Watching the Watchers

We all know we're surrounded by electronic eyes, but Bill Brown has made it his mission to identify each and every one. Since 1998, the 44-year-old privacy advocate has been mapping the locations of surveillance cameras in New York neighborhoods, documenting their mounting incursion on public space. "We value the privacy and anonymity of crowds because it's the last thing that makes New York tolerable," he explains. Our society's increasing reliance on public surveillance -- for Brown, a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment -- destroys that principle, while also marking a disturbing shift back to the barbarism of 19th century phrenology, when theories of criminal behavior relied on ideas about the shape of the skull and facial characteristics. The mapping project began as an outgrowth of his situationist performance art group, the Surveillance Camera Players, which in 1996 began staging impromptu versions of 1984 and Waiting for Godot before Manhattan surveillance cameras. Brown has since supplanted the performances with guided walking tours of heavily surveilled neighborhoods, deeming them a better means of educating the public than his old art school pranksterism. "The whole principle of democracy is informed by consent. You can't consent if you're not informed." In the four [sic] years he's been counting, the number of cameras has roughly tripled, and he fears that New York will ultimately go the way of England, where more than two million cameras pointed at public space has created a truly Orwellian society. "In the future we will all become surveillance camera players," he predicts, "because we will have no choice."

(Written by Jesse Ashlock and published in the November/December 2003 issue of Res magazine.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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