The art of surveillance

By Gary Genosko

At 1 pm (Eastern Standard Time) on Tuesday 30 November 1999, the Surveillance Camera Players will perform an anti-World Trade Organization play in front of a surveillance camera overlooking Fifth Avenue in NYC. Every 30 seconds it uploads to the following website. From this website a direct fax may be sent to the local precinct of the NYC Police Department, reporting any suspicious behaviour.

When is a surveillance camera the occasion for a performance rather than the detection of criminal behaviour and the protection of commodities and consumers? Although scenes of detection, from the classic Orwellian Telescreen to the cramped little dramas unfolding around automatic bank machines, to the security consoles of art galleries, have become topics for recent e-work -- think of Winnipegger Pedro Mendes's remote access movement and trust pieces that multiply and digitize the fixed images of a pedestrian entrance way under surveillance -- the use of apparatuses of surveillance for performance pieces is still relatively rare. It is, however, an art that has been practised by the Surveillance Camera Players of NYC since 1996.

Co-founders Bill Brown and Susan Hull combine community activism and critiques of the diminishment of privacy and personal freedom in the information age with avant-garde aesthetic practices. They are street performers and agitators who refuse to work in theatres or performance spaces proper. The work of the Players constitutes an attempt to take back the right to assemble in a public place, and sends a pointed message to those guards and cops monitoring these places. The performances are short and silent. The players use printed boards with bubbles and captions borrowed from comic books to convey dialogue, scene changes and political messages, and all are amateur actors. This is not "content" for the amusement of the surveyors. It is what Brown calls "message" rather than method acting.

This kind of "programming" is a variation on culture jamming, which envisages both the corruption or jamming of existing mainstream media and the provision of new critical content with its feet firmly placed in the radical and politically advanced aesthetic tradition of the Situationist International. The SI was born in 1957 in Cosio d'Arroscia, Italy, and later became associated with avant-garde practices on the left bank in Paris during the 1960s. The language preferred by the Surveillance Camera Players, who are definitely Not Ready for Prime Time, is that of rerouting and diverting the means of social control by exploring their hitherto unappreciated opportunities for subversive activities. The emphasis is on the action -- the performance as the creation of a situation that transforms everyday life -- directed back at the surveyors by the surveyed, even if it is not always evident that anyone is actually watching the security consoles and monitors.

The performance pieces are also produced as a critique of the social effects of a society of surveillance in which interpersonal associations have been grossly distorted in complex ways, from the flagrant abuse of such cameras under the pretext of security by unscrupulous employers (think of cameras in women's washrooms), to the creation of criminals by police reading certain kinds of persons as deviant. Here the poor, Aboriginal youth, anyone for that matter who isn't properly participating in consumer society or already answers to an abstract profile of a likely suspect, would qualify. But like the psychogeographers of the SI floating around Paris, gathering the "ambiances" of urban locales for their signature driftworks -- imaginary maps of the real world -- the "stage" of the Surveillance Camera Players is the surveyed space before the camera, and their natural milieux are subway platforms, street corners or squares.

The guerrilla programming has included performances of such works as Alfred Jarry's important play from 1896, Ubu Roi, whose original excrementitious opening salvo of "Merdre!" caused a riot, and is here rendered as a delinquent "Fuk!"; a version of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" reduced to rotating posters in which an actor labelled Poe, holding either the image of a fashion model or a woman's mask, also holds aloft a placard reading "O Lenore!" while a nameless actor brandishing either a death's head mask or a drawing of a raven holds up a poster with a speech bubble that reads "Nevermore"; a robust Waiting for Godot that features two actors wearing signs identifying them as Estragon and Vladimir, respectively, who chase one another or sit under a third person labelled "a tree." All these works were "adapted" for the little camera by Art Toad (Bill Brown's alias) and demonstrate the importance of short interventions of no more than 10 minutes, the "silent treatment" of modernist texts for the silent street stage and the significance of posters. Brown does not like the term "adaptation" and prefers to liken his work to "attacks" on existing works. Recently, though, he has begun developing original material.

These works warrant the label "guerrilla," since they are performed by anonymous actors engaging in oppositional performances -- weak tactics of popular resistance without profit. The guerrilla programming of surveillance cameras is an art of time, of the timely manoeuvre, because it lacks a space of its own, a proper autonomous place over which it has control. Tactically, guerrilla programming retakes time from the surveillance mechanisms of an environment policed in the name of business interests.

Theoretically, the Surveillance Camera Players are engaged in a restless search for theoretical precedents. In the essays on the sprawling site you can view their work and read position papers, invoking the aforementioned Situationists and Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, among others. In their papers they address the contemporary development of the imposition of transparency on a world dominated by capitalism. Mayor Giuliani's New York is exemplary in this respect. The work of the Players introduces a needed dose of opacity into the demands for uniformity, predictability and compliance. In concert with the recent eruptions in Seattle against the WTO, Brown's group has its sights set on this particular engine of capitalist transparency, which wants to knock down opaque trade barriers. Remember that the weapons of the Surveillance Camera Players are weak and rely on opportune moments to create maximum effects from minimum force. If it weren't for their website, the Players would have disappeared, leaving only the traces in the memory of those who watched them, opponents and supporters alike.

[Originally published in Border Crossings, volume 19, #1, 2000. For the SCP's response, click here.]

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