Review of Surveillance Camera Players, We Know You are Watching: Surveillance Camera Players 1996-2006 (New York: Factory School, 2006)

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Surveillance Camera Players, We Know You are Watching: Surveillance Camera Players 1996-2006 (New York: Factory School, 2006)
Reviewed by Fiona Jeffries
The Rain 5:1 (Summer 2007): 1-2

The British government has just announced that it will be equipping the country’s ubiquitous surveillance cameras with loudspeakers so government monitors can dispense commands about appropriate behaviour to the unsuspecting litter bugs, loiterers and whoever else they feel deserves disembodied instruction from the camera’s elevated perch. Recently I viewed some footage of a security guard demonstrating this new feature as he sits in front of a bank of monitors watching over a city street. A woman passes across his screen and the guard, Oz-like, intones: “So the female with the white shirt and blue jeans on, you’ve dropped your cigarette on the floor, can you pick it up please ... thank you.”

In the perverse logic of our fearful times, it makes some sort of outlandish sense that Britain, with its estimated 4.2 million surveillance cameras, would be the first in line to experiment with bossy camera systems under the auspices of public security and appropriate behaviour. It fits perfectly with the many absurd aspects the “war on terror” where the authorities seem to be unhealthily preoccupied with monitoring the private lives of the public while ever-more determinedly hiding what they’re up to in the name of “national security”. What to do in these desperate times where we are told that government and corporate monitoring, racial profiling and demonising dissent is for our own safety? Howl despairingly into the camera like a Big Brother star which we’re all increasingly becoming without signing up? Or laugh at the truly revolting absurdity of it all and consider the various ways that we could undermine it? Now, with the much-anticipated publication of the Surveillance Camera Players’ book We Know You Are Watching, we can do both!

The book not only narrates but, crucially, demonstrates the many important ways that the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) are elaborating new forms of political confrontation amidst the “war on terror” and its domestic predecessor Zero Tolerance policing. Here, the reader is treated with both funny, irreverent analysis and trenchant critique of the insidious spread of video surveillance in public places that is expanding in cities all over the world. But while SCP focus most of their research and activist efforts on developments in New York City where its members live, the group’s work is highly relevant to cities across North America and beyond.

This includes Vancouver where the Police Department and supporters of video surveillance in the local government and “business community” have expended many calories over the last few years trying to install cameras to monitor the city’s public spaces. Apparently the vpd’s surveillance “wish list” includes a mobile camera system that can be hauled around to unspecified “crime scenes”. The latest dour warnings proclaim that now that the Olympics are coming Vancouver is apparently a “soft target” par excellence for would-be evildoers and the pro-surveillance crowd want everything caught on tape. But despite strenuous efforts, public opposition (and presumably the prohibitive cost), has so far hindered these plans. It is presumably for this reason that proponents resort to increasingly ominous-sounding speculations about what could be in store for us if our streets are not made transparent to power. It is this creeping incursion that makes this book so valuable as a resource and SCP’s intellectual and activist generosity that makes it so engaging as political and cultural analysis of our time and place.

The SCP’s book is a collected works or greatest hits of the group’s remarkable activities since it was launched in late 1996 with a performance Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi in front of a surveillance camera in New York City’s Union Station. We Know brings together a number of SCP’s wide-ranging assortment of documents, providing a rich archive of theoretical and practical elaboration on anti-surveillance activism. This includes scripts for plays adapted by SCP playwright Art Toad—who doubles as SCP co-founder and spokesperson Bill Brown—specifically for surveillance camera theatre. The adaptations include Denis Beaubois’s Amnesia, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and George Orwell’s 1984. In the “How To Do It” section, we learn, among other things, how a surveillance camera “set” is rendered using hand made placards depicting simple, bold images and text that can be adapted to the number of performers and the particular context of its staging. In addition to the scripts, We Know includes a number of engaging and highly self-reflective performance diaries. The scripts are there for other groups to use and adapt as they see fit and the diaries provide helpful insights and theorization.

In the book we learn that in 1999 SCP stopped adapting plays that did not specifically refer to the cameras in an effort to communicate their stance more directly. It discusses the group’s decision to distance itself from avant-garde art practices that must, by their self-definition, be explained rather than experienced and that consequently thrive on, rather than transform, the traditional separation between spectators and performers. And so, galvanized by a Situationist ethos of creating spaces of meaningful encounter, Art Toad turned to scripting original plays that provided an aperture where the group could more freely and directly confront specific developments and debates surrounding public surveillance. Hence We Know includes several original scripts written specifically for performing in front of surveillance cameras.

One of these is Headline News. The play was the first answer to a question the group asked itself after its final performance of 1984 in 1999: “What can be done that is both explicitly political and yet enjoyable (and easily understandable)?” (40). A Reclaim The Streets protest, organized to coincide with a meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Germany, provided an ideal opportunity to present this new work. Written specifically for the action, Headline News is comprised of four large boards and takes about one minute to perform. The first board is “World News” which depicts a picture of a nato bomb dropping. Then comes “Local News”, featuring a psychotic-looking former Mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani, donning a swastika tie, fangs and devil horns. Next is “Sports” which features a simple dollar sign. The SCP’s “Weather” report depicts a skull-and-cross-bones. The sequence, the play’s performance diary explains, is important because it both mimics the format of the commercial television news broadcast and produces an escalating “dramatic effect”.

The NEWS begins on a serious, tragic and distinctly unfunny note (bombing and implied destruction and death), and then shifts to a very funny caricature of a serious, tragic and very unfunny man (Giuliani). And so these Surveillance Camera Players are not without a sense of humour! The audience is kept in a “light” mood by the next board, which is the one that everybody—radical, liberal, conservative, and reactionary—can agreed expresses a social truth (athletes are paid far too much money). And then—boom!—comes the “punchline”, the one about the weather, which poisons us all (rich or poor, player or spectator, bomber or target of the bombs). (40)

The SCP also performed Headline News in New York in solidarity with the protests in Quebec City against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2001. This play, we learn, was chosen for the occasion in part because by then it also included an image of an enormous raptor splayed over the globe with “capitalism” festooned across its chest.  For the occasion a new placard was added to the “National News”, “a picture of the self-avowed President of the United States, one George W. Bush” sporting the phrase “death penalty” (73). To express solidarity with protests in Cincinnati over police racism and brutality, a placard was added that featured a policeman in full riot gear.

The book’s numerous descriptions and analyses of performances narrate the many ways that the group enacts an ethos of laughing at fear that is so important in our dour political times. “Precisely because the amateur ‘actor’ of the SCP perform their plays directly in front of surveillance cameras, and thus directly in front of security guards, police officers and anyone else who is watching, both fear and subversive humor are inevitably and essentially part of the theatrical experience” (185).

Another essay evocatively titled “On Paranoia”, included in We Know’s succinct and extremely engaging “Position Papers” section, is also both subversively funny and penetrating. Here, Brown discusses the diagnosis of paranoia attributed to him by a number of mainstream journalists. One journalist described him as an “accomplished paranoiac” to which he muses, “as if paranoia were something one does badly or well, depending on skill and experience” (208). Who is more “paranoid”, he asks, then the people carpeting the city with surveillance cameras? “Instead of being fearful of crime we are fearful of crime-fighting measures” (208).

We Know made me laugh out loud and urged me to consider the serious political implications of the brisk spread of video surveillance in public places. While our opposition is relentlessly met with the predictable reproach that only those evildoers who “have something to hide” would oppose public surveillance, the SCP’s example from deep within the belly of the “Homeland Security” beast insists on its profound importance. The SCP’s invocation that we should be paying close attention is echoed by one of the protagonists in Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance: “It happens slowly, Tad had said, so slowly you don’t see it happening. You think you’re living in a democracy, then one morning you wake up and realize it’s a fascist police state, and it’s been that way for years” (172).

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