Premiere for Surveillance Camera

New York activists in Mannheim

MANNHEIM. The US artist Bill Brown holds a placard up to a surveillance camera. In speech bubbles, the placard says, "What are you doing there? It's OK, Officer!" One hundred people have come out to the Marktplatz in Mannheim to watch with fascination the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP). Formed in New York in 1996, the theatre group is in Germany for the first time. In front of public cameras, they perform for the police and security guards. The SCP protest against video surveillance "because it violates our privacy rights," says Bill Brown.

With out-stretched arms, the action-artists Bill, Susan and David made their way through the Mannheim inner-city, stopping at each of the ten surveillance cameras, which have been on-line since last year. Bill stops in front of a camera, salutes, waves, and smiles broadly and in a friendly way, while holding his placard aloft. For the camera, Susan holds up a sign that depicts a stick-figure standing in front of a surveillance camera and that bears the words, "Just going shopping." On David's placard, which also depicts a stick-figure standing next to a camera, it says "Going home now."

The three New Yorkers were invited here by a German network of artists and activists. Their appearance in Mannheim is the first stop on their nine-city tour. The SCP have beome so well-known that they helped form 23 other groups from all over the world, "including ten in Germany," Bill says. The SCP's tour of Germany is being supported by local activists, who are providing accommodations and helping to formulate tours of camera locations.

"It isn't true that only those who have something to hide are opposed to surveillance," the actors in the SCP say. For their purposes, they have adopted socially critical theatre pieces such as Animal Farm. For the cameras, they hold up placards with texts printed on them and many times wear masks. The plays last only a few minuites. Other placards bear provocative texts such as "You are being watched for your own safety" and "Cops will shoot pictures like cops shoot guns."

Bill holds out a small rug, upon which a kitschy image of Jesus is printed, and lays it down in front of a camera that is installed upon a short advertisement-kiosk. Each of the three actors takes turns making strongly expressed gestures to the camera -- symbols of the performers' rejection of the technology. Then Bill pours salt into a bottle of mineral water and, with the liquid foaming, enacts an exorcism ritual that ends with all three actors dancing around the camera and calling out, "Get out, get out!"

A half-hour later in the Paradeplatz, the action ends with the entrance of those whom Bill, Susan and David wished to provoke: the police. The officers want to know if this has been some kind of political demonstration. The action presents itself as completely original. "For the police, it was nice to have the cameras greeted in this fashion," the Chief of the Mannheim police said later.

(Written by Nicole Kroppen, German Press Agency. Published on 21 May 2002 by Die Rheinneckar Zeitung and translated from the German by Bill Brown.)

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NY Surveillance Camera Players