New York: Using Surveillance Cameras to Make Theater

A group of actors make good use of the city's security devices, offering unexpected performances that draw attention to the loss of privacy.

In 1948, the English writer George Orwell published his most famous novel, 1984. There he portrayed a society of the future where, among other things, each citizen is watched by Big Brother 24 hours a day, wherever they are, by visible and hidden cameras. Although Orwell conceived his novel as a fable for calling attention to the threat of Communist totalitarianism, on the contrary, it has become a prophecy of today's hyper-technologized capitalist society -- at least in one that uses video surveillance.To give a single example: according to a recent article on the BBC, there are more than 4 million surveillance cameras in the United Kingdom; one for each 14 people. They are in the streets, the businesses, shops and even public bathrooms. This phenomenon is being replicated in all the big cities of the planet and, of course, with more impetus in the post 9-11 world.

In Buenos Aires, the Ministry of the Interior has placed subway surveillance cameras on-line (it's called "Subway Alert") so each citizen can be Big Brother for the others. By entering "Buenos Aires, live cameras" in Google you can access dozens of screens that spy on the life of the city. The common sentiment relates this surveillance to major security but loses sight of political inconvenience.

As a reaction, artists groups, who recognize that this habitual public surveillance is a violation of the right to privacy, are proliferating. Thus the paradigmatic Surveillance Camera Players (a troupe of surveillance camera actors) was founded in New York. This is a theatrical group founded in 1996 that just celebrated their first decade of activity with the publication of the book We Know You are Watching (meaning that they watching us).

Bill Brown, founder of the troupe, explained to Clarin the genesis of the group, its modus operandi, and its current projects. "The question that we are posing to society with our work is: "Isn't it a basic right to be able to maintain anonymity in public places like Times Square, where one now finds more than 200 cameras? What right do private business, government agencies, and common users of the Internet have to surveill us, to take our photos and then do what they feel like with them?"

In order to respond to these questions, the Surveillance Camera Players put on actions that resemble the Happenings of Alan Kaprow of the '60s and '70s or the more recent flashmobs (spontaneous gatherings convoked via cellular or the Internet, as in the recent and banal flashmob of Palermo). Brown and his company approach a place that is surveilled by cameras and perform an original work or an adaptation, using silent theater or pantomime. Its "debut work" was a version of Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry performed in the Union Square subway station. By entering "Surveillance Camera Players" into YouTube, you can access a video of a version of 1984 that the group put on in a subway tunnel in Manhattan. The site documents their activities and has compiled a large archive of articles linked to the theme of surveillance. For Brown, the cameras, apart from the threat to privacy, are emblems of a varied gamut of devices that are constructing a society of absolute control. "Cellular telephones with their GPS chips, tracking of personal information on Internet sites, using radiofrequency ID chips in new passports, satellite surveillance. . . . All these things are leaving the potential that no aspect of life will be left private." Look out.

(Written by Andres Hax and published in Clarin 22 February 2007. Translated from the Spanish by Kim Paice, 24 March 2007.)

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