The Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) were contacted by several people after the publication of an article about the group in the 17 January 1999 edition of The New York Times.
1. A talent scout for Real TV contacted Monsieur Art Toad by e-mail and expressed interest in putting the SCP on their repugnant syndicated show. (It is worth noting that Real TV had already aired footage of NYC garden activists letting 10,000 crickets loose at an auction of community gardens. Clearly the show's producers aren't completely adverse to paying an amateur videotaper a nice fee [around $750] for broadcast rights to a tape that shows radical political action.) After a week of exchanged e-mails in which M. Toad gradually made clear to the scout (a rather nice person, all told) his concerns about maintaining both copyright control and artistic control over the way the show presented the group, the SCP's director finally agreed to send the scout a copy of a videotape of the group's 9 November 1998 performance of 1984. According to the scout, the show's executive producer, despite the enthusiasm of everyone else, eventually decided that the SCP were too hot to handle. After making an unauthorized copy of the tape for their library -- "in case the Executive Producer changes her mind" -- the scout returned it with a free Real TV T-shirt. The T-shirt now reads: "The Surveillance Camera Players: Too Real for Real TV."
2. A writer for APB On-Line, a morbid website devoted to nothing but police news, wanted an interview with the SCP's director, but, when the cop-lover saw what M. Toad (interviewed by e-mail) had to say for himself --
Q. What inspired you to create the Surveillance Camera Players?
A. Three things. 1) The obvious, alarming, unannounced and undiscussed increase in the use of surveillance cameras by both private businesses and by various government (or government-subsidized) agencies in the NYC area. 2) The inadequacy of traditional forms of political protest against the gradual destruction of the right to privacy. 3) The inadequacy of traditional forms of "avant-garde" art, and the consequent need to create totally new artistic forms.
Q. Do you think most people know the extent to which they are surveilled in modern society?
A. Unfortunately not, and this is clearly by intent. Surveillance works (best) when people do not know they are being surveilled, because they will not feign behavior or dissimulate what they are actually doing with the conscious intent to deceive the surveillants. But "surveillance" is not restricted to the visual tracking of the movements of people's physical bodies in space. Non-visual flows of all kinds of private information about people are also constantly surveilled. Surveillance doesn't stop at the surface of the body: in prisons, research facilities and medical institutions, the very workings of the internal organs and private thoughts and emotional states of people are closely surveilled.
Q. What should [people] know?
A. See above.
Q. What can the average individual do to join in the cause?
A. Nothing. The "individual" is powerless. The only thing people can do is band together and work collectively against what might be called the society of surveillance. And by "work collectively" I mean divert the existing apparatuses of surveillance and use them as means for personal pleasure and self-discovery.
Q. Have you ever considered other avenues of protest against this practice? The SCP has its wit, but seems indirect.
A. Indirect? I prefer to call it "opaque." Surveillance is based upon, demands and reinforces transparency. The SCP hope to frustrate it by being both willfully opaque and clearly in opposition to the society of surveillance.
Q. Have you ever received any indication that your audience appreciates the SCP's efforts?
A. The audience for our live performances is very varied. It includes the token-booth clerks, security guards, police officers and videotape recording-heads that are the primary surveillants; passers-by who happen to see either the performances as there are actually taking place or as there are being broadcast "live" on the closed circuit television monitors; and friends and, on occasion, members of the media who we have invited along. At all levels, the SCP are a tremendous success, very well appreciated. The audience for tapes of our performances appears to be very large, judging by the interest The New York Times article on me has generated. Indeed, I am currently in negotiations with a well-known broadcast TV show that programs amateur videos.
Q. Do you have plans for any upcoming productions?
A. Assisted by both lawyers and impartial observers (we may need them both), the SCP plan to perform 1984 in public place (possibly Washington Square Park) that is known to be the most oppressive in the city.
Q. What about other forms of protest?
A. If they are "transparent," they are doomed to ineffectiveness.
Q. Anything else we should know?
A. Addiction to visual images is treatable.
Q. I hope you don't mind at least just one round of follow-ups. Your comments intrigued me, so I just wanted to be sure I understood some of what you're saying... Don't you think your message could be more effectively communicated through an art form, traditional or not, that reaches a wider audience?
A. No. Wider or larger or bigger is not necessarily better. Effectiveness here is judged by how intensely we move people, by the quality of the experience, not by how many people we move. Part of the intensity of our performances is precisely their intimate and "limited" nature.
Q. I assume by "non-visual flows" you mean the tracking of information such as spending habits, credit card numbers, social security numbers, credit reports, even Metro Cards that keep track of where they, and thus their users, have been. But this is vague terminology, so please correct me or add to this list if there are more.
A. You've got my meaning perfectly.
Q. As for research facilities and medical institutions, aren't they a small slice of the population, and, isn't the surveillance often used consensually, for an agreed to reason?
A. 1) Techniques perfected in these apparently marginal but actually central institutions are then used in society at large. Especially prisons: cf. the work of Michel Foucault on the panopticon. It doesn't matter if the surveilling techniques were originally perfected upon a small slice or a large slice of the population. What matters is how these techniques are ultimately used. 2) Police Commissioner Howard Safir (a triumphant success by the standards of the APB website) would have New Yorkers consent to having their right to privacy systematically infringed upon, because "fighting crime" and "terrorism" is supposedly worth the sacrifice. His logic is that of a blackmailer: only the guilty will resist or refuse to consent to these violations; the innocent have nothing to fear, and so will willingly submit. This same twisted logic is relied upon in medical/psychiatric/carceral institutions: only those who don't wish to get well/rehabilitated/released will resist or refuse to consent to being violated with oppressive or "experimental" (untested) drugs, procedures and day-to-day conditions.
Q. And as for prisons, isn't their a deeper, but different argument about prisoners' rights here? I mean, they are in prison, after all -- one could argue that surveillance seems almost like a necessary extension of punishment.
A. It would be a truly repugnant argument, as far as I'm concerned: an argument worthy of Police Commissioner Safir. My point is not about prisoner's rights, but the fact that systematic surveillance of public space is tantamount to treating the general populace as if all of its members were (potential or actual, it makes no difference) prisoners.
Q. So what you're really trying to do, then, is comment on the situation, not change it? Is it protest, or street theater?
A. We wish to divert an existing situation. We take surveillance cameras and divert them to other uses. We change those CCTV systems while we are performing in front of them. Our performances are intended as protests, but ones that know the limits of such kinds of protests. To my mind, street theatre is indistinguishable from protest: all street theatre protests against both traditional theatre and the way our streets are used every day.
Q. You say, "The SCP hope to frustrate it by being both willfully opaque and clearly in opposition to the society of surveillance." You mean literally blocking the view? At least, that's what you're doing.
A. This response makes me think you are thick.
Q. As I said, I'd sure like to be able to watch [the SCP's videotapes]. Why do you choose to exclude me when I'm clearly just seeking information, and in good faith? I have no desire to distort anything I see, hear, or read, only to report it. Why should you believe me? Because I find what you're doing interesting, that's all. Believe me, I have no agenda here, nor does my editor. Don't you think it would give me, if not full, just a little bit more insight into what you're doing?
A. The site you would put this material on is repellent to me. I am quite understandably repelled, disgusted and bored by things and people that fetishize crime and the police. Such an obsessive and unhealthy view of human social life!
Q. When you say you are in negotiation with a TV show, do you mean a show like America's Funniest Home Videos or something? Care to divulge whom, or is there a date down the road when you may? Again, this only serves to give you publicity, if you are trying to have any. If not, then I guess you derive no benefit from telling me.
A. I want publicity, obviously, but I refuse to be humiliated, pigeon-holed, held up to ridicule or patronized to attain it. The same thing goes for money, incidentally.
Q. You wrote, "If they are ‘transparent,' they are doomed to ineffectiveness." What does this mean? Define your usage of "transparent."
A. Holding nothing in reserve, making everything visible or illuminated.
Q. You said, "Addiction to visual images is treatable." Does this have something to do with the issue of surveillance?
A. Now I'm sure of it: you ARE thick! And so, enough of this. The comments I have made in these e-mails may be used in anything that you write about the SCP, provided that they have not been altered, taken out of context, or excerpted in such a way that the original meaning is changed. You may also use anything you find on the SCP page on the NOT BORED! website, again provided that nothing you use is altered, taken out of context or excerpted in a way that the original meaning is changed.
-- he decided that it was better not to run any story on the group at all.
3. The producers of the National Public Radio show Anthem. Click here for our extended comments.
4. Sarah Richards, a freelancer for The National Post, a Canadian newspaper published in Toronto. Not bad overall, the piece Sarah wrote is marred by an irrational abhorrence of "small-scale drug deals and some rugged denizens" in Manhattan's Washington Square Park.
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