Theater of Cruelty

According to current reports, there are more surveillance cameras in public places in New York than in any other city in the nation. They are always hidden, and they are totally legal.

Day One: The Battleground of Surveillance

I am watching a monitor near a token booth in the York Street subway station in Brooklyn. My spouse and my infant daughter are on the monitor. I have them on the nanny cam. Unbeknownst to my spouse, I can watch every move he makes with her. For me, there is great pleasure in this.

Center stage in the monitor's screen is a man costumed like a newscaster who is acutely aware of the presence of the camera although its disguised. The camera dangles from the ceiling over the subway platform in what looks like a giant black plastic roach trap. The man plays to the giant plastic roach trap. One by one for the camera's view, he holds up large poster boards, which say alternately, "World News: NATO," "Big Brother is Watching You," "We'll be right back," "Get Addicted to Junk." Nike's trademark is swooshed under the hand-penned words: Chinese sweat shops. It's the news behind the news, a homemade version of The Nation magazine chopped up in poster board bites.

According to Bill Brown, the man in the suit, his silent play Headline News is the first play in history written solely for surveillance cameras. A founding member of the Surveillance Camera Players, he is also more or less the spokesperson for the group, which that night included Susan, who stood next to me near the token booth, monitoring the monitor and communicating with Bill by walkie-talkie, and Scott who videotaped Bill (and unwittingly, my husband and daughter) on the monitor. The token booth clerk told us to move so he could get a better look, but other than that there seemed to be little interest that night in Bill's play either on the platform or via videocamera on the monitor. Despite this, Bill assures me that interest in the Surveillance Camera Players has burgeoned since their debut in 1996, and that like the stock market, it's at an all-time high. "I've been involved in a lot of different things," he says, "but I've never seen a radical idea like this touch so many people so fast." The press is hot on their trail. National Public Radio, Details magazine, The New York Press, and MTV Europe, among others, have all run stories on the Players, and reality programming shows like Real TV and Court TV keep phoning Bill Brown as well.

But he's emphatic in stating that its important to see that this is about more than just, in his words, "kids getting in front of cameras and giving it the finger. MTV Europe read [the SCP's project] that way," he says, "Details read it that way [too]."

I have to admit that listening to him I'm on the edge of my seat. He goes on to discourse on the history of the Situationist movement, defines in elegant paragraphs specific elements of Marxism, unravels my confusion about alienation and objectification in capitalist culture, and essentially situates his personal politics, his anarchism of late, in a world historical context. Even his jokes are scary smart: he often refers to himself for interviewers as Monsieur Art Toad, in direct reference to Antonin Artaud, the great French theater theorist. Throughout much of my time with him I feel enlivened and inspired, much like his undergraduates at the Rhode Island School of Design must have felt.

After three years at a job any other English Ph.D. would kill for, Bill Brown quit, leaving academia for the streets of New York City where he would devote himself to his politics. Who talks like this is 1999? Like an Abbie Hoffman for the post-punk era, Bill says, point-blank, without any edge-of-the-apocalypse irony, "I consider myself a revolutionary."

The Surveillance Camera Players clearly have their work cut out for them. According to current reports, there are more surveillance cameras in public places in New York than in any other city in the nation. They are always hidden, and they are totally legal.

Why does your social protest take the form of theater?

Bill Brown: It had to be theater given the reality of the cameras. The first thing you think about with cameras is film, but because these cameras -- which are our audience -- are permanently installed in a specific space, what we do becomes a kind of a mute, live theater performed for closed camera TV, and that's what makes it so unusual, in that it's neither film, nor video, nor exactly theater. It's very much a new art form, a contemporary theater of cruelty.

Is that what cruelty refers to?

Bill Brown: I believe so. The cruelty is not a de Sadean cruelty -- a sadistic cruelty -- it's simply the cruelty of real life, which is not ordered and hierarchically smooth, and organized. [The fact is] that life is a very spontaneous, cruel, violent process, and I would distrust people who would cover that up.

Why did the Surveillance Camera Players do Waiting for Godot? What's political about Beckett, for example?

Bill Brown: Those first three plays that we did -- Ubu Roi which is by Jarre [sic], Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" -- all share similar qualities, or when we did them [they] share similar qualities, which is a violent reduction to two-dimensional space. In Alfred Jarre's Ubu Roi, which is a hundred-year-old play, instead of pretending that they could actually have the Polish army or the Russian army on stage, Jarre's stage directions call for a single actor to hold up a placard that says "The Russian Army," so that when The Russian Army crosses the Ukraine, there's a single person with a rather ridiculous sign that says "I am the Russian army and I'm crossing the Ukraine." Formally, that fits in absolutely perfectly with what you can do with surveillance cameras. Because surveillance cameras by law cannot include audio, everything has to be done with speech bubbles and printed boards.

Day Two: Taking Back the Park

The area around Washington Square Park is rife with brand-new freshman and their parents the day I make my way over to the Players' second performance in a week. Thoughtful, attractive coeds consult maps of New York City and drag colorful futons from little U-Haul trailers, hooked up to SUVs. It's like an episode of Felicity. And it's a beautiful day, not a day for politics. In fact, inside the park, I find not the Surveillance Camera Players, but the NYU chapter of the Church of Christ ministries doing a sound check for an al fresco church service to welcome and recruit new students. Gospel music begins to permeate the park, and I start to look hard for the surveillance cameras now [that] I know they're here. I don't see them anywhere.

Finally I spot the Players near the Western edge of the park, setting up in front of a monument to a historical figure of lost significance, and in front of a camera. But where is it? And then I spot it -- a black orb disguised as a benevolent street light. These are the cameras that the host of a local NPR talk show said are generally popular with residents of the Village. A large police van is perpetually parked on the South side of the park and I'm told that this is where the monitors are. A Player hands me a flier with information that is truly creepy:

In this public park, there are ten very sophisticated surveillance cameras, and they are turned on and monitored 24 hours a day. Each camera is equipped with infrared night vision. Each camera is remote-controlled; at the flick of a switch the camera can be tilted up or down, or moved 360 degrees around. Every one of your facial expressions is visible, too. The police are watching you read this, with cameras sophisticated enough to read these very words, right over your shoulder, from a hundred feet away.

Tell me more about the cameras.

Bill Brown: They're very scary. And they're not even the most sophisticated that are possible. Some are connected to a computer that has software that then records your face. So that if you walk by a camera in Washington Square Park, it can record your image for a database of facial images. There are two software systems, Face It or Visage [sic: spelling is Viisage] that can do this. And that's exactly what George Orwell had in mind, that a machine will match [faces to databases], not a person. . . . In Germany when I lived there, I once opened my mail, and there was a picture of me taken by a surveillance camera. My face, my license plate number, a picture of the radar gun and a notice saying, "You were speeding," and that "You owe us a hundred deutschmarks." That's total surveillance. They put my passport number on the notice as if to say, "We know exactly who you are and if you leave the country without paying this, when the EU really joins up with the United States, we'll still be able to find you. We'll find you in New York, and we'll fine you." To me, that's [only] five years away. Washington Square Park is obviously a big experiment for this sort of thing. And I find it to be a really unpleasant place. The term "prison yard" even seems mild, especially given the history of that park. Apparently [in 1917] Marcel Duchamp and some other artists climbed the arch and declared Washington Square Park an autonomous republic. That was a major event, and now the arch is cordoned off. Our performances in the Park make the political purpose of the cameras clear. The cameras are on the North end of the park where the arch is. If they were really there for safety, the cameras would be [on the South end] near the bathrooms, because you'd be catching child molesters, for example. And they [the cameras] are not there. They're all at the front part [of the park], indicating that this has everything to do with surveying the politics of the park.

On my way to the other side of the Park for the Players' second performance of the day, Bill Brown, forever the instructor, pushes me towards the ACLU lawyer Chris Johnson, who is ready to act as a buffer should the Players get hassled by the authorities. The cameras are totally legal, he tells me, and no one can control what the authorities do with the tape. He invites me to look at a map of surveillance cameras in the city. On my way home, I take one last look back. The park is lively by this time with tourists and locals enjoying a breezy summer afternoon. The music from the church service swells. For some reason, the gospel musicians on stage are singing Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman." Bill Brown smirks and lip syncs along. Despite what he says about us being on the edge of a nightmare, he is clearly having a good time.

By Julie Turley

[Originally published in June 2000 by Capture Magazine.]

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

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

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