Don't Look Now

Cameras--ever present, ever aware--have come to symbolize our anxieties about surveillance. But are we watchers, or are we the watched?

Even as we speak, the Surveillance Camera Players are out there somewhere, in the subway system beneath Times Square, performing snippets of George Orwell's 1984, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, or Edgar All Poe's The Raven. This troupe of puckish performers strikes with guerrilla theater wherever cameras lurk, using sandwich boards for subtitles, because the players play to an audience that can't hear anything -- security guards who would otherwise be nodding off at their video screens, stupified by the monotonous behavior of ordinary citizens.

The Surveillance Camera Players have been entertaining Big Brothers in New York City since 1996. So far as I know, no one else outside the security Establishment itself has ever worried about the mental health of our night watchmen, or done anything about it, either. But I am not here to discuss the motives of these roustabouts. I am here to wonder where I belong, on which side of the camera. Am I a Player or a Watchman?

The question forced itself on me the other Monday night, while I sat as usual with my remote control, looking down at the [TV] screen [...] as I waited for Bill Clinton to show up at the Democratic convention [...]

If I thought it would do any good, I'd urge the Surveillance Camera Players to stage a remedial read-in of the Patriot Act. But we seem to have traded in our privacy, that secret garden, for the promises of airtime. Whether we watch a screen or perform for one, no time is left for another sort of reflection: serious thought. Or maybe we have just decided that with so many cameras out there, they might as well do our living for us, too; having TiVo'd, we'll catch up later on ourselves, at a more convenient time.

(Written by TV critic John Leonard and published in the 23 August 2004 issue of New York magazine.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

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