Say Hello to Big Brother

The first camera on the tour is disguised as a lamppost, an onyx pupil inside an orb of gray glass ten feet above the sidewalk. A man in a small room somewhere is watching monitors of us watching him.

Bill Brown, a 47-year-old man with frenetic blue eyes and a mussed head of gray hair, has led surveillance tours of New York City neighborhoods almost every Sunday for the past six years. He is the co-founder of an agit-prop theater troupe called the Surveillance Camera Players, which was established in 1996 and sporadically performs silent adaptations of avant-garde plays in front of surveillance cameras from Washington Square Park to uptown parking garages.

"Why do we like New York?" Brown asked on a surveillance tour of Providence, Rhode Island a couple years ago. "Because, paradoxically, the crowds afford us a degree of privacy and anonymity. Surveillance cameras destroy that principle."

A new book, We Know You Are Watching, details the history of the SCP's interventions. The group will celebrate its tenth anniversary with a performance at an undisclosed location in New York on December 10.

"A lot of people call me paranoid," Brown acknowledged in Providence. For good citizens with nothing to hide, surveillance cameras might be seen as guarantors of safety, harbingers of a world made secure and transparent through technology. But there is an increasingly vocal chorus of the paranoid echoing the SCP's slogan, "completely distrustful of all government." And those voices are increasingly realistic.

In the past decade surveillance and, with it, Brown's brand of techno-cultural criticism, has exploded into the mainstream. Britain helped pioneer the use of surveillance technology in public spaces, and is now home to 2.5 million surveillance cameras. After 9/11, the number of cameras in New York City has tripled in every neighborhood. In Brown's estimation, there are now about 40,000 cameras in the city, 15,000 of them in Manhattan.

How does he find them all? "Baudelaire used to say, describing the flaneur of nineteenth century Paris, that when you walk around a city absorbing everything, taking it all in, you have to move as if you're walking a turtle on a leash," Brown explains with a sly smile. "I never let myself walk ahead of the turtle."

(Written by Alexander Provan and published in the 29 November 2006 issue of Soma Magazine.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

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