At 3 pm on Saturday 4 May 2002, the New York Surveillance Camera Players (SCP-New York) debuted their version of Denis Beaubois's performance-art piece In the event of Amnesia, the city will recall in front of one of the nine webcams installed in Times Square by a privacy-insensitive company called Earthcam. The SCP-New York objects to and performs directly in front of this particular camera -- the one Earthcam identifies as #5 or the "Thank God It's Friday" camera -- because, 1) unlike the other webcams, it doesn't "pull back" and take in the spectacle of Times Square, but "pushes in," focuses upon and makes a spectacle of the bodies and faces of the people who happen to be walking by it, and 2) this camera isn't accompanied by a sign of any kind, not to mention one that clearly informs passersby of the camera's existence and its capacity to upload a new (relatively clear) picture to a publicly accessible website every three seconds.
Though there were others before him, the Australian performance artist and photographer Denis Beaubois (born 1970) may be credited as the first serious practioner of "surveillance camera theater," that is, the first person to make art by performing directly in front of surveillance cameras, instead of making a film out of such cameras' "out-takes." Beaubois first staged In the Event of Amnesia the City Will Recall in Sydney over a three-day period in 1996. (He's also said to have performed the work in Cleveland, Ohio, a year or two later.) In 1997, the video Beaubois made of his 1996 performances of Amnesia won several international awards. It was in fact through a copy of this video that the SCP-New York first became acquainted with Beaubois and his performances, several of which concern video surveillance.
Had it not been for The New Museum of Contemporary Art, the SCP-New York would never have performed one of Beaubois's works, despite their obvious charms, in part because the SCP-New York rarely performs plays written by other people, and in part because Beaubois himself seems more like a politically aware artist than a political activist who uses artistic methods. But the New Museum was interested in including the SCP-New York in one of its "new media" exhibitions. Because the SCP-New York wanted to "give" the New Museum something new, and because the curators of Open_Source_Art _Hack were familiar with Beaubois, it seemed appropriate for the SCP-New York to pay homage to his work on the occasion of this exhibit.
The day before the performance in Times Square, the New Museum held a panel discussion that featured several of the artists whose work was appearing in the exhibit. Unfortunately for all concerned, especially the members of the fairly sizable audience, the "discussion" was severely hampered by the format imposed upon it by the curators. This format called for introductory remarks by the curators, who took up precious time stating and elaborating upon the panel's major themes, when these themes would have emerged anyway on their own during the course of the discussion; for each of the 6 panelists to limit the duration of their remarks to 3 to 5 minutes; for the organizers to pose a series of directed questions to individual panelists; and then, after all that was finally over, for the members of the audience to ask questions, if they had any.
Not surprisingly, panelist Bill Brown was unable to say anything about the SCP-New York's version of Beaubois's Amnesia, not to mention sketch out some of the various levels on which the thing seems to be working.
1). In all the media coverage of the SCP-New York, Beaubois has gone unmentioned, not because the members of the group forgot about him, but because they'd not heard of him up until recently. But it's a nice conceit to pretend that the SCP-New York is suffering from amnesia where (some of) its historical precedents are concerned, and that the group's version of Beaubois's piece is a way of recalling him.
2). The art world itself (or "the institution," as the exhibit's curators like to say) is definitely suffering from amnesia when it comes to Dada and Surrealism and their destruction of art as a practice separate from and superior to everyday life. The situationists tried to get the art world to recall Dada and Surrealism back in the 1950s and 1960s; a good deal of the "conceptual art" of the 1970s and '80s may be taken as evidence that they succeeded. But today, the art world has once again forgotten. (There was even an amnesiac -- bland Alex Galloway of Rhizome -- on the New Museum panel!)
3). The United States of America, especially since 11 September 2001 and the beginning of the phoney "war on terrorism," has forgotten the lessons it learned during the McCarthy period: you can't protect democracy by subverting it. To highlight this, the performers of Amnesia wore "sandwich boards" that had large American flags on their backs.
4). In a final twist, these sandwich boards had large barcodes on their front sides, which was intended to suggest A) that the reason the protagonist of the play is suffering from amnesia is the fact that American society has reduced him/her to a number, a two-dimensional representation, a commodity; and/or B) that when the protagonist regains his/her memory, he or she will not regain his or her unique identity, because, in this society, unique identities have been replaced with mass-produced pseudo-differences. Literally speaking, he or she has no name to recall, just a barcode.
For this performance, the SCP-New York consisted of Bill, who played the amnesiac, and Susan, who handed out flyers and spoke to people who stopped to watch. Over the course of the 30-minute-long performance, during which the play was performed a total of four times in succession, the audience grew as large as 20 people. There were several interesting exchanges. For the second time in as many performances, someone among the passersby asked if the group was videotaping one of those TV spots against cigarette smoking. And, for the first time ever, someone offered one of the performers a dollar, perhaps thinking that the group were buskers (performing for money, not to protest) or that Bill actually suffers from amnesia (!).
The entire proceedings were photographed by Steve Dietz (whose photographs of the performance appear elsewhere on this site), by a photographer from The New York Post, and by video documentary-maker Jed Rothstein. There were no problems with either police officers or security guards, despite the fact that one of the four presentations of the play featured Bill sitting on the ground, right in the middle of the sidewalk, and thus subject to citation or arrest for "disorderly conduct."
Contact the NY Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail SCP@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998