On the platform of the Astor Place subway station in Manhattan, a man [sic] and a woman, both giggling and clad in black bodysuits, take turns bonking each other on the head with bowler caps. Around their necks hang giant nametages that read "Vladimir" and "Estragon." Across town at Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, a guy wearing a skull mask holds up a placard that asks "2+2=?" in front of a security camera. Next to him, a man labeled "6079 Smith, W." holds up another that answers "5." And in Times Square, a webcam's view of a bustling, neon intersection is blocked by two signs that read "We know you are watching" and "Mind your own business."
Protest? Oddball theatre? Actually, it's both. This is the work of the Surveillance Camera Players, a troupe of guerilla actors and pranksters who have a big problem with Big Brother and the proliferation of video cameras and webcams in public places.
On the go since 1996, they perform very short, impromptu, and often absurd plays in front of the 5,000-or-so electric eyes that watch New York City's streets, parks and subway stations -- entertaining passersby and enraging security guards with adaptations of The Raven, Waiting for Godot and slightly heavier fare like George Orwell's 1984 and Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism.
Their message? That cameras invade privacy, do not deter crime and violate the provision against "unreasonable search[es]" in the U.S. Constitution.
"That is the essential aspect of what liberty is," says 41-year-old co-founder Bill Brown, "free assembly and the right of free movement."
"If you're going to watch us," he adds, "we're going to give you messages you might not expect."
Since few surveillance cameras can pick up sound, dialogue and other, more direct messages ("We will be free") are spelled out with magic marker on big cardboard sheets. The plays are short, 10 minutes at the most, but are often interrupted by the arrival of guards or New York's finest.
"It's almost comic how completely wound-up security guards get when they see us," he says, recalling run-ins with the plastic badge brigade. "They think we're going to put anthrax in the water supply . . . but when the police arrive, they [the police] say, 'They're not doing anything wrong.'"
Even in the wake of September 11, and widespread calls for heavier public surveillance, the Players stand by their policy. "The best time to defend your rights is when they're attacked. You don't give up when they're attacked or it becomes difficult [to defend them]," says Brown. Like many civil libertarians, they [the Players] are also concerned about the potential mis-use of face recognition software, a new and suddenly in-demand technology design to spot criminals or terrorists in crowds.
But despite the rhetoric, Brown explains that the four or five main members are not "hard-core political people." Nor do they have any real background in theatre. They caper in front of cameras because it's fun. Using satire and playfulness, he says, gives them a chance to protest without turning into "rock-throwing anarchists."
"You should be able to be creative or even oppositional without [being forced into] having to make your point through police barricades," he says.
The website -- which includes photos, movies and scripts of their many performances -- encourages people to start their own troupes, and other Surveillance Camera Players have recently sprung up in Arizona, California and across Europe. Brown hopes someone will also start a chapter in Canada.
So maybe they [the Players] have a point about privacy and anonymity. And, yes, they've got a sense of humour. But aren't they also a little paranoid? "The people who are truly paranoid are the people who're putting up all the cameras," Brown retorts, "the people who so distrust the American or Canadian public that they want to have cameras everywhere. That's paranoid."
[Written by Sean Davidson and published in the February 2002 issue of Famous: Canada's Entertainment Lifestyle Magazine.]
Contact the NY Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail SCP@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998