In late April an intriguing email arrived from an organisation called the SCP - Surveillance Camera Players - promoting a street performance in New York, at 0900 local time as part of the May Day protests against global capitalism. It could be watched live, via one of six security [sic: they are web] cameras around Times Square which are permanently hooked to the internet. The performance/protest would be the latest of the SCP's "guerilla [sic] programming" - a subversive reworking of avant-garde European theatre and situationist-inspired "detournement" tactics modified especially for the "surveillance society."
The New York-based SCP began their anarchistic activities in late 1996 with a version of Jarry's Ubu Roi adapted (courtesy of daubed placards and exaggerated gesticulations) for the web [sic: it was a surveillance] cam - omnipresent tool of the powerful. Not only is there a deadly seriousness behind the capers of the SCP, but a deadpan, mischievous humour. Little Billy not be Bored is interviewed by David Brittain.
DB: You state that you are all ordinary Joes, yet your pronouncements are seeded with puns (such early-20th century radical intellectuals as Artaud and Guy de Bord [sic] are invoked with ludicrous rhyming pseudonyms) only well cultured folk would understand. Admit it, you are really a bunch of closet art & drama tutors.
SCP: While it is true that some of the puns I use in referring to myself are "cultured," it is still the case that the members of the SCP are ordinary Joes and Josephines. We are not professional artists or professional political activists. Furthermore, though we may be highly trained as individuals, we do not hold ourselves above people who are not as highly trained. Our flyers and our plays are written in language that anyone can understand. Indeed the accomplishment of our plays especially our versions of "1984" and "The Mass Psychology of Fascism" -- is that they make easily comprehensible very complex ideas and texts. Rather than being limited to an academic or professional audience, our plays are of the street. More than anything else, we are street performers, people who appear in public places to share our concerns with the public (not specialists of any type). If we are "closet" anythings, we are closet musicians, not art & drama tutors. Before joining the SCP, all of us performed as amateur musicians.
DB: How exactly did your May Day performance differ from a protest? Or was it more of a protest than a performance? And how did your concerns about surveillance dovetail (if at all) with May Day?
SCP: Our performances are protests and our protests are performances. It is senseless to try to separate the political aspect (protest) from the aesthetic aspect (performance). It is their unity that makes us unique. What we did at Times Square dovetailed with May Day to the extent that, like May Day, surveillance is a global issue, one that affects ordinary people all over the world. We used an international holiday to make a point about the international significance of surveillance technologies. This is why we performed in front of a webcam that day, and not in front of a "normal" or closed-circuit surveillance system.
DB: How do you place the SCP in this confusing spectrum of protestors (from Reclaim the Streets to anarchists)? Are you artists as activists or activists as artists?
SCP: The confusing spectrum of protesters can be clarified as follows. The militant anarchists (remember: the SCP consider themselves to be anarchists) would probably destroy the surveillance cameras. The traditional leftists and, in New York, many so-called Reclaim the Streets people are actually traditional leftists would probably denounce the cameras to their elected representatives. But the SCP -- like good situationists -- divert or "detourn" the cameras, that is, we temporarily use them for our own (subversive) purposes. Like the original anti-road activists who started RTS, the SCP are a "single issue" group.
DB: I note the humor in your work and in your web site, and I see that the press often represents you as a novelty act. Does your "serious" message get more or less misrepresented?
SCP: Yes, thereีs a lot of humor in our work, especially "black" or "gallows" humor. Like Monty Python's Piranha Brothers, parody and satire are among our primary weapons. And so yes, it is true that, as a result, our "serious" message is more easily misrepresented. But, by the same token, the core of what we do is so strong that media misrepresentation cannot ruin it. Look at CNN: even they saw clearly that "anyone" can indeed do what the SCP does, and this is precisely one of its most subversive aspects. [The following part of the answer wasn't published.] Politics back in art? Radical art? We want no part of any of it. Like the situationists, we want to transcend the separation between politics and art, not "invigorate" one with a dose of the other. The reason both art and politics can never be truly radical is their separation from each other, and from daily life. The SCP tries to be both "artistic" and "political," and tries to put this mixture across in everyday situations (subways stations, street corners, etc.) We never have, and never will, perform for either a strictly political or a strictly artistic audience.
DB: Most people would agree that security cameras are scary because they serve the powerful. But aren't we all implicated in the society of surveillance? TV (at least UK TV) is dominated by cheapo programmes made out of amateur or police footage. A lot of people like watching such videos, which are really part of the surveillance society. Does this make most of us part of the problem?
SCP: The proliferation of surveillance would not be possible without the prior development of what the situationists called the society of the spectacle, that is, a society that privileges images of life over life itself. (See our extended article entitled Time in the Shadows of Anonymity. The long and short of it is, yes, people who enjoy watching programmes made up of police video footage are one of the symptoms of the larger problem, which is best defined as an absence of genuine life among the living.
Contact the Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail Info@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998