An interview with Bill Brown of the Surveillance Camera Players

Tilman Baumgartel: What do the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) do?

Bill Brown (contacted via e-mail): The SCP perform plays directly in front of surveillance cameras. What we do is hold large, hand-made placards up to the camera and do some pantomime. The reason for this is that the surveillance cameras don't record sound. The group has about six such plays in its repertoire. Some of them are constructed to be performed in specific places, for example, churches that have surveillance cameras.

How do you pick them? Some choices seem to be logical, like 1984, but why Waiting for Godot?

Brown: We picked Godot as a kind of joke on the play itself, because it is, of course, all words and no action. Surveillance cameras don't piuck up sound, so any performance of Godot would have to be silent! We no longer perform joke-plays such as these. Since November 1998, we [have] performed plays that we have written and that [explicitly] concern surveillance and privacy rights.

How many people are involved with the SCP, and what else do these people do? Are there any theater professionals?

Brown: At any one time, there are about six people in the group, which is very informal and very loosely organized. In total, about 40 people have performed ever since our founding in November 1996. There are no theater professionals in the group; never have been. Most of the members are political activists who are involved in a variety of other groups. We are all anarchists.

What's wrong with surveillance cameras? They are supposed to make public space safer. . . .

Brown: The use of surveillance cameras by the police is a flat-out violation of the Fourth Amendment to the [US] Constitution. The Supreme Court confirmed that with a decision in 1967.

Yet it has become quite acceptable in the last couple of years and, at the same time, the crime rate in New York has been going down.

Brown: Crime went down in New York because the Mayor told the police to arrest huge numbers of poor people. The city and the police want to keep an eye onm political protest. For example, take the area around St. Patrick's Cathedral. There is almost no crime there, but there have been a lot of demonstrations against the policies of the Catholic Church. That's why there are a lot of very sophisticated digital surveillance cameras in use there.

You say your "target group" is the one person sitting in front of the surveillance monitor. Why all this effort for one person?

Brown: Our real target group are all the people who see us on the street because they happen to wander by. In New York City, that can be a lot of people! We perform in very populated areas. We were only joking when we said that we were performing for bored security guards and cops. Fuck them!

Yet there is something absurd in performing in front of these cameras, though I guess that this is intentional. . . .

Brown: Sure. We think the whole logic of surveillance is absurd. The cameras make people paranoid in the hope that these paranoid people will act rationally and won't commit crimes. But paranoid people are not rational.

What effect can you expect from your performances?

Brown: First of all, we want to disrupt the everyday routines of people. And we want to show them that there is no need to be terrified by these cameras. Plus we want to show that not all protests are loud and boring, and that one can protest this with a sense of humor. Individuals and small groups can in fact accomplish a lot.

This strategy of the "disruption" of everyday life is being used by others these days as well. It has become a strategy in marketing, for example, and whole shopping malls are planned to snap people out of their everyday trance. Why do you think your sttaetgy works? And do you really feel that your hand-written posters are getting recognized, despite the fact that they have to compete with perfect advertising design in public space and "shock" or "guerilla" marketing?

Brown: Marketing -- even "radical" advertising -- is designed to keep people in their trance, rather than wake them up. Advertising is precisely part of the daily life-trance, and that's what we wish to disrupt. As for the contrast between the advertisers and us: we look unprofessional, even absurd [by comparison], don't we? Good!

How does the audience react?

Brown: The surveillants often find it funny, that is, until we show a sign that says, "Mind your own business." The rest of the audience mostly agrees with us -- at least on the point that the cameras should be labeled with adequate warning signs. Only a few give us the usual bullshit about fighting crime.

You also give walking tours through New York. What do you do there?

Brown: We teach other people to do what we do: spot the cameras, which are often disguised as street lamps or ornaments. We also make sure that our maps of camera locations are disseminated. This is also an important part of our performances: to get those maps distributed. It's one thing to have someone tell you about how many cameras there are; it's quite another to be able to locate and count them for yourself.

Has situationist theory had any influence on your work?

Brown: Yes, a great deal. What we do is "detourn" the spectacle of the cameras. We don't destroy them, as a militant anarchist would do. We don't write to our Congressman as a good Leftist would do. We turn the cameras aghainst their original purposes. However, I'm sure the Situationist International would have been opposed to the degree to which the SCP appear in the mass media.

That was something I was about to ask. If you are so opposed to the spectacle -- as the Situationists called the mass media -- why do you participate in it, for example, by giving TV interviews?

Brown: We feed the spectacle posion, disguised as birdseed.

Do you see yourselves in the tradition of the political street theater of the 70s?

Brown: Yes. We are big fans of The Living Theater.

Groups like The Living Theater don't really exist anymore, and one reason for that might be the notion of public space has changed. Maybe the real social discourse and real public life don't happen on the street anymore, but in the media. So one could argue that this kind of street theater doesn't reach the "public" anymore or, at most, a tiny faction of it.

Brown: But The Living Theater is still around, and it is still very much alive! They perform in both traditional theaters and in public. As for your comments about the media [and public space], it may be true for some people -- those with money, power, acess to the media. They might feel that the public spehere is unnecessary or undesirable and scary. But there are some people for whom the street and public space is literally everything -- the homeless, obviously, but others as well.

What role does the Internet play in what you are doing?

Brown: It allows us to make contact with like-minded people all over the world. It gets us coverage from people who do not speak English as their first language. We've been written about or profiled in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and German.

By using the Internet, you reach many more people interested in what you are doing than by "just" playing theater on the street or in the theater. That's what makes what you are doing different from traditional political theater.

Brown: That's true. The SCP is a far more "modern" theater group than The Living Theater, which doesn't really use or fully inhabit the Internet. We use the Internet as much as we can to maximize our effectiveness. Though the SCP would be far less well-known without the Internet, the group could still exist and be effective, even if the Internet were to crash en masse tomorrow. That's why our web site is relatively rudimentary and toned-down. It is simply a vehicle to deliver ideas over a very wide area. And it allows the SCP to do without a [printed] newsletter or a book.

Could you think of any way that your strategy could be applied to the mass media or the Internet?

Brown: The strategy of detournement can certainly be applied to the mass media. The Situationists themselves detourned comic strips, paintings, movies and other media. [As for the Internet,] we often perform in front of webcams, which we define as remote surveillance devices. [Webcams] are digital cameras, unlike some "real" surveillance cameras, which are mostly still analog devices. We want to call attention to the likely combination of face recognition software with webcams. The Internet is a gigantic surveillance device, but tyhis surveillance to an extent works two ways. Though the US military is spying on me, using the Internet, I can use the Internet to detect and denouce that spying.

[Conducted in English January 2001, this interview was translated into German by Tilman Baumgartel. Excerpts from this translation appeared in the 8 February 2001 edition of Die Berliner Zeitung. The entire German translation appeared in 2.0, a book of Baumgartel's interviews published by Verlag fuer moderne Kunst (Nuernburg) in November 2001, and in the 19 December 2001 edition of .]

Contact the NY Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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

NY Surveillance Camera Players