None of your business

By Shannon Rothenberger

[...] The message of the current (selective) economic boom is that there's nowhere commerce can't go. It can block your view and it can watch you through video cameras as if everyone is a potential customer, or criminal. These days, proliferating surveillance cameras poke their noses from luxury apartment buildings to spy on the surrounding public sidewalks. Stores not only videotape shoplifters, but window shoppers.

Whether for consumer or "security" profiling, surveillance is a $2 billion nationwide business. At last count by the New York Civil Liberties Union, 2,397 privately owned closed circuit cameras threaten the privacy and anonymity that New York City is known for.

Simultaneously, city government is compounding the message that if it's not strictly business, people have no business gathering in public. Giuliani routinely thwarts the First Amendment right of free assembly with his biased and limiting permit system. No demonstrations have been permitted in public parks since his election. Yankee fans could take over downtown, but the Million Youth March was confined to a few barricaded Harlem blocks from noon to four. The St. Patrick's Day Parade continues to exclude homosexuals, while gay marchers protesting the murder of Matthew Shepard were arrested. Demonstrators who try to make it to City Hall are thoroughly corralled and surveilled by sophisticated video cameras with the capacity to create a visual file of "troublemakers."

Like the Trumping of New York's skyline, the proliferation of unauthorized data collection has an implacable, inevitable trajectory that most people feel powerless to resist.

Not if the Surveillance Camera Players can help it.

With a core membership of five people, the Surveillance Camera Players have been performing plays for video surveillance cameras in New York since 1996. Washington Square Park is their favorite venue because of its history and the many closed circuit cameras there, which are secreted inside streetlamps. The intended audience for the SCP's plays in the park is a squad of New York City police stationed in a large van on Washington Square South, where they can be surprised by the drama on their monitors.

Bill, a co-founder of the SCP -- the anarchist group members usually go by first names only -- jokes that the police should watch something besides sex and violence. He believes that literature is better for them.

Because surveillance cameras record images, not sound -- speech is still protected by privacy laws -- the SCP's plays are silent. The script is reduced to minimal words and images on poster boards. The actors, sometimes in costume, pantomime the action. The plays have been performed on subway stations, at Liberty Plaza, at a housing project in Peekskill, New York, and for a webcam on the corner of 45th Street and Fifth Avenue, where Manhattan Transfer, a video production company, constantly films and downloads footage of passersby to its Web site for no apparent reason.

Susan, the other founder of the SCP, told me that the next SCP performance would be based on Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism. It will be prefaced by the one-minute Headline News, the first play ever written especially to be performed for surveillance cameras. The SCP's other plays, each of which runs about ten minutes, are adaptations from literature, such as Ubu Roi, Waiting for Godot, and 1984.

On a clear, cold December weekday in Washington Square Park, I search the lampposts and trees for cameras, but I can't see any. While I wait for the Surveillance Camera Players' noontime arrival, it's impossible not to notice that the players will have some competition for an audience., an on-line college textbook store, has constructed a promotional soundstage at the east end of the park. Recorded hip hop music is booming out to a crowd of about 200 spectators surrounding the stage. Bright yellow signs and flyers announce Bigword's Y2K Ball Drop Beta Test: 20,000 yellow superballs will imminently drop from a soundstage tower onto its target crowd of "Gen Y" students. A Dick Clark impersonator announces that "specially marked" blue balls are worth cash prizes, redeemable, of course, on the store's Web site.

Verne Troyer (a.k.a. Mini-Me in Austin Powers 2) takes the Bigwords stage. He sings a song about Y2K, vaguely to the tune of something else. The crowd cheers for Troyer, who, according to the Bigwords flyer, "at 2 foot 8 inches, is one of the smallest men in the world." This is the scene that greets the Surveillance Camera Players as they arrive on the northeast side of the park.

The Surveillance Camera Players also have flyers, which are handed out by two prospective members at today's performance site, a spot below one of the park's hidden surveillance cameras. The flyers, headlined "You are being watched for your own safety," are illustrated with a Yield-sign-shaped triangle with an eyeball inside -- coincidentally, the same highway-warning yellow as's giant banners and the thousands of superballs that are being dumped by the guys in yellow jump-suits from the tower and are boinging around the crowd.

A small knot of supporters gathers around the pair of SC players, Bill and Kimberly, who lean their stack of large of large signs against a fence. The sign on top reads "Who is Watching?"

People crossing the park stop to read the SCP's flyers, which inform them that there are ten surveillance cameras in the park, all secreted in light fixtures. Washington Square's cameras are monitored 24 hours a day by the police. Not only are the cameras equipped with infrared night vision, they can be remotely controlled to tilt, zoom and track individuals. Some people have reported to the SCP that when they flipped off the cameras, they were stopped by the police and asked for ID.

With grim cheer, the SCP flyer notes that the police are capable of reading the very words over your shoulder: "So relax; you're safe here. Forget we mentioned any of this. Smile! Big Brother is watching you."

Whether the SCP is performing for Big Brother's video monitors in police vans and subway token booths, or for Little Brother's screens at corporate security desks, a NYCLU legal representative usually accompanies the players, since they rarely get to finish a play without police or security guard interference. Today, however, the union rep doesn't arrive.

Bill and Kimberly, in dark glasses, begin the play by silently holding their sequence of signs up for the camera's eye. Simple black marker pictograms illustrate the messages: "Cops will shoot pictures/like cops shoot guns," "No more racial profiling," "No more invasions of privacy." Two other SCP members prompt the actors to position their signs for maximum video visibility. An onlooker remarks sarcastically, "Now that's entertainment!"

As if on cue, "Jungle Boogie" pumps from the Bigword's show as Bill holds up the title card for Mass Psychology of Fascism. The players juxtapose a dollar sign with "Why do people act irrationally?" A hail of little yellow balls bounces from the soundstage. People scramble for the balls that swarm around the SCP like bees.

As the placard play reaches its inevitable Reichian conclusion that sexual liberation will free us from patriarchy, authoritarianism, religious repression, racism and capitalism, the Bigwords crowd falls silent, waiting for the winners to be announced. Watching the signs shuffle their sexual symbols to the hum of the soundstage generator, I experience a high school flashback -- an older hippy guy who had recently read [Herbert] Marcuse calling me "bourgeois" for rejecting his seduction.

My disappointment at the revival of this stillborn philosophy is interrupted by "the Man," as we children of hippies smirkingly say, in the person of a Parks Department officer in a green uniform. The SCP perk up at his gruff "Excuse me -- do you have a permit for this?" Traditionally, according to its proponents, Street Theater truly unfolds when unwitting official "actors" attempt to stop it.

The action proceeds with orders to move along, collection of IDs, a ticket written for unlawful assembly and the arrival of uniformed enforcements. Supporters of the SCP, seasoned veterans of confrontation, don't miss their cues. While Tony Torn, a local activist, demands to know the charges and questions the officers' humanity, his comrade Peggy shouts, "This is about free speech! We're allowed to congregate. Corporations don't want us to. They want to control public space. We're trying to make this gathering more fun than that stupid thing over there!"

A crescendo of yellow balls rolls under Peggy's feet, and she does a neat mock pratfall, remarking, "See! These things are more dangerous than we are!"

Under pressure from Torn, a female Parks Department supervisor thumbs through her tiny green rule-book. The tickets are finally scrapped. Apparently Parks rules prohibit signs on fences, but not held in hand. The show can go on, but Bill doesn't care: "I don't feel like it now." The point has been made that, at least where he stands, behavior in public space will not be predicted or controlled. For an instant, the sublimely silly spirit of Washington Square Park is redeemed from the grim haze of surveillance.

Several articles have been written about the Surveillance Camera Players. There are critics who say that SCP shows are not theater, the plays are elitist, the players can't act, and that they are paranoid kooks. But these critics are missing the larger picture. According to SCP statements, their plays are neither protest nor theater but a combination form designed to overcome the limitations of both. Their goal is the elimination of surveillance cameras; if their protests spark a public outcry, and the cameras are banned, there will be no more need for Surveillance Camera Players.

By performing for surveillance cameras, the SCP are reclaiming public space and returning the intrusive stare. They are redeeming what they call enforced "transparency" by being perversely and creatively opaque.

The SCP point out that their name is intentionally not copyrighted. If you can do better, put on your own show. The cameras are waiting.

[Originally published in Here #3, July 2000.]

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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

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