Surveillance Camera Players: Theater under Surveillance

Surveillance cameras can be ignored or avoided. Some people perform theater for them. For the last six years, the New York Surveillancve Camera Players have had success by doing just that.

Theater as Protest

Television is boring. This is the first principle of surveillance theater. Because the crime rate is at its lowest in many years, "video surveillance is a waste of space, time and money." So says Bill Brown, leader of the art group Surveillance Camera Players (SCP). For the last six years, the New Yorkers have been staging theater pieces for city surveillance cameras. These plays are designed to give bored watchers something different to watch. The group protests against the increasing surveillance of Manhattan's streets. "The plays are intended to make visible the presence of hidden cameras and to encourage passers-by to talk about them," Bill Brown explains.

A short premiere

The French author Alfred Jarry has many admirers: "Of all, I most value the works of Alfred Jarry," Boris Vian says with enthusiasm. And the actors in the SCP are also big admirers of Jarry. For their first performance, they chose his best-known play, "Ubu Roi," which, on 10 December 1996 (the 100th anniversary of the play's debut), they performed in Manhattan -- and were quickly stopped by two policemen. Though the premiere performance in front of surveillance cameras in the Union Square subway station was left unfinished, the meaning and purpose of the cameras were publicly discussed.

Placard Theater

And so the stage is set: the actors now take about two minutes to present their plays on the theme of surveillance. The dialogue isn't spoken aloud, but is presented upon placards that are held up to the cameras. The reason why: "Cameras don't pick up sound" [trans: English in original]. Other plays performed in this fashion are such classics as Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and George Orwell's "1984." With great results, the SCP have traveled to Europe. You can use your computer to learn more. On the SCP's homepage, you can find plays for performing in front of cameras and much more. For example, there's a record of visitors to the website. At the top of the list of statistics are military units and secret services. Perhaps they don't trust their own cameras.

(Written by Alf Ihle and published in the 20 January 2003 edition of Purple Pixel. Translated from the German by Bill Brown.)

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