of Paris. mostly commuters, but also the metro is there, very much like grand central station in manhattan.
we all walked in and walked thru, with masks, some without, many kinds of masks, from paperplates, to plastic 'party' masks, to scarves, hoods, elaborately carved cardboard animal heads, ski masks, etc etc ....beautiful... we walked to a camera and people were flipping it off, hollering, chanting etc etc, while the rest of us flyered commuters, passersby, who of course were very interested in what was 'happening.' after the 2nd camera, the police approaced, asking Canal+ if they had a permit to film. they had press passes, which seemed to suffice, as les flics left quickly.
after the same round of activities at the 2d camera, Jean-pierre made a 'speech' into the camera [he's like a slightly younger Jonas Mekas, fiery speaker, full of verve and wit,] and some folks hoisted each other and stuck gum over the camera! all the way Jean-pierre and I were reminding folks, the public, and the cameras that there was a simultaneous action happening in nyc in times square...
then we walked to another camera. just before we reached it, there was a mid-wife protest and we joined forces w/chants and media coverage! then we went to walk toward an exit, and i realized 'securite' was in our midst. les thugs who probably work for the train station or the metro -- almost plainclothed in nylon skijumpsuits, with neon orange securite armbands -- were following/staying with us.
we walked around a bit and ended up going to the 'command center' where all the monitors and watchers are, which has a window so folks can see what it is... we flyered the windows, chanted, flipped them off, folks noticed the door was open, and rushed in, only to be pushed out by camera-watching thug wannabees. things got tense for a minute with some pushing and yelling. but the cops didnt' show - surprisingly. we stayed there a bit, and it seemed folks were wondering what to do.....i had to run to meet some folks, so i don't know if it got more heated or not, but all in all, i thought it was really great, and got lots of attention, was full of energy and fun! on my way up the Rue de Lyon a few minutes later, some police wagons w/sirens were racing in that direction, not sure if it was because of surveillance camera-related activities.....i got flyers from tonite, bien sur ....
so, i was interviewed by Canal+, Paris Indymedia, public access and others. at one point i had 4 cameras in my face. it was a krash course in speaking out to cameras for me! but was fine, someone translated for one camera, but Canal+ didn't need it translated on-camera.
Though Dumbaberry didn't know it (there wasn't time to explain before departure), Canal+ was at the Paris protest and didn't need a translator because the TV station had already been told what to expect by its New York-based producer, who interviewed and videotaped the SCP in performance and on one of its walking tours. Though a crew from Canal+ wasn't in Times Square on 14 December, and no doubt didn't arrange to have someone videotape the performance as it appeared on a computer screen, the French TV station has the opporunity to make a piece on the SCP that is even better -- even more international in its scope -- than the superb one made and aired by Austrian TV back in June 2000.
A day after the protests, Indiemedia France published a great photo of the events in Paris and Jean-Pierre forwarded to the SCP a copy of CLIFTI's brief account of its actions, which M. Toad has translated as follows:
Forty masked people invaded the Mediterranean room of the Lyon train station in a camouflaged action against video surveillance.
An American representative of the American collective "the Surveillance Camera Players" was with us while his comrades were, at the same time, putting on a happening in Times Square (to see photographs, e-mail notbored@NOSPAMoptonline.net).
Canal+ (nowhere else) and all the Parisian TV stations were there.
A screening of a tape of the action will take place Tuesday 19 December at 9 pm at the Golden Arrow, 105 rue de Bagnolet [Paris].
A representative from the French Big Brother Awards will be there.
With this, its fourth action, CLIFTI has shown its capacity for durable mobilization, thanks to a commited nucleus of 50 people who are willing to take part in spectacular actions.
-- International development (USA, Germany)
-- national network against video surveillance (Lyon, Toulouse, Nimes, Montpellier, Nantes)
-- street mobilization by unions and other organizations (G10, Sud, CNT-Informatique, Droits Devants, Federation Anarchiste, AC Chiche Paname) so that the citizens' movement can consolidate itself
Nevertheless, it isn't enough to put pressure upon political decisions and to provoke public debate about the private life that we expect to have. The struggle must continue!
Jean-Pierre also asked the SCP what it wants to do now, now that meaningful international contact has been made. Options are being pursued.
Contact the Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail e-mail:notbored@NOSPAMoptonline.net
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998