Orwell in New York

How the "Surveillance Camera Players" group fights against the spread of surveillance cameras

The three black-clothed figures in Times Square look a liitle like avengers of the disinherited who are in the wrong movie: with earnest expressions, they point accusing fingers at the sky over New York. Amidst the glittering spectacle of endlessly moving messages, over-sized advertisements, hurrying crowds, the penetrating noise of voices, bits and pieces of music and auto-exhaust pipes, they are a virtually archaic element.

The ten big pieces of cardboard that the figures are slowly and solemnly presenting carry messages upon them. Written in an amateurish fashion, using a large ink-marker, the boards bear messages of protest and warning: "You are being watched for your own safety," "No more invasions of privacy," "No face recognition software."

The three people belong to a group of artists and civil rights activists that formed five years ago and is called the "Surveillance Camera Players" (SCP). You'll be forgiven if this makes you wonder: "A group of artist-actors against surveillance cameras?!"

The head of this loosely organized troupe of changing members, an American named Bill Brown, is not making things any clearer when he says, "We aren't political activists, nor are we a theater group or a civil rights group." And yet he's clear on the fact that the members of the SCP are anarchists. "But not the violent sort, not ultra-leftists," he says.

But this 31-year-old man is not a fanatical anarchist. In the past, he has supported himself as a lecturer on books and magazines that concern legal rights. He is slightly built and speaks very thoughtfully, almost teacherly. Politically active since he was 13 years old, he once wore a black T-shirt saying "Give Nazis No Chance" when he was interviewed by a group of German reporters. He finds cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels far more pleasant to wander through than American ones.

Bill and the other members of the SCP don't go after the surveillance cameras with baseball bats in their hands. To the furious guardians of the law, who can emerge from nowhere within a single minute, they say, politely, "Yes, Officer." Because getting arrested isn't their thing. They fight against the invasions of privacy with paper shields. Many times these paper signs have written upon them humorous messages to the people who are watching: "Just going to work," one of them says. Or, "Just getting something to eat." Their favorites are the signs they display at St. Patrick's Cathedral -- one of which says "Doesn't God see everything?"

Bill has counted a total of 132 cameras in Times Square: 9 operated by the city, 115 operated by private companies and 8 webcams that upload "live" to the Internet. In New York as a whole, there are 5,000 cameras, or twice the number found three years ago. Particularly deceitful are the cameras operated by the police, because they do not look like cameras. Take, for example, the camera for which the SCP performed. Located at the southern end of the pedestrian island upon which the 46th Street "Ticket Booth" stands, just above the heads of the hundreds of tourists who are waiting on line to buy cheap tickets for Broadway shows, there is a high-tech camera enclosed in a structure that looks like an Ikea lamp. "This camera can turn around 360 degrees and can magnify 16 times," Bill has learned; "It can read the newspaper I'm holding in my hands." If used in tandem with the new face recognition software that the police have begun using, these cameras can watch the movements of each and every person. "When we are under total surveillance, the police state won't be far away. Democracy will be over," Bill says.

The basic question, in Times Square, in London and, most recently, in Tampa Bay, Florida -- where face recognition software is now being used -- is this: Does one have the right of privacy when out in public? Logically, one finds that the SCP's performance surprised Jeffrey Martinez, a 26-year-old actor from the neighboring state of New Jersey. He said that the cameras violated his professional ethics: "Robert Redford acts differently when he knows he's being filmed. I also want to know when I'm being watched," he says and gives the hidden camera a big smile. Other passers-by shrug their shoulders: "The police are watching? So what?" murmured one; "I've done nothing wrong." A teenager is overheard to say, "That's the way to have security."

A few years ago, Bill and his colleagues Miranda Edison and Susan Hull, who are also here today, were smiled at, as if they were fools, Bill Brown says. What began as an in-joke -- two-minute-long versions of Orwell's "1984" and Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" for surveillance cameras in New York's subway stations -- has become a kind of mission. These days, the SCP divides its time between distributing info-leaflets, maintaining a web site and giving free walking tours of heavily surveilled areas, such as Washington Square Park, 125th Street in Harlem and the United Nations Building.

Ever since this past July, when it was revealed that surveillance cameras in Tampa, Florida, are using a software that electronically scans the faces of passers-by and compares them with a register of "most wanted" people, the average American has developed an opinion of surveillance cameras. For tourists from the Mid West of the country, the "Moloch" of New York is a place where a security guarantee is necessary. For the true New Yorker, total security is an unreasonable demand: "I think of surveillance cameras as something to prevent maniacs from speeding through red traffic-lights," says Miranda Welch, Upper East Side mother of two daughters. "It doesn't please me at all that we are being watched."

That's the reaction that Bill Brown and his colleagues want to produce: an awareness of Big Brother and of the person behind the camera: "We know that you are watching." In Arizona, Italy and Lithuania, the SCP has produced offshoots. This is a very positive sign for Brown; it shows that the resistance against total surveillance is growing. ""Surveillance Camera Players' isn't a copyrighted expression," he says. No one must report to him before starting a group, no one must send a script in to him for approval. "The SCP want there to be similar groups all over the world, wherever there are surveillance cameras," Brown says.

[Written by Katja Guttman and published by Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung on 1 September 2001. Translated from the German by Bill Brown.]

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail SCP

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998

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