The Surveillance Camera Players:

Big Brother Goes to the Theater

With somber looks and black clothes, they mime a wordless theatrical piece for invisible spectators, who, the performers know, are watching behind the surveillance cameras.

In the heart of Times Square, eight members of the Surveillance Camera Players denounce the omnipresence of video-espionage systems in this temple of neon lights and everywhere else in New York.

The performers brandish large hand-written panels, which bob like black-and-white bottles in a multi-colored ocean of consumerism.

"It's O.K., Officer" says the first panel, held up by a young woman with short hair. "Just going to work" -- "Going shopping" -- "Going Home" -- "Getting something to eat" say the other panels, which are presented in a simple and serious choreography.

"These are the only reasons, in our society, for being out in public," says Bill Brown, director of this strange troupe.

His glance focuses on the bowl, suspended from a pylon, that resembles a lamp, but actually contains a sophisticated police camera, such as the one the SCP is performing in front of today.

"There are visible and invisible cameras focused on us. Who is watching? Are they licensed to do so? No one knows. The things that terrify me as a citizen I can use as an artist in surveillance theater."

There are 129 cameras in and around Times Square, maintained by either the police or private companies, Brown says. A member of the troupe distributes to passers-by a hand-made map of the area in which the cameras' locations are indicated. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, there are at least 2,500 surveillance cameras in Manhattan alone.

Second Act. Standing in a line, the actors raise their panels one after the other. "You are being watched for your own safety" -- "Who's watching?" -- "Who watches the watchers?" -- "Cops with guns are watching" -- "Cops will shoot pictures like cops shoot guns" -- "No more invasions of privacy."

The passers-by, who are for the most part tourists out on a shopping spree, stop and look. Frequently they smile. Above their heads, on the gigantic Kodak screen, there are glowing images, mannequins in fashionable clothes, a balloon in the shape of a giant hot-dog.

"The Surveillance Camera Players were founded in 1996, as a sort on in-joke among friends," Brown says. "The police rudely interrupted us. But we started up again. Today they know and tolerate us. We are anarchists, but we aren't violent. We don't destroy the cameras; we don't yell and scream. We are funny, not angry. Our performances don't scare people off. It wouldn't be effective if we did."

Last act. Two young women raise their panels alternatively. "We know you are watching" -- "Mind your own business."

Miranda Edison, 33, is one of the women. "I love doing this. It's a good way to attack the system. One time, when we performed in Washington Square Park, the cop watching in the surveillance van waved to us. We made his day. He'd been bored in there!"

But it is mainly for an audience of idlers that the SCP perform. "Contrary to appearances, we do not address ourselves to the police or security guards. We don't hope to change their minds," Brown says. He's developed a real talent for spotting these modern gargoyles, for discovering a mysterious and secret city, right under our noses. "We appropriate the cameras for our own purposes. We use them to wake people up."

As an exergue to their website, the players quote Howard Safir, the old New York Chief of Police. "Only someone completely distrustful of all government would be opposed to what we are doing with surveillance cameras." "The Surveillance Camera Players: Completely distrustful of all government -- Coming to a video screen near you."

[Written by Michel Moutot. Originally published in French by the Agence France-Presse on 8 September 2000. Translated by Bill Brown.]

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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