The Revolution Will Be Televised

By Jessica Branch

Chances are, you're being watched. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, there are 2,397 surveillance cameras in Manhattan alone: 270 under governmental aegis and 2,117 privately owned; and those are just the ones they've spotted. The NYCLU's NY Surveillance Camera Project counts only outdoor cameras, but electronic eyes are everywhere: on the street, in the subway, even in department-store dressing rooms. And there are virtually no laws governing them.

Maybe it's just that we all want our 15 minutes on-air, but the New York citizenry seems largely unconcerned about the transformation of its metropolis. 1984 was 15 years ago: Does anyone still care that Big Brother has more eyes than ever before?

The answer is yes. The Surveillance Camera Players, an ever-changing but dedicated group of anarchist-affiliated activists founded in 1996, are committed to raising public awareness of this ubiquitous observation. Inspired by the Situationists (a group of French-based '60s intellectuals who criticized contemporary society's obsession with spectacle), the SCP wage guerilla theater, performing drastically-abbreviated dramatic works in front of surveillance cameras around the city for the entertainment and education of security personnel and passersby alike. They roam from the Seventh Avenue IRT subway station to Liberty Plaza, but their current venue of choice is Washington Square Park, where they've been performing their latest play, "Headline News."

Why go to such trouble for a few sleepy guards and New York's notoriously blase pedestrian traffic? "[The] Situationists felt that traditional forms of protest culture -- like film and theater -- were obsolete and ineffective," says Bill Brown, founding member of the SCP. "They were taken as art and confined in the theater." By bringing their message to the city's screens, the SCP hope to affirm that the medium is indeed the message by turning the cameras themselves into the real spectacle.

Such tactics place the group roughly midway along a continuum of "surveillance art." At one end of the spectrum lie artists like Julia Scher and Scanner, whose ambiguous use of surveillance technology in their work seems as much celebration as condemnation; at the other, political activists like Steve Mann, organizer of the worldwide ShootBack Day.

Prompted by a 1994 post on anarchist umbrella website Not Bored! that recommended subverting surveillance cameras with "guerilla programming," the SCP was initially somewhat prankish. Brown issued statements like, "The opportunity is to get those law enforcement officials watching something on TV that isn't all sex and violence." The group's repertoire of two-minute classics was notable for its irreverence -- they performed Alfred Jarry's dadaist masterpiece "Ubu Roi" and an all-woman production of "Waiting for Godot" that Brown described as "pissing on established figures."

But the group's emphasis has been growing "more and more serious" and overtly political in content, with recent repertory additions like Orwell's 1984" and "Headline News," perhaps the first play to be written especially for surveillance cameras.

Like its predecessors, "Headline News" consists of a series of large, boldly-lettered placards held up before the surveillance camera. With simple, effective graphics -- like a devilishly-smiling, horned and fanged Giuliani illustrating "Local News" -- and acerbic "commercials" which associate the Chase Manhattan bank logo with the phrase, "We Own You," and describe the famous Nike swoosh as the "Proud Sponsor of Chinese Sweatshops."

In keeping with its developing seriousness, the group has also begun to invite a legal observer from the NYCLU to attend their [sic] performances so that the police "don't beat the crap out of us," says Brown. He reports encounters in which the forces of law and order have been hostile toward the SCP -- or just plain confused, as when one baffled officer apparently asked the group, "Do you need a permit to do this?" There have been more favorable responses, most notably from a token-booth clerk at the York Street station on the F line who asked people to move so that he'd have a clearer view of the play.

Advocates of surveillance cameras contend that they deter crime and enhance public safety. Research conclusions on this vary, but for Brown, even if the tradeoff between privacy and safety is real, "I'd rather be robbed with a handgun than be watched." But ironically enough, the SCP does get watched: perhaps only for a few seconds by casual observers, but sometimes by more engaged audiences. "Some enjoy being into it, they stop and contemplate the signs," says Brown. "As avant gardists we're not all obscure, not talking down and saying you have to be a member of the Trotskyites to understand."

Asked what response they really want, the SCP has to think about it. Co-founder Susan reports that one "Headline News" viewer, on receiving the SCP's explanatory pamphlet, remarked, "Hey, I could do this myself," and the group seems agreed that that's an excellent response. Brown adds, "And, on another level, 1,000 people could destroy the police surveillance van."

[Originally published October 1999 by CitySearch.]

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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