Lights, camera, surveillance

Actors protest Big Brother

By Sarah Richards

National Post (Canada)

As crowds of men mulled around chess tables, some moving bishops and rooks, others talking loudly, Bill Brown was busy readying his troupe for its presentation of George Orwell's classic 1984 in Washington Square Park.

Gathering under what looked to be a small light fixture, Mr. Brown and three others, including one young woman sporting a studded leather collar and a "Giuliani is a Jerk" sticker on her combat boots, unrolled white placards with dialogue written on them.

In almost complete silence, they began showing the signs to the fixture above them and to a crowd of spectators.

If Orwell were alive today, it's hard to say what he would think of the Surveillance Camera Players. Started three years ago as part of a manifesto for guerrilla programming of video surveillance equipment, the group has performed plays like this dramatization of 1984 and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

The group is composed of a loose association of friends, some of them anarchists, none of them professional actors.

And, although the plays and stage grounds may vary, there is a common factor with each of the group's presentations -- they are always done in front of surveillance cameras.

"The Surveillance Camera Players are not experts in protest or theatre," said Mr. Brown, who, to put it loosely, is the group's director. "We do it because we're concerned the use of surveillance cameras is slipping by, becoming so pervasive so gradually and so imperceptibly that we may not know it."

It comes as little surprise that America, the nation that brought the world The Truman Show, is a world leader in the use of video technology for public safety purposes. It is surpassed only by the United Kingdom.

Washington Square Park boasts over a dozen globe cameras, all of which look like light fixtures and are monitored by police inside a huge van beside the park.

The park, which was famous in the '60s as a public meeting place and for its folk musicians, became known in the '80s and '90s for small-scale drug deals and some rugged denizens. Park signs above the chess players warn against alcohol, gambling, and illegal substances.

Reasoning that they would help fight crime more effectively, New York's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and the city's police department decided to set up two cameras in the park in January, 1998.

That number has now grown to 13, and police surveillants are able to pan, zoom, tilt, and see at night with the cameras.

Although about 15 people watched the presentation, Mr. Brown joked that the only audience for the Surveillance Camera Players are the cops who monitor the cameras.

"It's bad for them to watch sex and violence all day," he said. "They should watch something a little more educational, like literature."

It took the Surveillance Camera Players about 10 minutes to perform the entire play.

But the group's presentations don't always go so smoothly. During its first performance, Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, Mr. Brown, wearing a death mask, was presenting with his friends in front of a Union Square subway camera when the police stopped them two acts short of completing the play.

"We asked, Couldn't we do the next scene when the bear is killed?" Mr. Brown recalled. "And they [the police] were completely unsmiling."

Fearing a fine or arrest, the actors left and completed the last two acts at their next performance.

While the professionalism of the presentations may be limited -- the group proudly calls its shows "low-fi theatre" -- the choice of possible stages is almost inexhaustible. A recent survey by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that 2,397 surveillance cameras were trained on public streets, sidewalks, buildings, and parks in Manhattan.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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

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