Theatre for Surveillance Cameras:

Provoking Big Brother

Surveillance systems for "public safety" are no longer a matter of peripheral importance. Train stations, subway stations and all other kinds of places are being placed under surveillance. Not only in the far-off USA but also more and more here in Europe. But where does this lead us? Will there be cameras everywhere if we do nothing about it? In the UK, some of the surveillance systems are connected to face recognition programs, which can identify passers-by, that is, all who pass by, not just wanted criminals. Who controls the controllers? Who stops misuse? The transparent man and George Orwell's Big Brother, both of whom are right with us. There seems to be nothing capable of stopping the march of surveillance.

A group of New York City-based activists act against the on-going spread of video surveillance systems. They "act" in the literal sense of the word. They perform short and silent plays -- one with the title "You are being watched for your own safety" -- in front of the "eyes" of surveillance cameras and the personnel watching them.

Die Uberwachungskamera Spieler (the Surveillance Camera Players), as they call themselves, are a combination theater-and-protest group. The group holds up large boards on which text intended to be read by the camera has been written in large letters (most surveillance camera systems do not transmit audio). Motion, gesture, mimicry and props supplement the text, which handles such themes as war, the police state, social control, propaganda and the production of profiles based on race. In spite of the serious political motivation of these "plays," they contain moments of comedy. Leaflets, on which the demands of the activists are written, are distributed to the public. And when police officers and guards enter the play, they add another level (and the wanted end) to it.

The actions of the SCP create a growing consciousness in the public because most people don't know about the existence of surveillance cameras; when they learn about it, they are shocked. During the SCP's short plays, the public is no longer the target of surveillance, and the police and guards are transformed into spectators.

Since their founding about three years ago, the SCP have become a platform against the introduction of surveillance systems. They have also made contact with other groups that deal with this theme. All of the SCP's activists are volunteers with no acting experience or training. This fact should make it clear that all people, and not just dedicated groups of artists and actors, can and should act against systematic control by the elites.

No evidence that surveillance camera systems prevent crime

Performing silent theater plays in front of cameras and guard personnel may seem like a very weak method of fighting against the eyes of "Big Brother." But this fact is SCP's strength. It indicates that real political change, a change of society, needs to be brought about. And this again is also made clear by the fact that everyone is affected by surveillance cameras.

The example of Oakland, California, shows that this concept can work. In August 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union prevented the installation of a video surveillance system in that city. Its argument was that there is no evidence that video surveillance prevents crime. Thousands of cameras are not going to make our lives safer; they are only instruments of power for the state.

George Orwell and his vision of "1984" has lost nothing of its relevance. Orwell sketched the picture of a transparent society, a totally transparent society, one that is made possible by video surveillance (the telescreen), physical torture (Room 101) and the Thought Police. There is no "darkness" left in Orwell's vision; no space on earth which is invisible. Everything is "bright," illuminated and transparent.

No, we are really not that far away from all this. Modern architecture made out of steel and glass (especially "functional" office buildings): are they not a part of this process? New York City is known worldwide for its steel and glass buildings, which, growing into the clouds, are widely visible and transparent. . . .

Letting one's hair down in public is OK for more and more people

On an individual and therefore societal level, you can see the process of total transparency. We grow up trained to tell everything (because this is good). We are educated to view this as a cleansing process, to open the inner-most parts of ourselves to the outside. Talk shows and reality-based TV make us believe that it is right to talk about the intimate details of your life in front of a camera, to make your whole life transparent and public. Ordinary people find it normal to "let their hair down," even if they know that they will be laughed at for what they say. And we find it suspicious if somebody does not want to tell us everything, if somebody has to "hide" something. We find nothing unusual in the fact that paparazzi cover the lives of prominent people, because the lives of well-known people are of public interest.

A society that is educated to watch and be passive, instead of being active, not only accepts surveillance, reality-TV and paparazzi, but also develops other kinds of neurotic wishes for transparency. People commit spectacular murders simply to appear in the news. Young kids produce blood-baths to make their parents, teachers and everybody else look at their lives.

But even for people who are quite conscious about this process and who fight for the preservation of anonymity, it is getting harder to keep one's rights from being infringed (for example, when one has to deal with certain institutions that process data, and this now includes all kinds of stores).

Since their founding three years ago, the SCP have become more transparent, with the aim, of course, of making their actions clearer and easier to understand. They have learned to shift their main focus to exposing and explaining the problem. This concept has worked. More and more people know and hear about the SCP, more than the group could have reached with their plays alone.

By Hannah Kneucker

Translated from the German by Robert

Originally published by Augustin

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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

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