The Theater of Surveillance

Activists have found an original way of demonstrating against the invasion of the private sphere: to perform theatrical pieces in front of surveillance cameras. Enough to bother the police.

Bill and Elisa are founders of the Surveillance Camera Players, a New York collective of political activists. Demonstrations and the simple distribution of tracts are too tame for them. To protest against the proliferation of surveillance cameras, they have chosen a more artistic method: they perform theatrical pieces in the street or in the subway.

Together, they adapted the great classics: "1984" by George Orwell, "Ubu Roi" by Alfred Jarry and even "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett. The sketches last several minutes and are silent because the cameras do not record sound. Messages written in large type on panels permit one to easily understand the story. The creators of the concept know how to obtain a maximum of impact. Bill works in an advertising agency, while Elisa is a graphic artist.

"These pieces are an original way of reaching people. By doing something artistic, theatrical, we manage to attract their attention," Bill Brown, the founder of the group, explains. "It is at that moment, when they raise their heads, when they have an open mind, even if it only lasts a second or two, when we give them a flyer."

If the passers-by generally appreciate it, this isn't the case with the police, who only confront this theatre of the absurd in staged in public. At best, the police only interrupt the pieces, as they did in the midst of "1984." The activities of the group are closely surveilled by the New York police, as this confidential document proves, made public due to the demands of a judge. Bill Brown is known to the police: he has already been arrested three times for his activism.

There are more than 15,000 surveillance cameras in New York, a number that does not cease to grow. But this does not discourage Bill. "I think that the cameras are in the process of preparing us for a society that will be completely surveilled. When the cameras are equipped with face recognition [software], they will permit the police to identify, follow and stay with people. These cameras will truly have a brain."

In his apartment, Bill preciously conserves all of the panels for the pieces like real works of art. He isn't the only one to critique video surveillance through an artistic form of expression. The theme is in fashion. Jill Magid, an American artist, has created many installations on this theme.

In New York, she affixed a camera on her shoes and filmed herself walking down the street. In Amsterdam, she decorated the surveillance cameras with fake diamonds. Finally, in Copenhagen, she asked the operators of the surveillance cameras to film her from all angles of the street and even to guide her when she had her eyes closed.

Jill's method is politically neutral. "I am neither for nor against any technology; everything depends on its application. Very often a technology has a very precise application and its loses its potential. It can also be something beautiful, sensual and intimate."

This purely artistic approach is opposed to that of the activists of the Surveillance Camera Players. For Bill Brown, "the surveillance cameras do not combat crime, they only invade our privacy and they must be taken done."

Bill directs the performances and at each one, his troupe is gigantic. All the passers-by are already actors without knowing it: they are constantly filmed.

(Text on the website of Nuovo: The Innovation Magazine, accompanying its broadcast dated 24 May 2007. Translated from the French by Bill Brown, 8 October 2007. A review of this broadcast can be found here.)

To Contact Surveillance Camera Players
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