Walking the City: Manhattan Projects

How do we know and position ourselves within cities? How do we lay claim to belonging in complex urban landscapes? Quite simply, we walk: we survey terrain. We wander, we see, and we are seen [...]. This survey of intentional walks in Manhattan suggests walking does still offer a valuable means of understanding cities [...].

Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) has protested the use of closed-circuit TV Cameras in Manhattan since 1996, creating plays for "bored surveillants" (those who must watch the cameras), continuously updating maps of camera positions, authoring position papers, and encouraging other surveillance camera protesters. Beginning in 2000, it also offered walking tours. Each tour (nine were offered in the summer of 2005) is based on maps that identify all the known surveillance cameras in a particular zone of the city.

SCP reasons that cameras do not aid in the prevention of crime; nor do their operators have much interest in preventing it. Rather, private security cameras are sold to document events surrounding insurance losses. Thus cameras proliferate in wealthy neighborhoods, where building owners receive insurnace discounts for them; meanwhile, in poor neighborhoods there are few cameras regardless of the level of crime. Those in favor of surveillance cameras argue that they reduce crime by inducing paranoia in criminals. But SCP counters that surveillance cameras cannot do so selectively, and are intended to induce paranoia in everyone.

Some press coverage, quoted on the SCP website, has attempted to position SCP founder Bill Brown and fellow members of the group as paranoid. In response, Brown has claimed both "I am very paranoid" and "the group isn't and refuses to become paranoid." Paranoia, in Brown's analysis, is primarily a condition of those who support the present installation of more than 15,000 surveillance cameras on Manhattan streets. Activities such as SCP's help resist such a condition.

As the work of SCP makes clear, it is now almost impossible to walk in Manhattan without encountering a surveillance camera -- there are on average perhaps five to ten on every block [...].

While the issues raised by anti-surveillance groups remain unresolved, the proliferation of closed-circuit cameras seems inevitable and unstoppable. Anti-terror intelligence-gathering efforts have expanded greatly in response to 9/11, including the coordination of cameras controlled by an increasingly covert and militarized New York police. The projects by SCP and IAA [Institute for Applied Autonomy], while expressing opposition to a state-controlled corporate landscape, point out the range of forces and interests, public and private, that contribute to the proliferation of surveillance cameras.

(Written by Ben Jacks and published in the 15 January 2006 issue of Places: Forum of Design for the Public Realm, vol. 18, issue 1.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail SCP@notbored.org

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