the Surveillance Camera Players in the role of their lives against Big Brother

From New York to Paris

subversive happenings by militants against video surveillance

Sean, 27, has lived in New York for two years and discovered a small group of original militants: the Surveillance Camera Players. Ever since 1996, this collective has become celebrated for staging short sketches on the street, in front of video surveillance cameras. On his trip to Paris, Sean meet up with militants from the Network for the Abolition of For-Pay Transporation [Reseau d'abolition des transports payants or RATF], which on 17 September led a protest against the "police-ification" [le "flicage"] of French public transportation.

A self-taught specialist, Sean denounced the proliferation and perfection of video surveillance, which is wireless and borrows [other] military technologies.

"Since September 11th, this has gotten worse. The attacks were the cause or pretext for increased surveillance," claims Sean, who left Los Angeles to come to New York at the time of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. "This has meant sacrificing the rights of individual Americans and the right to privacy," says this anarchist-inspired militant, who makes his living as a waiter.

Sean discovered the Surveillance Camera Players in the course of attending one of the free walking tours given every Sunday in Manhattan by Bill Brown, the group's founder. After having spotted and mapped out the [locations of] video surveillance cameras in a neighborhood, the members of the collective give touristic strolls with increasing success.

To the people who attend their tours, the members of the Surveillance Camera Players explain their complaint against video surveillance: it is ineffective from a security point-of-view. The cameras aren't accompanied by signs that inform the public of their existence and don't have a deterrent effect. In police investigations, the cameras don't produce images that are precise enough to be admitted as evidence. "Even better, the cameras produce good pictures of the crime scenes, but not the criminals," ironized Sean, who had seen the photos of the presumed assassin of Anna Lindh [taken from surveillance cameras and published] in the French press.

God's Eyes Here on Earth

"In the United States, it is very difficult to draw attention to a political protest. I was charmed by the approach of the Surveillance Camera Players, who use artistic performance to subvert the cameras," explains Sean, who was wearing a T-shirt bearing on it the letters SCP. In April, the young waiter had the occasion to perform in God's Eyes Here on Earth, a mini-play in which the SCP militants display a series of placards ("Why are there surveillance cameras on the church?" "Doesn't God see everything?" "I want God to see me" . . . ) before prostrating themselves in prayer.

The Surveillance Camera Players have written or adapted 15 of these subversive mini-plays, which militants and sympathizers play again and again, in New York and elsewhere, since the renown of the collective is becoming international.

After meeting [other] militants in Austria and Massachusetts, Sean has come to Paris during the "European week of mobility and public transport," which is currently going on. In response to this event, sponsored by the European Commission, the Network for the Abolition of For-Pay Transportation organized a series of original actions, notably against the "security drift" of the Parisian Public Transport System [whose initials in French as also RATF].

On Wednesday 17 September, about 30 militants, including Sean, descended into the Metro to stage a small happening whose humorous and subversive aspects recalled the methods of the Surveillance Camera Players: disguised as "agents of vigilance," the members of the Network harangued travelers in the Belleville station with their announcement that henceforth tickets must be made "visible." The protest demanded free transportation and denounced the use of 5,000 surveillance cameras in the Parisian Metro.

Video surveillance is becoming more and more sophisticated. "The new cameras are using materials originally developed by the military, for the surveillance of checkpoints, for example. They are equipped with optical and digital zoom lenses that are much stronger than binoculars," explains Sean, who deplores the blurring of the line between the police and the military in the United States.

Wireless or "intelligent" video surveillance

"The arrival of wireless cameras creates new usages: the signal can be sent, by radio antennae and by satellite, to many points in the city, to a police vehicle or anti-riot helicopter. . . . " adds Sean. In Paris, the SCP militant spotted a wireless camera, recognizable by the white box beneath the camera, which transforms the images into radio signals. In Manhattan, the collective hasn't spotted more than 5 of them.

The last tendency is the development of "intelligent video surveillance," which involves the real-time analysis of the images by a computer program, which looks for "deviant" behavior. In the United States, the controversial state surveillance project "Terrorism Information Program" (formerly "Total Information Program") intended, among other things, to analyze the gaits of citizens on city streets, using video, radar and biometric technologies developed by the Pentagon with help from universities.

This last Wednesday, in Paris, the militants distributed a tract denouncing a similar system, developed conjointly by the RATP and other European transportation authorities. "Prismatica" is the name of a laboratory notable for its efforts to create "surveillance at a distance" and "automatic detection" of "menacing situations," using "image reconnaissance" programs. Prismatica has a certain value to the [other] RATF for winning an "Orwell Prize" in the 2001 French Big Brother Awards.

Faced with the explosion of video surveillance and the increasing perfection of its techniques, Sean and the activists of the SCP know that there's no simple solution. "Because of our political culture, we have no intention of signing petitions that demand that the government take action," Sean says. "We get plenty of attention from the media, which covers the subject unequally. The real hope for us is the contact we have with neighborhood people during the protests."

According to their popular Web site, the Surveillance Camera Players are engaged in the hard work of consciousness-raising necessary to roll-back surveillance. "This is a real movement. And given time it will grow," concludes Sean.

(Written by Alexandre Piquard and published in the 19 September 2003 issue of Transfert. Translated into English by Bill Brown.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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