Question: You can tell us the history of the Surveillance Camera Players?
Answer: I'm Bill Brown and I'm one of the co-founders and the current director of the Surveillance Camera Players. We are a group that stages silent plays directly in front of surveillance cameras as a way of demonstrating our opposition to their existence. The group was formed at the end of 1996 and has changed the way it performs since then. In the beginning, we used pantomime supported by little signs that explained who the characters were and where the scene was set. Now we use large boards that bear messages such as "We know you are watching: mind your own business!"
Question: And you are based in New York?
Answer: The Surveillance Camera Players are based in New York, because this is where I and the other members of the group live. When we started out, we performed in the city's subway stations, because some of the first police cameras were installed in them and in the bus stations, the airports, and any other place where large numbers of people pass by. Since the group's founding, New York has become full of surveillance cameras. They're on the roads, at street intersections, in parks and on buildings. This means that we can perform anywhere we want in Manhattan, and not just in the subways.
Question: What's been the technological evolution of surveillance cameras?
Answer: Surveillance cameras are becoming increasingly sophisticated from a technological point of view. They can now be connected to computers, can be digital and can be watched on digital television monitors. This means that the camera operator doesn't see blurry pictures of faces, but Hollywood-quality images. This is of great concern, because it means people -- political activists such as myself -- can be photographed and recognized the moment they enter a hall such as the one we're in right now.
Question: Is New York in the vanguard here?
Answer: New York isn't the only city in America that is heavily surveilled, but the use of surveillance in the city is growing very quickly. The Mayor of New York, one Rudolph Giuliani, has many contacts in England, which is the most heavily surveilled country in the world. Surveillance technologies that were first used in England are then adopted by the police in New York or by the casinos in Las Vegas.
Question: What effects do your performances have on public opinion?
Answer: It is incredible to me than such a small group of people, using very limited means, such as "magic markers" and pieces of cardboard, have had such a big effect, at least in the English-speaking countries. This is due, at least in part, because we are one of the only groups in the world that perform directly in front of surveillance cameras. There are other activists who are opposed to surveillance and who speak out against it, but the SCP is unique in that we perform in front of the cameras. But the people for whom we are performing aren't the people who monitor the cameras, but the people passing by. In New York, there are lots of people walking on the streets. When we perform, we are completely silent and rely on the boards to "speak" for us. People stop to watch us, in part because silence is unusual in a noisy city such as New York. They have many different reactions to our performances. Some people appreciate them, others think we are wasting our time, while others didn't realize that surveillance cameras were being used in the area. When they find out, they get angry, because people don't like the idea of being spied on. And when you give them a map of camera locations in a part of Manhattan, they get even angrier, because nobody told them that there were so many cameras or that they they were being put up very quickly. One of the maps that I displayed here [in Bologna] yesterday shows that there are over 250 surveillance cameras in a single Manhattan neighborhood known as Greenwich Village. This means that it's impossible to have your privacy respected when you leave your apartment to get something to eat or do your laundry. Every step you take can be monitored, and, what's worse, you won't know who's watching you. They could be a private authority, the police, the government or any number of spy agencies.
Question: In Bologna, several people heard your call and they joined you in a performance last night. What would your advice be to people who want to form a group like the SCP?
Answer: Anyone can form their own "Surveillance Camera Players" group. When we first started out, the police interrupted all of our performances. Then, after encountering us several times -- after seeing that what we're doing isn't a spontaneous outburst, but something that we care very deeply about -- the police have backed off and given us space in which to work. At least two or three times, I've seen private security guards call the police, and then, when the police arrive, they tell the guards to leave us alone. It's obvious to us that the police have realized that the SCP thrive on publicity. If the police try to stop our performances, they prove our point for us by showing how sensitive they about their cameras. As result, the police leave us alone.
Question: Your performances recover the language of silent cinema. How did this happen?
Answer: Because surveillance cameras are prevented by law from picking up sounds, our performances are silent. And so, without intending to do so, we've managed to recover a forgotten language: the language of the silent film. The French author and actor Antonin Artaud, for example, experimented with both silent films and theatrical plays that used images, icons and sound-effects, instead of spoken words. Even though the avant-garde of the 1920s has disappeared, we can make use of some of its ideas because of the widespread use of silent video cameras. Our efforts aren't concentrated on spoken words, but on the ways in which you can silently communicate meaning, say, with a picture, which can tell a thousand words, or with a mask, which can be very expressive.
Question: The simplicity of your performances is very disarming. Why do you make them so simple?
Answer: The aesthetic that we've developed is, in English, called "DIY" or "do-it-yourself." You find the same thing in punk rock -- I once played in a punk band -- and it means you can make the art you want to make, even if you have crude skills. Even when technology becomes more sophisticated, you can still fight against it with relatively simple tools. "Magic markers" and large pieces of paper are our tools in the fight against surveillance. And yet simple means connect us to all kinds of other underground activities, such as photocopied fanzines, amateur web sites and musical groups. Our plays say that art need not be made by artists only, but by everyone, even if they don't have any talent. "Talent" is an obstacle to creation; what counts is passion.
[Interview conducted in English, videotaped by Mark Deseriis in Bologna, Italy, on 25 May 2001 and broadcast by RAI on 22 June 2001. Roughly translated from the Italian by an Internet robot. Translation corrected by Bill Brown.]
Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail SCP-New York
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998