Unseen Sight

this social protest feeds on minds of the paranoid, and the sane

Coming soon to a public video camera operator near you: N.Y.'s Surveillance Camera Players. Part social protest, part theater, part Manhattan mapmaking, and part playful cynicism, this group doesn't want your spectatorship, they want [you] to fight for your right to privacy. Debunking the conventional wisdom that only people with something to hide could object to being observed in public places, the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) protests such surveillance as a violation of the Constitutionally-protected right to privacy. [The] SCP argues public surveillance is subjective to the point of prejudice, ineffective as a deterrent to crime, and, ultimately, mechanistic in the name of social control, quietly leading us towards tyranny rather than combatting it. "Only someone completely distrustful of government would be opposed to what we are doing with surveillance cameras," argued N.Y. Police Commissioner Howard Safir in 1999. [The] SCP says that's how they feel: "completely distrustful of all government."

In what seems to have begun as a light-hearted spoof, [the] SCP was established in N.Y. in 1996 to protest surveillance cameras in public places; they manifest their protest by engaging in live performances, acted in front of surveillance cameras for an audience of the operators and owners themselves. [The] SCP counts on media, their website, and your action to promote change. The group admits to being loosely organized; none is trained in acting nor experienced in politics, and their plays are notoriously adaptable for however many "actors" are available (extras may [for example] carry a sign reading "Big Brother is Watching You").

But take one look at their catalogue of position papers, and you will see that [the] SCP is no lightweight. Treatises on paranoia and deception accompany open letters to prominent officials such as Robert Flowers, director of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command. These essays betray an emotional tenor unchecked in unforgivable phrases like "quadruply ironic" and "reciprocal transparency." Even co-founder and director Bill Brown admits [the] SCP's "practice is more advanced than its theory."

In practice, at least until 1999, [the] SCP performed silent adaptations of literary classics, including Waiting for Godot. More recently, the group has relied on works by "famous" playwright, Art Toad. This pun on the name of famed actor and theorist Antonin Artaud is just one more sign that [the] SCP is in on the joke. Look to Artaud himself to understand the group's migration towards more grass-roots plays: "All writing is shit," he writes in Nerve Meter (1925). "One mustn't let in too much literature." And [the] SCP doesn't. The newer [post-1999] performances are often a series of placards; in Headline News, a series of signs mock local evening news programs, complete with SNL-style commercial boards roasting the likes of Nike, Pepsi, and CBS. In God's Eyes Here on Earth, always performed in front of cameras which monitor church property, the placards ask, "Why are there surveillance cameras at the church? Doesn't God see everything? Daddy says the cameras are God's eyes. Now I pray to the cameras. I want God to see me."

Angered by law enforcement's growing desperation to combat urban maladies like crime and terrorism, [the] SCP asserts that, not only is the purpose of public surveillance muddied and unjustified, but also the practical abuses defeat any respectable crime-fighting purpose. For example, deterrence is often cited as the motive for surveillance, but as [the] SCP points out, people are typically surveilled unaware of the fact and therefore behave as they would without cameras. [The] SCP asserts that the very lack of signs provides a tacit admission that deterrence is not the motive, and furthermore, the cameras provide operators with a false sense of security.

The N.Y. Civil Liberties Union agrees that public video surveillance should be considered invasive rather than protective. [As the SCP has pointed out,] These cameras generate vast quantities of information that must be analyzed and processed before it is useful, and the [Hull University] documented voyeuristic behavior of male operators towards female suspects and extended surveillance of young, black males, in comparison to other demographics, demonstrate that public surveillance is a tool that enables malfeasance. Even red light cameras, touted as a public safety success, are the object of [the] SCP's ire. Criticized [by the SCP] for missing information on motorcycles and therefore unequally targeting automobile drivers, these cameras also pick up ("search and seize") volumes of unrelated material.

Proponents of public surveillance argue, however, that privacy in public space cannot be expected, and Supreme Court cases [other than Katz v. the United States] confirm that if others have an open vantage point to your behavior, then law enforcement is likewise entitled to it. [As the SCP has pointed out,] At the time the Bill of Rights was drafted, however, the photographic camera had not even been invented; closed-circuit television, digital photography, and wiretaps were not even technological fantasies, but rather, veritable impossibilities until recently which now improve or create vantage points previously unavailable. In this light, [the] SCP contests that we must maintain the forefathers' ideals even in this landscape so vastly altered from their own.

Sounds noble and American, doesn't it? Not according to the behavior of the U.S. military. Despite the legal, non-violent nature of [the] SCP's protests, the group [actually, it's website] is subjected to monitoring by government agencies and militaries around the world. In the U.S. alone, the CIA, Commerce Department, NASA, National Institute of Health, and an array of military bases, among many other groups, have checked the site. The regularity and sheer number of visits (overwhelmingly made [the SCP has speculated] by "siphon" programs that extract who is posting to the site and who is viewing it) seem only to confirm [the] SCP's theory that the line between military intelligence and civilian law enforcement is becoming dangerously blurred in the wake of [the war against] international terrorism. [The] SCP naturally asks, "What point is there in spying upon a group that displays itself in front of surveillance devices?" It all evokes an Orwellian shadow of Big Brother that even the most resistant paranoid must admit is at least a little creepy.

Recently, the group has spawned a series of weekly walking tours. In a methodical yet losing [sic] effort, [the] SCP [never] sends volunteers on foot to map out public surveillance cameras [preferring to do it themselves]; the maps are far from exhaustive, but [the] SCP documents urge, "You've seen the maps; now see the cameras themselves!" Free and open to the public, these walking tours scour heavily-surveilled neighborhoods like Times Square (there are 258 cameras in a 5-block radius), Harlem [which is in fact relatively unsurveilled], City Hall, and around the UN for a "choice selection" of video cameras in public places. Hard to say if these will catch on as well with tourists as the Circle Line Cruise, but it's a tour unbeatable in terms of urban reality and [unless you've actually been on one] paranoiac fantasy.

"No one these days gives a shit about either theater or protest," says Brown [in one of his texts], "but if they are put together (they both suffer from isolation) and in the right combination (of course), the result reinvigorates both theater and protest, and suggests a superior third form. . . ." Indeed, [the] SCP has carved out a space in modern urban protest and innovation, sparking a National Public Radio debate on privacy and coordinating an [sic] international day of collaborative protest [there were in fact two such events]. Public surveillance carries a potency that degrades our democratic freedoms, claims [the] SCP. If, as Don DeLillo asserts in Videotape (1997), "The world is lurking in the camera, already framed . . ." then the outlook for persuading surveillance operators to shut down in grim. [The] SCP, however, shows no signs of slowing, promoting new walking tours and lectures in Portland, Chicago, and New Haven and anticipating performances increasing in number with the arrivals of spring and summer. In the meantime, keep an eye out.

(Written by Molly Meneely, and published in the Spring 2003, Vol 17.3 issue of Soma. Comments in [brackets] are by Bill Brown.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail SCP@notbored.org

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