At first, it was fun. With the text of George Orwell's book 1984 in mind, the actor [sic] Bill Brown went through New York's subways, stopping at each surveillance camera he found. He stepped up to these cameras and performed a role -- a recitation of passages from 1984 -- using lots of gestures, as in the theatre. The performances never lasted long, two minutes at the most, because it was all just for fun. Bill Brown hoped that the surprised human beings and computers watching the surveillance cameras would perhaps laugh.
Today, however, Bill Brown is serious. He has made a count of the cameras. There are approximately 5,000 cameras in New York City as a whole, and they are filming everyone all the time. In Times Square, Brown says, there are 132 cameras: 8 cameras that send their images to the Internet; 115 cameras that are installed on private property and also operate continuously; and 9 city cameras that take pictures for reasons of security. When he was done counting, Bill Brown was shocked. He decided to resist being filmed everywhere and all the time. He took a black felt-tipped pen, wrote upon a piece of cardboard and held it up to the cameras as he went past them. The camera filmed the words: "Just going to work."
Today, Bill Brown leads a group of people who call themselves "Surveillance Camera Players." They have performed many plays since their founding, in front of almost every surveillance camera in New York. They have been especially keen to perform at St. Patrick's Cathedral. There's even a surveillance camera there. Bill Brown and his colleagues stand at the cathedral, holding up a poster on which two large eyes have been drawn. Upon the poster, they've also written: "Doesn't God see everything?"
Most of the plays of the Surveillance Camera Players bring the police within a few minutes. They don't find much in the amateur actors to be amused by, but Bill Brown doesn't care, because the fun is gone for him, too. Now he is concerned with pointing out how small the private sphere is becoming. Surveillance, he says, has nothing to do with democracy. Bill Brown and his colleagues have taken a difficult position, because since 11 September 2001 most people fear for their security, not intrusions into their privacy. As a result, the group posted the following statement on its website:
The position of the group remains the same as it was prior to the attacks. We are unconditionally opposed to the installation of any and all surveillance devices in public places. Surveillance cameras did not and will never prevent a major crime or terrorist attack. The problems -- of crime, of terrorism -- must be solved in other ways.
One might quarrel with these opinions, because the question -- which is more important: security or liberty? -- is a difficult one to answer these days. But it is indisputable that the question must be discussed now. We need people such as Bill Brown and the Surveillance Camera Players to ask, despite and even because of 11 September 2001, how much liberty will security cost. Therefore, I support the Surveillance Camera Players.
At the beginning of their statement on 11 September, they [the SCP] say something very wise. A quotation from Benjamin Franklin, who fought for American independence from England. He said once: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
[Written by Roland Schulz and published on 15 November 2001 by Jezte. Translated from the German by Bill Brown.]
Contact the NY Surveillance Camera Players
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By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998