Tilman Baumgartel: What are the "Surveillance Camera Players" (SCP) doing?
Bill Browne [correct spelling is "Brown"]: The "SCP" perform plays directly in front of surveillance cameras. What we do is, hold up large, hand-made placards that are held up to the camera, and do some pantomime. The reason for this is that the surveillance cameras don't record sound. The group has about six such plays in its repertoire. Some of them are constructed to be performed in specific places, for example churches that have surveillance cameras.
?: How do you pick the the plays? Some choices seem to be logical, like "1984," but why "Waiting for Godot"?
!: We picked "Godot" as a kind of joke on the play itself, because there is, of course, all words and no action. Surveillance cameras don't pick up sound, so any performance of "Godot" would have to be silent! We no longer perform joke-plays such as these. Since November 1998 we perform plays that we have written and that concern surveillance and privacy rights.
?: How many people are involved with the "SCP," and what else are these people? Are there any theatre professionals?
Browne: At any one time, there are about six people in the group, which is very informal and very loosely organized. In total, about 40 people have performed ever since our founding in November 1996. There are no theatre professionals in the group; never have been. Most of the members are political activists who are involved in a variety of other gruops. We are all anarchists.
?: What's wrong with surveillance cameras? The are supposed to make public space safer...
!: The use of surveillance cameras by the police is a flat out violation of the fourth amendment to the Constitution. The Supreme Court's confirmed that with a decision in 1967.
?: Yet is has become quite acceptable in the last couple of years, and at the same time the crime rate in New York has been going down...
!: Crime went down in New York because the Mayor told the police to arrest huge numbers of poor people. The City and the police want to keep an eye on political protest. For example in the area around St. Patrick's Cathderal: there is almost no crime there, but a lot of demonstrations against the policies of the Catholic Church. That's why there is a lot very sophisticated digital surveillance cameras.
?: You say, your "target group" is the one person that is sitting in front of the surveillance monitor. Why all this effort for one person?
!: Our real target group are all the people who see us on the street, because they happen to wander by. In New York City, that can be a lot of people; because we perform in very well-populated areas. We were only joking when we said that we were performing for bored security guards and cops! Fuck them!
?: Yet there is something absurd in performing in front of these cameras, but I guess that this is intentional...
!: Sure. We think this whole logic of surveillance is absurd: the cameras make people paranoid in the hope that these paranoid people will act rationally and won't commit crimes. But paranoid people are not rational.
?: What effect to you expect from your performances?
!: First of all, we want to disrupt their everyday routine of people. And we want to show them that there is no need to be terrified by these cameras. Plus we want to show that not all protests are loud and boring, and that one can do this with a sense of humor and that individuals and and small groups can accomplish a lot.
?: This strategy of "disruption" of every day life is these days being used by others. It has become a strategy in marketing for example, and whole shopping malls are planned to get people out of their everyday trance. Why do you think your strategy works? And do you really feel that your hand-written posters are being recognized despite the fact that they have to compete in between perfect advertising design in public space and "shock" or "guerilla" marketing?
!: Marketing--even "radical" advertising--is designed to keep people in their trance, rather than wake them up. Advertising is prececisely part of the daily life-trance, and that's what we wish to disrupt. As for the contrast between the advertizers and us: we look unprofessional, even absurd, don't we? Good!
?: How does the audience react?
!: The surveillants often find it funny, until we show a sign that says: "Mind your own business." The rest of the audience mostly agrees with us--at least on this point that the cameras must be labeled with adequate signs. Only a few give us the usual bullshit about fighting crime.
?: You also do walking tours through New York. What are you doing there?
!: We are teaching other people what we do: spot the cameras, which are often disguised as streetlamps or ornaments. We are also making sure that our maps of camera locations are disseminated. This is also an important of our performances: to get those maps distributed. It's one thing to have someone tell you about the cameras; it's quite another to be able to locate yourself, Because then you see just how many there really are.
?: Is there any influence of situationist theory on your work?
!: Yes, a great deal. What we do is "detourn" the spectacle of the cameras. We don't destroy them as militant anarchist would do. We don't write to our congressman as good leftist would do. We turn the cameras against their original purposes. However, I'm sure the "Situationist International" (SI) would have been opposed to the degree to which the SCP appear in the mass media.
!: That was something I was about to ask: if you are so opposed to the spectacle--as the Situationst called the mass media--why do you participate in it, for example by giving TV interviews?
!: We feed the spectacle poison, disguised as bird seed.
?: Do you see yourself in the tradition of political street theater from the Seventies?
!: Yes. We are big fans of the Living Theater.
!: Groups like the Living Theatre don't really exist anymore, and one reason for that might be that the notion of public sphace has changed. Maybe the real social discourse and the real public life don't happen on the street anymore, but in the media. So one could argue that this kind of street theatre doesn't reach the "public" anymore, or just a tiny faction of it...
!: But the Living Theatre is still around, and it is still very much alive! They perform both in traditional theaters, and also in public. As for your comments about "the media," it may be true for some people -- those with money, power, access to the media. They might feel that the public sphere is unnecessary or undesirable and scary. But there are some people for whom the street and public space is literally everything--the homeless, obviously, but others as well.
?: What role does the internet play in what you are doing?
!: It allows us to make contact with like-minded people all over the world. It gets us coverage from people who do not speak English as their first language. We've been written about or profiled in Spanish, Portugese, French, Dutch and German.
?: By using the internet you reach much more people interested in what you are doing, that by "just" playing theatre on the street or in the theatre. That's what makes what you are doing different from traditional political theatre...
!: That's true. "SCP" is a far more "modern" theatre group than the Living Theatre, which doesn't really use or fully inhabit the Internet. We use the Internet as much as we can to maximize our effectiveness. Though the group would be far less well known without the Internet. But the "Surveillance Camera Players" could still exist and be effective even if the Internet were to crash en masse tomorrow.
This is why our Web site is relatively rudimentary and toned down. It is simply a vehicle to deliver ideas over a very wide area. And it allows the "SCP" to do without a newsletter or book..
? Could you think of any way that your strategy could be applied to the mass media or the internet?
!: The strategy of "detournement" can certainly be applied to the mass media. The situationists themselves detourned comic strips, paintings, movies and other media. We often perform in front of webcams, which we define as remote surveillance devices. They are digital cameras, unlike some "real" surveillance cameras, which mostly are still analog. We want to call attention to the likely combination of face recognition software with webcams.
The Internet is a great surveillance device, but this surveillance to an extent works two ways. Though the US military is spying on me using the Internet, I can use the Internet to detect and denounce such spying.
[Interviewed conducted by Tilman Baumgaertel and published 16 July 2001 by Rhizome.]
Contact the Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail SCP
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998