Times Square, New York: movie theatres and fast food, electronics and music, shining advertisements on house-sized walls and TV studios, cars and -- dogding in between them -- residents and tourists searching for work and attractions. If the capitalist culture-industry has made its essence visible somewhere, it is surely here. And so, it is no surprise that public space in Times Square is both the subject and the object of consumer-consumption.
New achievements in electronic entertainment as well as in surveillance technology are tried out in Times Square. This past November , the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) counted 156 cameras in this area and, since then, a few more have been added.
This winter, the theater group has organized guided tours of Times Square that speak to the gradual erosion of private life from public space. Like mushrooms after a warm rain, surveillance cameras are spreading here because they can be installed without getting anyone's permission and because no one is required to answer for the employment of the picture-taking devices.
The SCP doesn't commit acts of violence against the cameras, not does it use the traditional means (complaints, petitions and demonstrations) of American civil rights groups. Instead, the group turn the sidewalks into theatrical stages. The plays are written by the group itself or adapted from texts by Jarry and Poe. The audiences are passersby and all of the anonymous watchers at their control monitors.
With ironic pity, the SCP have written:
The only time these officers have any fun watching the monitors is when something illegal is going on. But the crime rate is down and the subways (which are filled with surveillance cameras) are the safest they have been in 30 years. Thus, for untold numbers of police surveillants, there is less and less to watch -- less and less to watch out for -- every day. And so we have both an opportunity and a problem here. The opportunity is to get those law enforcement officials watching something on TV that isn't all sex and violence; and the problem is that a bored surveillant is an inattentive surveillant, and an inattentive surveillant is a waste of space, time and money.
For the SCP, the danger posed by surveillance cameras lies in the fact that they are rarely used in accord with their announced purposes. The group's opinion is that the cameras are not used to fight crime but as instruments of social control.
The SCP's Bill Brown says: "Whether these cameras are turned on or not is nearly irrelevant, so long as people believe they are on. A camera might actually be a dummy, but people nevertheless change their behavior because they believe they are being filmed.
"In other words, we have a system that doesn't control behavior, but instead controls consciousness. In George Orwell's 1984, crime was impossible because thought was completely prohibited -- and this seems to be the model today.
"Today there are laws against criminal behavior, but, fortunately, no laws against thoughts or intentions. But surveillance cameras are shifting this border: not only are ways of acting being illegalized, but also ways of thinking."
The group's theatrical manifesto defines what the SCP does as the re-programming of surveillance cameras. The undivided attention and the professional skepticism of the onlookers is incentive enough for the group to offer concrete and practical media criticism. The SCP is methodically trying to productively misuse the cameras as devices for sending information.
Bill Brown: "We are trying to infiltrate and use the system to disseminate a report that contradicts it. A surveillance camera sends out the following message: Behave yourself! And we are using the cameras to say that we will not behave ourselves."
[Written by Friedrich Tietjen and published on-line by Orf on 5 January 2001. Translated from the German by Bill Brown.]
Contact the Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail Info@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998