[Loud music and television in background.]
Bill Brown: Would you like me to answer these questions in media style where I interpolate the question into the answer so you can strip away the question and the answer stays?
Chris Bergman: How exciting that you talk about style already!
BB: You know what I mean? Instead of you ask a question and I say "no" or "yes."
CB: Well I didn't anticipate that as a problem. I don't know. I think you should answer as you would like to.
CB: If it's a "no" or if you feel like it's going to be just a "no" then you can do that.
BB: OK. [Whistling in the background.]
CB: So for the record, we're in the Blarney. . .
BB: We're in the Blarney Stone which is at 3rd Avenue and 43rd street.
CB: After a very exciting tour of the United Nations.
BB: The United Nations tour is always an exciting one. I rather liked today's tour because the guy, the husband and wife team. . . At first you got the feeling that he shouldn't be on the tour. He actually believed the lie or the myth of surveillance - and yet they stayed the whole way. He was the one that gave me some money.
BB: And I thought that was. . .
CB: Based on his appearance, did you think. . . ?
BB: The music just got much louder. Just based upon his opening question, which was that presumably even though there's no crime-deterrent in video surveillance, it will save the next person from being the victim of a crime. As in, "He or she might be murdered, but I will be safe." And that's why I knew I'd be. . . I kept dialoguing with that position all through the tour. Because that's typical of getting people into what we're talking about. They have legitimate concerns but the cameras are just not answering them. And it's a question of not alienating a person like that, or saying, "You just don't belong on this tour." Because sometimes - and on the United Nations tour - people have gotten the idea that they shouldn't be on the tour. A couple of months ago, some guy said to me, "Can you reassure me that appearing on your tour won't make me a subject of surveillance in the same way you are? Will I still be able to be a business man?" And I said to him, I couldn't really answer his questions one way or the other. And he left the tour, and took three people with him, so the tour was suddenly half the size because he was afraid that he would be targeted.
BB: Which I thought was a peculiar position. Basically, what he was saying was, "Can I still shop once the Fuhrer has taken over? Am I still going to be able to be a businessman under the totalitarian state?" Instead of saying, "There is a totalitarian state, and we need to fight against it, even though it makes us less secure as individuals." So he knew he shouldn't be on the tour and he left. Generally, older people are the ones who will say something like. . . they never tell me they're leaving, they just quietly leave. They'll just say. . . people say. . . he said something like, "He's not really concerned about crime." And I'm not. I'm not concerned about crime.
CB: Well in this context it's not appropriate.
CB: If they had stayed they would have gotten that information on your tour. That the cameras don't stop crimes.
BB: Right. But some of these blurbs that they run announcing the tours - I haven't written. And you could think that this is a tour of the things that are keeping us safe. That's why [during the walking tour] I lied to the guy from the State Department. I just said, "Were concerned about our safety. We're just looking at all the neat stuff you guys are doing to keep us safe."
CB: Well this is a gray area. The ambiguity of the identity of - yourself even - and the people that come on the tour. And how identity performs.
BB: Generally people have made up their minds before they have come on the tour and I'm preaching to the converted. Except for marginal people like the guy today who wasn't quite sure. Apparently, we won him over. But yes, it's an ambiguity of the tours, which is, are we looking at objects that we want taken down or are we looking at objects that we want up to keep us safe? There's some ambiguity there.
CB: Even as a kind of aesthetic of right now, do you think ambiguity might be a result of fear?
BB: Or that. . .
CB: In the big picture. . .
BB: No I think it's. . .
CB: How can you recognize. . . ? You can't recognize. . . you know, the language of "anybody can be a terrorist" or "anybody could be. . ."
BB: That's right.
CB: That's the claim. But what happens is only certain people based on how they look get pulled over driving their cars coming in to the city.
BB: If it's a nice day especially, people love walking tours, and they check it out, in part, because this is a very topical subject. So even if they are pro-surveillance they'll come because it's topical. So there's some ambiguity. Less, I think, in the general societal conditions, in exactly how I'm presenting these tours, and how the New York Press, Time Out, The Village Voice are representing them.
CB: Do you want to control how your listing is presented in the press?
BB: No. Because, at this point, it seems there is the potential for a mass movement here and depending upon when I'm sure I know who my audience is - then I'll present myself as extreme as I actually am. But in the interest of simply getting this information out and drawing people in, I'll fuzz those boundaries a little instead of coming on and saying - we're identifying those things that we want pulled down.
CB: Just to connect with some of the questions I have here - because you've been doing this since 1996 - and now there is this whole rise of all these anti-war movements. How have your tours been post-"war?" How were your tours populated. . . actually, maybe I want to go more into the performances. . .
BB: Let me answer that. . .
CB: Yeah, I don't know if I even made a question, sorry. . .
BB: No, I'd say, no, you did. . .
CB: Because you have been doing this for so long.
BB: I'd say what September 11th did was put this subject on the public agenda. People now know that there are surveillance cameras in public places. Before September 11th nobody heard the phrase "face recognition software." So the terrorist attack, and all the wars since then, have made this an issue that is no longer ghettoized among a very small group.
CB: It's no longer conspiracy theory or "paranoia."
BB: The conspiracy theorists, the far right, the far left people - it was very easy to accuse me of paranoia and make it seem funny. And since September 11th, it's not a joke people make anymore. They realize there's nothing paranoid about thinking about surveillance. So in many ways September 11th, and these wars, have helped this movement a great deal by actualizing the danger that has existed this whole time. It's one thing to say there's a very dangerous tendency here in American society. Now, it's no longer a tendency, it has become actualized. So it's in an ambiguous way. . . the worse things get, the better it is for this tour and this group. This is a very limited thing. If the cameras came down tomorrow, the group would have no reason to exist, and we'd be very happy to fold.
CB: So, this movement you are referring to - I'm thinking a lot of things because I've never had a war in my lifetime that I was conscious of. The Gulf War took place when I was twenty. I was not yet aware - of anything. But there wasn't this same kind of anti-war movement as there is now. So when you say "the movement," do you mean your work on surveillance specifically?
BB: I meant in a narrow sense of a movement aware of and opposed to generalized surveillance. For example, other people are taking this up. Other people are making maps. Other people are talking about making walking tours. Maps are being published. There's the example of the University of Texas. They're totally independent, but they want to know how they're being watched. So I see it as being something unrelated to the anti-war movement. This surveillance struggle started before the wars - it will be here after the wars are over. But at the same time, what's happening with surveillance here is an extension of the domestic war on terrorism. So the justification now for surveilling people isn't the war on drugs, it's the war against terrorism. Now, at least according to Washington, there's a connection between fighting "The War in Iraq," and fighting terrorism here at home. I've tried to position this so that we don't get swept up in the war. The war in Iraq will come and go, but surveillance is very much a very long-term problem in society. The war in Iraq is, effectively, supposedly, already over. Wars don't take ten years like the Vietnam War did, they take ten days. And a movement has to move that quickly now to remain topical. They've sped everything up.
CB: It's a whole different game but the rule is still speed. [Pause.]
CB: What I realize is that I have a beverage and you do not.
BB: It's OK.
CB: And it's kind of loud here.
BB: Yes it is.
CB: What I thought. . .
BB: We can do this for a little while here and move to some place else.
CB: That's what I thought. Maybe we can find a place to do all at once. Drink and smoke.
BB: Then I have to go shoot my cat up with vitamin B12.
CB: How much time do you have so I can try to pace some things?
BB: I'm not looking at the clock.
CB: Alright. 'Cause I got two 2-hour tapes.
BB: Don't worry about it.
CB: I'm trying to figure out how to bring it all in because we just did the walking tour, but that's just one part of your work.
CB: And your website says everything, so if you don't mind I'm going to repeat some of the things that are on there, or draw out some parts.
BB: Not at all. Yes, the walking tours are one of five activities. There's the performances, the map-making slash walking tours, media relations, operating the website, and then traveling. All have the same purpose, which is advocacy and making information available. None of this was planned out in advance. This has evolved as need has dictated. When we began I had no idea that this was going to become a full-time non-paying job for me. It was a prank that we did as a one-off that seemed like a fun idea, and we dropped it. It was only in '98 that this really grew.
CB: The walking tours, or your performances?
BB: The performances. The first performance was so successful because it - the cops shut us down during the first performance. What more could you ask for? And then it was in '98 that we realized we can't just let this sit, we have to keep going back to this, and going back to it. But for a year and a half, I was personally very satisfied with that one performance.
BB: Because the problem with the protestors, or any kind of educational campaign, is they're so easily ignored. And here it showed we were not ignored the very first time we did this. That showed something. . . that this was very effective. But they really don't like us. They don't like the idea of us at all.
CB: Now you must be more anticipated. But the first performance. . . it was the 90's and. . .
BB: And it was before Safir and Giuliani started putting police cameras in public places and that's why history. . . we didn't predict history, history kind of caught up. . . we caught up with history. It started out as a prank without any real context, and suddenly Giuliani and Safir manufactured the context for us - after the fact. And Safir is still at it now. He's still an advocate for surveillance cameras.
CB: So you're saying that you caught up with history, or history caught up with the performances? Because it's been my observation before that a movement can't move fast enough. And the arts, similarly, lag behind. Where it used to be the opposite. We used to be ahead.
BB: Absolutely correct.
CB: And technology is the cause or the problem, and the media.
BB: And the media. The concept of the avant-garde no longer exists, whether it's a political avant-garde or a cultural avant-garde. Advertising has taken over the world of the cultural avant-garde, and the political people are paying incredible attention to what protestors are doing. Because some of the things that have been improvised by protestors - swarming, critical mass, the type of lock downs in Seattle - these are techniques that the military never saw coming. And they're paying attention to protest movements to learn - not only to control or oppress - but to discover new methodologies.
CB: I imagine the methodology that the government still has to catch up with is online. How the movement has spread this way [gesturing horizontally] rather than that way [gesturing vertically].
BB: Precisely. The network structure, or nodal connections - the military is now openly saying they want to have a de-centered network force, and the real model for it is Reclaim The Streets and Books Through Bars and Food Not Bombs, and the decentralized network structure is a creation of protest culture.
CB: So this is protest culture - but online protest culture?
BB: There's an overlap. Because the computer and the internet, obviously, make it much easier to have networked, decentralized structures.
CB: And the very radical strategy of bombing the World Trade Center is. . . I mean. . . what do you think, did we expect this?
BB: No. Because Al Qaeda is itself a decentered, networked creation, and obviously, supposedly, maybe Bin Laden or somebody else, actually okays it, but all the research, the tactical things, are done by a decentralized wing. And yes, they are, their structure is very much a model for the United States military. In part, because "we" [the US government] set Al Qaeda up and didn't realize just how successful it could be. And now were learning from the monster that we made.
CB: And now, something like the anti-war movement has sluggishly becoming a huge, massive, centralized organization when that's not exactly what could be most effective, or successful. And some, well, liberal people will say that they needed it to be in the media before they would do something about it.
BB: And they need comfort. They will not come out to protest unless a hundred thousand people are with them.
CB: And not believe that something - that anything else - is going on unless it's blah blah blah.
BB: Exactly. And in that way, these very big, centrally administered or executed anti-war marches are very traditional and are obsolete. Because you just arrest the leaders, or you just bug the offices of United for Peace and Justice. You deny United for Peace and Justice. . . .
CB: Or you ignore them in the media. You can pull the carpet out from under them in a zillion different ways.
BB: Exactly. And in that way, there's been a step back in the protest culture from the Seattle model to this traditional leftist model, which is big, centralized rallies rather than one thousand little rallies.
CB: Or actions where there's a connection with art and performance. Where it becomes another thing. My definition of performance is that something has to happen. But I think I want to get to that later. This is so much already, it's so great to talk to you.
BB: But we're on the same page here. That's exactly how I would see performance too. In other words, if we perform inside a gallery, nothing will happen - by definition. It has to be outside, in the street where there's the potential for uncontrollable, unforeseen things happening. And that's what makes it a performance. It's not a performance if it's inside St. Marks Church, and you know exactly what's going to happen from beginning to end.
CB: Well, I may not go that far because I expect more subtle things "to happen" and will still allow it to be considered a performance. I may not like it as much, but then what does what I like have to do with it? We're talking about a definition. So, how could you describe. . . ohhh I want a cigarette, it so sucks.
BB: I know.
CB: But how can . . . ?
BB: Should I answer that question and then we can relocate? Or . . .
BB: Because I am enjoying the questions that you're asking.
CB: I haven't even started. . .
BB: [Looking at two pages of questions.] You haven't even started, I see.
CB: [Laughs.] But I have no time frame or constraints as far as what gets covered, so if you have time, we can go through all of this, and if we like it, we'll publish all of it.
BB: Fine. I'm flexible. So what was the question you were beginning to formulate?
CB: The question was about to be, since I haven't seen any of your performances live, could you describe what happens? Rather, how do you describe what happens? Is it an awareness or a confrontation that happens? Is it a break, a fracture, a connection. . . ? I've only been on your walking tours, but your performances that are documented on the website read well. Your work reads well, the performances translate and document really well. So - but, you know, some people are into liveness as far as performance.
BB: Yeah. The performances are very unassuming, and I'll steal a page from an anarchist group that I met in Chicago called the Pink Bloque. They're radical feminists whose principle is "Men are constantly watching women, so we'll dress up in hot pink, and say, 'We know you are watching. Here's a performance.'"
CB: A performance of we-know-you're-watching.
BB: "And since you're watching us, instead of protecting ourselves from your gaze, ignoring your gaze, we're going to perform for you." And they specifically deliver pro-feminist, anti-rape, anti-militarist, anti-patriarchal messages. And they talk about deescalating, which is exactly the principle that we use. We'll go into incredibly tense situations, such as we saw at the United Nations, and deescalate the tensions. So the Pink Bloque will dance around in their pink clothes, right around the riot cops. What they're doing is they want to give and to talk to people and deescalate the tension in very tense situations. Most protest is, actually, consciously or not - escalated. So what happens when we perform is we'll stand there in silence, we appear out of nowhere with a total element of surprise and what happens is, we'll stand there repeating a play that's maybe a minute or two in duration. And we'll do it over and over again until a security guard or a cop comes. And that's when we stop. And the performance isn't a performance until the guard or policeman has come and asked us "What are you doing?" And in that way, they are the. . . the performance is luring them out of their secret areas of watching, and bringing them on stage. And then, once they're on stage, de-escalating the tension. Explaining, "My name is Bill, you know all about this group. Go ask your bosses." We are here, and we explain it, instead of using their presence as an opportunity to attack them intellectually, emotionally, or physically. So it's an opportunity, and I know the Pink Bloque thinks the same way, which is, when the revolution comes, that cop is going to remember and say, "I can't shoot that person because I met them. And I don't care what my bosses are saying about them. I talked to them and realized that they tried to de-escalate." And that's a theory of how the East German regime was toppled. How the regime in Czechoslovakia was toppled. At some point, the police decide to disobey their orders and not fire on protestors, but join them. And in that way, that's the project that were looking at - getting the cops and the national security guard guys to side with us, rather than shoot us dead in the streets. And the only way to do it is to show them no fear, to explain what we're doing, so that they can't be victim to the lies that their bosses are telling them.
CB: How many other levels could this work on?
BB: I've lost count. When we used to travel, especially to Europe, we'd make a list of how many levels that this [the SCP] is working on and we came up with eight discreet levels that this was working on, all independent. And I realize it's nice to know it's working on so many different levels, but once you realize it's working on multi-levels, you realize that you don't need to specify what levels there are, or, "we're up to 9 levels instead of only eight." It's working on multiple levels and that's how you know it's effective. Too much protest is only on a very simple level. And this is how performance for me is relevant. Political protest tends to be issuing a series of no's. Literally: "No blood for oil." The question is, well, what should we exchange blood for? What is oil for? And that theater and performance, and a variety of cultural tactics indicate not only are we saying a big NO to surveillance, there's a little yes that says what kind of future society we want, which is that people express themselves in collective formations anonymously and they perform in public. So that's a hint of what our society would like to be like. Reclaim The Streets and Carnival Against Capitalism used the same idea. It isn't simply a denial of existing conditions, it is an affirmation of what the future could hold. And only theater and the arts carry this utopian affirmative dimension. Typically, protests are simply negative.
CB: In their "code."
BB: In their code, exactly. In how a protest speaks. It usually, literally, is like I said, "no blood for oil" is simply a denial, rather than saying, "What is it that you want in place of no blood for oil?" And there's no answer.
CB: But what you do, and what a protest does - they both generate community and spread information. But it's interesting, like voting, for a protest to work, everyone has to show up. And for you, it only requires that you be there.
BB: That's right, that's right.
CB: I am also wondering about your relationship to success. Meaning, do your performances "work" on the level of what a protest goes after?
BB: Yes. And this is, I know this from all the members of the Surveillance Camera Players, and of Pink Bloque, which is, we're all tired of coming home from protests with sore throats, having been penned in by the police, pushed to an area where no one can see us, and we realize no matter how effective what we thought we were doing, we come home feeling that we don't want to do that anymore. And the first job of a revolutionary is to keep his or her mind free. It's kind of a little selfish, but you can't say "I want to free you over there, until I'm free." And that it's very common that we all go out to these performances saying "This is the stupidest thing I can imagine we're going to do, this isn't going to work." And everybody comes home from a Surveillance Camera Players performance with a sense of accomplishment. They want to go back and do it again. And that's the difference between what we do and other protests. You come home from a protest thinking "That was degrading, I feel humiliated, I don't want to do that again."
CB: Just briefly, in the context of these two forms, there's a history of protesting where it actually did work. Non-violent direct action as one example, where you actually accomplish something. And now these kinds of mass showing up, do not have that same effect.
BB: Not any more because this society studied the mistakes it made in the 50s, 60s, and 70s very carefully and it is clearly not reproducing them. [During the 20 March 2003 anti-war demonstration] when the cops used gridded space as a jail, when they gridded this area - when they reproduced the grid inside of the "larger" gridded space of Manhattan - they showed how much they learned from the 50s and 60s.
CB: Similarly, as the protests have their history, do you attribute your work to a particular lineage?
BB: Absolutely: The Living Theatre. The Living Theatre was a New York-based theater group that was so harassed by the NYPD they had to leave New York in the early 60's and wander Europe for a decade. And they have seven definitions of what the contemporary theater is. And without intending to, the Surveillance Cameras Players and the Pink Bloque meet their seven definitions - completely. Which are: it's free, it's in public, it's spontaneous, the members of the public can join in. . . The tradition comes right from The Living Theatre. Everything that they themselves came from. So, there is a very strong tradition of this, and The Living Theatre is now unknown. Many people, when I mention it to them say, "They've broken up, haven't they?" They still exist. They still perform anti-death penalty plays in public, for free, in Times Square. And that's the continuity. There are others, but that's an uncanny similarity especially because we're an anarchist performance group just as they were.
CB: High Ass fills the four criteria that you mentioned of the seven. It's free, it's in public, um. . . I don't know the rest of them, but if you have the rest of them I would be curious.
BB: What I need to do is match the seven things The Living Theatre said with the six things that the Pink Bloque said in their presentation. It's the same, and I just want to show that we're all literally on the same page. Even if we don't know anything about The Living Theatre or Julian Beck who has been dead for sixteen years, seventeen years. And that's the continuity. And in many ways, all of these groups - Reclaim The Streets, Carnival Against Capitalism, Critical Mass - all of them come from this same root, which is this very typical 60's desire to not separate art from politics, but to have them seamlessly merge. And the anti-war movement has fallen back into separating culture from politics. They've taken a big step back, I think. But Seattle was a tremendous moment in its unification, with puppets, street theaters, and now, the anti-war movement has ignored the lessons of Seattle.
CB: Can you describe the lessons?
BB: The lesson of Seattle was there was this seamless unification of art and politics. Some of the street lockdowns that took place outside the WTO area looked like theater protests at first. The protests looked like theater, the theater looked like protests. It's impossible to separate the two out. Now, it's very easy to say, here's the protest, then off to the side are the cultural people. Now it's easy to tell one from the other, where in Seattle it was almost impossible to tell them apart.
CB: There's something in there that interests me as far as the gray areas of community and identity, presentation and representation, but I don't think I have the capacity to ask you a question about it right now. [Laughing.] Um, maybe I should pay, and I'll ask you some more in another location.
BB: Yeah, it's getting a little loud.
CB: The roving interview.
BB: Great. And I'm going to use the probably very fragrant bathroom [laughs] - which is just a guess.[Continuing to talk outside, smoking, walking a few blocks down to another bar.]
BB: Wasn't that interesting?
BB: Those guys in the bar, the ones that said [concerning Mayor Bloomberg's new anti-smoking laws], "We're only the people, but he's the mayor." They're little things, but I'm reminded that New Yorkers are very hard to fool. They're a very sophisticated group.
CB: And at the same time there are heel-draggers.
BB: Well it's a great American technique, to drag, not to openly resist - but to drag your heels. A little absenteeism, a little work slow-down. . . [Lots of traffic noise.]
CB: And now we are approaching Muldoons in anticipation of. . .
CB: Coffee and. . . oh. [Dissapointment at seeing a smoker having to stand outside.]
BB: He's out here, so you know what that means. [Pause.] Can I buy you pack?
CB: Can you buy me a pack?
BB: Since I'm smoking all your cigarettes.
CB: I should be buying you a pack. [Pause.] But you absolutely can.
BB: To go to the heart of what we were just discussing, which is, a lot of people I know are struggling with serious despair, depression. Um, people are freaking out. Dennis Miller used to be a left wing guy, he's lost his mind, he's pro-Bush, he's pro-war. People are losing it. And it's really nice to come out in public and be reminded that not everybody believes this bullshit.
CB: I have had some similar experiences where I realize. . . where I realize that some things - and people - are not as radical as I thought they were.
CB: Like, there's a woman I know who is no longer gay. A woman in my field whose work was overt or lesbian "themed." She was someone who I believed - she was very out - and now she's not gay, and is achieving a lot of success at the same time - which may not have anything to do with it, and I certainly haven't thought all that through, but it's really interesting.
BB: Yeah, not that I thought she was that much of a radical to begin with, but Madonna - the fact that she pulled this video that was critical of Bush, and now doesn't want it shown, shows that many liberals are fence sitters, and the war against Iraq has forced them to choose sides. And they choose. They're choosing what I think is the wrong side.
CB: This brings me back to the gray areas. The ambiguity - or is it - because there are so many gray areas in all of the fields we've talked about. In performances, online, and . . .
BB: And oppositional lifestyles as well. They're no longer considered oppositional.
CB: So that connects to an oldish conversation, but maybe one that's not theorized enough, about the end of performance, the arts, or the end of lifestyles being alternative.
BB: We're on the same page. We agree completely. That's one of the reasons that on these tours I want to be as extreme as possible - to dispell the idea that there's safety and ambiguity. You have to take a strong position and make it extreme.
CB: So it's not dated as an aesthetic or as a structure.
BB: Exactly. And that's a very big problem with the arts in general. There are a number of artists who are involved in surveillance who are very ambiguous in terms of their identifications.
CB: And these corporate sponsored not for profit organizations that used to be so radical, now, are so not.
BB: They're so not. That's right.
CB: It seems to be inevitable, but at the same time, a choice. The decorative, aesthetic, or color choices even in theaters and other cultural places that match the internet, for example. And what that represents. The marketing, the no smoking, the cleanliness, the dehumanization.
BB: That's ultimately what the second, "advanced" walking tour talks about. What we're looking at is a completely automated surveillance now, and that depersonalization is its theme. So now there are robotic drone planes above us - not manned with people - watching us, and that people don't realize that where surveillance is going is fully automated. A machine cannot call back the bullets that it sends. Or the codes that are at such speed, you can't call in and say, "We made a mistake with targeting a wedding in Afghanistan." It's too late to call back those bombs. They're simply dead. And that speed gets to the point where it's fully automated, and I find that deeply terrifying. I'd rather talk to that officer because I can read him. But I can't read a machine. Like, "Am I in danger? Did I say the right thing to the officer, or the wrong thing?" I can't de-escalate with a machine. The machine knows no de-escalation. All it knows is further escalation. [Pause.] I should also say that there was a period where the SCP was dominated by gays and lesbians, especially around the time of "Gay Shame." For a while, we were specifically performing at gay, so called, gay pride rallies and places. In part, because the group is so flexible it can move around depending on according to who's in the group. It doesn't have this fixed goal. We speak for ourselves and that depends on who is in the group at the moment.
CB: A professor of mine, Peggy Phelan, who wrote Unmarked, was arguing - and this came out in the 90's - that representation, for example, for the gay community, or people of color, no longer needs to exist. And I'm trying to connect this theory, which I think is flawed, or now it is, as I think we have to return to representing. Being visible. What do you think? At a point where many communities were getting the representation they needed in the media for example, the theorists were saying, or she was saying, that we don't need it, and that it will never succeed. But at the same time, I wrote a paper about protests, that as language - in language - they will never work. That, as a structure of representing . . .
BB: There's a lot in an idea like that because one side of it says you may as well not protest because everything is language. Even direct action, even destroying a police car, there still is a linguistic aspect to it. So I'm not sure that this leads to quietism - because typically many language-based theories lead to a quietism, a lack of politics. Lacanian psychoanalysis is a very good example of a totally depoliticized movement that should have been very, very political. Contesting the idea of identities because an identity is fixing you in a position. And what is most dangerous is not a revolutionary identity - but no identity. No fixed identity. So I'm not sure if I'm getting everything the professor is saying, but . . .
CB: No, yes, you've answered it.
BB: Because it's a very big issue. I'm still rehearsing the ideas in my head. Somebody pointed out to me that society will only talk about privacy when it comes to protecting identities - identity theft. So, your identity has privacy, provided you have an identity. If you have no identity, you have no privacy. So to get privacy in society, in this society, you must make a stable identity - which is a form of identification. And that's how they'll fix us in place. "You are a lesbian." No, it's not that you engage in lesbian relations, your identity is lesbian, rather than, it's a behavior not an identity. And you can get very fixed, as in, "Why are you speaking about the war? That's not your identity."
CB: So you're saying privacy is granted to someone with an identity, which would require anyone, or any groups, then, to identify. So quietism can't work and not representing can't work. The personal not being political is absolutely not what's next.
BB: Yes, that's right. Because that's what allows evil to triumph - good people doing nothing. And I've been through graduate school so I've studied a great deal of so-called post-structuralist theory and it all comes down to saying everything is linguistic, we're all trapped in representation, and, ultimately, they say there's no point in trying to get out of it.
CB: But the argument that tries to cut through all that is the argument for live performance, that it's outside that trap because it can't be documented, it can't be represented, it's ephemeral and all of that business. But it's too strict a line for me, but I need to go inside. Where your work sits. . . . [Entering another non-smoking Irish pub.]
CB: I'm so excited to talk to you that it's all out of the bag. I'm going to try to come back now, under these more ideal circumstances.
BB: Much better.
CB: [Reading the place mat.] By the way, we're at the Grand Irish Brunch.
CB: Oh. Right. 3rd Avenue between 43rd and 44th Street in New York City, where you can smoke in their lovely "beer garden." So. I want to talk more about your performances, but at the top of my list here is your website. In an article about the press you were very critical about journalists who have no slant.
CB: I have no slant - but I didn't take offence. If you don't mind, maybe we can talk a bit about your background.
BB: Not at all.
CB: Kind of going back to where you studied, where you're from.
BB: I'd say, well, I come from a politically left family. So when I was thirteen, in 1972, I was thirteen and I was pro-McGovern. My mother was a McGovern delegate at the Democratic Convention. So I was raised in a far left democratic background, and since then have only gotten more and more extreme. But I've been political all my life. My connection to performance is mostly through music. I've been in performing groups, musical groups. And I noticed qualities in myself on stage that were not present when I was offstage. I find myself with a much thicker skin onstage than I do off stage. So that heckling doesn't bother me. I find myself with a kind of equanimity of spirit on stage, and I noticeably look different. Also, since I had been an assistant professor of English and had taught, I noticed that performative skills were essential in getting students to pay attention. Especially since I taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, where all students were artists. That was the best way of reaching them and pulling in as many things as possible. So between the two of them, they're very noticeable. The educational campaign came from being a professor, and the attention to performance and what it's like to be a performer as a way of studying oneself comes from being in a band and also seeing the video tapes of what the performance looks like, and using the video tape as a way of studying my own personality. And that, to me, is a model of what performance and theater does. It's a laboratory to understand yourself. Things come out of yourself that you would not have known had you not done it - or protested - without a sense of performance. You learn about yourself - both the good and the bad things. Performing is a key word here, specifically, cameras want to have us perform conformity. You see a camera, and you become schizophrenic. You change your behavior, but you act like you didn't see the camera at the same time, so you're performing a kind of schizophrenia. And what the performance group does is say, "You're asking us to perform conformity, and instead of performing conformity, we perform non-conformity." But it still wants us to perform one way or the other. There are a lot of puns to be made about "you're performing your public duty." We say that voting is performing a duty. And in many ways being a performer also has this sense of actually executing something, performing a duty in the same way. Not just simply that the performance is an execution of something. You need not know what's going to actually happen, or who you are, before the performance has started. And all of the performers in the group say this, that they discover their reason for performing after they performed.
CB: That's usually how I feel after a show: "Oh, that's why I do it."
BB: That's why I do it. Or that's what this is about, or that's who I am. Rather than saying, "I know who I am." It's a process of discovery, and, therefore, a process of developing yourself as a person.
CB: I want to go back to. . . I'm thinking about the workshops at Eyebeam, with the huge map. . . I want to ask you about your participation in that. I brought Derrida's Of Grammatology one day, and you made some comment about it. I don't remember exactly what you said.
BB: Yes, it's the image on the cover that I always liked. But yes, I'm familiar with the work.
CB: I'm trying to figure out who we could turn to, to help us theorize what you were talking about earlier. How everyone is invoked, everyone is called on to respond to a camera. Willingly or unwillingly. You are either actively performing conformity or non-conformity, or you're performing "I don't see it," or "I'm pretending I don't see it."
BB: But you're still performing.
CB: Yes. And how that environment has a violence. Derrida would say that there is a violence at the moment one is called upon to respond. So people may think they are exercising some choice by not responding, but they are still having to answer to it - they are still forced to respond to it, even if the response is to not respond. The other choice is to accept that these cameras are making you perform.
BB: Right. But I would agree that. . .
CB: But that's a bunch of blah blah blah.
BB: No, the concept of violence here is appropriate. To me there is a violence in destroying everyday life and creating stages and theaters absolutely everywhere. And that by performing this other way is a kind of de-escalation of that original violence because the cameras are set up to provoke violence. What the cameras want is that we get so enraged that we actually smash them. That justifies their presence, it doesn't negate it.
CB: The same as paranoia. The obvious point you've made, that, it is the paranoid personality that would set up so many cameras.
BB: The inducing of paranoia in normally. . .
CB: I think we need a stronger word. . .
BB: Invoking, provoking, inducing. . . Foucault treats the panopticon in Discipline and Punish, and I think he misses that what the panopticon is doing is inducing mental illness. Mostly, I think the camera technology induces mental illness. And ultimately, how I answer the question, "Are you paranoid?" is to say, "I am struggling to remain not paranoid." Rather than, "I'm struggling with my paranoia, I'm struggling to remain sane." And, I think, generally, this society is openly irrational, openly schizophrenic, and this is in many ways what Deleuze and Guattari say is the potential one has to use schizophrenia as a line of escape instead of being trapped in a territory. Imprisoned. And they see schizophrenia as both an avenue of escape as well as a prison. And that's very different than Foucault. Foucault was not able to make that breakthrough. So it's Deleuze who I think really opens up what's there to be read in Foucault.
CB: I haven't read the Deleuze and Guattari, so I'll have to get back to you.
BB: But that's an interesting thing, and it goes to professor and student, which is, there's the tyranny of the footnote. Much of what I've struggled to do with the SCP is remove all the footnotes. That you need not know the Situationists, or Deleuze, or Foucault to understand this. And too much academic work is really not the main text, but it's the footnotes that say, "I got this idea from here." And those are the chains of intellectual property rights. So the cult of the master - they tend to be dead white men - or the theorists - and in academics now, no matter how liberated some of its content, if you're still. . . if you can't say anything unless it's properly cited, it's still imprisoning you because you don't know who Foucault is. Derrida says "to really understand what I've written, you have to reread everything from Plato all the way to Heidegger."
CB: You can't even read a chapter title without that.
BB: Exactly. And that's very limited. Because what happens if you can't read? There are plenty of people who are illiterate, but they should be able to understand these ideas even if they can't read. And the problem with reading as a strategy, or the model of reading and writing is that it excludes people who are illiterate, people who don't read or write in these codes. You need not attach footnotes to everything you do. So when I give lectures, I say to people, "this [the SCP] is very Situationist, so if you don't know that name - don't worry about it. And if you do know that name - you should worry about it." In other words, these ideas are basically simple, and it's the footnotes and this intellectual property that keeps it from circulating as easily and as rapidly as it could. I find that when I used to teach Derrida, I was amazed. Actually, Of Grammatology is a very easily understandable work, and you've got an introduction by Gayatri Spivak that makes it sound like this is incredibly difficult. And it's not. And that's part of the cult that you need a professor to help you negotiate Of Grammatology, when you should be able to read it in an unmediated fashion.
CB: My last class at NYU was a seminar with Avital Ronell and Derrida, and we began with Lyotard, and, roughly, "Who is outside dialogue? Who doesn't get to be in language?" You were saying people that can't read, and then there's the fool and the idiot who are also outside. Who else doesn't get to be in language?
BB: Children. . .
CB: Art. . .
BB: Schizos, artists, dreams, I'd say, everything that's human.
CB: But the structure was what I was interested in getting at, like, what are the structures or systems or entire entities that are outside of language? On the walking tour of the United Nations you were talking about how audio is more honored than the visual, if I understood you correctly.
BB: It's phonologocentrism.
CB: And in law. . .
BB: In law. . . and if you're Derrida it's very useful. And it's obviously right that this society privileges the privacy of speech and pays no attention to graphemes, which is how we look, the writing on our bodies. It privileges speech and that's clearly where phono-logo-centrism is feeding into surveillance culture. That you shouldn't be worried about surveillance, because it has nothing to do with speech.
CB: As someone who may want to further these conversations with or without footnotes, or education, or the ability to read, where or how would you position yourself in relationship to these theories or theorists? I guess I need to go back and ask where you went to school. I feel like I've only asked you one official question so far.
BB: SUNY at Buffalo. And I studied with a couple of people who studied with Paul De Mann so I got in line there. But mostly I studied with Leslie Fiedler, who died recently. He was the one who wrote academic books without footnotes or citations, and specifically pointed to the idea that these ideas are encaged in these books, and we must release them, rather than keeping them caged in. He's specifically interested in, for example, how the phrase "Uncle Tom" is no longer coordinated with Uncle Tom's Cabin. It floats freely and acquires new meaning - something that cannot be done as far as footnotes and the privilege of a certain authorized text. Fiedler was very anti-deconstruction in that way. So I had a wide range of experiences at SUNY Buffalo. But the real answer to your question or an answer is that I think language and surveillance, in general, presuppose that human beings are transparent and readable. What I found in my own life is that human beings - the definition of human beings - isn't transparency and readability, but unreadability and lack of an ability to be translated. So, for example, we're opaque to ourselves, we're opaque to our lovers, we have dreams that make no sense, and that resist interpretation. There are moments in Freud where he says, "I can understand every bit about this dream and here's one moment that would forever resist interpretation." What I don't like about linguistic based theories and surveillance is this idea that human beings are transparent. And I think that's the ultimate lie that we're being told - that human beings are understandable. I don't think we are. And that's our beauty, rather than something that we need to iron out of our personalities. People are very hostile to their own fantasies that aren't politically correct. They're very hostile to their own dreams, to their own behaviors. And that will encourage us to dislike ourselves if we don't understand ourselves. That goes back to being a performer. A performer says, "I don't understand myself." So, we begin from that idea. Instead of saying, "I understand myself." That is, I think, the ultimate idea here is reintroducing the idea that human beings are opaque. And we all know this. When you talk this way to people, they realize that they're opaque to themselves, but we want to believe [points to television] from television that people's motivations are transparent. You can read a character just by getting their backstory. That everyone's motivation is reduced to their childhood, or to an experience that they had, and that's an ideology that I think is truly false, and falsifies what it is to be human. [Pause.] Deconstruction really thinks it can empty a text out of meaning. I've seen these people that do expert readings, and they think they really understood the text better than the text itself understands itself. It's like, "From what position do you think you produce such clarity about this text?" That's why the greatest of these writers are very hard to read. The Deleuze, Derrida - these are opaque texts. But I think that the message given about the opacity of human beings is being transferred to: "You need a master, a professor, a guide, and then it will become transparent." When it's "No, even with a guide or a master it will always be opaque."
CB: And the relationship of master and student has embedded in it the assumption that no progress could or even should be made - that nothing else could possibly come out of a text that isn't in continuity with the dead-white male-mode reading or understanding. The student needs a guide just for understanding - just to get the text.
BB: Precisely. So that that way I could watch Carol Jacobs who studies with De Mann do brilliant readings of Heinrick von Kleist - an intense writer - and her reading of "Michael Kohlhaas" was the same from year to year. No events intercede and change the meaning of that text, so it has an eternal meaning. But Derrida, you can go back and read Freud. Freud himself, despite what Derrida says, doesn't seem to vacillate or change. He says "there are many Freuds." Yes, that's true, but he'll produce a reading that looks like it's definitive. And there is some kind of mismatch there. Many Freuds, but it becomes fixed as many Freuds. It's not completely unfixed. And in that way I loved being in graduate school, I loved reading this stuff, but I found it very unhelpful.
CB: So you went to SUNY. . .
BB: SUNY at Buffalo, and I got my Masters and PhD. I specialized in critical theory, a variety of types as well.
CB: What was your dissertation on?
BB: It was on William Burroughs. The theme of Cowboys and Indians in William Burroughs which was a completely Fiedlerian idea. In Burroughs you see, and ultimately what he's about is betraying his race. But it's not about drugs necessarily, or homosexuality. He is one of the last people who wants to go native. And Burroughs is not conceived of in these terms. It's too simple. It's not fancy. And it was Fiedler who helped me to see this. This used to happen again and again in graduate school which was, I'd say. . . I remember vividly a teacher, Chevy Chase's sister Cynthia Chase, who is a Hegel scholar, and she was interested in the chiasmus and the crossing of two things. And I said, "This is a really good way of reading Chuck Berry, the railroad tracks in Chuck Berry's 'Johnny B. Goode.'" And I have a postcard from her where she says, "To my knowledge, I have never heard a song by Chuck Berry." And I thought, "Then what entitles you to do anything in this life?"
BB: If you (a) don't know Chuck Berry and (b) are naive enough to admit it, what are you doing getting up in front of students and talking to them about anything? If you don't know Chuck Berry, you don't know anything about American culture. We put "Johnny B. Goode" on the moon, in some sort of . . . and we shipped it into space because "Johnny B. Goode" was truly representative of human beings and she was naive enough to admit she had never heard it to her knowledge. Never even knew who Chuck Berry was. And this is Chevy Chase's sister.
BB: I figured that he knows who Chuck Berry is. [Pause.] And that was a definitive moment. Carol Jacobs, inside, telling us all about Michael Kolhhaus, and outside the classroom Lou Reed is sound checking "Sweet Jane." And I thought, "Carol, can you talk about 'Sweet Jane'"? And it's like, "no, that's too. . . the subject matter is too poor to be able to use these techniques." And I thought, "well that's it then. Then I'll side with Lou Reed and 'Sweet Jane.' You have nothing for me here." And that's ultimately how it is that I have all this education and don't want to teach because it doesn't work for me as a human being. Being a professor is horrible especially when it came to power, grades - I had a hard time facing.
CB: What department. . .
BB: Humanities. And it was a disaster.
BB: Because it was a disaster. I hated being there. So I'd do things like, for example, I'd wear an earring in my right ear when I taught Melville. And we'd talk about Melville and that maybe Melville was homosexual. And then the next day I'd switch the earring to the other ear, and I'm obviously playing games with my students, saying, "Guess my sexuality." And I actually had professors come up to me and say, "My students want to know. Are you gay or straight?" And I thought, "who the fuck are you to even ask me this?" They weren't turned on by the ambiguity or the lack of identity. I needed to be fixed one way or another. And that was a horrible experience. I hated that. And the more I dressed like my students the more I could relate to them and that was the degree to which the older professors hated me.
CB: So you're not teaching now.
BB: I haven't had a job in two years, but I'm not on unemployment. I left the academic world, and I'm much happier. Very unpleasant experience. As a graduate student, you've seen what it's like already - it's worse when you are a professor. You have to be involved with somebody. They don't care if it's a man or woman, but if you're an isolated individual, you "destabalize." You don't get invited to dinner parties because you triangulate, and you send the flows off in the wrong directions. And as somebody who wasn't sure who I wanted to go out with, I was seen as destabilizing. It's just horrible. So my time with teaching is - it's a terrible experience. Those moments in the classroom were wonderful. As soon as those moments were over it was hellish.
CB: I can turn the tape off. . .
BB: No, I have no secrets.
CB: Well, can I ask you, well, do you identify as . . . ?
BB: I used to. I used to identify as bisexual, and now I no longer . . . I think my attention has shifted to other things. But as a friend of mine used to say, we were flexible. That there wasn't any sexual identity there. I'm flexible. As in, "Well, who are you? What do you like?" And that was a problem when it came to being a professor. They don't like flexible people. They like gay and lesbian - fine, because it's a fixed identity. But if you're . . . people don't even believe that bisexuality is real. The gays I would meet would say, "You just haven't finally admitted to yourself that you're gay."
CB: Well, I believe for gay people as a movement, we need representation and identification. And as far as language, as we were talking about outside, there's a. . . um. . . I was trying to figure out what to do with representation - for myself, for aesthetics, for anything else. So it's almost a paradox because outside you were saying that representation needs to happen because in relationship to privacy, your argument was that only someone who has an identity. . .
BB: Right. Can protect their privacy.
CB: We went from personal to the. . .
BB: But it is relevant. Which is. . .
CB: Only if I were a law student. . .
BB: And so what's the. . .
CB: But. . .
BB: What's the point in. . . Do you really need to decide in your life whether you're gay, straight, or bi? And are these the only choices?
CB: Right. Are these the only choices? I guess because I struggle in my own life with gay friends who are "liberal". . . they're supposed to be. . . no. Representation has become unfashionable. I'm dated when I dress like a dyke. I'm dated and unfashionable to some of my fag friends and "I'm not political" lesbian friends who don't represent. It rubs me the wrong way on many levels to not represent. And personally, I'm not going to date someone that is bisexual. I can't do it because it feels like there's no future in it for me.
BB: We all. . .
CB: The term bisexual bugs me when normative perceptions - and especially when people don't "represent" - everyone is assumed to be heterosexual. Because the world is heterosocial, bisexuality suggests being gay, but for a gay person it means they swing straight, and that they are not even "really" gay.
BB: I think the difference is whether one sees that these are provisional identifications and positions - or permanent ones. And that it's the. . . it's not making a decision once and for all and allowing yourself to toy with this and adjust it when necessary.
CB: I wish I could accept that and that the personal may have no effect on aesthetic, political or artistic structures. Because sometimes it seems unfair to try to connect up these aspects, but maybe because I don't have the capacity to ask further questions about how these things connect, or, because it's so full of problems. But maybe that's where all the good stuff is.
BB: And also there's something missing from the equation, which is, you're not, essentially, an individual by definition. . . because it's sexuality - you are sexual in interaction with others. So one of the problems in translation from the personal to the social is not seeing that there's no smooth transition because you're really a part of a collective even when you think you're an individual. We have several people inside of us. They may disagree with each other. One part of our personality comes out in response to other groups, so it's hard to make an easy translation from your personal identity to your societal ones because you're missing the idea that all of these identities are collectively negotiating. And that's what I mean about being flexible. We kind of exclude the aspect of, as the Pink Bloque says, all sexuality is a performance. And that you can therefore. . .
CB: Sexuality, meaning identity? I really disagree with them on that.
CB: By law, "we" are covered against discrimination as far as our sexual activity - who we are doing. But gender - I am not sure if gender - as a part of sexuality, not separate from it - not as a performance - is as protected by law. Discrimination based on that, as a woman, I look, dress, act, fuck, like a man or a woman or based on that a man looks, dresses acts, identifies, fucks, etc. as or with a woman or a man is not protected by any laws. Or is it? But all this to say that sex, sexuality, sexual identity, and gender identity are all very different things with different levels of acceptability and legality in society.
BB: It seems useful to say, "Are you somebody who engages in bisexual relations? Or, are you bisexual?" That bisexuality by relations implies there have to be people and it's a collective project performance. But essentially I can't say I'm any one of these things because I respond to different people in different environments. And that that's the missing element of this idea that we're just an individual, and you just generalize from the individual into society as a whole. We're missing something when you talk about individuals - because it is something that happens in context with others. Even if, like Walt Whitman says, "I am several." Even inside of our singular selves we're several different people. We move around - our past, our present, our future selves. Things that to me seem unknowable, and do not necessarily have to be rendered transparent. Or all at once. But we discover this.
CB: So I'm like the contradiction police or something. When it's really. . . I was trying to defend. . . I was anticipating reading this, thinking I will need to defend something.
BB: There is an idea that, for example, the only person who's believable is the person that doesn't contradict themselves, therefore, there's this kind of weird style that says if you point out a contradiction in somebody you've defeated their arguments lock stock and barrel. Instead of saying that a contradiction is part of the richness of the idea rather than a way of defeating it - you contradict yourself, therefore, you must be wrong. And I think that's a way of simply dismissing people. Because everybody contradicts themselves. That's part of the premise that we're opaque.
BB: When it comes to writing the plays - and many writers report this - they're writing, and suddenly a voice or a person starts talking and all they do is write down what the person is saying. Obviously there is nobody else there, and the most successful plays I've written have come from voices that I can't identify necessarily as my own. The one that we do in front of the church is written in the voice of the child. And that's not me, I see myself as an adult, but somehow that's been one of the best plays that I've written because it reads so well as a child's voice. Some of the movements in it are what children. . . how they think. . . So as a writer you can't write if you believe yourself to come from one identity or fixed place because you will exhaust what that one position has to say very quickly. And as Burroughs used to say, he'd be sitting there - and I've had the experience too - that you can't rewind the tape. You hear the voice starting to talk and if you haven't caught it down when it's talking, it doesn't go back and repeat it. It's saying it in real time and when it's done, it's done, and either you've gotten it down or you haven't.
CB: Someone else has said that writing is knowing when to pull things down. I forget who said that.
BB: Yes. I'm not sure if I would agree that it's "pulling" up, down, or to the side, but it's the same experience. This again goes to dreams. There are times where I've had dreams and it's like, I'll think. . . I'll have dreams that are far beyond my ability to create, or write, or imagine. And I think, I don't need to interrogate that, all I simply need to do is write that dream down. My job as a writer is just to get it down, and that means you pull it down in real time. It's not like it sits there and you can grab it down whole. Wherever you come in - that's all you get. It could have been going on for X number of time-units previously [gesturing far back] and you were just lucky enough to pay attention at that one moment. And that doesn't happen very often. You're lucky - you're almost blessed - when that voice starts talking to you. It doesn't happen very often which is why writers typically tend to get so involved in drugs, so involved in dream states. . .
CB: But the other abilities of not only being able to bring it down but being able to put it out there.
BB: And being honest about it. Because sometimes we don't like what we've dreamed. Or what we've heard, and we think, "My god am I really like that? Did I really just dream that?" And, in part, being a writer is not only hearing that voice, whatever it is, but to be honest enough to just get it down without censoring yourself. Just be honest. This is what I've experienced. And not engage in secondary revisions: "I shouldn't be thinking that." And that's what people do all the time. "I shouldn't be thinking that. . . I shouldn't. . . I shouldn't be attracted to that person. . . I shouldn't have had that response." So it's learning to not check yourself when you've had an experience. These are all tools. And this is, to me, an ultimate bedrock idea of what the Surveillance Camera Players do. To try to give a model of people developing themselves autonomously and freely and not necessarily wondering about how it looks. But the best horoscope that I read recently, and it was Rob Breszny - who is gifted - said, "Don't listen to anybody but yourself."
CB: What sign are you?
BB: I'm a classic Virgo.
CB: Oh, really?
BB: I'm a total Virgo.
CB: Do you know where your moon is?
BB: No, but I know that Rob Breszny has got a bead on me that's uncanny.
CB: I feel pretty lucky because I'm a Cancer and I believe he's also a Cancer.
BB: He's gifted. And, you know, that rationalist part of me that's a Virgo doesn't want to read any of this stuff at all. That's why he's so good with Virgos because he'll say, "As a Virgo, you don't believe that this astrology column is pertinent."
CB: Yeah, Cancers and Virgos. You might like him because whether you know it or not, Cancers and Virgos are opposites, so that's a pull.
BB: Right. Yeah, it's a nice metaphor. "Pull" as in like gravitational or magnetic pull in directions.
CB: Can I give you an overview?
CB: Because I haven't really even approached this interview directly yet.
BB: Yeah, I've only seen various words and glimpses over your shoulder.
CB: We've kind of covered a lot already, but maybe I'd want to get your official answers to some questions for the record.
BB: Should we go point by point?
CB: Okay. But maybe I should give you an overview because maybe you'd like to pick what you want to talk about first? There's copyright issues . . .
BB: Let's just do it in order.
CB: . . .issues in general, the SCP project in general. . .
BB: Right. . .
CB: . . .camera technology, which I want to get into. . .
CB: In the other bar I asked you earlier about structures, and the lineages of protest.
BB: Right. Well there's a longer line because in some ways this goes back to Dada. But I'd say The Living Theatre really is uncannily similar to this. There's a really noticeable continuity there.
CB: And on your website you have. . .
BB: All this other shit.
CB: [Looking at notes] . . . all of these other things that I want to know about. Okay. Starting at the top.
BB: NOT BORED! started out because I was going through a period where I was writing for The Ann Arbor News. And I was twenty something then. Twenty-four. And what I was doing was reading first Tom Wolf and Susan Sontag, who referred to Roland Barthes And, well, I'd never heard of him. And that was it. Obviously, once I found out about Roland Barthes my future was set. So what happened with NOT BORED! was I became increasingly political and wanted to criticize David Bowie because I suspected that he was fascist, that there were fascist tendencies in Bowie. And I saw him do some incredible shit live, where I thought this is definitely a kind of a fascism and I tried to say so in print, and my editors complained, my readers complained, and I published NOT BORED! because I wanted to express what I had to say about Bowie. At the time my hair was died orange, I walked around with the Alladin Sane thing. I was experiencing a real self-questioning, and that's how NOT BORED! started.
CB: In 1983.
BB: Yes. And it was only in 1984 that I discovered the Situationists. So it started out as being, basically, a punk rock critique of Bowie and The Stones and that . . . sort of stuff. And I found out about the Situationists because Greil Marcus wrote an article that said the Situationists had a very big influence on the Sex Pistols - I love the Sex Pistols - and if they had an influence, I wanted to find out more. And the SCP is very much a Situationist concept. Detournement. Or diverting the camera. You put up a camera and it creates a theater, and instead of performing conformity - divert it. Create a theater of nonconformity. So for me there's a very strong parallel or relationship. [Looking at next item on list.] The New York Psychogeographical Association was any group of friends of mine who would simply wander certain areas as just a way of discovering it, and ourselves. And that there were times when we would discover something that was interesting, and sometimes we would discover nothing.
CB: I found one Situationist text on your website from 1954 and it just said build a house, invite over your friends, be sure to have good lighting, and lots of food and drink, and let the editors know how it goes.
BB: Yeah. And also the Situationists have a very bad reputation. Nobody wants to talk about them. I was at a conference in Chicago where people made some stabs at them. And okay, whatever, you don't want to talk about them. I think the website brings all this together and I hope people are getting the point that there's a relationship between these various things. NOT BORED! is based on the Situationists. NOT BORED! was the laboratory in which the SCP was hatched. And it's a way of saying that critical theories aren't simply tools for reading texts, you can actually develop a form of action based on them. I'm hoping that what people get out of it is that. Here's the theory, and here's the practice.
CB: Many people who practice, well, many people I know who are just really talented artists, they don't read anything, it's. . .
BB: A problem.
CB: It kind of is a problem because your work also reads really well.
BB: That it reads well - [getting cigarette from CB's pack] I'll buy you another pack - is what I've worked very hard for. It reads well without having to know all the stuff.
CB: But for people that don't read, you know, at all. . .
BB: Don't get it.
CB: In school it was recommended that we read "as if you are a serious addict." It's a different world. But your work functions visually, and you do live performances.
BB: And also when it says it translates well. . . [Points to paper.]
CB: And documents well.
BB: What I've tried to do, I've tried to make it so that if we have a bad performance, I say so. For example, one time we had too few performers, there was no press, there was nobody. And I was very happy to say - this was a flop. And it's most performance - most political performance groups never admit to having disasters or failures.
CB: So you consider that a flop. But how was that a flop?
BB: Well it's a flop from the way most people would see it.
BB: I realize it's only a flop when I specifically identify it as a flop. And that's what makes it a success. . . that we're honest enough to say that. We don't march from triumph to triumph.
CB: What constitutes triumph then? This is really important. Because what, two people came? That's not a success? Because why?
BB: Nobody came. Insufficient numbers. . .
CB: For me a flop is when I feel like crap. That's when I know the work is not working.
BB: Right. I guess I felt that way until I got home and was saying we just fucked up and then felt it's the honesty that's going to save this. I get very tired of the various groups who claim they charge from triumph to triumph, more people have joined the group, more money has been raised, another branch has been established . . . and I've seen people who lie mercilessly about what they're doing. Like the "No Blood for Oil" group, who recently claimed that they made a "direct action" at the UN. It's like, "No. you didn't. You faked it." And that I want to be honest when it went well. . . The performance reviews are just the facts. Let the reader decide if there's progress or not.
CB: This gets back to my definition of what is a performance. That's something has to happen. So when you - let's just try this out - based on this definition. . .
BB: Nothing happened until I admitted that nothing happened. And then something happened. Or at least that's how I'd see it.
CB: Why it's so successful I think is your language. I've been reading bell hooks recently and in Rock my Soul: Black People and Self Esteem talks a bit about integrity. I don't think this is so out of place to bring up here. That there are three levels to integrity. You first have to be able to tell right from wrong. Then you have to be able to act on this knowledge. And then you have to be able to put into language what you have done. To codify it in some way. But this language thing again - I wish I could get out of it, but I just got out of graduate school.
BB: It'll take a year, a couple years for the hangover to fade. But yes.
CB: But this is, supposedly, the world we live in. It's not just graduate school. Like, if you're not archived you don't exist. If it wasn't listed, or reviewed in the New York Times or wherever, it didn't happen.
BB: But we don't document all the performances in the way that artists do. There's only really one tape of us actually in performance. The rest is just news footage and we only did that once to see what we looked like. Ultimately, we don't care what it looks like.
CB: Because it functions. But it also functions when you document it with text and an image.
CB: You've set up the website so that you can play the play, play-by-play.
BB: Right. But it wasn't done in advance. This has been pieced together and I've worked very hard to produce the image that comes up on the website, but it's very much a creation. It looks like this person had it all figured out in '96. But it's like, no, I just figured it out last week if I ever did. I'm still trying to figure out what I'm dong with these maps and walking tours, I still don't really understand it. That it's more than what it appears.
CB: It is. Like, the tour today felt like a performance.
BB: Definitely. Absolutely. That's why I thank the people in advance, because they're performers. And just the fact that they've showed up, they've already performed in some ways. [Looking at next item on list.] As for this, this is interesting [points to note on paper] because this original essay Guerilla Programming of Video Surveillance Equipment was written by this guy Michael Carter who performed with us a time or two and then left. And he's coming from a different place than where the group is now. He specifically identifies video as supporting the commodity as an identity - reinforcing commodity behavior. His attention is on corporations and commodities. And that the emphasis of the group since then has been on the state, the police, and not talking about commodities, stores, and corporations.
CB: When did you find this article?
BB: He handed it to me. I met him, it was a single sheet, and it had many ideas in it. I just said, "A group could form that could treat the surveillance cameras as a television camera" - that's absolutely brilliant. And all I did was come up with the name SCP.
CB: So this is sort of the genealogy. There was also the SNL sketch.
BB: Yep. And apparently there's more and more. There are other people who invented this, but it was invented in terms of comedy. And I only found out about that stuff, years later. I didn't see the SNL or whatever they based it on, and said "Oh, that's it then." So there's a discontinuity between the founding documents and how the group has actually evolved. And it's interesting that this guy Michael - he's a typical artist - plenty of ideas, lots of ideas - and he moves on to the next one. That, to me, is what's wrong with artists. They don't know when they've reached a brilliant idea. Lots of ideas. . . they move on to the next one. . . Not knowing when to slow down and to focus on something. Artists typically have moved on to the next project, instead of realizing that that one project is enough for a political person to last a whole life time. And I think that's the problem with artists. They continue to pretend that there are people adopting their ideas, that they just produce the tools and people are using them. If you produce a tool, you actually have to use it. Its usefulness is the indicator of its value, not the cleverness of the idea. And I meet lots of artists who have lots of ideas and they move way too fast for me. And I get, yeah, I get constantly. . . some asshole said to me recently that I must either be a pervert or a criminal to be interested in what I am interested in. You know, only a rapist or a drug dealer is against surveillance. And again, you think my motivations are totally transparent. You reduced what you think I'm doing down to - "You must be a criminal or a pervert." And that's as far as it goes.
CB: It makes no sense.
BB: They're displaying this ability which is that they want easy answers.
CB: This would be my next war. Operation American Freedom . . . freedom from the media.
BB: Yes. Interesting point. The Situationsists ruthlessly criticized The Living Theatre as being too enamored of the media and spectacle. And I know that The Situationists would really detest the SCP. And that's fine.
CB: You fight - this is Oscar Wilde - you fight the century with its own weapons.
BB: Which means constantly questioning, constantly saying, "What's coming out of the TV, what's coming out of the New York Post?" It's to keep up with things, and not say, "I've got the tool and Marx produced it in 'The Communist Manifesto' in 1848" and that's it.
CB: What was the transition - I think I missed it - from where you were studying into - well. . . you say you don't need to know the Situationists - but how did that first performance in 1996 happen? How did you move from your studies to your life, or, what was that transition?
BB: We were all part of a group running the Unabomber For President as a write-in candidate before anybody had heard of Teddy Kaczinski. And I dropped it as soon as I found out about Kaczinski, because he's obviously homophobic - he's got a lot of problems. So what happened was, typically with election pranks, once you get to the election, the election is over, and the campaign is done. So I said, "OK, we just did Unabomber for President, what else do we have among us?" And that's where Michael said, "Well, I've got this flyer." And the same group of people teamed up to do that one performance. Everybody was very happy about it. Michael moved on to something else, and it was only a year and a half later, as I mentioned, that I said, "Wow, we ought to go back to that rather than moving on to our next little conceit." And that's a reflection of personal maturity as it is anything else. Which is - at some point you have to know when to fight your battles and when not to. What's really valuable - and what isn't. So some of the things that he's talking about would be different. [Points to question on page about law.] All this is somehow off of the walking tour. There are no laws. [Going down list of items.] Cameras do, in fact, replace workers especially in transportation where MTA workers are being thrown out of jobs because a single train operator can use CCTV to look and see if anybody is caught in the closing doors. Also, now cameras are in those little automatic Metrocard machines so that it completely depersonalizes the selling of Metrocards. It's no longer a person in a booth.
CB: Cameras are in there?
BB: In every single one of those machines. [Back to the paper.] And this we talked about several times. Success with protest is when you're done, and want to do it again, and look forward to it. As I mentioned, I would prefer not to be able to distinguish protest from performance. Rather to say that it's the fusion that makes it interesting not its components. [Back to the paper.] The genealogy does come from that. . . we only knew about SNL years later. I only found out about the Living Theatre years later.
CB: I need to find out more about them. I was born in '71 so I kind of missed a whole a lot.
BB: Hm. Well, I thought that. I was born in '59 and I thought that I missed a whole lot, that my parents should have had me in the '40s. I should have been a '60s child not a '70s child. So we always feel like we were born too late. And it's only recently, it was actually only during Seattle that I felt like, "Wow this is a nice time to be alive," instead of thinking that I had missed something. This remains, again, something I'd rather not distinguish. [Pointing again to paper.] The primary audience, at least as far as Michael conceived it, was the police officers and the watchers. Now, what we found was another audience: the people who happen to walk by and see us praying to the surveillance cameras. I'd rather not have to distinguish who's the primary audience. They're both important. Where, Michael was only interested in the actual watchers in their booths.
CB: So your audience would be police officers, anybody walking by, and anybody visiting the website. . .
BB: And anybody seeing the videotapes. And we ourselves are our own audience, as I mentioned. As performers you get the opportunity to look at yourself. And you become an audience for yourself. So again, it's the multiplication of audiences rather than a primary or a secondary one. This is interesting, in part, because all of what we've done is without copyright. Nothing is protected except the name "Surveillance Camera Players" because I don't want to turn on the TV and find that Fox is now using the phrase "Surveillance Camera Players" in some sort of reality TV show. But there's no way for me to protect. . . to stop people from using it. Anyone can use it provided that their methods are not violent. A whole separate question as well, which is, as I mentioned, that the cameras want us to become violent. They almost expect that. They don't expect us to perform. And the copyright has been a problem because people will plagiarize the maps and dumb them down. They'll steal them outright. The New York Times stole one of my maps outright, and pretended it was theirs. And I've just had to say that that has to be worth it so that the information, one way or the other, circulates - because copyrights keep it from circulating.
CB: And as far as academia, on the website you wrote about the professor who wrote about your work without ever contacting you.
BB: Genosko. And he was reading Michel de Certeau and thought we're a great illustration of Certeau's theories and we weren't. Had he contacted me I would have said, "You're reading the wrong theory of everyday life. you're looking at the wrong Frenchman. It's Lefebvre, not de Certeau." And in fact - that seemed to be the whole point. We're there to be contacted. There's a phone number. We're not people who pretend to be anonymous. Why would you not contact us?
BB: He speaks English. I could understand it he was German, French, Italian. . . and he was concerned about the language. . .
CB: Where was he from?
BB: Canada. Some place in Alberta. And, no, he didn't like it when I criticized him. It's like, too bad. He did this thing. . . he didn't distinguish between strategy and tactics, I knew right where he was coming from. . . and de Certeau backs people into a space where they don't want to do anything. He gives up the strategic level totally, and all we have are little tactics. And that to me is this quietism.
[TAPE RUNS OUT. NEW TAPE.]
BB: . . .and people have the idea that Food Not Bombs was actually founded in San Francisco. And that seems to be good. I'd love to be able to meet somebody that tells me the story of the SCP, and says it was invented in Italy, and that I've dropped out of the equation. That would be the biggest success possible. If this movement completely overwhelms the New York group so that people forget about the New York group. There's this line in Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus where they say, "We write to lose our names, not to get one." And that's exactly what I would hope, eventually. [Back to questions.] These get to be very interesting, I mean the military visitors, who are interesting because it shows how many people are really taking the group seriously. It isn't just corporals and privates on their lunch hour entertaining themselves. The real surveillance people are visiting the site routinely. That's why I'm keeping track of this data. For hours and hours and days and days - the group is being taken seriously by the people who take surveillance seriously. And you'd think people with magic markers and placards would be ignored - but they're not.
CB: I'll be right back, I'm going to get some more cigarettes. Do you want another coffee?
BB: No, I'm fine. Maybe they have a machine here? It used to be that you could buy cigarettes. . . [Gives CB some money.]
CB: You don't have to buy cigarettes, I should be paying for it. But if I'm a little short on the tip then I might ask you for it.
BB: That, I am happy to do, and I appreciate you treating me this way. It's not necessary, but I appreciate it.
CB: [Looking at the tape recorder.] I should stop this.
BB: [Speaking into the tape recorder.] We're stopping to get cigarettes.
[TAPE OFF. TAPE ON.]
BB: I see you've printed out all the other forms of surveillance.
BB: . . .the sense of completeness, is what I added, that video cameras are just one of many forms of surveillance.
CB: So how do you feel?
BB: I might do this for another ten or fifteen more minutes.
BB: But 7 o'clock is cat time. I'm going to feed them and spike them with B12.
CB: Alright. It's 6:55.
BB: That sounds right.
CB: So. . . .
BB: [Looking at paper.] There's a number of smaller things to talk about. These tend to be slightly smaller points.
CB: How have you've responded to press, the media in general?
BB: I have recently definitely decided I'm not doing any more radio - period. I continually learn the same lesson, which is that radio people are right-wing meat-grinders looking for fresh victims. A night after the Reuters story, a couple people called and said they wanted to do radio, and I agreed. I said, "okay." And he goes, "Oh, so you're doing radio again." And I said, "Yeah, I guess so." Then I looked up who the host was, and he's this anti-Mumia, pro-police Philadelphia lawyer, and I called him back and I said, "I'm not being sandbagged by you." So from then on I decided I'm not talking to radio people. They tend to be very right-wing. I think it's right-wing talk radio that's actually the source of this false rumor that the media is liberal. The media is only liberal to radio because radio has been taken over by Rush Limbaugh types and they're the ones who can look at the press and TV and say it's liberal. From that perspective, they're right, but from our perspective - look at the press - they are all conservative. They're all pro-war, they're all pro-corporate . . . . I was thinking of doing something for activists and performers saying - this is what I've learned about the personality types and what to expect from print, radio, web and TV people. Decide whether you want to deal with them or not, because they're very different. And you definitely meet types.
CB: I remember one story from your website about someone wanting you to be a part of some filming and you asked right away about your fee and they said something like, "Well, nothing. You'd be doing it for the honor of being in it" or something like that.
BB: If you're going to screw me on TV, I at least want you to pay me so that I don't have to work a day or two. Yeah, that was those guys who run Conspiracy Zone or whatever it was. But these days, people who say that they want a copy of an SCP video. . . and "your group will become famous." And I'm, like, "No no no no no. You give me a hundred or two hundred dollars or no, you cannot put my meat in your grinder."
CB: So on one hand a huge entertainment corporation doesn't take your work seriously enough to pay you, and on the other the government takes you very seriously. Actually, it's probably the same hand.
BB: [Back to list of questions.] And no we don't take any of this typical funding, in part, because those are chains. You become dependent upon getting more money, and then also they can yank the money any time. There are no expenses to speak of - what's the point in getting money when you don't need it because all it is is just chains. I'll have to loan you the thing about The Living Theatre because they went through a period where they realized that by performing plays inside the theater they were just assisting capitalism, and that they had to do it for free - for people who never go to the theater.
BB: We're not losing anything by not getting any money. But when it comes to the tapes, I want money. They can interview me, but when it comes to a tape, the answer is "no." They'll say, "Do you think we could see it?" My response is, "Don't waste time. As soon as you see this tape of us doing '1984, you'll want to put it on the air. Everybody does." And the question is whether these people are trying to zero out their production budget and have no expenses. People tell me, "We don't have a budget." And I say, "You're lying. If you don't have a hundred or two hundred dollars for me, then you're lying to me. You're FOX, you're MSNBC. Oh yes, you've got a budget!" And I don't want to hear from people who lie and say they don't have a budget because they do. Real TV gives people $1,000 for primary footage and $250 for secondary footage. And that's my benchmark. And I just dumbed it down, making primary footage $200. The way I understand this is I am intentionally modeling the group's circulation of its tapes on The Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead used to allow people to come to their concerts and bootleg to their hearts' content. You can get exquisite Grateful Dead recordings. And the music industry said, "You're undercutting the value of your record, your commodity." And the group would say, "The word of mouth is so great that when we tour, hundreds of thousands of people will come to see us. So that, yes, we're subverting the commodity known as records, but people will come to the concerts." And it's in the same way that I'll let the tapes of "1984" circulate very freely among individuals and indie-media types because that way it's generating tremendous word of mouth. People have heard about those performances and they don't even know that it's this [SCP] group. In that way, it's a kind of a strategy right on the margins of how capitalism works. Otherwise, if I kept control of who got a tape, I'd make $15 here, $15 there, but no one would know about the group. So I tend to divide people into corporate - you pay and if you're not corporate, you get it for free. In part, because these corporate media people have zeroed out their production budget. All you have to do is read trade industry publications and that's how they've done it. That's why reality television is so popular, because there's no production costs. They don't pay actors. They want to do it all for free.
CB: That's crazy.
BB: And that's the difference. I will not do this for free. If it was several years ago, yes, I'd put up with it. Now the idea that somebody is going to give us publicity, I just laugh at them and say we don't need publicity anymore. We need maybe less publicity for all I know. I can't be manipulated. [Back to my paper.] The ACLU in New York is dead. It doesn't exist. The only contact I have is with the National ACLU. The New York one has - I don't know if there even is a New York City ACLU anymore.
CB: They have an office in the same building as the ACLU. One floor apart.
BB: Right. And one of the reasons that the SCP group gets so much coverage is reporters will send an email out to the ACLU, to the police, to this group and that group, and I'm the only person that responds. We get lots of press just because - send me an email and I'm going to respond. Some of the other anti-surveillance people want to play clandestine. And here, I'm gently criticizing compatriots in this field. The guy at Mediaeater. He wants to pretend like he's anonymous. The guys at Institute for Applied Autonomy. They appear and they put things over their faces, they wear masks, you can't contact them. . .
CB: But it's more of an appearance of anonymity.
BB: It's not real, it's a game. They're playing it. Where I realize I can't pretend to be clandestine. Here I am - I'm not hiding, I'm not playing Zapatista and putting on a mask. No. This is my face. I have nothing to hide. I smoke marijuana, but you know that from my record. I have nothing to hide. And it's the idea that you play clandestine. . . Yes, it's like, teenagers will think it's cool, but you're also portraying a lack of confidence in yourself that you have to hide behind this false clandestindity. This clandestindity thing is very interesting because recently some people like the Carbon Defense League in Chicago just got outed. They did what they call satire, and somebody blew their anonymity very easily. And it seems like that's the whole point. Don't pretend that you're anonymous or clandestine because when they want to find you, they'll find you very quickly.
CB: You're already found, is my assumption. And I don't think this is paranoia, it feels like a given that I'm already not anonymous.
BB: In a society that talks about total information awareness, yes, obviously. And you make yourself more suspicious by being clandestine, not less. It's this romanticization people have about the Zapatistas. I actually saw Amy Goodman pretend to wear a Zapatista mask but then take it off because she said she was hot.
CB: You announce your events.
BB: It makes no sense to pretend you're clandestine. It's much more powerful to say, "Here I am. Here's my ID. I have nothing to hide." If you pretend, and if you want to be clandestine, the message you are giving people is you have something you want hidden. And I think it works against these people. It also means that they don't get the coverage that they deserve.
CB: The last time we met was at the gallery Eyebeam.
BB: Yeah. My relationship to that show was very tangential.
CB: But you created those maps. How is that tangential when it's the entire floor of the gallery?
BB: It's all my work. Without people saying so.
CB: It's the absolute first impression when you walk in - all of that work - it was so impressive!
BB: Well it's my raw data that these other people have packaged into something.
CB: And built it.
BB: They built it into something else which is fine with me.
CB: You would want that to happen?
BB: Their method is different, but I want it to happen.
CB: You've been doing this since 1996 and I only heard of your work post-911. With all these recent movements on and off line, I guess I don't know how you want to comment on that. . . I guess you did already. I'm trying to come up with a question here. . .
BB: Well, I know the answer. I'm lucky enough to have found my life's work. When Michael handed me that pamphlet, he handed me - I had been drifting around - and he handed me my life's work. And now I realize, this is it now. This is definitely my life's work. And the other folks, it's not their life's work, so they want their privacy, they want too many things at once.
CB: [Sarcastically.] Those artists that move too quickly.
BB: But it also fits in with these jokers. [Points to list of fake anti-surveillance groups.] These bogus anti-surveillance groups. "The Seattle Anti-Surveillance Society." It's not a real group. That was a fictional group inside of a film that some guy made. There is no such thing. They pretend that there is such a group. There isn't any such thing, it was a fictional creation. There's no group there. And "The Anti-Surveillance Defense Group" is some guy selling INVISI-SHIELD which strikes me as just like the people who are ripping off consumers late at night with when-monkeys-fly-out-of-my-ass-technology. These are hucksters. The surveillance people are art hucksters, and this guy, he just wants to make money on people's paranoia by selling them a shield that doesn't work. And I suspect - I made that page because I realize as this goes on - five years, ten years - there's going to be tons of bogus groups. The Seattle anti-surveillance people, they called us hippies and lots of "insulting" things. I just wrote to them and I said. "Thank god I live in New York. I've got a very think skin for insults. This may hurt in Seattle, but I'm a New Yorker. This may hurt your little feelings out in Seattle, but it doesn't hurt anyone's feelings here to be called a hippy. Its like, that's not even an insult!"
CB: I have two lines of thought that I want to further investigate, but I am aware that you have to leave. They're about the gray areas where - well I think of the internet where these kinds of things arise - where hackers are hired by the government, and where. . .
BB: Very relevant.
CB: Subverting what is available to you - the gray areas of public and private space. There's too much there, I can't specify an exact question, but let me just outline my other thought. I would like to go through. . . maybe we could do this online or the next time we meet. . .
BB: That's fine.
CB: But what might need further questioning is this massive list of general and specific forms and technologies of surveillance.
BB: I can comment on all of this, I haven't put up anything on the website that I can't explain or comment on. I did this page because, generally, most privacy activists are not concerned with video. They're concerned with data. Credit card transactions and online security. So I wanted to show that I'm aware that there are other forms. - I'm willing to go through this slowly because it's very much worth it to me.
BB: As far as this goes [points to the backside of an American dollar bill.] I've produced an image that I'm really satisfied with. It's this famous image, right? The pyramid. . . the eye over the pyramid. Masonic - whatever - Ancient Egyptian. As I see it, this is also a way of literally understanding how visual surveillance fits in with the other forms. Say that this is your data profile [pointing to the base of the pyramid], the widest information is going to be data. Your criminal record, your educational background, your financial things. But when they come to your file, because this is such a visually oriented society, the way they'll actually enter the file is through a little picture. And it literally will be that the entrance into each of our data files is going to be our picture in the same way as on our licenses or passports. The entry into your information isn't your number, it's your picture. And that's how I see that videos, cameras, etc., may be a small aspect of surveillance, but it's the entrance point.
CB: So you've drawn it here for me.
BB: Most privacy activists would say what we're protecting is our credit card information, our data, that kind of stuff. And they say video is very small. Comparably. And this is my way of saying, "You're right, it's small, but it's the doorway."
CB: I don't know a lot about the Masons. But this symbol is to see. On the walking tour you were saying, regarding the government, that they can put cameras on us, but we can't put cameras on them. The one-way mirror.
BB: That's right. And that ultimately, it's vision that's at the top of the sensorium. In our society - the spectacular society - there is a priority of senses. Sight comes before hearing, and then lower down are the bodily sensations of smell, taste, and touch. So you could say in our hierarchy, we privilege sight, sound is in the middle, and then in the low, bodily things like smell, taste, and touch, and that we privilege sight above all. That is why I think that video cameras may seem like a small aspect of surveillance, but it's actually, in our society of visual images, it's much bigger than it looks like.
CB: This seems obvious now, when you look at the symbol on our currency.
BB: And it's also the symbol for the "Total Information Awareness" project, used to freak the conspiracy theorists out. That's exactly what they use to present the "Total Information Awareness" project - the ability to see. And this fits into the way we fight our wars. War is the ability to surveil the battleground specifically from the sky. That's how we'll beat any military on the planet, supposedly, because we can see - not their boundaries, but right over the top of their country the way this image says that it's sight that is at the top of the pyramid. There's so much to that symbol both literally and figuratively. To me it's what society looks like. They literalize the society they've created. Here it is. It's hierarchical. At the top is sight. Male sight. ANNUIT COEPTIS NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM. Latin for, "He approves of our new secular order." And you wonder, "Who is it that approves? If the order is secular, he can't be god. So who is he?"
BB: The more you look - the more you understand symbols - the more terrifying it is. And he is Daddy, is Big Brother, the Father figure.
CB: Maybe we can use this image to accompany our interview.
BB: The eye over the pyramid. . . I think it would be, in some ways, a very good one. [Pause.] One of the great things about my presentation in Portland, was somebody asked me, "are the police here? Do you think the police are here?" So I answered the question, you know, "Perhaps," and somebody else in the audience said, "I'm not from the police, I'm from The Illuminati." Which is this conspiracy theory relating to who these people are, not two hundred years ago, but today. And I said, "You're the Illuminati? Then watch the video closely," because in our "1984" video we show that pyramid symbol. Maybe that's too compressed an explanation to be understandable, but if you see the "1984" video, that image. . . It's easy to reproduce, and it will draw people in because lots of people know that it's an opaque image. Lots of people realize they don't understand what that image is. It's an opaque image rather than something that's clear. It also depicts vision - there's so much to it - it's a visual image with an eye that is completely opaque. In the Bible, when God pursues Cain, the language is that "the eye of God" follows Cain around. And I thought, "That's interesting: not God's hand, or God's face, but the eye of God follows Cain into the cave."
CB: I'm trying to figure out what's after the duplicitousness of post-modernity, to understand what's next, and what future your roots have.
BB: Well, I think the answer is that I'm satisfied that the future is open. That I don't see. . . the group has been growing unaccountably all this time. I don't see anything stopping it from growing in the future. And that that's how I see the future, it's open. That I'm unable to see what the future holds, and that's what I like about this. Because typically you look at the future and you say, "Oh, this is going to end here, this is going to be a dead end." You see it in advance, and you realize, "Why do it if it's going to be a dead end?" But I don't see this [the SCP] being a dead end. And that's both good and bad. It would be nice to know that the cameras are going to come down in two years and that's that.
CB: That's so hot that you've found your life's work.
BB: Lucky and hot. I also feel very thankful that I waited around long enough to find it. Because the problem is, you wonder, how old am I going to get before I discover what it is that I want to do? Burroughs was forty-five when he finally realized that he was a writer. And I thought, "That's incredible!" To not know what you're doing until you're forty-five? That's got to be a pretty strong person to withstand the indecision and uncertainty of their life. And too many people want answers, so, tat wenty-five they are married, they have children, and a job.
CB: And for artists, the thing of - if you didn't do it by this certain point or age or something.
BB: If you're twenty-five and you haven't done it, then it's over. Rather than seeing. . .
CB: How old are you?
BB: Forty-three. So you have to have somebody who started what they were doing very late. And, apparently, could have missed it.
CB: Could have.
BB: Who knows what luck made it so that Burroughs decided that he was going to write a book called Naked Lunch. And had he not met Keroac who suggested the name "Naked Lunch," maybe it never would have been written. And that's remarkable. Everybody wants certainty in their lives. Transparency and certainty. I'm lucky enough that I've waited long enough to find it instead of saying, "I can't wait anymore - my identity - I'm going to choose it, instead of discovering it by accident." So, to my mind there's a lot of luck that went into this.
CB: I feel like I want to ask you more, but you so need to go. . .
BB: Yeah, and I'm also getting hungry and this is not the place to eat because it's all flesh. Everything I see here is flesh flesh more flesh, chicken, shrimp, beef. So this is not the place to eat. And also there's no point in rushing. It feels right to me to do this slowly. Because typically everybody wants to get their interview over with quick because their deadline is in two hours, and they can't ask any more, they're off, and they've written it, and they're done. Typically print journalists work this slow. But the TV people, they know it's going on the air in two hours. They even know what the thing is going to look like, they're just filling in things that they've story-boarded already. It's the print people that come back with lots of questions, they're double checking their notes, checking the tape recorder. So in many ways it's rewarding to work with print people because of that quality. Where TV people, it's almost already in the can before you've even shown up.
CB: You know, I was watching Wag The Dog last night and I want to ask you what you think about the war. I think we're in cahoots and it's all been rigged.
BB: I'm working on it. It's not Wag The Dog, that much I know. Wag The Dog is just what Hollywood imagines that it is. It's interesting, I'm reading a book now for the second time trying to figure out how military strategy has changed in the last ten years.
CB: What are you reading?
BB: I'm reading one of these French theorists, Paul Virilio, who is a theorist of war.
CB: What is the title?
BB: He's written many but this is called The Strategy of Deception. And it is specifically about the phony war that we fought in Serbia. And he's saying this is very significant that we just fought a phony war. And he predicts this is the first of many phony wars, and he's uncannily right. That the war in Afghanistan, the one in Iraq - these are not real wars. They are phony wars. And it's more than just Wag The Dog of distracting us from Monica Lewinski, or something. It's more than just that. The simulation is more than just distracting your attention from what's going on. As if - here's the Real, and there's the distraction. Wag the Dog distracts you from the Real. I think we really are getting to a place where the Real has been derealized. You can't say: "Here's fiction, and reality is the scandal." It's as if The Real has been taken out of the equation on both sides. And that's far more extreme than the Hollywood movie. The reality: it's someplace in that movie.
CB: What a ruin!
BB: A ruin. A derealization of reality. And here you get into the typical French. . . Baudrillard, Virilio, the simulation. And the Gulf War of '91 was when I really got the sense that this was a war that was only being created to generate certain images that could be shown on television. The classic images of the precision-guided bomb looking at its target and photographing the ground and I thought, that's a derealization of what war is. War is not surgical bombing from the air.
CB: Wait, where did that dollar go?
BB: I put it in my pocket.
CB: This is the symbol that represents what has been going on for a while. It's been going on since we've been able to duplicate reality, to reproduce images.
BB: Exactly. Or, we've been actually able to effectuate what has been a dream of power for a very long time. They're finally able to do it now.
CB: But now, reproducing images is so easy. I'm not going to be able to put this how I need to put it to make my point. . . But in this 2003 moment, post-modernism. . . the duplicity. . . Do you know how to describe . . . ?
BB: No. I'm trying to read and to patch it together, but that's right. This isn't duplicity. Duplicity implies that there is truth some place that you're being duplicitous about. This seems to be a situation of duplicity without truth. So it's not duplicity anymore.
CB: Even though there are "signs" of it. The two towers . . . .
BB: That's right. And in that way, Al Qaeda, when they decided to make their primary targets the World Trade Center, were absolutely genius. That was genius that is going to take years to understand.
CB: Perhaps that marked the end of post-modernism.
BB: Or its beginning.
BB: Either that was the end of modernism and the beginning of post-modernism. . . but the fact that they realized that you don't attack military installations, you don't attack Washington - you attack at nine in the morning so that it will dominate the news all day. That was incredibly skilled. Obviously they took years. Somebody who attacked it realized: you attack that and you're attacking television. Literally, there's a television tower there. Also, it's truly an information war. And they're years. . . that's why it's been such a traumatic thing for everyone. They realize it isn't so much the death - they're years ahead of us. Terrorists are years ahead of us in terms of strategy. [A game show on TV in the background: "Two minutes forty-three seconds! You're a winner by a technical knock-out, and America's new . . . ."]
CB: We are cursed to live in these times.
BB: As the Chinese proverb says.
CB: I don't feel smart enough yet to deal with what I've been dealt. I idealize protests and art from thirty years ago.
BB: Well, give yourself credit. I've spent every day questioning the strategy of this group [the SCP]. Adjusting it and readjusting it. And it becomes smarter by virtue of how much mental effort is being placed into it. I think very very hard about what these texts are going to say, how I'm presenting it, how they're written. So by building it slowly, it has an effect larger than the sum of its parts. But it's also just been hard work, luck, the fact that we're in New York, that we happen to be thinking these thoughts here in New York, and that these thoughts wouldn't be thinkable in Connecticut or New Jersey.
CB: Well, where else would you be?
BB: That's a good question. That's a very good question. A personal one, a philosophical one. . . which is when they make this city unlivable, where are we going to go?
CB: I've tried to live in Europe.
BB: Really? Where, what country?
CB: Germany and The Netherlands.
BB: I lived in Germany for a year and I actually feel closer to German culture than I do American culture, which is a really strange thing.
CB: I love Berlin and Amsterdam is OK.
BB: It's OK. It's a facade for the tourists. Underneath it, Amsterdam is really not what it appears to be.
CB: I lived there for a year.
BB: I used to visit constantly. And the more I saw it, basically, the further I got out from the center, I realized the city center is set up as kind of a stage to perform for people who visit. Amsterdam is a very different place outside of the city center. Whole neighborhoods are abandoned. Tourists don't go there.
CB: I also liked Vienna.
BB: I've only been to Graz, and I thought it was very interesting, although the Austrians kind of intimidate me. I couldn't get them to respond. We'd perform in public, we'd pray in front of their cameras, and it's as if they've practiced this lack of response. And I thought, "That's interesting, I've never seen that." Perform in front of a camera here, and people stop and ask you, "What are you doing?" There, people didn't let it appear on their perceptual screens. I've never seen that before.
CB: That's Europe.
BB: That's Europe. And that's also what bothered me so much about the New York Post referring to "the Axis of Weasel." It's like, you know, I felt like saying, "Have you ever lived in Germany? Do you know how human German culture has actually had to become since the 2nd World War?" Here, this country acts, never gives a second thought to fascism. Things that supposedly can never happen here. . . . Where in Germany they are perpetually on guard.
CB: That's Operation American Freedom. We need to be liberated from this regime. But Dresden is cute.
BB: I'm trying to get to Leipzig. What I saw of East Berlin was - and I'm sure you saw the same thing - buildings that were bombed out fifty years ago and they're still rubble. And they haven't been rebuilt. They've just been left like that. It's an attachment to their past. When I lived in Siegen outside of Koln, they literally had - it was bombed flat - and they piled the rubble of the old city outside of Siegen. And it's still there. Fifty years later it's still there. The rubble. And they won't get rid of it. And in some ways that's sick, and in other ways it's very healthy because they will not forget their past. But here, the past is last week - people can't remember anything. Can't remember the Kosovo war. There wasn't any. The war in Kosovo? When was the war in Kosovo? It doesn't make any sense. We can't remember things. [Pause.] Shall we? And are you taking a subway? And which way are you going?
CB: Yep. Downtown.
BB: That's the way to go.
(Recorded 13 April 2003 and intended for publication in High Ass, which is no longer published.)
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