Playing to the Camera

by Jim Knipfel

New York Press, 25-31 August 1999

In 1993, I believe it was, about a year after the newly renovated Guggenheim Museum reopened, the administration decided it would be a good idea to install security cameras in every gallery. This wasn't done so much to protect the artwork in any way, but rather to keep an eye on the security guards, to make sure they weren't screwing around.

The first order of business at that point for the guards (I happened to be one at the time) was to find all the blind spots, the places in each gallery where we could hide. Behind pillars, around corners -- any place the gaze of the cameras couldn't reach. We still did our jobs. We simply preferred to do our jobs off-camera.

We had that choice. Unfortunately, most New Yorkers don't. According to the NYCLU, at present there are between 2500 and 3000 public surveillance cameras installed throughout the city. Not only in banks, convenience stores and tenement stairwells, but on street corners, in parks and around various government buildings. It turns out that most of us end up being filmed by these cameras nearly 20 times a day -- usually without our knowledge and certainly without our consent.

While several civil rights groups have lodged complaints about this kind of active, even predatory, surveillance, there is a small group of anarchists in town who are actually trying to do something about it. Or at least to it.

The Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) were founded in 1996 under the guiding hand of Bill Brown, a former assistant professor of English at the Rhode Island School of Design, as well as the situationist fellow behind Not Bored magazine. SCP Is currently comprised of a loose-knit bunch of between three and 10 men and women, according to Brown, with a core group of five.

As stated in a recent press release, "the SCP are unconditionally opposed to the use of surveillance cameras. Like all cameras, the video or closed-circuit television camera is a tool of social control. The camera controls by teaching everyone to privilege images of life over life itself. . . . Surveillance camera are always used to enforce bad laws (such as those against panhandling, prostitution, the sale and use of soft drugs, and other victimless crimes) or to empower bullies who would rather suppress the symptoms (robbery, shoplifting and work-place sabotage) than cure the disease (poverty, wage slavery and class divisions)."

In order to combat this form of social control, according to the original SCP manifesto, they proposed what they called Guerrilla Programming of Video Surveillance Equipment.

The statement reads: "The basic concept of guerrilla programming is simple: a group of individuals create a scenario and act it out using surveillance cameras . . . as if they were producing their own program, and as if the audience consisted of security personnel, police, school principals, residents of upper-class high security neighborhoods, and the producers and salespeople of the security systems themselves . . . . The group can choose to emulate the traditional structures of theatre, cinema, the TV sitcom or documentary, or just wing it and go free-style. A group could choose a regular time slot, say Thursday nights at 8:30, to air their program or instead choose to put on a big 5-hour gala production."

Their first show -- a 10-minute (and silent, given that such cameras aren't yet equipped for sound) version of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi -- took place in the Union Square subway station in December of 1996. The performance was cut two acts short when the transit police, after being alerted by the token booth clerk, suggested that the performers might move along.

Their second performance didn't take place until July of '98, when, at the Astor Pl. subway stop, they performed the last two acts of Ubu Roi, together with "The Raven" and Waiting for Godot -- again, all of them remarkably brief, and necessarily silent, using large sign boards held up to the cameras in order to communicate basic plot elements to whomever might be watching.

"The group performs in places in which the presence of surveillance cameras is particularly offensive," says Brown. "The plays performed are written and adapted so that their meaning is clear to all, not just to the cognoscenti." One of the secondary points they're trying to make is that, contrary to what the Mayor might believe, it's not just criminals -- i.e., people who have something to hide -- who are opposed to these all-seeing eyes. It's regular, innocent citizens who don't care for the implications that these cameras present.

To date, there have been seven SCP performances -- the next one will be this Sunday, in Washington Square Park, where in recent years, as we all know, a dozen surveillance cameras have been installed. Their infrared-capability cameras can pan, zoom and tilt, all under the control of whoever's hiding in the police van parked on the park's south side. Step into Washington Square, and they can see you -- and, should they choose to, they can follow you until you leave, any time of the day or night.

SCP has played the park once before, last April 15, when they performed a quick version of Orwell's 1984. This time around, they will do their first original play, SCP Headline News, which had its premiere at last June's Reclaim the Streets march.

"Headline News is the first play I have written for the SCP (unlike all the others, it wasn't adapted from a famous work by an obscure author)," Brown told me in a recent interview. "It is the first play ever written specifically for the silent stage of surveillance. It's the first play of the 21st century."

The play, as originally performed in front of the Stock Exchange, lasted about a minute, delivering news, weather and sports by means of various simple pictograms -- a bomb, a caricature of Giuliani, a dollar sign, a skull-and-crossbones. As SCP described it, "in direct contrast to the bold-faced lies endlessly repeated by the established news programs, SCP Headline News broadcasts certain simple, undeniable and horrible truths about the condition of our city, the state of the country and the situation of the world."

Because of increased media attention -- news crews from the West Coast, Europe and Japan have expressed interest in SCP's antics -- Brown decided to expand the show. It still runs about a minute, but there's more to it now, including national news and commercial breaks.

"It's the fastest and most violent play we have performed," Brown said a few days beforehand. "We will do it over and over and over again, in front of several different surveillance cameras in the park, for a total of 45 minutes or so. Depending on turnout, there will be between three and six members of the SCP performing, not including our own videotapers and our legal observer from the NYCLU. These days we always perform with an observer; if there is any talking to the police to be done, the observer does it. Despite the violence of our material, the SCP do not play a contact sport. The police are not our enemy: Our enemies are those who use the police to protect and further their interests."

As one of their earlier statements puts it, "If the enemy is going to clutter our landscape with watchful eyes, we should look into those eyes and let them know how silly we think they are."

As far as their future is concerned, the members of the SCP next hope to start traveling to other cities -- places like Buffalo and Peekskill -- where public surveillance equipment is being installed, but where no one has bothered to tell the public about it. The Security [sic] Camera Players may be contacted through their website at

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

Return to

Surveillance Camera Players


Return to