Sit-ins, picketlines and roadblocks become a thing of the past as a small group of activists against surveillance cameras installed throughout New York City bring the art of protest to another level.
"Only someone completely distrustful of all government would be opposed to what we are doing with surveillance cameras," said New York City Commissioner Howard Safir.
They are the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) and their weapon is theater. Using a method called guerrilla programming, these average New Yorkers transform the surveillance camera from what they believe to be a tool for social control to a useful instrument in educating people about the system they believe to be oppressive, mocking and critiquing its oppressors.
"The cops and security guards are obviously not happy with the idea that we are using serious technology as our toy," said Art Toad, the director and founder of the SCP, "but most passers-by are encouraged that we think something can be done about the cameras, that is, other than simply accept their existence." Using the very surveillance they are against, the SCP perform short, silent plays in front of cameras throughout public areas of New York City as intrigued onlookers and security guards watch. The SCP have performed shortened versions of Alred Jarry's Ubi [sic] Roi, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, George Orwell's 1984 and many other skits including their own SCP Headline News. Because there is no audio, the performers hold up word bubbles as their dialogue. Believing that surprise is a great element for relieving boredom and entertaining, the SCP never discloses the location or exact time of their performances, always choosing a different place and time for their shows.
"The only thing people can do is band together and work collectively against what might be called the society of surveillance," said Toad, "and by 'work collectively' I mean divert the existing apparatuses of surveillance and use them as a means for personal pleasure and self-discovery."
The SCP hope to accomplish several things through their performances. Toad divided these into three goals. The first goal is to expose the existence of surveillance cameras, installed without approval by the public and to show the people that these cameras are more powerful and numerous than they think. The second goal is to start an anti-surveillance camera and pro-privacy movement, and the third is to show people how effective art can be as a political tool. Though the camera is used as a tool, the SCP make it clear in their statement, Guerrilla Programming of Video Surveillance Equipment, that they do not intend for their performances to be a consumption of the product of surveillance technology; they call it a production of an action, because they believe the camera to be their enemy, something that cannot be appreciated.
"We began as a prank, an in-joke among friends," said Toad. "Never had an idea it would get this big."
Since the first performance in 1996, they have received a great amount of coverage from the press. Interviewed by The New York Times, MTV, and CNN among others, the SCP have drawn the attention of many to their cause. With people already "flipping off" surveillance cameras, it may not be long before branch groups form.
For more information on the Surveillance Camera Players, go to: http://www.notbored.org.
[Written by Alexandra Zayas and published by Highwired on 12 October 2000.]
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