Death and the SCP

Subjugated groups are just as subjugated in terms of the "masters" that they take on or accept, as they are in terms of their own masses. The hierarchy, the vertical or pyramidal organization that characterizes them is constructed in such a way as to avert all possible inscriptions of non-sense, death or explosion into the body of the group, to prevent the development of creative blocks, thereby assuring the mechanisms of self-conservation based on the exclusion of other groups [...] Subject-groups, on the other hand, are defined by coefficients of transversality, which avert totalities and hierarchies. They are agents of enunciation, pillars of desire, and elements of institutional creation. Throughout their practice, they never cease confronting themselves to the limits of their own non-sense, their death and their breaking-point." -- Gilles Deleuze, "Three Group Problems," 1972.

At 1 pm on Sunday 15 October 2000, it looked like the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) were about to be confronted with their second major failure. (The SCP's first major failure was the press conference the group called on 27 September 1999.) In a break from long-standing practice, the group had publicized its intention to perform in front of surveillance cameras installed at the world headquarters of Visionics, a company that specializes in the manufacture of face recognition software (FRS), by sending out in advance a detailed press release to news organizations, events calendars, and anyone else who might be interested. (Part of the strategy of issuing a press release was to get Visionics' name in the papers, which is something the company seems loath to do.) In addition to the press release, the SCP wrote and, on the Friday before the performance, distributed 200 copies of a flyer that invited people to meet your neighbor, who in this case was Visionics. But when it came time to perform, no one showed up. There were no TV crews, no spectators, no police officers -- just big, empty Exchange Place.

Perhaps this was to be expected: face recognition software is a topic that is even more obscure to the general public than surveillance cameras, which are nearly invisible; Exchange Place is only active during the workweek and is dead during the weekend, even during a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon; and the Jersey City Police Department is far less "responsive" to "threats" posed by political dissidents than the NYPD, with whom the SCP is used to dealing. (Only one officer from the Jersey City PD arrived on the scene and talked to the SCP from his car. The officer's attitude was relaxed, even friendly; when he heard about what the SCP was doing, he asked for one of the group's flyers and talked about it amiably. When he was done, the officer wished the group a nice day and drove off.)

Predictable or not, the absence of spectators and TV crews was high-lighted by the fact that the SCP didn't have enough players on hand to perform Art Toad's ambitious brand-new play. Not counting videographers Jed and Amanda, who follow the SCP wherever the group goes, there were five players on hand -- usually more than enough -- but the script for the new play calls for a minimum of six. At around 1:15 pm, a sixth performer did show up, and the group -- Bill, Susan, Miranda, Beth, Ethan and Lorraine -- went on to perform the play twice directly in front of the two surveillance cameras installed above the entrance to the building in which Visionics maintains its world headquarters. (These cameras, which sport unusually wide lenses, are positioned so that they take in everything that goes on in the Exchange Place square.)

Despite the aforementioned problems, the performance went very well. There was no doubt that Visionics' cameras recorded it, and transmitted the message to the corporation's managers that people "on the ground," to borrow a military expression, are not only opposed to FRS and Visionics' involvement in its production and distribution, but are also aware of the exact location of Visionics' offices. (In the aftermath of a bungled, recent protest against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- a protest at which the organizers claimed but couldn't prove that the northeast corner of 44th Street and 2d Avenue was the exact location of the WB/IMF's offices, when it in fact was not -- the SCP wanted to be absolutely sure that Visionics was indeed headquartered at 1 Exchange Place and not some other location. Towards this end, the SCP double-checked its facts with someone who had actually been inside of Visionics' offices.)

All told, about a dozen passersby saw the SCP's performance. The vast majority of them seemed to like it a lot. A hot-dog vendor named Tony said that he'd read George Orwell's 1984 twice and that he was opposed to both face recognition software and the use of surveillance cameras in public places such as Exchange Place. Both he and his family joined with the SCP and pointed to the cameras above the entrance to the building in which Visionics maintains it offices.

As for the players themselves, they had a great time staging "The Masque of the Red Death" (see below). Good casting played a central role. Dressed in a bleeding-skull and a black hood, and carrying a plastic scythe, Ethan was a perfect choice to play the Red Death. He performed his role beautifully. It was also enjoyable to see Bill (so often the narrator) play the role of Bill Clinton and get killed by the Red Death. Thanks to Miranda, the party-goers looked resplendent in their feathery, glittering masks.

But for a while there -- before the sixth player showed up -- it looked like the whole thing wasn't going to come off, like the SCP might have to admit defeat and go home without performing. These were sobering moments, and the SCP would be remiss if it failed to be honest about them. Had the group, as it were, bitten off more than it could chew? If the group were to be defeated on this particular occasion, would it be a temporary set-back? Or would it be a practical demonstration that the SCP -- despite its peculiar notoriety since October 1999 -- is right where it was on the day of the failed press conference and hasn't moved an inch since then? And where would that be? In its own world, talking nonsense to itself?

Art Toad's new play is a hybrid: it offers an original preface to an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's classic short story, "The Masque of the Red Death." The preface is presented as a series of six, large pieces of stiff, white cardboard upon which hand-written phrases and images have been inscribed. The first board explains that FACE RECOGNITION SOFTWARE CAPTURES FRESH IMAGES and shows a surveillance camera "clicking" a human face. The second board proclaims AND MATCHES THEM AGAINST THE DATABASE and shows the face from the first board alongside a face that is identical to it, save for a pair of glasses. The third board says BUT THE DATABASE MUST BE COMPLETE and shows the face (without glasses) pinned in by the questions FRIEND? and FOE? The fourth board warns that THE UNFAMILIAR BECOMES INTOLERABLE and shows a question mark, an exclamation point, and an arrow that indicates that the direction goes from the former (the question) to the latter (the exclamation). The fifth board predicts that EVERY FACE MUST BE PHOTOGRAPHED and shows the "nuclear family" (father, mother, older child and infant). The sixth and final board predicts that EVERY MASK MUST BE REGISTERED and shows the masks associated with comedy and tragedy in ancient Greek theater.

Once the preface is completed, a narrator steps forth to hold up the boards that say THE SURVEILLANCE CAMERA PLAYERS PRESENT and EDGAR ALLAN POE'S "THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH." The action begins when the narrator holds up a board that says AN EXCLUSIVE PARTY. In come several people, all of them wearing party masks. One of them wears a Bill Clinton mask and waves an American flag around. The party-goers carry on until the narrator holds up a board that says A KNOCK AT THE DOOR. Each of the party-goers puts one of his or her hands to his or her ear, as if to listen, and freezes in that position. The performer in the Bill Clinton mask holds up a board that says NONE SHALL ENTER. THERE IS CRIME OUTSIDE. I WILL PROTECT US. The party resumes. Whoopee! The narrator again holds up the board that says A KNOCK AT THE DOOR. Once again the party-goers hark the sound and freeze in position. But this time, after Bill Clinton once again holds up his board that says NONE SHALL ENTER. THERE IS CRIME OUTSIDE. I WILL PROTECT US., the Red Death enters. He points, one by one, to each of the party-goers, who take off their masks and die. After Bill Clinton has been exposed and dies, the Red Death holds up a two-sided board. On one side it says, ILLIMITABLE DOMINION OVER ALL (the phrase has a trademark symbol at the end of it), and on the other it says VISIONICS CORPORATION and shows the company's logo. The narrator doesn't hold up a board that says THE END. The action simply ends: The performers get up, take a bow and disperse.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

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

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