Playing to the Camera

"You already have zero privacy. Get over it." -- Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, September 2001.

"How to: It's easy. Sometime during Wednesday, 11 September 2002, get in front of a surveillance camera and show it what you think! Remember, few surveillance cameras pick up sound, so you'll have to use gestures, pantomime, printed words and/or pictures to get your message(s) across. Don't be shy or afraid to demonstrate your feelings. Your confidence will inspire others." -- Surveillance Camera Players, An International Day Against Video Surveillance, September 2002.

New challenges to public life provoke new forms of public art. Activist artists [as well as art-minded activists like the Surveillance Camera Players] use art to draw our attention to specific social questions. One set of questions that has achieved special urgency of late involves our right to privacy. And one particular question has engaged an international group of [politically motivated] artists: What should we do in response to being watched?

These [politically motivated] artists (e.g., Aktuelle Camera in Bremen, Germany; Camaramante in Medellin, Colombia; Fan Club in Hockley, England; the Lithuania Surveillance Camera Players; the Surveillance Camera Players in Tempe, Arizona; and the New York Surveillance Camera Players) use similar methods to address the same issue in their own cities. [At the very least,] what they want you to know is that you are being watched. Whether you live in Berlin, Birmingham, or Barcelona, your public life is under scrutiny. Their audience is [the people watching the cameras and] anyone who happens to pass by one of their performances, which take place in parking lots, sidewalks, and parks but always in front of a security [sic] camera. The idea is that [the watchers and] passers-by will first notice the activity, then the actual camera and the performers' message.

Surveillance camera performances vary. Some, like the SCPs in New York and Tempe, include mock TV news broadcasts. Others hold mock religious services [only the SCP group in New York does this]. Performances are orchestrated and are meant to be replicated by other people and in other places. Websites [only the one maintained by the New York group] post[s] instructions on starting a group and suggestions for possible "plots" as well as copies of leaflets for performers to hand out with information on the prevalence of surveillance in cities.

The prevalence has been documented in a recent report by the ACLU: "Bigger Monsters, Weaker Cahins: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society." The report details the simultaneous increase in surveillance and decrease in surveillance regulation. It describes all manner of ways that private corporations and public agencies secretly gather data on people's communications, transactions and movements. An entire section [the first one in the report] is devoted to the proliferation of surveillance cameras in streets and public spaces.

For many Americans, the presence of security [sic] cameras in public and semipublic places -- shopping malls, parking lots, cash machines -- comes as no surprise [?]. We [sic] don't give a second thought to the fact that someone may be watching us try on clothes in a department store [even though it's illegal] or pull [our car] out of a parking ramp. But the actual number of cameras that record our movements and behavior in public places may come as a shock. [Back in 1998, the hot news was the fact that] the New York Civil Liberties Union has developed a [now obsolete] map of cameras in New York City. In one block of West 36th Street, ten cameras were spotted. [Today, ten isn't a big number: there are forty-three surveillance cameras in one block along West 16th Street.]

Americans are not alone in their less-than-private lives. The surveillance phenomenon is international, but so is the [anti-] surveillance performance phenomenon. On September 7, 2001, and again on September 11, 2002, a collection of [anti-surveillance] groups organized a day of performances in front of surveillance cameras in public spaces around the world. Some specific performances have been staged in a variety of locations. [In a completely different set of circumstances,] the following script, with slight variations, was performed [only by the New York Surveillance Camera Players] in Manchester, England, on June 12, 2001; in London, England, June 15, 2001; in Mannheim, Germany, May 20, 2002; in Munich, Germany, May 22, 2002; and in Nurember, Germany, May 23, 2002.

[In the words of the play's stage directions,] ["]Five or six people, each carrying a board, walk in a line from one surveillance camera to another. When the group is within a camera's field of vision, each each person in turn stops, shows his or her board to the camera, and moves on. Then the group proceeds to the next camera. The boards carry the following statements: It's OK, Officer; Just going to work; Just getting something to eat; Just going shopping; Just sightseeing; Going home now.["]

Another [New York SCP] script, "Amnesia," is based on Australian artist Denis Beaubois' In the event of Amnesia the City Will Recall, originally performed [by Beaubois himself] in Sydney in 1996. It speaks [sic] to surveillance performers' concern about not only our being watched but also the passivity with which we ourselves ["we ourselves"?! who is "we"?] watch and the dangers of such passivity [passivity even among "activists"? this makes no sense at all]. In "Amnesia" a performer holds up a series of signs to a surveillance camera: "I have amnesia; You are watching me; (You have been watching me) all day, everywhere I go; Maybe you can help; Who am I? What is my name?"

In addition to their performances and websites, some groups [no! only the one in New York] offer[s] neighborhood camera-spotting tours. But [but?!] the ACLU report argues that surveillance cameras are just part of the picture and warns that the Pentagon's new "Total Information Awareness" project seeks to "tie together every facet of our private lives in one big surveillance scheme." The work of surveillance camera performers is not about giving us [sic] a glimpse of a dark future. Rather, their message is that our fears [sic] of being "followed" are real.

([Very badly] written by Kristine Miller, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota, who, like Gary Genosko, never bothered to contact the SCP or do any fact-checking before submitting the manuscript, and so made a muddle. Published in "Take Action" issue of Public Art Review, Volume 14, Number 2, Issue 28 Spring/Summer 2003.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

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