The Surveillance Camera Players tour England

Between 8 and 18 June 2001, the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) embarked upon an extended tour of England. Unlike Holland, which the SCP briefly visited in February 2000, England is filled with surveillance cameras. According to current estimates, there are over 1.5 million cameras (one for every 50 people) in operation. And there are plans to install even more, not just in London, but all over the country! Especially surveillance cameras that monitor automobile traffic (so-called red light cameras), which were being installed in every city the SCP visited: British politicians and police departments are absolutely crazy about them. Check out this recent photograph of the surveillance control room in the London borough of Newham, or this photograph of Victoria Station, to get an idea of what's going on.

It's easy to see why this is happening. In addition to creating jobs and raising revenues, England's vast surveillance apparatus is very useful as a tool of politically motivated social control. For example: during the SCP's stay (on Monday 18 June 2001), the Evening Standard reported that the police had released pictures of six people "wanted in connection with serious offenses committed during the May Day riots." These very clear pictures of people's faces were "extracted from hundreds of hours of CCTV [closed-circuit television] and Metropolitan Police footage taken on the day." The paper went on to report that "police collected CCTV films from scores of shops and businesses located in and around Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, which were key meeting areas [note: not the locations where the serious offenses were allegedly committed] for the anti-capitalist protests."

Arranged by e-mail in the months preceding the group's departure, the SCP's tour of England stopped in Bath, Bristol, Manchester and London. The group came prepared to perform five different plays: It's OK, Officer, which is designed to be performed by a mobile group of 3 to 7 people; We know you are watching: MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!, which can performed by 1 or 2 people who either remain stationary or travel around; God's Eyes Here on Earth, which is designed to be performed at churches or cathedrals only and by a group of 3 or more people; and two adaptations -- George Orwell's Animal Farm and Edgar Allan Poe's The Mask of the Red Death -- that require costumes, pre-planned movements and adequate time for rehearsal. Both Animal Farm and The Mask of the Red Death had been updated for the occasion. To comment upon the slaughter of over 6 million British animals, supposedly done in order to combat the spread of hoof-and-mouth and "mad cow disease," Animal Farm had been given a brand-new board. On it, a "cash cow," which is being strangled by a man wearing a tag that says "Agri-business," calls out, "Now I'm really mad!" And The Mask of the Red Death had been altered so that its reference to face recognition software wasn't limited to a specific company that manufacturers it. Unfortunately, neither the Orwell nor the Poe were performed in England. There was never time to bring together and rehearse with a sufficient number of players. Due to the high cost of traveling to England in the summer, the only members of the New York SCP who were able to go were Susan, Miranda and Bill. (In London, the group was augmented by Kimberly, who's now living in England.) Both adaptations require at least five performers to work.

Bath is a very beautiful Roman town that has become a godawful tourist trap. During the afternoon of Saturday, 9 June 2001 -- that is to say, in the midst of "The Bath Fringe Festival" -- the SCP performed two plays: It's OK, Officer, which was presented to the three police surveillance cameras that are installed along Walcot Street, and God's Eyes Here on Earth, which was presented to the police surveillance camera installed in the courtyard at the front of Abbey Church. Both performances were videotaped for Network of the World by Roddy Mansfield, who also taped an extended interview segment with the group. Roddy also informed the SCP about a device called Cypher, which is a small, remote-controlled, unmanned flying saucer. Designed to fly into hostile territories and engage in video surveillance, Cypher can also be used to deliver up to 50 kilograms of tear-gas and other "non-lethal" weapons.

During the first set of performances, the SCP were treated to a spectacle that they'd only seen once in their native country, namely, the weird sight of a surveillance camera catching sight of, turning to watch and, no doubt, zooming in on and videotaping one of their performances. This happened at both the first and the second surveillance cameras that the SCP visited as the group slowly made its way down Walcot Street. But, by the time the SCP reached the third and final surveillance camera, the officer assigned to watch the monitors had seen enough, and didn't want to see any more. And so, every time the SCP tried to position itself so that its performance could be seen by the surveillance camera, the officer turned the camera away and pointed it at something else! Absolutely delighted at the demonstrable results of their efforts, the SCP played "cat and mouse" with the officer for a little while, and then went off to prepare for their second performance of the day.

Something of an anti-climax, the SCP's performance of God's Eyes Here on Earth at the Abbey Church went well but didn't produce a strong reaction, at least when compared with the reactions the SCP get when they perform the play in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. A security guard came out of the church to see what has going on, and he used his walkie-talkie to speak to someone, but nothing came of it. A lot of tourists from Japan, Germany and America took photographs and shot video of the performance. Except for four grey-haired Germans, who laughed out loud, slapped their thighs and gave the thumbs-up sign of approval, most of the tourists looked at and/or photographed the SCP's performance out of a sense of obligation, not because they were provoked or stimulated by the sight of a group of people, taking turns to get down on their knees and pray to a surveillance camera as if it were a sacred object or God.

During the evening of Saturday, 9 June 2001, the SCP traveled from Bath to the nearby city of Bristol. With the help of Ian and Ben, the SCP ate a nice dinner and found its way to The Cube, an alternative film theater run entirely by volunteers. Sitting in the audience, the members of the SCP saw several superb video documentaries, including The Battle of the Beanfield and a few others that concerned violent police repression of efforts to hold Druid celebrations at Stonehedge during the Summer Solstice. After the main programme was over, the SCP showed one of its videotapes (the group's performance of Orwell's 1984), gave an informal talk that was ever-so-slightly affected in an adverse fashion by jet-lag and excessive alcohol consumption, and gamely tried to answer questions from the audience. Fortunately, those in attendance -- among them such worthies as Tony and Hogge and Heath -- were a tolerant lot, and so the evening passed very pleasantly indeed.

The SCP were back in Bath for the afternoon of Sunday, 10 June 2001. In the midst of "National Walcot Day," the group once again performed It's OK, Officer directly in front of the three surveillance cameras that are installed along Walcot Street. Videotaped by Ben of I-Contact News, this series of performances was very well received by both the spectators and the other performers. A father of a six-year-old boy complained that more surveillance cameras in Bath meant more difficulty in getting his son to school without being spied upon. One of the MCs who was rapping along with heavy beats incorporated several of the SCP's slogans into his toast.

On Monday, 11 June 2001, the SCP traveled up to Manchester. At 9 pm on Monday evening, the SCP gave a lengthy presentation at The Okasional Cafe, a squatted social center at 62 Charles Street. Very well received by the audience, the presentation included a detailed history of the group, a screening of the group's performance of Orwell's 1984, and an exploration of the various levels at which a typical SCP performance operates (as a denunication of surveillance; as a statement in favor of privacy; as a reclamation of public space; as an anarchist critique of politics; as a situationist critique of performance art; as a combination of politics and art; as a parody of confessing one's sins to a priest; and as forms of social experimentation and personal growth). To commemorate the European Parliament's recently released report on Echelon, the SCP also gave a spirited reading of the rather lengthy list of American military entities that surveill the group's web site. At the end of the presentation, the SCP announced that they were available to both perform with local activists and help make maps of camera locations in Manchester.

During the early afternoon of Tuesday, 12 June 2001, the SCP assisted three local residents (Adele, Alex and Jay) in the time-consuming task of mapping camera locations in Manchester. Within a relatively small area, the group counted a total of 139 surveillance cameras. If these figures are correct, then the per-block density of cameras in Manchester is almost twice that in Manhattan.

At 4 pm on Tuesday, 12 June 2001, the SCP returned to the Okasional Cafe and prepared to perform It's OK, Officer. Inspired by the SCP's presentation the previous evening, and by the fact that their squat is watched by two different surveillance cameras, several people -- including Stacy, Jay, Ruth, Norm and Alex -- took part in the peripatetic performance. Substantially enriched by the use of hats, umbrellas, masks and other props, the performance began as soon as the group exited the squat at 5 pm, and continued until 7:30 pm, when the troupe finally returned home. It seems that during the performance, the squat was visited by several people who looked exactly like police detectives.

At 9 pm on Tuesday, 12 June 2001, the SCP gave a second presentation at the Okasional Cafe. In part because the group didn't want to repeat itself, and in part because relatively few people showed up, the SCP concentrated on showing videotapes and didn't say very much. Thanks to Adele, who converted the SCP's compilation tape from NTSC to PAL, the group was able to show tapes of several of its performances, and not just 1984. And yet, as far as the audience was concerned, the SCP still talked too much! Drunk punks ("pissheads") in the audience heckled and even interrupted the SCP's reading of the list of military entities that monitor its web site. "What's this got to do with me?" seemed to be their question. "I don't have a computer." The SCP tried to explain that ownership or even use of a computer wasn't the point, and that high-speed, Echelon-type military technology would soon be used in the surveillance cameras that monitor Manchester's streets. The point wasn't taken, and the heckling continued. Very displeased with the way things were turning out -- problems such as these had been occurring more and more frequently in recent days -- the organizers of the event decided to shut the doors early. The next day, they decided to close the squat for a few months and re-open it in the fall.

On Wednesday, 13 June 2001, the SCP traveled from Manchester to London, where the group stayed for the remainder of its tour. At approximately 9 pm on Wednesday, the members of the SCP visited the studios of Ninja Tune Headquarters in Kennington and were guests on the "pirate TV show" hosted by DJ Coldcut (Matt and Mike). Long-time SCP admirer and local activist Bongo was also in attendance. With help from Bill's friend Jason, the SCP (Kimberly included) held up pieces of paper that bore upon them such familiar slogans as "We know you are watching," "Mind your own business" and "Who watches the watchers?" The group also performed God's Eyes Here on Earth and screened several of its videotapes. Though the SCP's appearance on the show was thrown together at the very last minute, it came off rather well, thanks to the creativity, resourcefulness and technical expertise of Matt and Mike.

Between 10 am and noon on Thursday, 14 June 2001, the SCP (minus Kimberly) visited the studios of News of the World, a British satellite-based TV show that airs in China, Indonesia and Australia. Though Bill was the only member of the SCP scheduled to be interviewed, both Miranda and Susan came along. On the way to the TV studio, a group of construction workers saw the SCP (a group of people dressed all in black and carrying large placards) and in a marvelously amicable and respectful way inquired, "Wot are we protesting today?" (The answer was "Nothing, and everything.") Before the interview took place, the SCP got a chance to catch a glimpse of the footage that Roddy Mansfield shot in Bath: it looked quite good. The interview itself, however, was something of a disappointment. Though Bill was told he might have the opportunity to debate the merits of surveillance cameras with a British policeman, no debate took place. Instead, the interviewers posed a few questions to the two guests, who didn't get a chance to speak to each other directly on camera. Everyone in the SCP noticed that the questions posed to the policeman (a Superintendent Morris) were far more confrontational and difficult than the questions that were posed to Bill. Though the show will certainly be very favorable towards the SCP, the group would have liked a more level "playing field," especially since Morris was a decent, thoughtful man who was not unconditionally in favor of the use of surveillance cameras in public places. (For example, he noted that one could never be sure that the occurrence of fewer speeding violations could reasonably be attributed to the installation of surveillance cameras, and not something like the weather.)

Over lunch on Thursday, 14 June 2001, the SCP (minus Kimberly) was interviewed by Megan, a reporter from a London-based magazine called YearZero.

Between 6 pm and 8 pm on Friday, 15 June 2001, the SCP (Kimberly included) performed It's OK, Officer along London's Oxford Street, a posh street completely given over to the sale of commodities. This performance was photographed by both Megan and the police officers who monitor the feeds coming from "their" surveillance cameras. At precisely 7 pm, at the corner of Duke Street and Oxford Street, one of these cameras swiveled around, pointed directly at the performers, and followed them when they moved on. The same thing happened at precisely 7:13 pm, at the corner of Portman Street and Oxford Street.

In part because the SCP didn't use costumes, which keep the mood light, and in part because there are many more surveillance cameras operating in public in London than in Manchester, the London performance of It's OK, Officer was far more serious than the one the SCP gave in Manchester on Tuesday, 12 June 2001. Without planning to do so, Bill, at the front of the line of walking performers, found himself concluding his part of the performance by giving each surveillance camera the group encountered a Nazi-style salute. Like the others in the line, he was strongly affected by the gesture. As for the passers-by who saw the performance, their reactions were generally very favorable.

Between 1 pm and 4 pm on Saturday, 16 June 2001, the SCP (Kimberly included) participated in a rain-soaked but still very large rally and march in favor of the de-criminalization of possessing, growing and/or using marijuana. Along with tens of thousands of people, the SCP rallied in Kennington Park and then marched en masse to Brockwell Park in Brixton. At all times, a police helicopter hovered overhead, taking pictures. Holding aloft the two boards that make up We know you are watching: MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!, the SCP were a very big hit with both the other marchers and the police. At three different times and places -- 2:10 pm, at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Dordell Street; 2:10 pm, at the corner of Brighton Terrrace and Atlantic Avenue, and 2:30 pm, at the corner of Windrush Square and Effra Road -- the SCP was rather obviously watched and videotaped by a surveillance camera.

At noon on Sunday, 17 June 2001, the SCP (Kimberly included) and Jason performed God's Eyes Here on Earth in front of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Like the one at the Abbey Church in Bath, this performance was a disappointment. Few people were on hand to see it, and those who were on hand were mostly tourists. Mark from Reclaim the Streets was on hand and took pictures.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998

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