Protest Against Cameras:

The Thorn in the Side of the Surveillance State

Using theater performances, the Surveillance Camera Players mislead the surveillance cameras in New York. The group protests against the loss of privacy and is now undertaking an over-seas tour against Orwell's "Big Brother."

Eleonore Keaton, the wife of film legend Buster Keaton, once said of her husband that he laughed at many things, but "only became serious when he saw a camera." Same for Bill Brown and his companions in the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP). They, too, are very sensitive to what the camera sees, and they, too, have made a lot of silent films.

This group, which is led by an English Professor, has been protesting against surveillance cameras in public places for the last six years. They don't use violence, they don't damage or destroy the electronic eyes -- they use theater performances against them.

The anarchist troupe bases its actions against "Big Brother" on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a 1967 Supreme Court decision, according to which surveillance cameras damage the right to privacy [trans: literally, the "private sphere"].

It is easy to find examples to show that electronic surveillance has greatly advanced. In February [2001], when the U.S. police automatically scanned the faces of everyone who attended the Super Bowl, they turned up a ticket-scalper. A few days ago, the City of Tampa in Florida started using a system in which, without human intervention, photographed faces are put through a faceprint system.

The main action-area of the Surveillance Camera Players is New York, where the number of cameras has, in the last three years, gone above 5,000. Whether its in subway stations or tourist-magnets such as Times Square, the group approaches people and plays the surveillance state's song. Sometimes they perform short adaptations of classics, such as Orwell's 1984 or Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Other times, they perform their own plays, which have titles such as It's Ok, Officer and God's Eyes Here on Earth. And there are also plays designed to be performed in front of surveillance cameras at churches such as St. Patrick's Cathedral.

"We demonstrate that we are not intimidated by the cameras, that we are opposed to the invasion of our privacy by the state, and that we believe in the power of the individual," the SCP wrote in answer to a question from Spiegel Online. The principal idea of these theater pieces is pretty much the same. In around two minutes, the cameras are presented with a short story. In most of the plays presented by the five members of the group, dialogue is communicated by hand-printed boards, because the cameras cannot pick up sound. Sometimes these boards are the center of attention. Carried aloft by the players, these boards have messages such as "Just going to work" or "Going shopping" written upon them.

The original conceit of the group was that they were trying to reach the people who watched the TV monitors: the police, security guards, detectives, building superintendants. But since then, the Surveillance Camera Players have changed their intended audience, and now, with sympathy and support, present their shows to the passers-by. They even travel to other countries, as they did back in June, when the activists toured England.

They don't always get the response that they'd like to get. In the text on the group's web site that concerns their 17 June 2001 performance in front of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, one reads that only a few people saw their performance, and that most of those in attendance were tourists.

Nevertheless, Brown and his companions have generated interest among the public for years. Many media organizations, among them CNN and The New York Times, have reported on their performances and the struggle to protect privacy rights that they thematize.

Recently, the SCP has inspired people in the Italian city of Bologna and anarchists in Lithuania to take up the campaign against surveillance cameras.

[Written by Christoph Seidler and published by Der Spiegel On-line on 3 July 2001. Translated from the German by Bill Brown.]

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

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